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Resident Evil Village on iOS makes cases both for and against cloud streaming | Opinion

Capcom's impressive port shows once again that cloud streaming isn't required for high-end mobile gaming – but it might be the only path to commercial success

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We don't generally think of mobile games as being graphical powerhouses, but over the years there have been quite a few games which managed high-end visuals on mobile hardware – from early showcases like Infinity Blade through to the enormous open world of Genshin Impact, there have always been games that pushed the envelope of what mobile hardware could do.

Even so, it's hard not to feel both surprised and impressed by what Capcom's developers have accomplished with Resident Evil Village on iOS. First shown off on stage at Apple's September launch event for the iPhone 15, the game offers graphical fidelity that's pretty much indistinguishable, at least to the layman's eye, from the experience of playing on a PlayStation 5. This is not, as far as we know, a game that was designed with mobile in mind, as opposed to the aforementioned Genshin Impact – it's a full-bore AAA console title, running with no noticeable compromises on a smartphone. Hook it up to a controller, and it's very easy to forget that you're not playing this on dedicated gaming hardware.

Of course, if we take a step back for a moment, it's worth noting that the iPhone 15 Pro and the current iPad Pros which run RE Village most effectively are brand new hardware priced at well over $1,000, while the PS5 it was originally created to run on is three years old and costs $500. This isn't an apples-to-apples comparison (no pun intended) – smartphones and tablets also have things like screens, batteries, 5G radios, and cameras, and can't take the console hardware approach of slapping a gigantic heatsink and fan on the chips to keep them cool – but still, it shouldn't entirely come as a surprise that an expensive high-end device launched a few weeks ago can match the performance of a cheaper device from three years back.

Even if what RE Village accomplishes is logical in that regard, it's still hugely impressive – and it stands as a dramatic proof of concept regarding the capabilities of modern smartphone hardware. The iPhone 15 Pro – millions of which will be sold this year – can match the graphical fidelity of a PS5. Right now, that's the top end of the market; give it a year or two, and that performance will filter down to mid-range phones, while the new high-end devices in a couple of years will probably be capable of quite comfortably beating console graphical performance in many situations.

It's hard not to feel both surprised and impressed by what Capcom has accomplished with Resident Evil Village on iOS

This, to me, once again raises a significant question – not so much about mobile gaming, as about the technical justification for the existence of cloud streaming. Alan Wen's interview with the producers of RE Village on iOS noted that there's been an assumption floating around for some time that delivering high-end gaming experiences on devices like smartphones would need to be accomplished using cloud streaming. He's entirely correct; this has been one of the core scenarios presented as a reason for cloud streaming services to exist.

By streaming over fast broadband networks, all those devices in consumers' pockets that don't have much CPU and GPU power would suddenly be able to play games far beyond their own capabilities. This would open up whole new audiences whose devices aren't capable of playing games on their own, as well as freeing existing audiences from the need to keep upgrading their hardware to keep up with the cutting edge; the cloud servers running the game would be upgraded instead, boosting the performance and fidelity for the end user even though their personal device had never changed.

As a technical and economic basis for claiming cloud streaming as the inevitable future of the industry, this notion is very unsound, to say the least. Cloud streaming is essentially a "thin client" model, where all the processing is done on the server so the client can be a cheap, underpowered piece of hardware – but its proponents seemingly ignore the reason why the world moved away from the thin client model of computing in the first place.

Processing and storage, the things that had been handed off to giant "mainframes" back in the day (and would be handed off to datacentres under the cloud gaming model), started out expensive but became really cheap, really fast. Network speeds improved too, of course, but ultimately the experience of running programs (of any kind) on relatively low-cost hardware in front of you has, since those very early days, always outstripped the experience of running code on a remote system, streaming your input off to the server and streaming the results back to your screen.

Further undermining this argument is the fact that we live in an era where console generations are only getting longer – eight years is pretty much standard now, making even a pricey $500 console seem like a pretty decent investment, and casting significant doubt on the idea that a cloud service will be an attractive economic alternative for many people. The pace of hardware updates is slowing for good reason; there's a very clear diminishing returns effect setting in with graphical prowess, and even with the longer console cycles, the leaps from generation to generation are less prominent and noticeable with each successive shift. PC GPUs are more regularly updated, but here too, diminishing returns have kicked in; new hardware is less and less differentiated from prior generations of hardware in terms of its actual impact on the quality of game visuals.

You can understand why Capcom is charging $40+ for Resident Evil Village on iOS, but that doesn't change the fact more mobile users won't pay that

Now, perhaps most importantly of all, we have clear proof that modern phones and tablets are built with chipsets that are more and more capable of running high quality games. The idea that these devices are only suited to being thin clients, incapable of running high-end games on their own silicon, is clearly baseless. Moreover, those phones and tablets are ubiquitous consumer devices which people buy and use regardless of their gaming capabilities. Whereas you might have some shred of an economic argument for switching to cloud streaming instead of buying a dedicated console, you won't save consumers a penny by offering cloud streaming on their mobile devices; you simply charge them again and force them to under-utilise the hardware they have already bought and paid for.

Indeed, if you were to forego the iOS version and play RE Village over a streaming service on your iPhone instead, even on a great quality network – and even setting aside your qualms about what it's doing to your precious monthly data allowance – you would not only be leaving your expensively purchased device's abilities unused, in favour of paying a streaming service to use their GPUs instead, you'd also be getting a comparatively sub-standard experience.

At their best, streaming services still need to compress video and handle some degree of lag. Network speeds will continue to improve, of course, gradually alleviating some of those issues – they just probably won't improve as quickly as mobile processing power will, not least since it's unlikely that any network or government has much willpower left in the tank for another major infrastructure upgrade while the somewhat damp squib of 5G is still fresh in everyone's memory.

In reality, though, the push for cloud gaming has never really been about the technological benefits – which are minimal and highly questionable at best. Rather, the drive to move to cloud streaming is about the business model it would support, and RE Village, unfortunately, is probably going to be a clear example of that side of things too. The game is free to download initially, but it costs $40 to unlock it once you finish a demo section, and another $20 to unlock a DLC chapter. That pricing is par for the course for console games – but even though the mobile version is, in its essence, exactly the same game, the simple act of moving the game onto a smartphone makes those prices look unsustainable.

Resident Evil Village on iOS is a technical marvel – but how it performs commercially will likely make a case for cloud streamed subscription services nonetheless

You can understand why Capcom thinks an iPhone user should pay the same amount for the same product as a PlayStation user – but being logically (and perhaps morally) correct doesn't change the fact that most smartphone users simply won't pay that amount. More than a decade of various F2P models being the default on mobile platforms has effectively poisoned the well for premium games, especially those that try to charge AAA level prices.

It's here that cloud streaming starts to make sense – not for technical reasons, but because the question isn't "what will run on these devices" but rather, "what will people pay for on these devices". It's been clear for some time that most people won't pay for premium games on these platforms, while a variety of F2P approaches work very well indeed. If there's a middle way, a way for premium games to somehow find a paying audience on devices such as phones and tablets, then the Game Pass style subscription to a game library is probably the best bet.

This is what Apple has pushed for with Apple Arcade, it's the core idea behind Microsoft's Game Pass, and it's probably on the long-term forecast for Sony too, given its PS Plus tiers system and recent commitment to PC versions of its first-party games. This is a model that makes a lot more sense for cloud streaming technology, since the issues of storage space and download time come to the fore when consumers are engaging with games in this way. Nobody paying $40 for a game minds taking a while to download the files to play it; but if you just want to try out a few things from your subscription library, having to download multiple gigabytes for each one you dip your toe into is going to be a near-impossible barrier to entry.

The convenience touted for game streaming – press the button and the game starts almost instantly, in theory – is a marginal advantage when someone is buying a game that takes a while to download but that they'll play for hours or even days in total, but a huge advantage when you're instead talking about a library that people will browse and choose from at will.

There are other reasons why cloud streaming is such a beloved solution of publishers – piracy is a big one, of course – but at its heart, it's a solution intricately tied to the idea of subscription services. In fact, that's the only context in which this technology really makes any commercial sense. Resident Evil Village on iOS is a technical marvel which demonstrates yet again that the thin client concept is wasteful and redundant – but how it performs commercially will likely make a case for cloud streamed subscription services nonetheless.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.