Test invites have begun trickling out for Project Stream, Google's first official take on a dedicated, current-gen gaming platform. As has long been rumored, Google has opted for an online-streaming format (if its current, temporary name wasn't hint enough), and this week's test (which included invited members of the press) sees the company serving a modern game to users via the Chrome Web browser.
Though we only have one day (and one game) of testing under our belts, we can already tell that Project Stream is shaping up to be something solid, if not revolutionary. That's not a bad start for a game-streaming space that's already pretty well occupied—and will be growing at least one bigger before long.
Heads in the cloud
Game companies have toyed with cloud-powered gaming for some time now, with OnLive having the dubious honor of being first out of the gate (and first out of the industry). Nvidia and Sony continue to serve games this way, so long as users pay a monthly fee and have the right combination of installed app and compatible device.
With that stuff established, the services let users log in to a server farm, where one instance of a given game is individually loaded and served. From there, the farm handles all of your video game's processing, so you can arguably play your game on a home device as simple as a video-streaming box or smart-TV processing chip. The biggest variable for gamers is the connectivity. Bad online performance can result in reduced visual quality, input lag, and even lost visual frames.
Got all that? Then you have Project Stream (at least, at a baseline level).
Google would love for us to believe that its new streaming service is doing something particularly special with things like video encoding and lag reduction, and the company implied as much when its reps offered to connect Ars Technica to sources "close" to Project Stream. But that offer came with caveats, particularly about how the system's underlying tech could change radically before launch. We'd rather wait until Google can offer comprehensive comment on what's under Project Stream's hood.
For now, the service's first differentiating feature may very well be the difference maker for interested players: that it works on any desktop instance of Google Chrome. As in, a huge majority of Windows, Mac, Linux, and Chrome OS machines in the wild. So long as you have valid credentials and your device passes Google's current bandwidth test (a "stable streaming rate" of at least 15Mbps, latency below 40ms, and a packet-loss rating of five percent or less), Project Stream will deem your device, whether wired or wireless, up to its snuff. From there, play via keyboard-and-mouse or any number of supported gamepads.
Comparatively, PlayStation Now is limited to Windows 10 PCs and PlayStation 4 consoles (with an app-install requirement and support solely for DualShock 4 controllers). Meanwhile, GeForce Now only works on a Shield TV device with attached compatible controller (though Nvidia has also launched a beta version on PC as of press time).
Say what you will about required apps or about your fondness for Chrome compared to other browsers, but it's hard to overstate how smooth the results are. The experience of loading the official Project Stream site in Chrome, passing a brief network test (only once per device), and booting into a game is far simpler than any other cloud-gaming service we've ever tested.
This goes doubly for plugging in game controllers, as we got two generations of Xbox pad and Sony's DualShock 4 to work with zero setup. In one test, I was mid-game on a MacOS device, testing with mouse-and-keyboard, then plugged an Xbox One pad into that system (and I'd never plugged an Xbox One pad into that laptop, nor had I previously installed XB1 drivers). It. Just. Worked. The game immediately switched to Xbox on-screen button prompts and worked as expected. That's not to say mileage won't vary for other hardware juggles, but it's certainly a promising indicator this early into the test period.
Cloudy view from Mount Olympus?
The only game on offer in the test period is Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, but that's no slouch of a test subject. Project Stream invites went out mere days after AC:O's retail launch, and on "pro"-grade consoles and high-end PCs, it's a demanding, beastly 3D adventure. From giant vistas to expressive faces, AC:O does a lot with whatever pixels your screen has to offer.
Ubisoft's new game also happens to be a great candidate for pulling the wool over users' eyes, to some extent, as it has been built with a 30fps refresh in mind. That's the game's max frame rate on all consoles, both "pro" and standard, while getting a higher frame rate on PC requires equal parts beefy hardware and visual compromises. That 30 fps cap buys Project Stream a ton of time to hide any noticeable latency issues, as opposed to a game that might require frame-perfect button taps.
The results in our first day of testing, both on wireless and wired online devices, have been solid. As expected, we have seen noticeably better visuals when relying on a wired ethernet connection; wireless connections sometimes reveal serious blurs and smudges, particularly in the game's omnipresent dialogue captions. But both prove "good enough" at resolving AC:O's typically busy scenery, including long draw distances, foliage-lined hills, and climbable, crag-loaded textures.
What's more, Project Stream's source servers appear to render the game at near-max PC settings, especially in crucial categories like ambient occlusion and shadow-map resolution. (These categories, in particular, render at least "one higher" than their pro-console equivalents.) AC:O's focus on lengthy dialogue trees—and, thus, tight zooms on human faces—is all the better when that shadow-and-light pipeline enjoys as many pixels and bounce opportunities as possible.
Without solid pixel-counting gear in house, we're not going to comment on the exact resolution range we found on our machines. Instead, we feel safe saying that we're hovering around 1080p on wired connections and getting closer to a 900p mini-blur situation on wireless ones. In both cases, the material that suffers most includes depth-of-field blur on background elements (it just doesn't stand out as sharply when foreground pixels are smeared even the tiniest bit) and color banding in big, open skies.
The latter is clearly a video-encoding weak point, which we highlight because it's the exception. Visual artifacts weren't hard to spot in the game's visually busier sequences, which suggests that Project Stream has fast-moving game imagery in mind. (It immediately brings to mind Nvidia's promises about anti-aliasing solutions powered by extensive machine learning.)
As for latency, we're neck-and-neck with the likes of the modern PlayStation Now, a service that has crept its latency rating up on an annual basis. Meaning: we're not about to practice professional Street Fighter V sessions with Stream's level of input lag, but a 30fps game like AC:O tends to feel playable enough (with occasional moments that feel as slow as a standard HDTV with its "game mode" turned off).
So many screens!
Project Stream's totally useless but super awesome device switching. pic.twitter.com/BB6XLHBPjd
— Ron Amadeo (@RonAmadeo) October 8, 2018
But wireless woes were all the easier to stomach thanks to what Chrome opens up as a use case. We were able to easily switch from one device to the next by simply opening Project Stream on a new browser—and have our live gameplay carry over between screens with 1-2 seconds lost at most. Should you want to take a wireless device to another room and get through slower sequences like dialogue trees and inventory sorting, then return to your wired machine for an epic assassination attempt, Project Stream has you covered.
Sadly, as of press time, the same can't be said for Android devices. Project Stream currently boots all the way up to actual gameplay when running in mobile Chrome, only to crash out after showing a flicker of gameplay. Try as we might, we couldn't fool it (not even with "desktop view" enabled). If Project Stream can open its arms to Android's Chrome browser and support Bluetooth controllers like the DualShock 4, then, well, gosh. We'd buy one of those silly phone-and-controller cradles in a heartbeat for games like AC:O to be played wherever we walk in our homes.
Until then, Project Stream has launched with just enough open-world gameplay and server power to have us tickled by the prospects. More work needs to be done before Google's offering could replace our locally powered systems for the twitchiest games, and with a testing period dated until January 2019, Google will clearly be taking some time to see how far it can push Project Stream—and which game makers and publishers it might enlist in joining whatever eventual, for-profit service emerges. With Microsoft making similarly bold pronouncements about game-streaming in 2019, this will at least be an interesting sector to watch in the next few months, if not a convincing one.
This article has been updated with a clarification about GeForce Now.