I still remember rather fondly the “rumor era” of 2015 and 2016. There seemed to be a new report every single day surrounding Nintendo’s—at the time—mystery system. When the company finally revealed the Switch in October 2016, we already basically knew what the system was. But even so, it still surprised me that it actually turned out to be a hybrid console.
While the concept of taking console quality with you anywhere and everywhere is technically not new, the Switch is the first system to execute it in such an efficient way. It is, by design, a tablet. But it has the power of a modest home console. It still blows me away that Nintendo and Nvidia were able to construct such a machine. It’s clearly been a success, having already sold over 20 million units worldwide in less than two years. Despite this, no other gaming company has stepped up to the plate with a direct answer to Switch. Instead, right now the trend seems to be cloud gaming. And Microsoft just recently entered this ever-growing ring with the formal announcement of Project xCloud. However, after having a Switch of my own for nearly a full year now, I can’t help but be a bit turned off by the thought of cloud gaming.
Cloud gaming has been forming since the mid-2000s (remember OnLive?), yet no company has been able to successfully pull it off on a massive scale. The aforementioned OnLive crashed and burned quickly, but then a few years ago Sony acquired Gaikai, which led to the launch of the PlayStation Now service in 2014. It’s been going steady (though subscriber count hasn’t been announced yet), but Sony recently made the interesting decision to allow users to download titles that are a part of the service (thus effectively defeating the purpose of having a cloud gaming service). Nvidia also got its GeForce Now service off the ground earlier this year. So, Microsoft’s Project xCloud will be joining in with this mixture.
Microsoft’s promise is a bold one, claiming that it will allow gamers to stream titles to their mobile devices over 5G connections, despite 5G not even being fully functional yet. The whole marketing message behind the service is that it will “free” gamers from their consoles, allowing them to play wherever and whenever they want. That’s just the thing though—cloud gaming is convenient, but it has its limitations.
I’ve shared my thoughts on cloud gaming in the past, and my mind has yet to change. It all boils down to this: You constantly need to be connected to a high-speed Internet connection for this concept to work properly. If you live in an area where high-speed connections do not exist or are very expensive (and this description applies to a lot of places), then services like xCloud, PlayStation Now, and others are meaningless.
With that in mind, I wonder why Sony decided to allow game downloads from PlayStation Now. Considering how much positive buzz has been surrounding Microsoft’s new Xbox Game Pass initiative, Sony’s decision may very well have been in response to that since it puts them on fairly equal footing as game subscription services. However, in Sony’s own announcement of this “new feature,” it was also specifically highlighted that this allows players to enjoy their titles “both locally and offline.” The keyword here is “offline.” Even Sony is, in a minor way, alluding to the “issue” that is having to deal with an always-online roadblock.
This is why I love the Switch. Just like its original announcement trailer showed, you literally can play this system anywhere. This can’t always be done with cloud gaming, especially with a lifestyle similar to mine.
For the last two years, I’ve been doing some traveling between North and South America, and my home country of the Bahamas. Thus, I’ve dealt with all sorts of interesting situations surrounding the Internet, such as having to stay in an Airbnb for a month with a connection that never went beyond 3Mbps both on the download and upload. You can’t even really have a proper online match with speeds that deplorable, let alone stream an entire game. I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we’ve used a public hotspot and the speeds were so bad not even a YouTube video could load properly. Again, definitely not the environment for a cloud gaming session.
Unless Microsoft is willing to put huge server farms in key locations around the globe and run fiber optic lines to every major settlement, then no matter how great Project xCloud turns out to be, it’s not going to be as accessible as having an actual system. Again, the Switch already fills the “play anywhere and everywhere” role, all while being a dedicated gaming machine. Having a dedicated machine is also nice since it doesn’t interfere with my other devices; streaming games to my phone is cool, but that’s a battery sink. That said, I won’t pretend that the concept of a hybrid console is perfect.
The Switch’s one big caveat is that it simply does not have the horsepower to run every game, and that weakness will continue to plague it until mobile technology improves over the coming years. Cloud gaming, on the other hand, takes the computing stress off of the receiving device, thus allowing you to play any game that’s available. But having said that, cloud gaming and a hybrid gaming system like the Switch kind of fall into the same category: amazing ideas, but complicated executions. For cloud gaming to become truly great, then we all should have stable, high-speed connections (without data caps, or at least much higher ones) available just about everywhere. This may happen eventually, as global Internet speeds have been improving. It still has a long way to go, though. As for hybrid systems, again, mobile technology will need to improve. It’s likewise going to take a while before we can fit something like the components of an Xbox One X into the size of a tablet.
Still, in the meantime, having the Switch is the better option—at least for me. Nintendo even seems prepared to take things a step further with the potential release of a new model in 2019, thus showing that the hybrid concept is here to stay for the time being.
As much as I’ve been railing on it, I would actually like to see cloud gaming become mainstream. It does have a lot of benefits, but only time will tell if it ever truly becomes as big as movie and music streaming. Maybe in 10 years, or perhaps more. But right now? That’s a pipe dream.