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Hands-on with Amazon’s Luna game streaming service

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Amazon’s Luna streaming service has arrived, with the company rolling out early access to a limited set of customers today. It’s starting with a library of 50 games and support for Mac, PC, Fire TV, and, in a first for a major streaming service, iOS devices — because Amazon has a web app that circumvents Apple’s controversial App Store rules. Luna starts at $5.99 a month.

We’ve spent a couple of hours streaming games with Luna. Here’s what it’s like so far and how it compares to other streaming services out there like Microsoft xCloud and Google Stadia.

Luna’s iOS web app.

Performance

The biggest question for Luna — like any cloud gaming service — is performance. For cloud gaming to work well, companies like Amazon need to rapidly deliver compressed video frames that respond to your button presses even if internet bandwidth dips and even if your house isn’t located right next to an Amazon server farm. Amazon recommends a minimum connection speed of 10 Mbps for Luna, but your home’s internal network also matters. We tested Luna on a variety of devices in two different Verge editors’ homes across two different coasts with a variety of internet speeds and connection types.

So far, 10 Mbps doesn’t seem like nearly enough. We found that we needed a connection of at least 25 Mbps in order to have a consistently playable stream, with more bandwidth obviously being better. My colleague Sean Hollister limited his router to 10 Mbps, 15 Mbps, and 20 Mbps, but he’d still get stretches of choppy video.

The best performance (of course) came from a PC with a wired Ethernet connection and controller, with no other family members streaming video in the house. Playing Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on that solid of a connection was virtually indistinguishable from the game running natively. (Switching back and forth, you can tell it takes oh-so-slightly longer to swing a sword, but it felt perfectly playable.) Admittedly, there are few benefits to actually using Luna to stream the game on a capable PC.

On the other hand, Metro: Exodus, one of the most graphically intensive games available to stream, looked and played decidedly worse streamed to a web browser than it does on a capable gaming PC. Honestly, it doesn’t look great in either Luna or Stadia, but at least Stadia could keep up with a mouse and keyboard. Luna’s mouse was extremely laggy.

Metro: Exodus in a PC web browser at 1080p in a best-case scenario.”,”image_left”:{“ratio”:”*”,”original_url”:”https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/21975090/metro_exodus_luna_pc.jpg”,”network”:”verge”,”bgcolor”:”white”,”pinterest_enabled”:false,”caption”:null,”credit”:null,”focal_area”:{“top_left_x”:0,”top_left_y”:0,”bottom_right_x”:2564,”bottom_right_y”:1396},”bounds”:[0,0,2564,1396],”uploaded_size”:{“width”:2564,”height”:1396},”focal_point”:null,”asset_id”:21975090,”asset_credit”:null,”alt_text”:””},”image_right”:{“ratio”:”*”,”original_url”:”https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/21975091/stadia_metro_exodus_pc.jpg”,”network”:”verge”,”bgcolor”:”white”,”pinterest_enabled”:false,”caption”:null,”credit”:null,”focal_area”:{“top_left_x”:0,”top_left_y”:0,”bottom_right_x”:2568,”bottom_right_y”:1440},”bounds”:[0,0,2568,1440],”uploaded_size”:{“width”:2568,”height”:1440},”focal_point”:null,”asset_id”:21975091,”asset_credit”:null,”alt_text”:””},”credit”:null}”>

Left: Luna. Right: Stadia. This is Metro: Exodus in a PC web browser at 1080p in a best-case scenario.

Using wireless connections introduces a lot more variables into Luna’s performance. If you have a steady, strong Wi-Fi connection, Luna works pretty well, with little to no lag, smooth HD video, and responsive enough gameplay to enjoy even fast-paced platformers like Sonic Mania on an iPhone with a paired Bluetooth controller.

But when Luna has a bad connection, it’s rough. For some reason, Amazon doesn’t seem to degrade the quality of video streaming when connection speeds are bad; it just tries to power on through by dropping frames until speeds pick up. I also ran into issues where audio started to lag behind what was otherwise smooth gameplay, presumably due to a sluggish connection. Right now, it seems that Luna’s performance is almost entirely dependent on having good internet.

Luna works on iOS devices with a variety of Bluetooth controllers.

On my initial tests on my iPhone, games like Control were virtually unplayable since my Wi-Fi was running slower than usual. It wasn’t until a full network restart that speeds jumped up and allowed for a far more playable gameplay experience. I actually had better luck getting consistent performance over LTE than with my constantly shifting Wi-Fi (which has been bouncing between 30 Mbps and 120 Mbps).

Regardless of how well they play, these games load fast. One of the biggest issues with Microsoft’s xCloud right now is that every game is literally streaming from an old Xbox One S motherboard in a server rack, and many games can take a full minute to load. Stadia and Luna are running on powerful servers that don’t have that issue. Control loaded far faster than it does on a PS4, and Bloodstained popped up just as quickly as it does on our gaming PCs at home.

There are two key parts to Luna’s performance that we haven’t been able to test: 4K streaming, which is listed as “coming soon,” and the Amazon Luna Controller, which can directly connect to Amazon’s servers and promises to reduce latency “by 17 to 30 milliseconds” compared to a Bluetooth controller. Amazon only just opened sales for the Luna Controller to early access customers today, and it won’t ship for another 10 days.

iOS web app

Of particular note for Luna is the fact that it’s one of the first game streaming services to offer a functional iOS option, thanks to a souped-up web app. “Installing” Luna requires just opening it once in Safari and saving the Luna website to your iOS home screen (just like you would any Safari web app), after which it functionally behaves like any other iOS app.

How you’ll “install” the Luna web app to your iOS home screen.

While Amazon is almost certainly running into some technical limitations by not being able to produce a full-fledged native app, the Luna web app experience is good enough that if I didn’t already know it was a web app, I probably wouldn’t have guessed. So far, it just works — except perhaps for the times we had to toggle on and off our Bluetooth when the app forgot it was paired to our controllers.

Library

Amazon is launching its Luna Plus game channel — which costs $5.99 per month during early access — with 50 games, with the promise of more to start. Here’s the whole collection so far:

The 50 games current available in the Luna Plus channel.

There are some big titles there, including Control, Metro: Exodus, Grid, The Surge series, Sonic Mania, the SteamWorld games, and more. It’s not as impressive of a lineup as Microsoft’s xCloud library (which offers over 100 games), but it’s also still early for Amazon’s service. It’s theoretically easier for Luna to add games than for Stadia: Google requires developers to migrate to its Linux servers, while Amazon is using Windows boxes.

But although it’s playing Windows games, there doesn’t yet seem to be a way to bring your PC savegames along for the ride. That’s one of the biggest benefits of xCloud (which can sync with your Xbox library) and Nvidia’s GeForce Now, which can primarily sync with Steam and Epic.

Luna is also relying on you paying for “channels” of bundled games. Instead of an all-you-can-eat price (like Netflix or, more relevantly, xCloud) that gives you access to everything on the service, Luna works more like cable, where you’ll be able to bundle together groups of channels to get access to the games you want.

But like cable, you’ll have to work within those channel groups, at least for now. In early access, Luna only offers channels. So if you want to just play one Ubisoft game, for example, you’ll have to pay for the entire Ubisoft catalog when it appears on the service.

App functionality

The Luna apps (and web apps) are pretty bare-bones at this time. There’s a home menu for resuming games that you’ve already started, a library that lists all the games you have access to in your subscription, a “playlist” menu for saving your favorite games, a search bar, and a settings menu.

Selecting a game gives a hint at how Amazon might leverage Luna in the future, with a list of live Twitch streams of whatever game you’re looking at, but that’s the full extent of any integration with Twitch for now. Right now, there’s no way to directly stream a Luna game to Twitch, nor any option to integrate player’s existing Twitch game libraries into Luna.

Luna’s Twitch stream UI.

Lastly, Luna allows players to easily jump from one device to another but with a fairly large catch: you can only easily jump from, say, an iPhone to a PC if you’re still actively running the game on your phone. Once you’ve “quit” a game, there’s no quick-resume functionality; you’ll have to wait for the game to fully relaunch. Hopefully, you saved before you quit.

Additional testing by Sean Hollister.

Photography by Chaim Gartenberg / The Verge

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