Demo of the Microsoft's Project xCloud streaming platfrom

Update, May 24, 2019 (7:41 PM ET):  Microsoft revealed some more Project XCloud details in a new Xbox blog post. We have added that info in the hub below.


Original Article, February 1, 2019 (03:51 PM ET): The idea of being able to stream console and PC-quality games to any mobile device or platform has been mostly just a dream for awhile now. However, Microsoft recently announced it was trying to make turn that dream into reality with a new service called Project XCloud. In summary, it is supposed to be able to stream any game released for the Microsoft Xbox One console to smartphones and tablets, so owners can play them almost anywhere.

This is certainly ambitious, but if any company can accomplish this task, it’s Microsoft. Let’s take a look at everything we know currently about Project XCloud, compare it to other current and upcoming game streaming services, and see if Microsoft can pull off the dream of gaming anywhere at any time.

Editor’s Note: We will update this article on a regular basis when more information is revealed about Project xCloud.

What is Project xCloud?

Project xCloud is the current name (likely a placeholder) for Microsoft’s game streaming service. The company briefly announced plans to offer such a service in June 2018 as part of its press event at the E3 video game trade show. We know the company has been working on technology to stream games from cloud servers to smartphones and other devices for years. In September 2013, The Verge reported Microsoft showed off a demo at an internal meeting featuring the Xbox 360-exclusive game Halo 4 streaming from the cloud to both a Windows Phone-based Nokia Lumia smartphone and a Windows PC.

In October 2018, Microsoft revealed more information on its game streaming service, along with the Project xCloud code name. The announcement was accompanied by a video showing what Microsoft said was footage of live game streaming from this service. We saw players with Samsung smartphones and tablets playing popular games like Forza Horizon 4, Gears of War 4, Halo 5, and Cuphead with both Xbox One game controllers and, in the case of the tablets, actual direct control on touchscreens.

In both its blog post and the video, Microsoft said Project xCloud would leverage the features of the company’s Azure cloud computing hardware and software, which is available in 54 locations all over the world. The company said it is already testing Project xCloud from an Azure cloud server located in Washington. Microsoft says it has created a special cloud server blade to hold the hardware of several Xbox One consoles. Each of these Project xCloud blades can be placed in Azure data centers around the world. Microsoft says when the service officially goes live, it should offer gamers a great streaming experience everywhere.

As we stated, the video showed gamers controlling the streaming games on smartphones via the Xbox One game controller, connected by wireless Bluetooth tech. However, Microsoft says it has also developed a “touch input overlay” to play Xbox One games direction on a smartphone or tablet’s touchscreen, without the need for a controller.

During the Inside Xbox episode on March 12, 2019, Kareem Choudhry, head of gaming cloud at Microsoft, gave us another sneak peek into Project xCloud. Live on stage, the exec brought out an Android phone connected to an Xbox One controller and Inside Xbox host Julia Hardy used it to play Forza Horizon 4. The game looked fluid and crisp — although there’s no telling what kind of behind-the-scenes trickery may have been employed to ensure a smooth demo.

Microsoft says it has been testing Project xCloud internally, and more recently allowed employees at the company to test it in their own homes. It has recorded download speeds of 10Mbps. It claims the service will not only work on current 4G cellular networks when it goes live, but also the upcoming 5G networks scheduled to go live in 2019. The company added it knows it will need to address a number of issues for this service to work well, like solving issues with latency, graphical quality in games and playable framerates for those titles. So far, Microsoft has not yet offered any specifics on how they plan to deal with these issues.

Microsoft XCloud Blades

In May, Microsoft announced it had put in its custom Project xCloud blades to datacenters across 13 of its Azure regions in North America, Asia and Europe. It also announced that major game publishers like  Capcom and Paradox Interactive are already using those Project XCloud servers to test their games without having to port them to other platforms. More datacenters will house those server blades in the near future

Microsoft claims when Project xCloud launches, it will support streaming of every single Xbox One game that’s been published, or any other Xbox or Xbox 360 game that can be played on the Xbox One console. That’s a total of over  3,500 games. Over 1,900 games are currently in development for the Xbox One console, and all of them can be played via Project XCloud. Developers will be able to let gamers access their Xbox One games via Project xCloud with no additional work on their end.

In addition, Microsoft has added support for streaming games to its main Xbox Developer Kit (XDK). That includes the company’s new “IsStreaming” API which allows any Xbox One game to know if it’s streaming from the cloud. Those games can then automatically make changes to make them better for gamers who use the streaming platform, including making changes to the UI for smaller smartphone screens.

When will Project xCloud launch and what will it cost?

Microsoft has confirmed it will begin public trials of Project xCloud sometime in 2019. It has not yet stated where in the world the trials will take place. It did say the trials will test the service with “different volumes and locations.” Microsoft has not announced if it will charge any money for accessing the public trials. It has also not announced a target date for the launch of the full service. The company is expected to reveal more information at its E3 press event in mid-June 2019.

What smartphones and tablets will work with Project xCloud?

Photo of a smartphone on a game controller held by a woman - Microsoft's Project xCloud Microsoft

While Microsoft has not announced any official Project xCloud support for specific platforms and devices, the demo video showed the service on Samsung-based phones and tablets. It’s a safe bet Microsoft will launch Project XCloud for Samsung and other Android-based mobile devices. However, support for Apple’s iPhone and iPad products might be a bit more difficult.

Earlier this year, Valve launched its Steam Link app for Android, which allows people who have a PC and a Steam account to stream games locally in their own home to a mobile phone or tablet. However, when Valve tried to launch the same Steam Link app for iOS, it was blocked from the iOS Appstore by Apple, for apparently violating the store’s guidelines. So far, Valve’s Steam Link app has yet to appear on iOS, and if it stays off that app store, it’s likely any Project XCloud app from Microsoft would also be banned by Apple.

Are there any current and future competitors to Project xCloud?

Nvidia Shield with a controller -Microsoft's Project xCloud competitor.

The concept of a game streaming service, similar to how Netflix and Hulu stream videos and Spotify streams music, is nothing new but, it’s proven very hard to launch.  The closest we have come to something similar to Microsoft’s plans for Project xCloud has come from Nvidia. Its GeForce Now service allows owners of its Android-based Shield tablets (original and K1), the Shield Portable console and its Shield TV set-top boxes to purchase and stream a selection of high-quality PC games to those devices. Nvidia has since expanded the scope of GeForce Now to include support for people who own games via Steam to stream their selections to Shield TV boxes, along with beta testing for Windows and Mac computers. So far, Nvidia has not revealed how many people have signed up to use GeForce Now in any of its incarnations.

In addition to Nvidia’s efforts, Sony offers its PlayStation Now service. Launched in 2014, the service now has more than 650 PS2, PS3 and PS4 games to stream for a monthly fee. However, Sony cut support for PlayStation Now for a number of previously included devices, including smart TVs and the PlayStation Vita portable in 2017. It now works just on PlayStation 4 consoles and Windows PCs. Like NVIDIA, Sony has chosen not to announce just how many gamers have used PlayStation Now in the past four years.

A screenshot from Google's Project Stream service, a Microsoft's Project xCloud competitor. Google

In October, Google joined the game streaming trend with the rather bland sounding “Project Stream” code name. It launched an invite-only beta allowing members of the public to stream and play the full version of Ubisoft’s action-adventure game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on laptops, desktop PCs, and Chromebooks with the Chrome browser, if they have an internet connection 25 Mbps or faster. That test ended in January 2019. In March, Google revealed more information on its streaming game plans, including its new name: Google Stadia. The company will also release its own game controller for Stadia. Even more info, including its actual launch date, its price and its game launch titles, are expected to be revealed later this summer.

EA concept of streaming platform - Microsoft's Project xCloud competitor. Electronic Arts

Finally, game publisher Electronic Arts revealed in June at the E3 trade show it was working on its own game streaming service, even showing live demos of it running on smartphones. EA had previously announced it had acquired the cloud gaming technology assets and personnel of the GameFly service for an undisclosed amount. Since E3, EA has been silent about its plans for its own game streaming service.

Conclusion

Microsoft logo at the announcement of Project xCloud

Microsoft’s Project xCloud announcement could be the biggest hope yet for game streaming technology. Microsoft certainly has both game experience with their Xbox division and a ton of cloud server technology development to help in their plans to successful launch Project xCloud. However, we have seen promising game-oriented technology at Microsoft crash and burn before (we are looking at you, Kinect). It remains to be seen if Project xCloud will be a true revolution for the portable and mobile game industry, or just another streaming service that fails to live up to its potential.

What are your impressions of Microsoft’s Project xCloud at this point? Do you think the company will be successful in bringing game streaming to the masses or are there too many technically hurdles to overcome at this point? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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