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Nintendo Switch’s cloud-based games have profound issues

Just how good is cloud gaming on Nintendo Switch? The upcoming Kingdom Hearts games on Switch – including 1.5, 2.5, and the latest Kingdom Hearts 3 – are set to be purely cloud-based, with Square-Enix charging $90 for the entire collection or $50 for each individual game. Is the visual quality and input lag good enough to make this work? Does the concept even work for a system designed around take-anywhere portability? Demos are available on the eShop for the Kingdom Hearts titles, as well as other releases including Control, Guardians of the Galaxy and Hitman 3. We tested them all and the results are mixed to say the least.

First of all, the fact that demos are available on the eShop at all deserves kudos – it means that you have a chance to experience the games running on your own Switch paired with your own internet connection, and it’s those demos we’ve used in putting together this piece. Of course, the demos are also available to any Switch user, meaning you can test the games for yourself too, the only limitation being a hard 15-minute limit per user, per game.

A company called Ubitus supplies the cloud-based infrastructure – so, essentially, what appear to be tweaked PC versions of the game are hosted on remote servers. Control inputs are sent from your Switch to the cloud, where they’re processed, and game images are compressed and sent back to your screen. In an ideal world, all of these games would receive bespoke Switch ports, but more advanced titles may not be possible at all on the Nintendo handheld. In practise, for high-end games like Guardians of the Galaxy, streaming may be the only viable solution to get a playable result. This is highlighted especially with Control too, which even adds ray traced reflections to the mix – a setting we’ve never before seen running on Switch.

DF’s Tom Morgan and John Linneman share their experiences with Switch’s growing cloud-based gaming library.

Both myself and John Linneman tested these titles individually. I used a 65Mbps BT fibre connection along with the mega-bandwidth leased line at Eurogamer HQ. For his part, John utilised his existing 100Mbps home connection. Based on what we’ve seen from the captures taken from the system in docked mode, Switch cloud titles deliver a 720p video stream, with the games themselves seemingly set to output a matching 720p resolution (the exception being Hitman 3 – this seems capable of outputting a native 1080p rendered image, downscaled to 720p before being beamed across the internet). Bandwidth seems to be limited as macroblocking is clearly visible on high colour, fast-moving content, looking at its least impressive when blown up to a flat panel living room display. Kingdom Hearts 3 suffers especially for this.

Input lag? It seems to vary per game, but at the nuts-and-bolts level, it acquits itself pretty well. Running Control on PC at 60fps, input lag came in at 93.2ms on average (surprisingly high, to tell the truth) while the Switch version running via the cloud came in at 149.7ms in its unlocked performance mode. That’s with a wired Ethernet connection – so a best-case scenario. Unfortunately – and crucially for a cloud system – the Switch’s WiFi receiver isn’t great. Gaming via WiFi adds 30-50ms of extra lag, depending on range. At this point, we’re hitting end-to-end lag in the region of 200ms – Kinect territory. Therein lies one of the key limitations of the entire concept: Switch is a mobile gaming marvel but tapping into its portability with cloud gaming impacts the quality of experience considerably.

In the video embedded on this page, you’ll see John and I sharing our experiences with each title, but here are the headlines:

  • Kingdom Hearts 3 runs at 720p with an unlocked 60fps. Its intricate art style and lavish use of colour simply can’t be properly captured with the video encoding here – it looks very poor and compressed
  • With Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5 Remix, the games are so old and technically so basic, there is no need to use the cloud. Switch should be handling these natively and at 60fps. Remarkably, the cloud versions are running at 720p30
  • Guardians of the Galaxy is a truly demanding game that could only work via the cloud. However, visual elements are out of place, and it runs at 720p30
  • Hitman 3 has two modes but it’s not entirely clear what the enhanced graphics mode does. Both seem to operate at variable resolutions and target 30fps
  • Every 30fps cap across every title tested exhibits uneven frame-pacing

The outlook isn’t great overall and based on the demo code, the Kingdom Hearts collection is going to be a very tough sell. However, the port of Control isn’t bad. There are quality and performance modes just like the consoles, and while the 720p30 quality mode has the same uneven frame-pacing issues as the other capped titles, it’s great to see ray tracing features are retained. With a 720p60 target the performance mode is also interesting, but frame-rates seem to be lower than expected.

There’s a lot to process here, but what’s clear is that while latency is comparable to other cloud-based systems based on the Control result, image quality isn’t where it should be. Video encoding quality needs significant improvement, while frame-pacing at 30fps and overall performance when gunning for 60fps also need improvement. If publishers want to make these cloud versions desirable, delivering 1080p gaming via a 1080p video stream with the game running at 60 frames per second seems like a good idea – the cloud can never match local conditions but can provide advantages in terms of visual features and performance.

On the face of it, leveraging this tech does allow Switch to play games it otherwise wouldn’t – but even beyond image quality and latency concerns, there are profound issues with the concept. First of all, there’s the idea that compromised experiences are being sold at so high a price. Secondly, the execution seems alien to the Switch concept itself. This brilliant mobile system is no longer particularly mobile when such close proximity to a router is required. I did try these titles using a 4G connection, by the way, but the experience predictably didn’t work particularly well.

Ultimately, the market will decide if these cloud titles for Switch are viable but our recommendation on what we’ve seen so far is not particularly positive. The good thing about demos being available on the eShop is that there’s nothing stopping you checking these titles out for yourself, and I highly recommend doing so.

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