The promise of cloud gaming is that you can do it from anywhere using any device with internet access and a good enough browser (every cloud gaming service seems to have its own browser front requirements). You should be able to play super demanding games whether you’re on a business trip with nothing but a work laptop, or at home and hogging the main TV – or even when you just don’t feel like it, on the couch to sit. But the biggest promise of cloud gaming is that no matter where you are, you’ll have all your games if you have a phone.
In practice, this is a bad idea. After spending the past few weeks using my Steam Deck to play games on the cloud almost daily, I will never willingly try to play cloud games on my phone ever again. Valve’s massive do-it-all handheld made me realize that sometimes dedicated gaming hardware is actually good! The Swiss Army Knife approach to mobile gaming promised by cloud gaming on your phone is about as useful as the saw on a real Swiss Army Knife. I appreciate the effort, but I really don’t want to use it.
I was trying to get cloud gaming to work on my phone a lot of. I tried Red Dead Redemption 2 and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and gloriole and war implements and many other games. Each time I’m blown away because, holy shit, these are demanding AAA games that usually require tons of expensive (and noisy) hardware play on my phone. This feels like fulfilling a promise tech companies made to me decades ago.
But the wonder wears off when you play cloud games on your phone for a long period of time. Cloud gaming drains the phone’s battery quickly, which means you can and will feel the battery anxiety. I once thought cloud gaming would be a miracle while waiting at the airport for a flight, but as my phone got hotter as the sun and the battery drained, I was more worried about connecting than the plot RDR2. I still needed my phone to power the rest of the trip.
Cloud gaming also disrupts all the other things phones are good for. Notifications from other non-gaming apps make their presence felt at the most irritating of times. If your mom calls to check on your flight, you’ll be instantly kicked out of your game. A friend texts when to pick you up? You have to exit the game to answer. You can’t even check Instagram without potentially losing your progress in a game and then having to wait while the phone tries to reconnect to the cloud gaming servers.
But the worst thing about cloud gaming on a phone is the controls. Most Services include an overlay of touchscreen controls. The controls themselves fight for screen real estate, and if you’re like me and have never gotten the knack for on-screen digital joysticks, you’re going to be frustrated. Accessories like the Razer Kishi and Backbone are meant to make the phone a better tool for this kind of hardcore gaming, and I have a Kishi that I’ve played with more than one Android phone, but I still have to remember to bring that thing with. The kishi is not something that just hangs around in my purse or is automatically added to my bag when I leave the house. And if I have to think of bringing along a whole little controller dongle to make cloud gaming even remotely enjoyable on my phone, then I’m not really able to play anytime, anywhere. I’d probably rather have a whole separate device.
After my Steam Deck arrived, I had to reckon with my affection but also intense dissatisfaction with cloud gaming on the phone. I’ve been playing for the past two weeks Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order on Xbox Cloud Gaming on my Steam Deck, and apart from feeling the same sense of wonder as I did when I first played Cloud Gaming on my phone, I also get the bonus that I actually like the experience.
Rather than being a last resort, cloud gaming feels like the first choice when doing it on the Steam Deck. I can’t wait to get Sony and Nvidia and even Google’s cloud gaming solutions up and running on the thing. The game doesn’t feel crowded. The controls just work. I can plug it in and play while I’m charging, and if I run out of battery I can just… do other things instead of living with the reticent terror of being completely disconnected from the outside world.
Do I want something lighter and quieter than the Steam Deck for all my cloud gaming needs? Secure. Phones can already do the job, and with new beefy mobile GPUs on the horizon like ARM’s ray-tracing-capable Immortalis, there’s an opportunity to have a really good mobile gaming solution without the need for custom chips (which both Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck leave), feels closer than ever. Companies like Ayn and GPD are trying to build them. But if the goal is to only play cloud games on the go, I don’t need an Immortalis GPU. When the internet is good, cloud gaming is more than enough for AAA gaming on the go. That means you don’t need the most powerful GPU or CPU. You just need one that can swallow the battery and support a beautiful display, 5G, and rock-solid Wi-Fi.
I know such a device sounds a lot like a phone, but it shouldn’t be a phone. It should become its own thing. Because now that I’ve had a truly enjoyable mobile cloud gaming experience, I never want to go back to my phone. It’s great for a lot of things – cloud gaming isn’t one of them.