On my last business trip of 2020, when those were still a thing, I'd stayed in a hotel with profoundly mediocre Wi-Fi and, desperate to finish my game of Total War: Three Kingdoms, I'd opened up GeForce Now and launched Steam. On a virtual machine somewhere in the ether, I was able to access my complete Steam library of 1,000 games or so (many, or even most of them, regrettable impulse purchases spanning a decade) and install Three Kingdoms. Then I played the last few hours of my campaign on my laptop and while the gorgeous map of China occasionally dissolved into pixelated confetti as the connection struggled. It was nevertheless a miraculous experience.
I didn't use GeForce Now much after that because I wasn't travelling anywhere during the pandemic, and therefore always had access to my consoles and PC. There was a frustrating irony to the fact that the first really compelling (to me) game streaming option arrived just as all business travel and vacations were indefinitely halted for people. So I'd only vaguely followed the evolution of the platform since then. I knew some publishers weren't happy, I knew some had demanded their games be removed from GeForce Now, but I didn't really know how much the service's flexibility had been diminished.
Until this last week, when my PC abruptly stopped working the day after vacation ended (a sure metaphor for burnout if ever I've seen one but also a huge pain in the ass), and I realized GeForce Now was not the service it used to be. Early last year it was a gaming PC I could access anywhere, at any time, to play anything I owned. Now, it's yet another streaming service with an uneven library.
A representative slice of my Steam library as it appears on GeForce Now.
Which is too bad, because, I am not sure there has ever been a worse time to build a PC. Tons of parts are backordered, the best CPUs are a nightmare to get, and hoarders are making a killing tacking 30 percent (or far, far more) to the sticker price. I'm going to be without a desktop PC for a while, and the one thing my work MacBook and my personal laptop can't really do worth a damn is play games. Not even the low-requirement strategy and wargames that I like to play, because integrated graphics are a lie we've been told for 20 years and still don't work well for most games.
This was GeForce Now's moment, and in fairness to Nvidia, the platform has risen to the occasion. Even on an internet connection where my partner is in all-day video meetings and the contents of my hard drives are slowly uploading to the cloud, I can play just about anything I want at a shockingly high level of quality. I'm not sure it ever passes the "you can't even tell" test, but the stream becomes completely unobtrusive to the point that I at least forget that I'm playing on a server and not on my own PC.
The problem is that GeForce Now is a shadow of what it was, and it seems like that primarily because the people who made all those games I have purchased over the years kicked up a fuss at the idea of people who bought them being able to play them on GeForce Now. That option I had last winter to launch my Steam account on a remote machine? Gone. Mind you, that's still what's happening, but only with games from developers and publishers who specifically opted-in to the service. As you might imagine, that’s reduced the size of the library considerably.
Playing an RTS I own on Steam yesterday, I had to sign in to my Steam account on the remote machine like I did a year ago. The procedure is the exact same. The difference is that instead of having access to all 1,000 of my games, and the 300 or so good ones that I own (in the colloquial sense, not the true sense that every EULA tells you no longer exists), I now have access to about 150 of them.
I had hoped, when publishers and developers were initially expressing some misgivings about GeForce Now, that eventually they'd get used to the idea. I understood how weird it was that GeForce was featuring their games as being playable on the service without ever reaching out to them, but at a very basic level, GeForce Now wasn't earning subscription money by giving anyone's games away for free. It was letting people use a remote session to access their Steam library. Arguably, it allowed more people to become customers because it sidestepped the $500-1000 buy-in to play modern PC games.
Now, there were games that GeForce Now offered directly for streaming, and in those cases it’s absolutely fair and even crucial that developer and publishers be compensated for that. After all, GeForce Now is taking money for subscriptions. But just letting people access the game libraries full of things they’ve already bought is a different matter.
When Patrick covered this last year, he correctly identified the rent-seeking behavior at play here and the fact that many publishers have designs on offering their own streaming platforms. But those don't exist right now and frankly, a publisher exclusive streaming platform will never be that interesting a proposition because the convenience is the point. A solution existed to let people painlessly and near-flawlessly play single-player PC games if they're on the road or just don't have access to the latest and greatest gear, and while ISP's are certainly working hard to ruin this idea from their side of the equation, it's hard to see the harm in letting more people play more games. Theoretically another service, Shadow, is arriving in most regions of the United States this year and promises to do a lot of what GeForce Now did in its early days but, first, Shadow isn't available in a lot of regions right now (including mine) and, second, I'm not sanguine that some form of this same problem will not occur the moment Shadow enjoys a bit of popularity and attention.
GeForce Now is still pretty good: there are a lot of good games on there and they perform well, but the service's overall utility is a fraction of what it was when Steam library were fully integrated. By making the entire service exist "by permission", it feels like once again smaller developer and players alike lose-out, and we have yet another platform where deep cuts from the catalogue effectively don't exist. I somehow doubt that Nvidia is going to be chasing down the rights to Pike and Shot or Xenonauts any time soon. It's cool that I can play Panzer Corps 2 but I was really hankering for some Unity of Command 2 and Airborne Kingdom.
Of course, Nvidia is at pains to emphasize that there’s nothing stopping developers from painlessly letting their games run on the service. In response to a request for comment, the company said, “Last year, we completed an easy opt-in process for publishers. We had a great response with over 200 publishers opting in and more than 800 games now available. We continue to on-board around 10 games/week with a backlog of games waiting to join.”
It also added that, long-term, the hope is to bring back some of that now-missing functionality for just running Steam through an Nvidia cloud computer. “That’s our intent. We identified an issue in December with these sessions and we're working to resolve it and improve the experience. In the meantime, the best experience continues be launching games directly from the GeForce NOW app. There you’ll find more than 800 supported games with an experience that’s been optimized for the cloud.”
I admit in the scheme of things right now, this is a minor complaint. But it's also emblematic of the broader experience of tech right now: progress is slowed or partially reversed because every oligopolist stakeholder is either holding out for their own proprietary platform—complete with an underwhelming subscription offering—or wants a cut. And this is happening to a platform supported by one of the biggest technology companies in the world. The end result is that a service that felt near-miraculous is a bit more humdrum, and a lot of older or more niche games are left out just because nobody will think to enroll them. That might keep the peace between GeForce Now and bigger publishers, but as is often the case, it’s a loss for most games and the people who play them.