Amazon Luna is a stunning example of why data caps suck

I’ll sing for you if you want me to

A few years ago, Amazon seemed like it was taking the correct steps to establish itself as a player in the video game industry. In 2014, it purchased Double Helix Studios, which was then riding high on the successful rebirth of the Killer Instinct franchise. In 2016, it announced a trio of ambitious multiplayer titles: Breakaway, Crucible, and New World. It was Amazon getting its foot in the door in a big way.

But things just haven’t panned out. Breakaway never made it out of alpha, and Crucible crashed and burned in less than six months. New World is still on its way and is slated to launch later this year. But if that goes the way the dodo as the other Amazon Game Studios titles have, the world’s biggest retailer may already have its back-up plan ready to go: Amazon Luna.

The streaming service launched in Early Access last October by invitation only. Last week, I received my invitation and spent several days seeing what the service is all about during my week-long free trial.

Before I get into my experience with Luna, let me tell you what I’m working with. I tested the service on my 2020 Mac Mini. I have fiber internet from a local internet service provider that gives me a rock-solid 30 Mbps down/10 Mbps up with a data cap of 450GB per month. Amazon suggests having at least 10 Mbps to use the service and, for reference, the average internet speed in the US is 50 Mbps.

I tested it out using the downloadable Luna app and Google Chrome with my computer hooked directly to my router. I wanted to see how well Amazon Luna could perform with my best possible setup, and I have to say, it did not disappoint.

Over the past four days, I dove in and out of several games on the service. This includes Control, Sonic Mania, Grid, AO Tennis, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Layer, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late [cl-r], and Rez Infinite. Through all of those games, the only instance of slowdown I experienced happened during a gun battle in Control. And it was brief. Maybe four or five seconds of video stuttering. I know this is in Early Access, and when it actually releases to the public at large, more players might mean a less reliable experience. But I can say right now when Luna is at its best, it’s spectacular.

Not only were slowdown and stuttering not a real concern during this trial period, but I didn’t have to worry about control latency either. Even in Under Night, the only fighting game on Luna at the moment, it never felt like there was a delay in my actions. All of my attacks and combos hit just like if I were playing any of the fighting games I have on my Xbox Series S. To be clear, I was only playing against AI as it does not have online multiplayer, but it was still impressive.

Amazon Luna

What’s not that impressive, at least not at the moment, is Luna’s library. Something like Control is a big draw, but many of the 67 titles that currently make up the Luna+ Channel are smaller, older games like Abzu, The Sexy Brutale, and Tacoma. There are more recent titles on the Ubisoft+ Channel, including Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Immortals: Fenyx Rising, but that’ll cost you extra.

For this Early Access period, the Luna+ Channel costs $5.99 a month for a subscription while the Ubisoft+ Channel costs $14.99 a month. Additionally, you can purchase the official Amazon Luna controller for $49.99 if you’re invited to Early Access. The Luna controller will purportedly provide an even lower latency for the controls as it connects directly to Amazon’s servers. As I did not want to buy the gamepad myself, I used my Xbox One controller — PS4 controllers are also supported — and, as I said above, found no noticeable issue with control latency.

As reliable as the service is, the dream of an all-streaming future can turn into a nightmare when you consider the realities of the world we live in. Namely, millions of people are subject to data caps by their ISP, and Amazon Luna is an absolute vampire of data. Perusing the service’s settings, I found the Audio and Visual Quality page which lists the different options subscribers will have once the full service launches. 4K and limited video preferences are in the works, but currently, there is just one option available: standard HD.

According to Luna, the standard option might use up to 10GB per hour. To put that into perspective, playing through Control could eat up approximately 110GB of data going by HowLongToBeat.com’s estimation of an 11.5-hour runtime. 110GB would be nearly 1/4 of my monthly data cap, and that’s for a relatively short game. The title itself is 80GB if I were to download it directly to one of my consoles.

Control

But what if you want to play something longer, like a JRPG? The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is also available on Luna. That is a roughly 62-hour game. If your ISP caps your data at one terabyte, it has the potential of using more than half of your monthly limit. Compare that to the PS4 file size, which is about 40GB, or the Switch version, which is 7GB.

Now, I should say, the limited video option I mentioned above will cap data usage at 5GB an hour. Looking at xCloud and Stadia details, that will probably result in video quality of 720p versus the 1080p I’m currently seeing with the standard option. That might make this a more attractive choice for some of these shorter games, but honestly, it’s hard to name something currently on the service other than Control that would benefit from this. Metro Exodus is a 15-hour game. At 5GB an hour, that could be 75GB vs. a 52GB download size. Resident Evil VII is 20GB to download or approximately 45GB to stream at sub-1080p video quality.

As much as I like this technology, and as well as it works, this kind of data usage makes it a non-starter. If you live in an area where the data is cheap and plentiful, Amazon Luna and the other streaming options might not be a bad alternative to having all your television’s HDMI ports taken up by consoles. But so long as data caps and throttling exists, it just doesn’t make sense to give up the tried-and-true download or disc options for streaming. 

CJ Andriessen
Just what the internet needs: yet another white guy writing about video games.