In September 2020, in a move we probably should have seen coming, Amazon debuted its new game-streaming platform Luna. Amazon Luna has positioned itself to compete directly with Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud, sticking to the "play anywhere" mantra. Luna is currently in closed beta, but after receiving an invite this week, I was able to spend some hands-on time with it. Having spent a few hours with Google Stadia and finding it lacking, I was glad to see a direct competitor enter the ring. So, what's up with Amazon Luna?
Getting Started With Amazon Luna
I have not yet gotten my hands on the proprietary Luna controller, but luckily most controllers work just fine (the Switch Pro controller is the only notable absence). During my play testing, I alternated between my Xbox One controller and mouse & keyboard. There are a variety of devices that can stream Luna at the moment, including Windows PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads, and Amazon Fire TVs.
If you're scratching your head about the iPhone and remembering that Apple refused to allow xCloud or Stadia apps on their App Store, don't worry; Luna found a way around that by configuring games to stream through the Safari browser on the phone. At this time, Luna is the only game streaming service on Apple devices—aside from Apple's own Apple Arcade, of course.
The first question with game streaming is always the same: Does it lag? Amazon's recommended minimum speed is 10 Mbps down, but other testers have pointed out that 25 Mbps down seems to be the true minimum speed required. I tested Luna through the Windows 10 App on both my gaming PC and a low-end laptop, and through the Chrome browser on another low-end computer in two locations.
With all these ways to play I knew I needed a single control variable, and I chuckled to myself quietly as I selected to play Remedy Games' 2019 action shooter Control. Control has earned some ire for not running properly on last-generation consoles, so it seems like a natural pick that someone might utilize cloud gaming to play. It recently launched a cloud version on Nintendo Switch, as well.
Slightly Underwhelming Performance
My internet at home measured in at about 75 Mbps down/65 Mbps up wired and 64 Mbps down/60 Mbps up on WiFi. My internet at the second location measured 95 Mbps down/95 Mbps up. Both of these locations, whether over WiFi or wired connections, delivered the exact same performance through the Windows app.
Control ran at a consistent 1080p 60 fps with only a few stutters here and there, but they all seemed sporadic; rendering many enemies on screen didn't seem to be the cause. Right now, Luna is limited to 1080p streaming, but it will offer 4K streaming at launch. It's also worth noting that the cloud version of Control has the same interface as the console versions, in so far as that typical PC settings are locked away.
Booting up Control was quick enough—it took only about 10 seconds for the opening credit splash screens to begin appearing. Load screens sat anywhere from 3-10 seconds, which, if you've played Control on a PS4, is a miracle. When testing through Chrome on desktop, however, loading screens were about twice as long and startup took about 30 seconds. I have not been able to figure out why. On both browser and desktop app, I noticed that once loading into the playable part of the game, Control stuttered crazily for about 20 seconds before settling at a smooth 60 fps.
Luna's control latency with my Xbox controller was definitely noticeable since I was looking for it, but not enough to render the service unusable by any means. In the tech department, Google Stadia wins out; I have experienced zero control lag through that service. As it currently is, gamers using Luna to play a cross-platform multiplayer game might be at a slight disadvantage, but keep in mind the service is still in beta.
Amazon claims that the Luna controller's ability to communicate directly with the Amazon servers reduces latency by 17 to 30 milliseconds, which, if true, would make Luna feel just as responsive as a traditional console. Mouse and keyboard felt significantly worse, to the point that I would not recommend using it with Luna at all in its current state. Mouse inputs in particular took much too long to register.
An Intriguing Interface and Business Model
Amazon is known for having some pretty ugly UI design in their apps, but Luna is organized well and is easy to peruse both on desktop and browser. I enjoyed the Netflix-style sorting and categorization; if I was someone not overly familiar with video games (i.e. the exact kind of person this service is for), the UI would make finding the next game to play simple. It's a very simple scroll and select situation, and ignores the weird bloat and badges that apps like Prime Video are full to the brim with. The idea of using "channels" for specific publishers is interesting to me—I could see myself paying a one-month subscription to blast through a AAA game I might have missed.
Amazon Luna costs $6.99 a month to subscribe with a single tier. There is no free version as with Stadia. However, those $7 get you access to a library that is currently over 50 games strong, with the guarantee that many more will be available at the 1.0 launch. Glancing through the selection, I'd say about half of them are worth playing. Luna is the closest we have come yet to "Netflix for games" I believe, in both positive and negative terms. At $15 a month, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate has a far better and larger game selection, but at the cost of two cups of coffee a month, Luna presents a pretty appealing deal.
For an additional $15, you can choose to purchase the Ubisoft+ pass, which gives you access to 14 Ubisoft games, including Assassin's Creed Valhalla Ultimate Edition. More optional publisher channels are promised for the future. It's also worth noting that the Ubi+ channel for Luna costs the same as Ubisoft Connect+, the French publisher's proprietary equivalent service on PC. The Ubi + Luna channel is not packed in with Ubisoft Connect+, though it does have cross-save and cross-play functionality.
One conclusion I have come to is that if you are currently reading this article (i.e. you are someone who cares enough about video games to peruse articles about first impressions with cloud-gaming services), this service is not likely tailored for you. It's likely that you own a console or gaming PC and would rather own, not rent your software when possible. Perhaps the "play anywhere" feature doesn't appeal to you because you'd be sitting on your couch playing on your Amazon Fire TV just as if you were using a traditional console. I think it's understandable if you are not excited about cloud gaming, or even Amazon Luna in particular. However, I see some real promise with Luna's business model to make gaming even more accessible to casual consumers. Casual players don't care about owning games, for the most part; they are, like TV shows on Netflix, something to consume and then move on a few hours later.
Luna is made for a college student without the money to front for a console, or someone who played Animal Crossing on a new Switch Lite as their first-ever video game this year. Luna is for a parent who wants to get into gaming to connect with their kids, or someone whose job has them constantly traveling. Amazon Luna works well for a project still in beta testing, and for my money outdoes Stadia in its business model and xCloud in its performance.
I hope another tier is added that utilizes Amazon's other service, Twitch; a bundle for Twitch Prime and Luna at $9.99 a month would sell like hotcakes. Grouping it into the Amazon Prime membership for an extra $2-3 a month would also be a great avenue to explore. I am more hopeful about Luna after this preview than I was before it, and I hope with a full-time competitor in the market, Google will be forced to adapt and improve. I am eager to see what Luna has to offer once it launches into 1.0.