7 Best Cloud Gaming Services for 2021 (No. 3 is Our Favorite)
So, you want to play video games.
Not a colorful puzzle from your smartphone’s app store.
We’re talking about high-powered games—ones that are meant to involve you seriously.
They usually have beautiful graphics, immersive campaign/story modes and/or well-developed multiplayer.
But unfortunately, playing such games can quickly add up:
There’s the cost of having a console, or gaming computer, which can set you back hundreds at best.
Then there’s all sorts of other stuff: headphones, a gaming controller, and the games themselves. And a lot of people like to use, you know, TVs.
But cloud gaming is an emerging technology that can deliver high quality gaming experiences without the cost.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Jump to read specific sections by click on the following links
Let’s take a look:
What is cloud gaming?
Cloud gaming is also known as game streaming, because that’s what it is. It’s supposed to act like Netflix and Hulu, but for the gaming industry.
Basically, it uses the power of cloud computing—which means outsourcing computing power to networks of servers instead of a single, local computer—to deliver games.
Now, cloud gaming is not the same thing as downloading a game to your device instead of using a DVD. Yes, there are similarities.
But what we’re really talking about is the gameplay ITSELF being streamed to your device.
Here’s more on how that actually works:
How does cloud gaming work?
The service you’re using has high-powered servers that are dedicated to computing.
So they’ll run the game you’re playing on those servers, instead of you running it on your server (instead of you using your gaming console or PC, for example).
Instead, they’ll stream the game feed to your internet-connected display, so what’s more important is having a basic level of internet speed.
This way you can play the game, but whatever device you’re using can be focused on the controls/input from you and the feed from the original server INSTEAD of also having to run the entire game itself.
Now let’s take a look at the seven best cloud gaming services!
Starting us off:
7th place: Google Stadia
Google Stadia is, of course, Google’s attempt to break into cloud gaming.
I was torn here: on one hand, Google Stadia looks great, promises so many features, and is affordable.
On the other hand: it’s only on a limited release right now. Only a small number of people have been able to test it, and their reviews are mixed.
IF it performs as promised in the future, it could easily be the best game streaming platform around, period.
But I have to be fair, and as it hasn’t been fully released, I’m putting it last.
- Would be the most accessible cloud gaming platform around when fully out.
- Crowd Play feature would allow people watching your live stream to join games directly. But we’ve yet to see how well this works for real.
- It’s cheap. “Stadia Base” is free, and has the core features. Stadia Pro is just $9.99 a month, allows higher resolution (up to 4K), will have additional free games regularly released, and discounts on certain games.
- You can scale up your experience by investing more in Google’s ecosystem, if you want. You could just use your own phone and computer, or you could get a Google TV.
- You can buy a game controller, but you don’t have to (unless you’re playing on your TV). And it looks cool:
- Current reviews from press who have been allowed to test it have mixed opinions on performance, specifically lag and 4K quality.
- Currently missing a lot of functionality and app features, but this could change as it rolls out more.
- Has popular games, but currently the selection is still pretty limited. Google will also have first party content, but the jury is still out on whether that will be good or not.
- Google Stadia is not oriented towards game ownership. This isn’t surprising, as it’s a Google service, but other platforms let you play games you own or buy games that you can then play later on other devices/platforms (on Steam, for example).
6th place: Playkey.net
Playkey.net is one of the more unique cloud gaming services around.
One unique point is the pricing: instead of paying a certain amount per month, you pay for a “time package.”
You choose the amount of time you want to play and pay the price—when the time expires, you can buy another time package.
This lets you control how much you pay much more easily than a more typical subscription model—your price is directly proportional to your use. Great for some, bad for others.
- Has popular titles, and integrates with popular game library services.
- The general perk of being able to control your spending more easily is good for people who want to play a limited amount of time: an hour is just $2, and if you only want to play for a few hours, you’ll only pay a few bucks.
- Easy set-up that tries to tailor the service to you. Here’s an example:
- Data centers are all in Europe.
- The pricing isn’t good for people who want to game heavily. Technically, the price gets better as you order more hours: for example, the 1-hour time package is $2. But the 30, 50, and 100-hour time packages are $30, $50, and $100. Proportionately, the price halves. But if you’re gaming at that scale, it may be better to just use another platform.
- Requires more of your internet speed than other platforms, which have tools optimizing for slow connections.
- Performance isn’t as good as the highest options on this list.
5th place: Parsec
I can’t help but love Parsec: it’s got a lot of personality.
Basically, Parsec built its own protocol for high-performance cloud gaming.
It’s much more openly technical about how it works, but ordinary people can still use the software.
Parsec is overall really good…it’s just kind of complicated. So it’s not in 5th place because it’s bad—it’s here because the others are so good.
So it’s still an option worth checking out!
Note: Parsec is famous for having the option of renting a server/cloud computer for a certain cost per hour. As of September 2019, this is no longer in effect, so if you hear about this feature elsewhere, be warned!
- Good performance.
- Great if you want to play with your friends. Because Parsec has peer-to-peer networking built in, you can connect with a friend even if a game doesn’t have online multiplayer.
- The core software is free. You can get some extra stuff by buying a “Warp” package, but it’s not required to use the service.
- Works on not just Windows and Android, but Raspberry Pi and some Linux distributions. It’s also good on Chrome.
- Not overwhelmingly difficult, but more complicated than the services at the top of this list, and more difficult for beginners. Very much a do-it-yourself service.
- Less oriented towards mainstream games, though there are still some.
4th place: PlayStation Now
Without a doubt, one of the biggest strengths of PlayStation Now is the game selection.
It’s not just that you get access to some quality console games you wouldn’t on PC, but the amount of games you can choose from is enormous compared to most of the other names here.
Because of its price and game selection, I couldn’t put it that low—but it has certain barriers for entry that most of the other titles here simply do not have, and that’s what is holding it back here.
But if you like PlayStation, this is definitely one of the best routes for you.
- Pretty good performance.
- Like I said, enormous selection of games, many of them high quality and mainstream games. The selection also includes games for earlier versions of the console, so you can access old favorites from the PS2 and PS3. In total: over 800 titles.
- Plus, access to PS4 exclusives that are often highly acclaimed, like God of War or Uncharted.
- If you’re using a PS4, you can also download the games and play them locally. There’s no limit to how much you can download, so you only have to worry about your PS4’s storage.
- Pricing is relatively affordable—you can choose proportionately more for a month of service, but even that’s only $9.99 a month. Compared to others here, that’s not so bad. If you commit to a year, it’s even better.
- You need a PS4 or PC to stream the games to, so you can’t access this on your phone or Mac.
- You also need a PS4 controller, whether you’re using a PC or PS4. So the real cost is more than just the subscription and game.
- Although most popular games also exist for PlayStation, if you want to play some niche indie game only on PC…you’re out of luck.
- Most people can meet the PC requirements, but it’s more strenuous than some of the other services on this list. You can check out the details here.
3rd place: Vortex
Vortex is a great option for cloud gaming, but with some compromises.
To sum it up, Vortex is really accessible, but also a bit limited.
Vortex is a good option for all sorts of people interested in cloud gaming. But it’s an especially great option for those of you who are just putting your feet into the water with this stuff.
If you’re more serious about cloud gaming? Vortex might be okay, but the other options here are probably better for you.
- Easy to get started with and super easy to use. The top two options are also easy, but Vortex is even more so (if that’s possible).
- Relatively affordable: at the time of this writing, it’s $9.99 a month and can be paid for in a bunch of ways.
- Although the game selection isn’t huge, it’s still got most of the games you care about and they’re adding new ones all the time. You can see what they’ve got here.
- Available for most devices: not just Android phones and Windows computers, but MacOS. Xbox, and any device that can support Chrome (the browser).
- Performance isn’t the best, although it’s not bad.
- Access to a lot of titles, but not on the scale of PlayStation or our top two contenders (closer to 100 than 400+ games).
- You can’t add your own games—you can only choose from their library.
2nd place: Shadow
Shadow is cool partly because of its name: it’s a reference to the “shadow computer” you get once you sign up.
When you pay for a subscription, you’re basically paying to get a high-end Windows 10 PC that you can then run off of your ordinary devices.
And this of course means that gaming is a great use of Shadow, and it’s a major driver of Shadow’s popularity.
- Great performance, and basically allows users on regular devices to experience the power of a high-end computer.
- If you would like to experience more than just cloud gaming, Shadow is a great gateway to just experiencing a cloud/remote computer in general. So you can also stream your favorite shows or use powerful software you couldn’t otherwise.
- Has a “low connections mode,” which optimizes image quality on slow connections.
- Dedicated apps/software for the devices you want to use Shadow on, which makes it super easy to use.
- Great for people who want to game on their phones or tablets.
- Although games are a popular use of Shadow, and work well on it, Shadow’s core service is more than just games. While that’s a pro for some, it may be extra weight for people who want to keep things simple.
- Expensive, and there’s no free trial. There are some discounts from time to time that make it more affordable.
- Only some parts of the United States get it (granted, it’s still most of the U.S.).
1st place: GeForce NOW
GeForce NOW is generally considered to be a leader in game streaming right now.
Most consider it to be the best cloud gaming service, and even those who don’t put it in the top 3.
Part of that is because GeForce NOW is a project of Nvidia, which is a major producer of graphic cards (GPUs) and thus an important force in gaming.
So it’s not that surprising Nvidia has been able to branch into cloud gaming, given its core focus.
It’s gotten this top spot not just because everyone likes it, but because it’s got a lot of great things going for it. In doing so, it’s set the standard.
- In general, great performance and graphics.
- It’s also one of the best platforms for those with lower-end computers.
- Wide selection of games available. Not as many as PlayStation, but it’s well in the hundreds—you can check them out here.
- You only need one account to play on multiple devices.
- Automatically updates.
- Currently free as it’s in beta mode!
- Users are currently limited in the amount of time they can play, to ensure fair access during the ongoing free beta phase. But it’s not bad: one session is up to 4 continuous hours. Then you need to save your progress and you can start a new session later.
- Only available in North America and Europe (for now).
- Although it’s free for now because of the beta, we don’t know what the pricing will be once it rolls out officially.
- Doesn’t support Chrome yet.
Is there a free cloud gaming service?
Cloud gaming is supposed to reduce gaming costs. So you might naturally wonder if it’s possible to get to NO cost.
The answer is “kind of”.
GeForce NOW is free, but only because it’s in beta mode. When it ends beta, who knows—there could be a limited free model in addition to paid plans, or only paid plans.
Google Stadia has a free plan, but it hasn’t rolled out yet.
And Google often kills its new ventures. Even if it doesn’t, the project is young enough that the pricing could change easily.
Parsec is free, but it’s more difficult to install and manage, and may not have the games you want anyway.
If you dig around, you’ll probably find more options—but many of them will be sketchy.
As far as reputable options go, the ones I listed are best.
So, there you have it—the seven best cloud gaming services around right now!
Remember: although I did rank these, life is never that simple.
Some services are better for certain people. For example:
Personally, PlayStation Now is much more my thing than Shadow or GeForce NOW, because I’ve been on PlayStation since I was a kid.
So keep an eye on which points are important to you!
Do you disagree with any portions of my list? Maybe you felt Microsoft’s xCloud or Paperspace should have gotten spots?
Or that GeForce NOW isn’t even close to Shadow, or PlayStation Now?
Whatever your thoughts are, I want to hear them! It’s an exciting future ahead, and it’ll be even more fun if we’re all talking about it together.
You can reply below: