Cloud Gaming - A comparison of the major services and platforms

Edit: It has come to light that Shadow is currently suffering financial difficulties having filed for bankruptcy. So please take that into consideration when choosing between platforms. Shadow has said that they are not shutting down and are looking for new ownership so they might continue to be a player in the market, but only time will tell.

Introduction

It might come as a shock to no one that we over at The Stadia Life have chosen Stadia as our main cloud gaming platform of choice, but as much as we like to jokingly (for most of us anyway) poke fun at other platforms, we thought it was about time we put our money where our mouth is and explain why we have chosen Stadia. 

Also, if you can't be bothered reading my lengthy prose on the topic, you can also simply refer to the handy dandy infographic cim has put together with input from the team for a summary below: 

Free tier

Why pay for something when you can get it for free, eh? Well… Actually, I'll tell you why later in the article, however, it's amazing that two services offer you the wonder of cloud gaming with absolutely no recurring costs!

Stadia

Ah yes, Stadia, the namesake of this site and the marvel of Googley goodness allows you to play games in the cloud absolutely free. At the time of writing this article, the service includes 2 free-to-play games 3 free-to-play games to all users alongside 1 free demo with reportedly many more to come according to John Justice, Stadia VP. This is alongside any games you purchase from the Stadia store which regularly has sales and discounts.

The free service is offering up to 1080p 60fps, depending on the game, and has no time limits or queues to enter, just pick your game and go.

GeForce Now

GeForce Now has also released its free tier which allows you to access a whopping 98 free-to-play games from other providers at the time of writing this. GeForce Now does not offer games itself, instead it uses existing games libraries to allow you to access games offered by other companies on its platform. This means that the number of games available is huge and allows you to gain access to games you already own on supported platforms, but has in the past also resulted in games being removed from the service, so be cautious. You also cannot purchase games on GeForce Now instead having to purchase your games externally.

The biggest drawback (and killer of the free tier for me) is the 1 hour time limit on your play session wherein you'll need to save up, close down and then join back into the queue to continue playing… What… Did I just say queue? Why yes, I did. For GeForce Now you'll be required to queue for access with queuing times ranging from minutes at slow periods to hours (Cyberpunk 2077 release day for example) just to get on for 1 hour of playtime.

Winner 🥳

The obvious winner here is Stadia for what it offers you for no monthly cost. Whilst GeForce Now has a really appealing free-to-play games library, the time limits and queue times just make it prohibitively awkward to use consistently.

Picture quality

What good is cloud gaming if you can't see your games in all their glory?! Fortunately for this category we can talk about every service as they all offer a picture… For realsies!

Stadia

Ah, Stadia, your 4K goodness is music to my… Erm… Eyes? Yes, that's right, Stadia is one of only 2 services to offer native 4K resolution for supported games and upscaled 4K for those developers who can't yet implement native 4K. It doesn't skimp on the fps either offering up to 60fps which up until recently was the high standard for console. More discerning gamers might scoff at a 60fps limit, however, for most gamers, anything above is usually not noticeable and unless playing on a gaming monitor, most displays are caped at 60fps.

Graphics quality for most games are in the mid-high range with some games offering the option to switch between fidelity and performance modes. Graphics options for most games are non-existent as Stadia opts to have the devs choose the best option for the game experience they want to provide.

Luna

Ah, Luna, the elephant in the room of any cloud gaming discussion. Since this is the first time mentioning Luna in this article, it is definitely worth mentioning that at time of writing this service is still in a very limited beta and only available in the US, so things may change.

Unlike Stadia and Shadow, Luna is limited to only 1080p 60fps, which is the equivalent to what is offered by Stadia at its free tier. A 1080p resolution in and of itself isn't a bad thing, but with many TVs nowadays being 4K, it means that this service is now a little behind the times. Luna uses the last generation of Nvidia graphics for its service, which is generally a good thing as Nvidia graphics drivers are excellent and these cards pump out pretty good quality images. The games they are running are the PC versions, so are not optimised specifically for the system, but in general, the graphics are equivalent of Stadia's free tier.

GeForce Now

GeForce Now has taken the odd approach of limiting the resolution of its paid tier to match its free tier at 1080p. It does also allow for refresh rates of up to 120fps, so if you're playing a fast paced shooter or other such game on a gaming spec PC monitor, then you'll be glad for this, though it does have a drawback of dropping the resolution to 720p (heh, 720p) if you want to achieve that high framerate, so you'll need to decide what's more important for you.

GeForce Now is also essentially running a Windows based machine in the cloud with their own RTX range of graphics cards, allowing for great customisation of the graphics settings to how you want it and also has the added benefit of Ray Tracing and DLSS, which are huge wins for the platform and makes it all the more surprising that they have limited the resolution to 1080p.

Shadow

Shadow is basically buying a gaming PC but putting it somewhere else. All the benefits and drawbacks of a PC come with this and the benefits can be seen best when it comes to picture quality. Unlike other entries on this list, Shadow will offer different tiers of hardware to users at different prices, however, as of writing there is only 1 tier of hardware available, so I will be basing this off of the Shadow Boost tier.

Shadow theoretically offers up to 4K resolution and 144fps which is much higher than most other offering on the cloud, however, reaching these resolutions and framerates on any of the more modern games is nigh on impossible. The graphics card in this service is the GTX1080 which is 2 generations old and will be able to reliably play most games in up to 1440p at between 30 and 60fps (this was my old Graphics card, so I know this from experience, but you can also look up user benchmarks online). Also with only 12GB of RAM, it's slightly lacking here too in what I'd expect from a modern gaming rig, which is 16GB of RAM.

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate

720p and 60fps… What more really needs to be said? Seen an Xbox One S? Yeah, that's what you're getting… 720p nowadays really is just not great. I can't really say more than that… Big oof!

PlayStation Now

See above… Console manufacturers are letting the cloud side down when it comes to graphics!

Winner 🥳

This one is a lot harder to pick a winner as it's not as open and closed at the first one. When it comes to resolution, Stadia is the hands down winner as it offers 4K at 60fps, however, there's an argument to be had that GeForce Now with Ray Tracing, DLSS and up to 120fps has its place here.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what's more important to you. Personally, I find Stadia's 4K proposition a lot more appealing, so I give this one to Stadia, but it's definitely debatable.

Games

What is a gaming service without games? Well, just look at Luna without Ubisoft+ (zing!), but in all seriousness, these different platforms offer different libraries and library models, so let's compare!

Stadia

Stadia is unique among its peers in that the games are purchased directly from the Stadia store and are then available to you in perpetuity, more closely resembling what we're used to from a console. There's no ongoing subscription required to maintain access to your purchased content, but you'll only be able to access content bought through their service. There's also monthly games available through Stadia Pro, the subscription service offered by Stadia and as of writing this article, there have been 70 games including bigger titles such as Tomb Raider (1 & 2 of the remake series) Metro Exodus, Hitman 1 & 2 and The Elder Scrolls online.

In terms of the library itself, Stadia has a healthy mix of older and newer as well as Indie and AAA games on offer including Cyberpunk 2077 which was only released December last year and Hitman 3 which was released earlier in 2021. Stadia is also currently beta testing access to Ubisoft+ so if you live in the US and are a Ubisoft+ subscriber, you can access all these games (all in their ultimate editions) as well for free.

Luna, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate & PlayStation Now

Luna, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and PlayStation Now offers a game library system which you can subscribe to and includes access to all games across that platform similar to the Netflix approach. In order to maintain access, you need to keep up your subscription as a lapse in payment will lose you access. Also, with a similar model to that of Netflix, the games may rotate in and out meaning that even if you do maintain your subscription, that game you can access today may not always be available. The obvious advantage here is instant access to many games with only the subscription cost and this model may work for many more casual gamers out there.

Xbox and PlayStation Now boast large libraries with many of their classic titles available to stream at the click of a button which is fantastic and have many fantastic games on there. Xbox probably has the more modern library with many of their newer first party games being made available.

Luna on the other-hand has a much more modest selection of games with many being indie and less modern titles. It does however, allow you to access your Ubisoft+ games through the service and you won't have to pay any additional costs on top of your Ubisoft+ monthly fee.

GeForce Now & Shadow

GeForce Now and Shadow do not have a games library… That's it… End of segment! 

[Off camera] “Really, I have to go into detail?… Urgh… Fine…”

GeForce Now and Shadow do not offer their own games library instead offering you access to the games library of other store-fronts such as Steam and Epic Games Store. Historically this has left some parties <cough> Nvidia </cough> in trouble with some publishers with them pulling support from the service, but these have mostly been ironed out.

This model is good if you already have an extensive library, but it does make it slightly more cumbersome to purchase new games especially on GeForce Now where you have to leave the service and purchase them separately. The major benefit is that in using these established store-fronts, they do gain access to many games very quickly.

Winner 🥳

Honestly, the different models will be better for different people, so pick which ever works best for you. For most people who want an easy to access store-front with minimal hassle and more control over what games they play Stadia is the winner and for me, it is the best proposition in that you'll always have access to your games through the service.

Underlying tech

Great, we have games, we have picture quality, we have everything, right? Well, almost. Each of these services has different underlying tech and it's pertinent to compare these. This will NOT be an exhaustive list of what's under the bonnet and that might come in a future article, but it will give a very high level overview, so please forgive any over simplifications as we could have a whole other article on this subject. So, without further ado…

Stadia

The true cloud native! I say this without a single hint of irony or sarcasm (which if you follow @thestadialife is rare around these parts). Stadia has been built by Google using custom hardware and a custom cloud OS, this means that games need to be ported over to Stadia with a unique build most of the time, but with Vulkan support being more common nowadays, that is becoming easier and easier. The big benefit to this is that games are generally better optimised for the hardware (see the amazing job done by QLOC on Cyberpunk 2077) and there are cloud native features available such as Stream Connect, State Share, Crowd Play, Crowd Choice, Click to play, etc…

GeForce Now, Luna & Shadow

Each of these services use a Windows virtual machine in the background running what is in essence the PC build of the game. This makes releasing games on these services much easier than on Stadia for example, however, they are not best optimised. On top of that, a Windows VM will use more hardware resource than an OS built specifically for cloud meaning that less of that resource will be available to run the games. 

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate 

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate uses what is basically Xbox One S hardware to run its cloud service (with the promise to upgrade this to Xbox Series X hardware in the future). Again, the benefit of this is that any game that has been developed for those consoles, should be able to run on this hardware, though the risk is that as the console gets older, Microsoft will need to keep this same hardware to maintain consistency and it could lead to the platform falling behind its competitors.

PlayStation Now

PlayStation now runs on a hope and a prayer built off of the back of the failed services OnLive and Gaikai. How it keeps itself going is a mystery to everyone and I am not sure at this point if even Sony will know. Honestly, I think my toaster has more compute power than PlayStations Now's entire infrastructure.

Winner 🥳

Stadia… Can I leave it there? No? Well, tough…

Conclusion

Ah, just what you've all been waiting for. The conclusion, the one place where you can skip to and find out what is really going on. We've covered many aspects of cloud gaming in this article and the handy dandy infographic above can certainly give you an indication as to where this is going.

Honestly, I wouldn't be writing this article on this page if I didn't truly believe that Stadia was the best cloud gaming platform available. Many of its competitors price model may be better for other users and that's fantastic. At the end of the day, we're all gamers, we all want to play games with the convenience that cloud gaming brings and we support anyone with however they want to play games. For myself and the rest of The Stadia Life team, Stadia is simply heads and tails in front (behind? 🤔) of the competition and above is the supporting evidence to back it up.

Before committing to a platform, most of us did extensive research about what is and what would be available and settled here. If you're reading this and not already using it, give it a go. It's free to try… Like there's absolutely NO reason not to! Hit this link and login with your Google account to sign up for a free trial of Pro for a good selection of games to play instantly or if you'd prefer not to put in card details use this one instead which will take you straight into Destiny 2 after signing up for free with no need to sign up for a trial.

Thanks for reading and make sure to check us out on Twitter and YouTube.

- Vivi, cim, Seb0r & The Stadia Life Team

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JustGiving - Charity link supporting Versus Arthritis

Sources & footnotes

Sources (¹²³)

1. Geforce NOW free games. (geforcenow-games.com)

2. Stadia - One place for all the ways we play (google.com)

3. Google Stadia vs GeForce Now: Which is best in 2021? - Android Authority

4. How to Improve Your Experience on Shadow – Shadow - Support (EN)

5. Xbox Game Pass for Android (xCloud) internet requirements and data usage | Windows Central

6. Getting started | Everything you need to know about PS Now | PlayStation

7. xCloud, now Xbox cloud gaming: Games, pricing and more you need to know - CNET  

8. All the PS2, PS3 and PS4 games ready to stream | PS Now | PlayStation

9. L:203 - Shadow can't connect and we’ll give you priority for the next 10 min – Shadow - Support (EN)  

10. PlayStation Now Streaming Issues

11. Amazon.com Help: Amazon Luna Compatible Devices and Browsers

12. Hands-on review of Amazon Luna: A Google Stadia-like service that could be a threat to Microsoft’s own Xbox Cloud gaming? » OnMSFT.com

13. Amazon Luna hands on: Rough around the edges - 9to5Google

14. Stadia availability in your country - Stadia Help (google.com)

15. Amazon Luna - Wikipedia

16. What are the supported countries for GeForce NOW? | NVIDIA (custhelp.com)

17. What Is Shadow? Everything You Need To Know (androidheadlines.com)

18. Xbox Cloud Gaming - Wikipedia

Footnotes (***)

* Bandwidth required varies from 5 Mbps to 70 Mbps

** Games owned via other services/platforms

*** Limited low price (early access/beta). Price varies depending on the number of channels chosen

**** Unknown max as not stated (ineligible to be the winner)

***** Varies depending on graphics settings, stream is capped at 60fps @ 4K and 144fps @ 1080p

****** Can use other services/platforms/games clients messaging

β Supported in beta

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