The global cloud gaming market is expected to explode, with some research estimates forecasting a $7 billion opportunity in the next 5 – 7 years. There are various contenders in this space, with the recent introduction of Google’s Stadia platform back in March at GDC 2019 and of course Microsoft, with Project xCloud. Both companies have extolled the virtues of their platforms that aren’t even in beta status yet. However, there’s one competitor in the mix that has been developing and refining its cloud-powered game streaming service literally for years, and that’s NVIDIA.
NVIDIA announced its GeForce NOW cloud gaming service back in 2015, though the company has been offering similar SAAS (Software As A Service) products even before that, with its GRID virtual platform ecosystem. NVIDIA may be most recognizable for its discrete GPU products for PC gaming. However, the company is also squarely positioned in the data center for machine learning, HPC and yes, cloud game streaming services. NVIDIA GeForce NOW is currently available in beta trials in North America and Europe, with 300,000 active gamers currently on the platform and a waiting list of over 1 million signed-up. That might sound like a limited scope of availability in the grand scheme but we can say for sure it’s a lot bigger than the zero install base of Google and Microsoft currently, though without question competition is mounting.
There are two primary areas of execution in this arena that need to be delivered on for any competitor in the game – first, content will be king, closely seconded only by infrastructure technologies to deliver a quality experience with low latency and good frame rates. In these areas, NVIDIA currently has a distinct advantage but let’s look at them individually.
Cloud Gaming User Subscriptions Will Follow The Content
Though Google was showcasing Assassin’s Creed on Stadia at GDC 2019, we’ll likely hear more about Stadia platform content at Google I/O this week. However, it’s clear content will be the almighty Goog’s big challenge, with its own Stadia Games and Entertainment studio in fledgling startup mode, lead by former Ubisoft and Electronic Arts exec, Jade Raymond. Though partnerships with Ubisoft, id Software and Q-Games have been announced, no additional game titles have been disclosed as of yet, but again we could hear more coming out of I/O. Meanwhile, Microsoft has lots of experience with developing AAA titles on its own, with hit franchises like Gears of War, Halo and Forza under its belt. In fact, with a platform install base of Xbox consoles to stream from, Microsoft could be the real competition for NVIDIA, promising “no additional work” for devs, while Google strives to evangelize an entirely new ecosystem of Linux-based game development.
However, there’s a key differentiator with NVIDIA GeForce NOW and it’s that many existing AAA PC game titles and new games that will come to the PC, will just work on a Mac, Windows PC or an NVIDIA Shield TV set top streaming device, with little to no configuration and a couple of simple login steps, depending on the game. In fact, NVIDIA’s current GeForce NOW supported games list is massive, currently with over 500 (and growing) top PC game titles and indie games represented. Users that are in on the GeForce NOW beta can just install the app on any modestly capable machine and they’ll have access to their existing game library and many other game titles as well.
Make No Mistake, Infrastructure Technology Will Matter
Current platform announcements from Google and Microsoft vary greatly. Google highlights that Stadia will be powered by custom AMD GPU-powered servers and that GPU appears to be an amped-up Vega 56 variant for now, with a 16GB HBM2 memory complement. Microsoft’s approach sounds a little kludgy but does speak to platform compatibility for existing Xbox game titles, with confirmed plans of deploying custom server blades, powered by a quartet of stripped-down Xbox consoles, across Azure data centers. Meanwhile, NVIDIA has already been powering 15 of its own data centers across the US and Europe, with servers that will now be driven by its powerful data center-class RTX GPUs. In addition, NVIDIA’s new RTX Blade servers in fact will be comprised of some 40 GPUs capable of real-time ray tracing effects, as well as other leading-edge graphics technologies of NVIDIA’s Turing architecture.
What NVIDIA needs to do next is scale its capacity and data center footprint, which it plans to achieve via its previously announced GeForce NOW Alliance program, with partners SoftBank and LG U+, over both next-generation 5G wireless and existing fiber network connectivity.
Cloud Gaming Will Be Disruptive And Revolutionary
It’s clear to just about anyone you speak with in the gaming industry, that cloud services are set to transform gaming as we know it, from the console to mobile devices and the PC. In fact, consoles themselves may become a thing of the past in the not too distant future. Think any device with a basic level of compute power, a solid network connection and virtually any game title available. That’s where we’re headed. I personally tried out GeForce NOW on my pedestrian, business-class Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon laptop, a 14-inch, 2.5 pound machine with only integrated Intel HD Graphics at its disposal. Firing-up Borderlands 2 at 1080p with High image quality settings over GeForce NOW, offered a satisfying experience, so long as I remained in reasonable proximity to my 5GHz 802.11ac WiFi connection. Wired, Gigabit Ethernet connectivity over an NVIDIA Shield TV set top streamer box of course offered better, more responsive game play. As 5G networks and connectivity roll out over the next few years, however, it will quite literally be game-on anywhere, without wires.
What will be critical for NVIDIA and others in this market will be expanding install base as much as possible, in an effort to reach “the next billion gamers.” From smart TV app platforms to Chromebooks and more, presence will be key to driving access and adoption among mainstream users. Microsoft has its Xbox platform to evangelize its services, Google has YouTube TV and similar subscription services, while NVIDIA has a large install base of vocal PC gamer enthusiasts to help educate the masses, as well as many PC ecosystem partners to further expand its reach. Pricing models will vary I’m sure but a tiered, flat fee subscription model makes the most sense to me, though none of the major players have formally announced any specifics as of yet.
Regardless, grab the popcorn and get ready for a fire fight. Cloud gaming is coming and it’s going to be big. NVIDIA seems relatively well-positioned to capitalize on this new opportunity as a leadership incumbent, with both the hardware muscle and experience to deliver a compelling entertainment service.
Dave Altavilla serves as Principal Analyst for HotTech Vision And Analysis. HotTech, like all technology analyst firms, provides paid services, research and consulting to many semiconductor manufacturers and system OEMs. Some of the companies in this article may be clients of the firm.