This weekend, we’re celebrating the PS5’s second anniversary. Sony has a lot to be proud of, as the console has done some tremendous things in the last two years. From top-notch exclusives, such as Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and God of War Ragnarök, to fine control over resolution options, the big white box has come a long way since 2020.
Why is it, then, that cloud gaming on PS5 is still such a pain?
While cloud gaming may seem somewhat superfluous if you already own a PS5, it’s still a sore point for PlayStation owners. If you buy a PS5 game, you can play it on the PS5, and that’s about it. If you subscribe to the most expensive PlayStation Plus tier, you can stream PS3 games to your console or your PC. You can’t stream anything to smartphones, and syncing save files is a tremendous pain, when it works at all.
These shortcomings are especially odd, considering that Xbox Cloud Gaming started addressing these problems almost two years ago, and has now solved them almost completely. Say what you will about the relative merits of the PS5 vs. Xbox Series X, but only one platform is giving cloud gaming the kind of attention it needs right now.
A botched head start
Before we discuss how Sony could improve its offerings, we should take a brief look at how the PlayStation and Xbox ecosystems currently handle cloud gaming.
To stream PlayStation games, you need a PlayStation Plus Premium subscription, which costs between $10 and $18 per month, depending on how many months you buy at a time. You can stream a few hundred PS3 and PS4 games to a PS4, PS5 or PC. There are no PS5 games available to stream, and first-party Sony games usually come to PS Plus months or years later. There are no mobile apps, and the PC app requires dedicated software. To sync save files, you have to manually upload and download them between platforms, and you can’t sync save files with the PS5 version of a game. Streaming performance on PS4 and PS5 is pretty good, depending on your connection, but the PC app doesn’t work well.
Compare and contrast to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which costs $15 per month, regardless of how many months you buy. You can stream a few hundred Xbox games to an Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, gaming PC or Android device with dedicated apps. You can also stream titles to iOS devices or non-gaming PCs via Web browser. Streaming performance varies by platform — the dedicated apps work better than the Web applications, for example — but Xbox has improved the experience considerably since it debuted in early 2021. Your save files sync automatically across every platform.
I don’t want to undersell the PS Plus streaming experience. There are a ton of good games to play, and they work well enough on a console. But the Xbox Cloud Gaming experience is significantly better, which is odd, considering that PlayStation could have nailed this technology back in 2014.
For those who aren’t aware, the current iteration of PlayStation Plus is based on PlayStation Now: a streaming service that delivered PS3 games to the PS4. To oversimplify a complicated issue, the PS3 and PS4 had radically different programming architectures, which meant that there was no good way to make the PS4 backwards compatible with PS3 games. Instead, Sony developed a way to stream PS3 games — and in so doing, inadvertently created cloud gaming as we know it today.
Back in 2014, the future of PlayStation Now looked bright. With hundreds of games available, the service had dedicated apps on the PS3, PS4 and PS Vita, as well as tablets, smartphones and even smart TVs. Even Samsung was eager to incorporate the PS Now app into its televisions, which speaks volumes when you consider that the two companies are major competitors in the hardware space.
But over the years, Sony’s priorities shifted. The PS Now app disappeared from platform after platform, until it remained on only the PS4 and PC. Sony essentially stopped promoting its streaming service, and didn’t even update the website on a timely basis.
When Sony relaunched PlayStation Plus and incorporated the PS Now library, the company could have put its streaming technology front and center again. Instead, the PS Plus revamp is now four months old, and it’s essentially no different today than it was at launch. Sony has no roadmap for any additional cloud gaming features.
What the PS5 can learn from Xbox Cloud Gaming
At this moment, Xbox offers a much more robust cloud gaming service, and to claim otherwise would require some truly contorted leaps of logic.
Rather than using this shortcoming as ammunition in the ultimately pointless console war, however, there’s a better option. Sony has a huge opportunity to improve its cloud gaming bona fides — and thanks to Microsoft, it has a detailed road map to follow.
First and foremost, Sony should improve the PlayStation Plus PC app. We need a search bar; we need wireless DualSense functionality; we need faster ways to browse categories. Before Sony starts adding more cloud gaming features, it should perfect the ones already in place.
Next, we need mobile apps and/or Web browser streaming. One way or another, gamers should be able to stream titles to their Android or iOS devices directly from the cloud, rather than having to use the roundabout Remote Play feature. Playing games on mobile platforms isn’t an ideal experience, but platforms like Xbox Game Pass and Nvidia GeForce Now have made it standard practice over the past few years, and Sony should offer the same.
Finally, Sony must simplify its save syncing process. Whether you play a game on PS4, PS5 or via the cloud, you should be able to pick up where you left off on any platform. At present, many PS4 and PS5 save files are not cross-compatible, but Microsoft has demonstrated that cross-gen save syncing is not impossible; your saves work just fine, whether you use an Xbox One or Xbox Series X/S console. Coincidentally, improving save syncing on PlayStation platforms would also obviate a lot of the headaches associated with transferring save files to next-gen versions of older games.
After that, cloud gaming is still ripe for plenty of improvements — and Sony could lead the way on these. We would love a way to stream games at 4K, with richer audio and HDR colors. We would love to see games from deeper in gaming’s back catalog. We would love to sync save files across Xbox, PlayStation, Switch and PC platforms. All of these things are happening on a small scale today, and the first gaming company to make them widespread would earn a lot of accolades — and potentially a lot of money.
The PS5 has accomplished a lot in its first two years on the market, but gaming is no longer just about standalone consoles. Sony has the potential to develop a more comprehensive ecosystem, and the sooner it does, the happier gamers will be.
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.