In front of thousands, the pitch sounded good. Bring PC gaming to the hundreds of millions who can't, or haven't experienced it before. It's a sensible, reasonable goal for a publicly listed company like NVIDIA to aim at. And the idea of putting a gaming PC in the cloud has a certain logic to it.
Problem is, we've been here before. It didn't work. And even if the streaming technology was sound, it still wouldn't work for Australians.
So for those who missed the NVIDIA keynote at CES, let's break it down. GeForce NOW is an extension of the game streaming service NVIDIA offers for their SHIELD tablet, except for those on PC and Mac it's more like renting a GeForce-powered PC in the cloud.
It's a fraction confusing, because the service has the same name while having a markedly different price. The monthly GeForce NOW subscription service costs $US7.99 a month, and comes with a selection of "more than 50 popular PC games".
That's not actually available in Australia, but let's put that to one side for now.
As for the GeForce NOW that lets you rent a GeForce rig in the cloud? It's free for the first 8 hours, or you can pay $US25 to play for 20 hours.
But there's a tiny catch with that: if you want to play on a rig with a GTX 1080, instead of the far less impressive GTX 1060, the time limits are halved. The free trial for GTX 1080 PCs is only 4 hours, while the $US25 access fee only gets you 10 hours of playtime.
On some level the economics work out. Just. If you compared it against the hour-per-dollar ratio you get from other forms of entertainment, like a movie, it doesn't seem so onerous. And for a lot of people strapped for time, $US25 is not an sum they would baulk at paying if it meant uninhibited fun for a weekend.
It works well for people who don't have any consoles or capable hardware, at least in principle. But it starts to become unstuck when you examine the finer detail.
Here's a snippet from NVIDIA's media release:
Gamers can use the service to easily transform aging Windows-based PCs or laptops with integrated graphics into state-of-the-art gaming machines. They can also play the hottest new PC game releases on their Macs without waiting for the Mac versions to become available. Gamers can enjoy games they already own on the stores mentioned above, as well as purchase new games as soon as they’re available.
So, fair enough. Except there's one thing - those gamers are already investing money to own those games in the first place.
Once the free trial expires, you're basically paying $US25 for the right to play games you already own. And if you don't own those games - which is entirely possible for the segment of gamers NVIDIA is targeting - then you have to fork out even more cash. The SHIELD's subscription at least has a built-in library of 50 or so games, but NVIDIA didn't outline whether the GeForce rental PCs would come with default accounts for people to use.
The messaging is a bit mixed, too. NVIDIA's pitch started by talking about the millions of people who hadn't invested in PC gaming yet, but then dovetailed into a story about how you could play your favourite games anywhere on a secondary PC.
Most gamers who own a secondary PC - like a work laptop - are also prescient of what games they can play on that device. It's not like Steam is short of games designed to run on low-end machines anyway. And it's far, far better value to buy a retro game or a small indie title than it is to spend $US25 to possibly finish, or partly consume, something you've been playing at home. (Especially if you've already paid for it.)
The value proposition just doesn't make sense. In a way, it almost shines a light on the promise of the Nintendo Switch. Nintendo's new console is basically pledging the same thing: play your favourite games at home, then undock the console and take them with you. But it doesn't cost extra to carry the Switch with you on a long-haul flight, and you also don't have the vexing problem of having to be always connected.
Well, hopefully you don't. We'll find out more about that at January's upcoming Switch event in Australia.
But that's the real kicker - even if you don't mind the cost, Australians still have to deal with their (on average) ordinary internet. For fun, here's the recommended bandwidth requirements for streaming games through GeForce NOW to the SHIELD:
- 10 Megabits per second – Required broadband connection speed
- 20 Megabits per second – Recommended for 720p 60 FPS quality
- 50 Megabits per second – Recommended for 1080p 60 FPS quality
- < 60ms ping time to one of six NVIDIA datacenters world-wide
Even if NVIDIA had a data centre in Australia, the ping requirement alone could knock out a couple of states; gamers from Western Australia often don't get better than 70ms when playing on servers on the eastern states. And the bandwidth requirements - remember, this is for the SHIELD, not the newly announced service for PCs and Macs - means you're basically buggered without the NBN, some form of fibre, or a HFC connection.
Don't get me wrong - it's an amazing concept. But for Australia, it just doesn't work. The PC/MAC fork of GeForce NOW is due to be rolled out in the continental United States in the autumn, with no word on an Australian release. My guess is that it probably won't, given the data centre requirement for the SHIELD's subscription offering. Even if it did, however, it'd still face the same problem: it costs way, way too much for what you get and Australia simply isn't set up to take advantage of that kind of offering.
The author travelled to CES 2017 as a guest of CORSAIR.