XBOX SUBS

 

Microsoft®

Xbox Live

Gold

Xbox One / PC

Microsoft®

Xbox Store

Gift Card

Xbox One / PC

Like the name implies, Xbox Live is a “live” service created by Microsoft as a digital media delivery and support system for the Xbox console. While a live service such as this might be standard nomenclature today, back in November of 2002 when Xbox Live officially went online, it was far from it. While in principal providing end-users with a method for interacting directly with Microsoft Xbox services like making a video game purchase or accessing cloud based storage seems easy and straightforward to implement, in practice it was not possible to deliver these services with any sort of quality due to the lack of high-bandwidth infrastructure at the time. Broadband internet was not fully accessible yet. A bit of trivia for all you video game historians out there: who was the first console maker ever to attempt live service features and what console was it for. If you said the Sega and the Dreamcast, then your knowledge of the olden times is better than mine. When the Dreamcast was launched in 1999, it came pre-installed with SegaNet in North America and Dreamarena in Europe. Both were Sega’s attempts at bringing a live service and support feature to their console however was severely let down by the fact that the consoles were shipped out with dial-up modems on board. Ouch. Sega would later release a broadband version, but by then, any chance of users adopting the service was irreversibly diminished as people simply moved on to pc gaming online or stayed dormant by staying off-line entirely. Consider the Playstation 2 that was released in North America in late 2000, did not initially ship with any networking feature at all. The gaming masses were itching for an easy way to consume games online and Microsoft seized on the opportunity to enhance their Xbox platform with broadband networking capability and a control system that really worked. Because of Microsoft’s long history with operating systems like Windows, they had a clearer path to success because of their combined knowledge and experience with how interactivity is built, deployed, and ultimately executed by the end-user. 2004 marked the true beginning of live service or online gaming on consoles when the Xbox 360 came to fruition. The Xbox 360 really demonstrated what live service can mean for console gaming. Xbox live provided features like: a personal account to store contiguous information across a user’s entire game library regardless of publisher, and voice chat. That’s right, something we all take for granted today but online communication over console was not really a thing until Xbox Live and the Xbox 360.

 

Today, the Live service is essential to just about any game you play on the Xbox console, regardless if it is an online game or not and that has to do with added feature sets that come later usually in the form of a DLC. Sure, you can still play the core game without any live service content but you could be missing out on a lot of expandability and enjoyment from your game. You might have also noticed that since the deployment of the Xbox One, a premium subscription otherwise known as Xbox Live Gold, is required to participate in online games. MMOs fall into this category so if you plan on playing games like Fortnite: Battle Royale or Apex Legends from your Xbox, you will need the premium subscription. While this may seem like just another monetization scheme, you do get what you pay for in return. A Gold pass gets you the ability to play the games in your Xbox library across compatible platforms as well as access to cloud storage, and exclusive deals and discounts including free games every month from the Xbox Store.

Microsoft Xbox Store Gift Card

 
 

Microsoft®

Xbox Game Pass

Subscription

Xbox One / PC

 

Considered the "Netflix" of video games, Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass is a subscription-based service in which subscribers receive access to a pre-selected catalog of video game titles. For everything else that isn't free or part of that limited selection, you can expect significant discounts. You might have noticed I used the words "Pre-selected" because after a couple of years of being a member, I've noticed that Game Pass seems to know the games I like to play and is pushing similar titles out to me as often as possible - more on that in a second.

 

Game Pass seemed like a terrific alternative for those looking to rent video games without the hassle of dealing with physical discs, which is why I was an early adopter of the service. Microsoft Game Pass also means the ability to access those games from any location on any Xbox or Windows compatible device. That kind of on-the-fly access means I can try out the games I like to play and test their performance without any pressure to own. Another consumer advantage is that it adds another dimension to your tired game catalog, by continually updating itself based on your recommendations. As mentioned before, these suggested titles delivered to you automatically, is a great way of exposing yourself to games that you would not expect or otherwise never considered. I've been pleasantly surprised on more than a few occasions by the quality of the offerings and at the end of the day; I felt that I had gotten my monies worth. That really is the bottom line when it comes to subscription based video game services. You're essentially paying someone to choose titles for you and if your "secret shopper" isn't any good at their job then chances are you aren't going to continue using them. Xbox Game Pass happens to be good at selecting with variety, and delivers them to you very quickly thanks to a very fast Microsoft infrastructure.

 

Announced in 2017 to some skepticism, the Xbox Game Pass has since proved that a subscription video game service can work simplistically and without having to re-invent content delivery. Within the mobile game industry, it's well understood that downloading a game direct to your local drive(s), while lessening your storage capacity, still gives the end-user the best experience overall and is a minor trade-off because storage capacity is a sector that grows and becomes less expensive to implement over time. Again, this model has been in place for quite a while yet its traits become even more evident today as Google attempts to achieve the impossible with their Stadia- Interactive Live Game Streaming. For now, go with what works and Microsoft's Game Pass just works. It's not a streaming service but it's probably the closest thing to it in terms of concept at this time.

 
 
 

PLAYSTATION SUBS

 

Sony®

Playstation Network

Plus

PlayStation 4 / PC

Sony®

Playstation Store

Gift Card

PlayStation 4 / PC

Sony’s Playstation Network is the equivalent to Microsoft’s Xbox Live in terms of what it’s supposed to do. Broadly, The Playstation Network or PSN for short is a live service technology that was integrated into Sony’s lineup of consoles starting with the Playstation 3. Like with Microsoft Xbox’s “Live” concept, PSN was designed to provide a unified or universal service that could cover the entire breath of content available for the Playstation. Without a unified service, console developers were not able to provide technical support for games that ran on their own hardware and instead had to rely on the game developers themselves to integrate their own network features and because every game is built different, this led to plethora of compatibility issues and bugs. Even if the developer was able to create a fix, deploying that fix to end-users would be a challenge if there was no network to connect to.

 

Fortunately, broadband internet came to fruition just in time for the Playstation 3 where Sony could finally showcase their solution to the live service wars now underway. Over the last twenty years since its inception, PSN has been a crucial hub for not just Sony’s Playstation console users but a variety of other devices have been integrated thanks to the Playstation Network App available for installation on PCs, Mac, and Android devices. With the app, users can now access their Playstation Network Account across multiple devices, allowing users’ to easily administrate their library of games and media, shop directly on the Playstation Store, and take advantage of communication features like friends lists, text, and chat.

 

This all sounds great especially when you consider that joining the Playstation Network is free and only requires an active e-mail address to sign-up, but you may have noticed that just being a part of Playstation Network is not good enough if you are trying to play online games. MMORPG’s like Final Fantasy XIV which my girlfriend played for many years on the PS4 required a Playstation Plus subscription to work. Starting with the Playstation 4, Sony decided to make Playstation Plus a requirement to play titles online. This decision was met with a lot of criticism at the time, but Sony simply did what Microsoft was already doing in parallel with the Xbox Live Gold service by making it a requirement as well. Today, it is well understood that the premium service is a requirement for those looking to game online and for most part has been accepted as the standard norm. Playstation Plus does have its advantages though like being able to play titles from your library on other hardware compatible devices, exclusive deals and discounts on the Playstation Store, and access to cloud storage where you can store all your saves.

 

A Playstation Plus subscription can be purchased direct from the Playstation Store but you can also buy pre-paid membership cards from many common retailers like Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart, or you can order them online from retailers like Amazon.

Playstation Store Gift Card

 
 

Sony®

Playstation

Now

PlayStation 4 / PC

 

In 2014, Playstation Now launched in North America and immediately made an impact with enthusiasts and the industry at large. For the first time in the history of video games, it seems someone has managed to create a legit hardware-agnostic streaming service for video games, but as we all know, appearances can be deceiving. On the surface, Playstation Now seems to the perfect gaming solution for Playstation Owners. Why ever buy a game again when you can pay a monthly flat rate for a library of nearly eight hundred titles spanning all the way back to the Playstation 2. You'll never have to handle a physical disc again and you'll never have to worry about storage capacity because you'll just stream all your games. It all sounds great on paper but in practice, Playstation Now has fallen short of those expectations due to its confusing nature and lack of technical capability.

 

Is it a streaming service, or is it just access to a back catalog of games? Well as it turns out, it's both. You see, all games other than for the Playstation 3 are available for download. Huh? Sony Interactive has not been able to figure out how to make their extensive library of Playstation 3 games compatible with Playstaytion 4's hardware. Games were notoriously difficult to develop on the Playstation 3 thanks to an overly complex and inflexible core processing language and making changes to the code to affect compatibility would cause instability. This tortoise and hare dilemma would lead some to speculate that it's simply not possible to deliver a quality gaming experience with the existing hardware model. Now you might be thinking that an easy solution would be to run the games over an emulator but again, you would be disappointed. Sony Interactive elected to design and build their hardware instead. They reportedly created integrated motherboards equivalent to eight Playstation 3s that could process the games graphics, latent features, and deliver the signal in HD resolution to your console. Users reported bad response times, high server lag, and dropped frames.

 

Fortunately, for all of us, hardware continues to improve and with the Playstation 4 being more pc-like and universal, the public is beginning to see what a real video game streaming service is capable of achieving. It's not perfect yet and what determines your quality of service can be your own internet connection speed, so be sure you have a robust internet plan if you are planning to add Playstation Now to your gaming portfolio. Playstation Now has made significant progress forward and with the release of the Playstation 5 upon us, it's going to be interesting to see how Playstation Now will have matured. Will it continue to be a ghost in the shell or will it finally break out and become the true streaming service that everyone is anxiously waiting for. Despite the sound of despair you might have heard in this review, I recommend Playstation Now because it's good now and will get much better over time.

 
 
 

NINTENDO SUBS

 

Nintendo®

Switch

Online

Nintendo / PC

Nintendo®

eShop

Gift Card

Nintendo / PC

Nintendo Switch Online

Nintendo eShop Gift Card

 

AMAZON SUBS

 
 

Amazon®

Prime

Membership

Android / Windows / Apple OS

 

Amazon Prime Membership

 
 
 

GOOGLE SUBS

 
 

Google®

Stadia

Pro Membership

Android / Windows / Apple OS

 

In 2016, internet giant Google decided to take a giant leap, or perhaps a giant leap of faith, towards the holy grail of gaming tech innovation - a complete live game streaming service. You might think that such a thing would have been figured out by now, given the exponential growth of compute power thanks to hardware advancements made by the computer industry. Nevertheless, even the internet and software juggernaut that is Google could not overcome the most important and obscure obstacle to Cloud gaming otherwise known as network infrastructure. In the United States, High Speed Internet has become tantamount to a foregone conclusion for anyone getting onto the internet these days but is it enough to handle the enormous amount of traffic caused by individual users uploading and downloading hundreds of gigabytes of game data every day? As early beta testers and soon the world would find out live, game streaming sounds awesome in theory but almost impossible to implement at a mass scale because many people simply don't have access to the bandwidth needed to support the gaming service they've purchased. According to Google and M-Lab (Measurement Lab) the minimum bandwidth required to stream a AAA title at 4K 60FPS with HDR color requires 35 MBit/s. Now I'm not suggesting an end user can't achieve this however pulling off a steady stream at that bandwidth or higher does require the end user to invest in expensive network hardware like high-performance modems, routers, and a top-tier internet plan from a network service provider. Plugging into your mom and pop's antiquated DSL modem is probably not going to cut it. In fact, many early testers of Google Stadia, including well-resourced Digital Foundry, reported that Stadia struggled in some titles to maintain a steady 60 FPS at 4K over LAN with graphic fidelity taking a considerable hit. Over Wi-Fi, the experience could be worse due to bandwidth limitations of radio waves. PC Gamer recommends at least 100Mbps of bandwidth over Wi-Fi for a smooth and stable experience but achieving 100Mbps for a single device that co-exists with other devices on a shared network in a real world setting may simply not be possible with current residential internet speeds. I also think that the Cloud hardware used by Google to drive Stadia is perhaps under-performing. Reported upon launch, Stadia uses a custom Intel x86 CPU clocking in at 2.7Ghz and paired with a custom AMD Vega GPU capable of 10.7 teraflops which is under the next generation consoles being released later this year. Information on whether or not the CPU can step up beyond 2.7Ghz couldn't be found but no sustained turbo would be disappointing to say the least and could help explain why Stadia does not seem to be able to push out the frames with the graphic fidelity as expected.

 

Depending on who you ask, Google Stadia is either dead on arrival or simply a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Many game developers have already indicated that Stadia as a platform is risky because it comes with no pre-attached audience or consumer base so porting AAA titles over from already established consoles like the Xbox, PlayStation, and even the PC, does not make economic sense. Even though Google's solution to the demand for a game streaming service may need further devolvement before it's truly accepted, it does have potential. Google is attempting to compete in the console space by focusing on heavy-resource AAA title games instead of Indies that are on Google Play or the Apple store. According to statista.com, there are close to 3 billion mobile gamers worldwide and many of those gamers use the Play platform. If Google ever opened up Stadia to the Google Play and Apple Store markets, it's possible that the Stadia solution would make sense and propel Google's status within the gaming industry as a competitor worth taking seriously. Another solution might be to convert Stadia from a Cloud platform into an emulator allowing end-users to utilize their own hardware to drive games as opposed to relying on Google's Cloud hardware. Whatever happens in the near-term for Stadia, it's important to note that Google has infinite resources to throw at it if it wants to and it's ultimately up to them to develop it further until it does meet its promise to gamers.

 
 
 

NVIDIA SUBS

 
 

NVIDIA®

GeForce Now

Membership

Android / Windows / Apple OS

 

There's no time like the present, I suppose would be an apt moniker for this Cloud video game streaming service from Nvidia. For all intents and purposes, Nvidia got right what Google didn't and while that should have been enough for mass embrace, it was instead shunned and not by the consumer. More on that later, for now let's discuss what makes the GeForce Now service different from Google Stadia and even Nvidia's own console offering known as Shield. To understand what Shield and Now are you'll have to go back to Nvidia's introduction of the Grid project in 2008, which is a highly ambitious virtual PC and virtual application platform for professionals in which users remotely access desktop space on a server and use its dynamic resources. What separates Grid from other Cloud hardware is Nvidia's virtualization software and Hypervisor, which allows workloads processed by the CPU normally, to be off-loaded to the GPU instead. This process sharing means Grid runs more efficiently than its Cloud counterparts that still rely on dedicated static CPU resources to handle all the computational tasks like video encoding. As project Grid has grown so too has Nvidia's desire to utilize the technology of Grid to make video game streaming a reality. As far as technology, it would appear they've succeeded. Testing has proved that Nvidia Grid's virtual GPU solution means that resource-demanding games will perform much better when streamed. This is because multiple RTX GPUs can be virtually created, and assigned as needed, to handle workloads optimally as they increase in size. In 2015, Nvidia launches their Shield series of streaming devices backed by Grid technology and a subscription based Cloud service. Hosting more than 80 games on their server at launch, gamers quickly realized that Cloud gaming might actually be a real possibility. Since then, the Shield series has become an excellent lineup for anyone looking for an alternative to the common console ecosystem. In 2019, Nvidia decided to do away with its "Buy & Play" model for certain titles opting instead for a more open approach allowing gamers to install their own games on their Shield device. This new version of the Shield service would morph into what we know today as Nvidia GeForce Now. Thanks to advancements in technology, Nvidia can now remotely deliver the performance of the most advanced GPUs on the market today. Users can experience RTS features like real-time Ray Tracing and AI assisted Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) to reconstruct images in real-time so they render faster without a significant loss in sharpness.

 

So pop your champagne bottles and declare the video game streaming wars over. Well, not so fast. As it turns out just because there is a technological solution doesn't mean it's in harmony with the market solution. Since its 2020 release, GeForce Now for Computers has garnered a bit of controversy when some game developers and publishers declared the service void because it provided consumers with a virtual desktop rather than a strict application interface. It means that PC, Mac, or Android users can install whatever game or game app they want from their own library without needing to go through a proprietary marketplace. Large game developers and publishers like Activision Blizzard and Bethesda Softworks began to resist the service due to licensing concerns. Some pro-consumer, pro-gamer influencers on the other hand felt it was more about greedy monetization and potential revenue loss and have gone on to publically ridicule those companies for pulling their support for the service. Regardless of the debate, Nvidia is definitely onto something here technologically and seems to be moving forward with the service despite the loss in support. Currently reported is that Nvidia is actively working to bring back those companies who have departed the platform by renegotiating licensing deals. The free service of GeForce Now does limit playing time to one hour per session but with unlimited sessions meaning a player can log back on when they're booted but may have to sit in a queue to allow paid members to get in first. For $4.99 US, you can become a "Founding Member", the limits removed, and you gain access to all the RTX features mentioned earlier. For that low price, it might be well worth the investment especially as a mobile gamer or anyone looking for a Cloud gaming solution.

 
 
 
 

2019