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How does cloud gaming work?

A picture book explanation of the latest gaming trend

There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein* explaining how radios work:

*Einstein definitely did not say this.

It might be more accurate to say that there’s still a cat, but the cat is made of light.

A glittering city at night, with the sky illuminated by the huge face of a glowing pink cat made out of light.

But this picture book isn’t about cats. It’s about cloud gaming.

What is cloud gaming, and how does it work? Well, you know how games work: You download a game, or buy a physical copy, and then you play it on your computer or your console or your phone.

So cloud gaming is just like that, except that you don’t need any of those things.

All you need is a screen.

The image of the city zooms in further on rows and rows of windows, each one lit up with the same pink light.
In a room inside the apartment building, a gamer holds a controller and looks at a screen depicting a pink cat.

Perhaps it’s better to ask: Where is cloud gaming?

The “cloud” is a network of super-jacked gaming computers acting as servers. That’s where the game lives.

— technologist Matthew Ball

Tapping remotely into all that computing power could let people play games that look better and move faster. It also could make games more accessible.

— Andrew Fear, senior product manager of GeForce Now

Screens are all around us, so games can be too.

— John Justice, VP of product for Google Stadia

A gamer leans against a refrigerator casually, interacting with a game on its touchscreen that features a pink cat warrior.
Inside a parked car, a gamer taps the touchscreen on the center console, interacting with a game featuring a blocky pink cat.
In a camping tent out in the wilderness at night, a gamer uses their phone to stream a game, illuminating the darkness with pink light.

But there are some limitations. Like, for example, the laws of physics. The speed of light is 299792458 meters per second.

That’s the fastest you can send any information, anywhere in the universe.

Light travels so fast that we usually experience it as instantaneous, whether it’s flicking on a lamp, sending a packet of data through a fiber optic cable — or sending a message through wifi or radio (a form of light).

Several cats lounge and play in a living room. The closed door to the room also contains a cat door, with pink light streaming through it.

So if you’re far away from a server, playing a game with someone who’s a lot closer, you might be seeing what’s happening a tiny bit after they do.

— technologist Matthew Ball

There are other things that can slow down gameplay, too, like how many people are trying to access the internet at the same time.

All of the cats want to go through the cat door at the same time. But they can’t all fit at once!
One determined pink cat emerges from the cat door on the other side.

Different gaming companies are taking different approaches to solving these problems — from special routers that prioritize gameplay over other traffic, to building out servers in strategic locations.

The dream of cloud gaming is to make games more accessible to more people.

The real trick is to make the internet more accessible. The rest will follow.

The planet Earth, illuminated with lights, zooms out to become a cat’s eye and then a cat’s face.

Correction (October 15): The speed of light provided here was characterized incorrectly as being miles per second rather than meters. This has since been corrected.