A Short, Nonsensical Sort of Gaming Vacation

Thanks to various idiosyncrasies of the Portuguese calendar, I was able to book a single day’s vacation and get a huge 5-day weekend “break”, which we spent generally relaxing, watching the rain outside (rain in June, yay), and generally doing nothing of consequence. And among other things, I decided to do some gaming (and was actually caught by surprise by the PS5 event, but that’s another story).

Motivation

I’m no longer an “active” gamer, but every now and then I feel the need to dive in. Our family console is currently a Nintendo Switch (which reminds me I’ve yet to finish BOTW), and we like it a lot because has the dual advantages of suiting our kids’ age and freeing up the TV.

That is not to say that we haven’t had other game consoles in the house (original Xbox, PS/2, etc.), but they’re all mothballed and our PS3 hasn’t been used in years. The only reason I keep it around (unplugged, but still taking up room underneath the TV) is that we might want to watch a DVD movie someday–which has never happened, even during the pandemic.

There’s also a Wii (which is actually plugged in and sees occasional use) and the occasional short-lived stab at setting up a Lakka box, but in general there’s no immediate reason to buy another console–and I can get the PS5 thing out of the way right now and say that I feel zero need to buy a hideous stormtrooper-styled space heater to stick alongside the TV.

I’ve had access to xCloud for a few months and it’s now public preview, so I can at least acknowledge I’ve been playing around with it.

But the compelling event here is that both myself and the kids have been messing around with both Unity and Godot over the past few weeks and I’ve been sorely annoyed with work, the pandemic and pretty much all my regular hobbies, so letting off some steam and spend a few afternoons playing games instead of going outside seemed like a good idea given the circumstances.

For good measure, I finally signed up for Apple Arcade to see if the games were worth it (there was much rejoicing, but I think it will be short-lived).

But let me regale you with that saga from the very beginning.

Project xCloud

I’ve been testing xCloud on and off since late last year. The preview is now publicly available, so I’m not going against my Disclaimer by sharing some of my notes on the experience (but I will be circumspect regardless).

If you don’t know what it is, the premise is simple: You get your gaming session streamed live from a special server blade with eight Xbox One S consoles in it someplace in a Microsoft datacenter to your mobile device. That’s it, with a heavy emphasis on mobile.

When it comes to game streaming services, I’m a believer. I worked on tangential aspects of the MEO Jogos project a long time ago (kickstarting the Mac client, as it happens, and checking the viability of other options), and a couple of years back I spent a few weeks playing Quake Champions on NVIDIA’s service and building a homegrown version, so I know the tech works – it’s just a matter of for whom.

And since I prefer quiet, low-power hardware and (up until now) there is little likelihood of having a gaming PC in the house, I’m also interested in figuring out if I’m really in the market for such a thing.

First Impressions

When I got the invite, the first thing I did was to slip an Xbox controller into my next Amazon order, with the reasoning that I would need one either way as my PS3 controllers are not really supported by anything these days without hacking things.

A week or so later I got the controller, set up the iOS client on my iPad mini 5, and was playing the original Halo in minutes.

We had 200Mbps downstream fibre back then, and the first thing I did was re-stream the game to my Apple TV via AirPlay (which added some latency, but nothing special when you honed your timing skills on dial-up games).

The only real issue for me, from the start, was the controller itself. Not the hardware (which is great), but the control scheme itself.

I used to be a moderate-to-heavy FPS player back in the [Quake III Arena][q3a] days and generally hate playing FPS games on consoles because thumb sticks are an extraordinarily poor replacement for mouse aiming (I notably bought a second-hand original Xbox just to play Halo but ended up finishing it on my Mac instead).

Round Two

Surprisingly enough, I played exactly zero games until April or so, except for half a hour of Zelda to test a repaired controller. The pandemic has meant many more working hours altogether for us, so there was no time for distractions.

But I’ve been feeling so exhausted (and annoyed at spending the days in the office) that I needed an excuse to blow off some steam, so when the public preview started and I got wind that the Android client had more games available, I was intrigued.

But I had no Android devices. Or did I?

Enter the Samsung Galaxy S8

I got a Galaxy S8 as a service phone two years ago, and loathe it (I’m wary of all things Samsung, their copycat approach, hacked Android experiences and buggy software, even if the hardware is quite good in general). I used it almost exclusively as a glorified LTE hotspot while traveling.

As a result the battery is pretty much gone and it’s been mostly sitting on my drawer since January, but the client installed and ran on it fine up until the launch menus. Thing is, there was no way I was going to be able to play anything comfortably on that tiny screen (the iPad had already been somewhat of a stretch).

So I reached for a cheap Chinese HDMI adapter for the Switch. It has pass-through USB-C power and is compatible with the S8, so it worked OK in my office except for poor Wi-Fi (something I’m in process of fixing across the whole house, and that’s also another story).

Plugging in a cheap USB-to-Ethernet adapter solved that, but when I moved my setup to the living room the phone output image was letter-boxed on my TV due to limitations on Android screen mirroring and resolution matching. Bummer.

Raspberry Pi 3B+

I then decided to see if I could fix the letterboxing with another Android device, but having nothing else on hand that was both recent enough and with an HDMI connector, I decided to try it on a Raspberry Pi running Lineage OS (which seems to be the most recent version of Android that will run on it).

Alas, the 3B+ does not seem to have enough RAM–the client app crashes seconds after launch, and although I have a couple of 4GB RAM Raspberry Pi 4 boards already, the Android experience in general is still so poor on the Pi hardware that I saw no point in doing it (remember, all of this happened over the course of months, and I can’t really spare more than an hour or so every weekend to jump into this kind of rabbit hole).

Taking Some DeX

Fortunately, my S8 supports Samsung DeX, and a recent OS update made it a bit more useful than I expected. After playing around with it a bit more, I realized Samsung had hacked together a way to force applications (especially games) to take full advantage of the the external display and got it to work with xCloud on full screen mode, without letterboxing.

It is glorious, and a nice twist on the “mobile” angle to see games full-screen, at what appears to be full HD (1080p rendered, although I doubt the streams go up to that). And to have the same nice, full screen experience, what you need to do is follow these very simple steps (oh, the irony):

  • Plug in the S8
  • Pull down notifications to launch DeX (somehow even if I tell it to do so automatically it forgets to)
  • Pull down notifications again to enable using the S8 as a trackpad.
  • Figure out which way is actually up on the trackpad (hint: it’s not the way you’d expect).
  • Turn on DeX Labs in settings (which adds an extra window widget to force application resizing–this is a persistent setting)
  • Open Game Launcher and start the Streaming client from there
  • Once it’s running, you need to go back to the “trackpad” and finagle your way around until you hit the full-screen widget (which restarts the app)
  • Finally, make sure your mouse cursor is out of the way (otherwise it will just sit there on top of your game, smack in the middle of your TV)

Obviously, this is a little convoluted to set up to say the least. But it works great, and I was able to play Destiny 2 on a 55” TV at extremely good frame rates and quite low latency, even without an Ethernet cable.

I now have a 5GHz Airport Extreme alongside the TV, and in the intervening months we also upgraded to a 1Gbps Vodafone fibre connection, so I probably have a much better connection than most US testers…

Discounting the hacky approach and my constant fumbling with the controller, the experience was nothing short of excellent. Video quality was very, very good (other than some encoding blocks showing up on highly complex scenes with shimmering water in Destiny 2, I didn’t notice anything amiss), and lag was pretty much non-existing (although I haven’t investigated exactly where my traffic is going to, I do know that Vodafone fiber has a very good connection to Microsoft data centers in general).

The Games

The preview has 50-odd games available, including the usual staples like most recent titles in the Halo and Gears franchises, which I started out in but eventually gave up on because of how poor the FPS experience feels to me with a controller. Not knowing any better, I pressed on:

  • Destiny 2 was somehow much better, but to be fair I didn’t spend too long trying to shoot things in it.
  • Journey to the savage planet was also nice, and I did shoot things in it, but that’s not the entire point of it.
  • Superhot (which I had never tried) was every bit as good as it’s been drummed up to be, and the best “FPS” I played on it so far.

Then I literally switched gears and tried other things:

  • Forza Horizon was spectacular from a visual standpoint. I suck at the actual driving, as would be expected, but jumping through a barrage of falling leaves and splashing into a flooded section of road just before you ignominiously crash into an incoming lorry (because this is England and you’re on the wrong side of the road) was a beautiful, soul-wrenching visual experience that really drives home (heh) how good the graphics can be on modern consoles.
  • Halo Wars was a lot of fun. I’ve always liked RTS games, and this one had an easy ramp-up and low enough tactics to be good for casual gaming. However, the controller let me down a few times because (like FPS) RTS games are best played with a mouse, and it was just easier to order all units to attack something than tapping the ones that made most sense.
  • Ori was its usual lovely self. I’d tried it out previously on NVIDIA (I think), and it looked amazing on my TV.

So yes, this would completely replace an Xbox for me, at least.

Latency and Performance

I had no issues with lag. On one hand video quality sometimes seemed a bit lower (especially before upgrading to gigabit fibre, or when something was between the phone and the access point), but I don’t remember any noticeable glitches or game-disturbing hangups. Then again, I am very tolerant of lag (I trained my reflexes on Quakeworld over dialup, after all) and the network quality has been excellent of late.

And yeah, I got the same weird in-game loading times as if it was a “real” console. Maybe shorter, but my yardstick for that is the PS3 and I never owned an Xbox One, so your mileage may vary–but at least I never had to “update” any games, so there’s that too.

The only thing I felt needed fixing (from a technical perspective) was having an Apple TV client instead of my ramshackle setup.

That may never happen due to product focus and/or Apple restrictions, but it would fix all the hacky bits I described above in one fell swoop, plus a critical aspect I haven’t mentioned yet: I wouldn’t need to fiddle with HDMI cables and ports, since my “new” TV (now well over a year old) has less HDMI ports than its predecessor, a trend that I’ve been tracking since 2018 or so and find quite disturbing.

In an ideal world, I’d be able to just run the whole thing on my TV, but given the emphasis on mobile devices (and the age of my own TV, let alone the fact that it runs on WebOS) I also don’t see that happening. But this was the only time I wished I’d gotten an Android TV instead.

Apple Arcade

So, let’s talk about the Apple TV, then, since that’s the one device that I use the most plugged into the TV. Ignoring the yawning conceptual hole if it being the near-perfect gaming streaming client thanks to its beefy hardware, seamless Bluetooth controller experience and great UX, can it replace a gaming console at all?

Out of sheer boredom (and some curiosity, I’ll grant, but mostly boredom) I subscribed to Apple Arcade to find out.

Apple Arcade has been on the back of my mind for a while because:

  • It’s every bit as kid-friendly as Nintendo
  • We can bolt it down through Screen Time
  • Like many people I have a glimmer of hope that Apple can actually deliver better online services than Nintendo

The latter is a very low bar, I’ll grant, but to be fair Nintendo’s online services are pretty worthless and we’ve had zero reasons to consider subscribing, even if they have finally seen the light and make (some) older games available for free, as if “ecosystem” was a dirty word for them.

The (Arcade) Games

The biggest question in most people’s minds around Apple Arcade is if the games are any good.

Let’s start with the positive aspects: Sayonara Wild Hearts was, in a word, amazing. Easily worth it for the experience alone, and I’m definitely going back for more later.

But the rest… well… Here’s some of the other games I tried and what I think of them so far:

  • Oceanhorn 2 (aka “Link’s cousin meets some grouchy scarab things”) - competent, polished, utterly predictable. Runs better on the Apple TV than most other hardware I’ve seen.
  • Sonic Racing - yep, does what it says on the tin, except that you’re not slogging around on your hind paws anymore and you’re driving an actual vehicle.
  • Hot Lava - not as much fun as it seemed. Somewhat frustrating, even.
  • Overland - a very competent, if bleak turn-based strategy game. I preferred Spaceland, though.

For some reason, I haven’t played a single platformer yet. I blame Mario and his ubiquity on the Wii/Switch lineage for raising my expectations so much that nothing else seems interesting enough.

Bugs and Performance Issues

One of the things that annoyed me the most about the Apple Arcade experience is how flaky the Apple Remote experience is. After pairing the Xbox gamepad to the Apple TV, the remote occasionally stopped registering swipes and I couldn’t navigate the menus with it, only use the buttons.

Worse, it would occasionally “re-connect”, send out a burst of bogus menu button events, and pop all the way back to the home screen (and no, charging it didn’t fix it).

It also bears noting that some of the more demanding games (like Oceanhorn 2) ran rather poorly on the kids’ iPads (now quite a few years old), which is both good and bad: good because they’re obviously taking good advantage of newer hardware, and bad because it diminishes the cross-play value across different devices. So yes, streaming seems like a much better approach in terms of hardware coverage.

Comparison

From an overall perspective, both services were a lot of fun. I can’t really compare them directly, and any comparison risks getting lost in the weeds really fast, since there are several dimensions at play here:

  • Streaming vs. local
  • AAA-games vs “indie” ones (regardless of there being some established labels on Apple Arcade, this is how most people are likely to perceive the respective catalogues)
  • Campaign vs casual
  • Supported devices (i.e., mobile vs “console”/TV)

I could go on. Neither side is “bad” on any dimension, but they fit different profiles, and in the process I realized I’m not really at any of the important intersections of whatever Venn diagrams you care to draw with these.

For instance, most of the staple Xbox catalogue, isn’t very appealing to me, and I don’t mean just the selection I had access to. And campaigns are a challenge, too. It’s not just that I can’t play FPS games with a controller (which I definitely can’t), it’s that I just don’t find the long-term campaign format appealing given what little time I have.

On the other hand, to spend some quality gaming time, I’d prefer to do it on my TV, and with minimum hassle–and the emphasis on mobile is a downer for both platforms. Apple Arcade has a slight edge here because a) it’s already plugged into my TV (no more HDMI ports, remember?) and b) a lot of its games are the “casual” kind.

Also, the general push towards over-engineered games on both the Xbox and the PS5 has taken a lot of the fun out of gaming. Disregarding things like Forza (which I can enjoy just on the basis of driving around for kicks and realism), RTS titles (like Halo Wars, or Civilization, if the controls made any sense) are probably the most appealing thing for me on those platforms (and I’m still kind of sore that I missed out on Dreams and other idiosyncratic PS4 titles).

So… it’s a tie? I honestly don’t know yet.

Value

I have zero notion of how much xCloud is going to cost, but Apple‘s 4.99 EUR/month and NVIDIA’s 5.49 EUR/month kind of set the stage here.

The real question is whether they’re worth it for casual gamers like myself (I’m still playing on NVIDIA’s free tier, which is fine for the odd 30 minutes I spend shooting up things every now and then), and what is the real value here in terms of overall experience.

I do know that I’m having trouble justifying paying for Apple Arcade on its own (I’d be OK with it being folded into Apple TV+, for instance), and what vague notions I have of “worth” revolve around the game catalogue and not the technology, ecosystem or parental control features.

Since, again, I’m not squarely in the target audience for any of them (I’m starting to think I’m more of a Steam/NVIDIA guy, really) I need more time to reach a decent conclusion here.

A Perfect World

So here’s a thought.

I have a TV with three HDMI inputs: IPTV set-top-box, Apple TV and Switch. Most people only have the one set-top-box, and can get third-party services like HBO and Netflix through it as well (and billed through their carrier), so… why not games as well?

I have two answers for that. The first is that the carriers lack the technology to do it right, because most IPTV set-top-boxes are cheap crap, and I haven’t seen a single carrier with the guts to go all-out on OTT (over the top) and make all of their services available on an Apple TV or a generic Android box, doing with their proprietary/customized hardware altogether.

I’d like to state at this point that if I could, I would completely ditch the Vodafone IPTV set-top-box and would vastly prefer an Apple TV application to watch TV (in fact, I have the state television’s own app installed there). They have the technology, but, alas, my former colleagues just don’t get it. Yet.

The second is, of course, that licensing this sort of thing is an insane screaming nightmare, and given my trials when dealing with content negotiations in the past, I don’t even want to go there (but it is why I don’t think I’ll see an Apple TV client for xCloud, as much as it pains me).

And I’m only thinking about this from a carrier perspective–Apple would likely raise a lot of objections to it (and it might be seen as cannibalizing hardware sales, etc.).

So I’m not holding my breath. I don’t do politics or consumer go-to-market these days, but I get that both aspects would be in the way.

Going Forward

The only thing I’m curious about right now is whether I’ll actually stick to that Apple Arcade subscription, given that tomorrow I’ll be going back to work and until now 90% of my casual TV gaming needs can be covered by the Switch or a Lakka box running a single game: R-Type.

That’s one game well worth playing on a huge TV, let me tell you. And you get killed so often that it makes for pretty short, almost casual gaming sessions…

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