A controller in front of a display with a game library.
Andrey Aboltin/Shutterstock.com

The idea of playing the latest AAA video games streamed to your smartphone is an appealing one. Forget the Nintendo Switch or mobile apps, you can tap into the latest and greatest hardware! Unfortunately, there may be some caveats here.

Cloud Gaming Is Great (Under Perfect Conditions)

Cloud gaming has come a long way. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Sony, and NVIDIA have built robust cloud gaming infrastructure. For people who live in the places cloud gaming services are offered, they’re becoming a viable alternative to buying a gaming console or an expensive gaming PC.

That is, as long as you meet all the requirements! Using a wired Ethernet connection to a high-speed fiber connection, you can get visuals and responsiveness that feel like playing on a local machine. At least as long as you don’t compare it side-by-side with a local gaming system.

However, many different stars have to align for cloud gaming to work well. The distance from your controller input to your screen output is now possibly hundreds of miles long. Along that path, there are many potential points of failure, and the entire journey from the controller to screen has to be completed in milliseconds to be playable.

Cloud gaming is a serious technical challenge, which means you don’t want to introduce more variables than you need to. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what you’re doing when switching to wireless data transmission.

Wireless Networks Are Inherently Unstable

Sending information using electromagnetic waves propagated through the air is a much more chaotic process than sending electrical impulses in an orderly fashion down a copper wire—or as  pulses of light captured in a fiber optic strand.

Wireless transmissions are subject to numerous sources of interference from the ground, from space, from metal objects like cars moving around, or even from radio-blocking materials in your home.

Wi-Fi and cellular transmission technology are amazingly tolerant of these problems. If packets of data are lost, they’ll resend them until you receive them all. Sometimes this means sacrificing speed, but more often than not it actually means adding latency.

For applications such as streaming video, web browsing, and even real-time applications such as VOIP or video calls, this isn’t a big deal. These applications work fine if you add a few milliseconds of latency. Video games are different. Add just a little too much latency and they become unplayable.

Video games also aren’t a good match with the sudden and transient dropouts that wireless technology is prone to. Getting a one-second freeze while watching a video or making a video call isn’t catastrophic, but it can completely destroy your gaming experience.

Local Apps Can Go Where Networks Can’t

Even if your tolerance for wireless signal issues is quite high, there are many places where you simply can’t access the wireless network at all. There are always cellular dead spots, even in dense urban areas. So you’re not guaranteed access even if you’re close to network infrastructure.

Likewise, if you get on a subway train, an airplane, or something similar, you likely won’t get a good enough signal. Even when these forms of transport now offer Wi-Fi, it’s not likely to be high-performance enough to handle cloud gaming.

Mobile Bandwidth Is a Running Cost

If you’re using cellular data to play a game using cloud streaming, you’re paying for that bandwidth. Mobile bandwidth tends to be much more expensive than fixed wired broadband. So unlike having a handheld system running a local app, you’re not paying to play once-off.

Even if you have an “unlimited” data plan, there’s a good chance that you’ll get throttled or traffic shaped if you are a heavy bandwidth user. After all, you’re sharing that bandwidth with everyone else and in certain places, or at certain times, your cloud gaming will be curtailed to make sure everyone gets a fair share of the data pipe.

Cloud Gaming Is a Finite Shared Resource

That brings up another issue. Cloud gaming is a shared resource that only so many users can access at any one time. During peak player demand, you’re likely to spend a few minutes (or perhaps more than a few) waiting in line until cloud hardware opens up.

One of the main appeals of handheld and mobile gaming is its pick-up-and-play nature. If you’re want to fill 15 minutes of free time with some gaming, it’s not ideal if 10 minutes of that is spent waiting for a slot on a cloud server.

The Future of Wireless Cloud Gaming

Will there ever be a time when cloud gaming can be a true replacement for local mobile hardware you don’t have to share with anyone else? We don’t think it will be soon, but there is a future where enough of the globe is covered in high-speed 5G (or later) mesh networks or low Earth orbit internet satellites to make it feasible.

When (or if) that day will come is something no one can guarantee. But for now, you may still want to throw that Nintendo Switch in your bag before heading out for the day.

Profile Photo for Sydney Butler Sydney Butler
Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
Read Full Bio »