The internet has been ablaze this week with talk of Google Stadia — the search giant’s big play for the future of gaming, powered by the cloud. But Stadia isn’t the only game in town, or at least it won’t be very soon.
By the end of 2020, the nascent cloud gaming market will have descended into all out warfare, with industry behemoths like Microsoft, Nvidia, and Sony all expected to duke it out for supremacy alongside the big G.
Of Stadia’s imminent rivals, Nvidia’s GeForce Now has been threatening to break through for years, but the finer details are still up in the air. Sony’s plans have taken a backseat to PS5 hype, but it won’t want to be left behind again after the lackluster PlayStation Now.
That leaves us with Project xCloud. Microsoft’s streaming service is currently in public preview, but after giving the test build a spin for a few weeks I’ve come away convinced that it’s in prime position to win the streaming wars.
xCloud first impressions
For those out of the loop, xCloud is Microsoft’s answer to the game streaming revolution. Instead of relying on a powerful PC or a games console, xCloud uses cloud computing servers to stream games directly to existing devices through an internet connection.
The xCloud preview kicked into gear in October, allowing the lucky few testers to try out streaming four games — Gears of War 5, Halo 5: Guardians, Killer Instinct, and Sea of Thieves — to Android phones and tablets. That list ballooned to a whopping 50 games in November.
Read more: What is cloud gaming?
I’ve been dipping in and out of the original xCloud quartet for a few weeks on a Google Pixel 4, Asus ROG Phone 2, and an ancient Sony Xperia Z4 tablet that is otherwise only used in my house as a dedicated “Peppa Pig on Netflix” machine for a small person.
It feels unfair to give a verdict on a service that’s still in preview, but I’ll say this: It works.
There are times where you can notice input lag and latency creeping in, but when close to a router (I’m on a 200Mbps connection with Google Nest Wifi routers, for context) you’d have no idea you weren’t slaughtering Covenant on an Xbox One or Windows PC.
The big caveat to that xCloud is currently only available on Android devices through the Xbox Game Streaming app, so unless you’ve got one of the very few good premium Android tablets, testers are currently stuck playing console games on ~6-inch phone screens. I technically got the ROG 2 working on a TV through Asus’ Switch-like dock, but that was more out of curiosity to see if it actually worked — the low resolution and increased input lag made it unplayable.
Microsoft has already confirmed that xCloud will come to PCs “next year,” and it seems likely that Android TV boxes and other streaming devices, iPhones, iPads, Macs, and other hardware will join the xCloud party. It was also announced that Sony’s DualShock 4 and other non-Xbox Bluetooth controllers will work with xCloud at launch.
As you might expect from a preview, xCloud is definitely a work in progress. The fact that I can play Devil May Cry 5 on an almost five-year-old tablet with no major hiccups is a great sign, but it’s too early to make any sweeping judgements regarding Microsoft’s tech just yet.
Like all cloud gaming solutions, the magic of hardware-less gaming is very real, but what really separates xCloud from the likes of Stadia, even at this early stage, is Microsoft itself.
The real Netflix of games?
After the Xbox One launch debacle, where the team unveiled (and eventually backtracked on) an ambitious, yet highly questionable plan to turn its eponymous box into an all-encompassing, always-online media monster, the company has been in rehabilitation mode.
Xbox head honcho Phil Spencer has done a stellar job restoring the Xbox brand as a gamer-centric brand with consumer-friendly policies and initiatives. Just look at the push for cross play with other platforms, Play Anywhere, the commitment to backwards compatibility, and the best of the lot, Game Pass. Oh boy, Game Pass.
Stadia has been roundly criticized for a whole bunch of different reasons, some fair (latency and the bungled launch messaging), some arguably less so (the launch games). The most common complaint, however, stems from what it isn’t.
Stadia is not the “Netflix of games.”
The problem is Google never claimed it was. Sure, the messaging could and should have been clearer, but Google crushed dreams of a subscription service with a packed library of games some time ago.
Enter Game Pass — the best thing to happen to console gaming (and recently PC gaming) for years.
There are several different Game Pass plans available, but the general idea is you pay a monthly fee (from $9.99) for access to over 100 games, with new titles added all the time. Even without the ridiculous deals that saw some users get access to the service for mere dollars, Game Pass is a killer deal that takes the Netflix model and applies it to games… and it’s going to work with xCloud.
The specifics are still a little vague. When pressed on whether game streaming with Game Pass would require an extra fee, a spokesperson told Venturebeat:
All we can say for now is: We want to offer choice in how players stream games from the cloud. We’ll have more details to share at a later date.
The pricing model will be key, though even if it hits $15, for example, that’s still likely to sit better with potential subscribers than Stadia Pro’s $9.99 for a slow trickle of “free” games and some underwhelming discounts.
Head in the clouds, feet on the ground
Game Pass is also a bravura showcase for the exclusive games only currently available on Xbox and PC. That’s a huge draw for a PS4 and Switch-only player like myself, and a massive advantage over Stadia’s third-party-reliant library.
The Xbox Game Studios family has expanded dramatically over the past year as Microsoft gets ready for a full-on assault on Sony’s console dominance with its next-gen hardware, Project Scarlett.
Related: The best phones for gaming
Seeing previously third-party developers with unique personalities like Double Fine and Obsidian commit to Microsoft was hard to stomach for this Xbox-less onlooker, but xCloud reopens the door to their future projects. Plus, after abandoning Xbox after a red ring of death’d Xbox 360… well, I really miss Halo.
Beyond the games, however, I can’t shake the feeling that Microsoft is in the best position to fulfil all the untapped promise of game streaming.
We’re already witnessing plenty of doom-mongering over Stadia, and Google’s storied history of canning ambitious projects validates some of those concerns. Microsoft, meanwhile, has a serious amount of skin in the game already. It’s a game industry juggernaut that shrugged off the Xbox One launch and came out the other side stronger, leaner, and meaner than ever.
Microsoft has yet to flex its cloud computing muscles for gaming. That will all change with xCloud.
Google is already making big claims about the future of Stadia. Unique features only made possible by its cloud tech are already coming to a select few games and that list will no doubt grow. Time will also tell if its “negative latency” concept is more than just marketing speak.
We shouldn’t forget, though, that Microsoft isn’t stumbling blindly into the cloud space. Its Azure service has been battling Amazon Web Services for cloud computing supremacy for over a decade. Not only that, but it’s raking in billions in revenue and growing at a rapid rate.
Aside from some never-realized promises for Crackdown 3 multiplayer, Microsoft has yet to flex its cloud computing muscles for its gaming business. That will all change with xCloud.
What about Google’s big plans for Stadia and YouTube live streaming? Microsoft has Mixer. You know, that live-streaming platform it reportedly paid Fortnite streaming star Ninja many, many millions to switch over to exclusively stream on Mixer. It’s still playing catch-up with Twitch in terms of market share, but Mixer’s stock is growing.
xCloud: The safest risk
No one should want any of the emerging cloud gaming service to fail. Competition breeds excellence and is a catalyst for innovation, and ultimately a better end product for consumers. Blindly championing one service and vilifying another is as stupid as console tribalism.
But the harsh reality is not all of the services will thrive, or even survive. The price of commitment to a game streaming service is ostensibly less perilous than that of a console or PC, but those platforms have been around for decades and are unlikely to die off anytime soon, whereas game streaming is a different beast that’s so far proven untameable (RIP OnLive).
Of the emerging pack, xCloud has all the pieces in place to come out on top: Proven technology, a ready-made content model, a heavily-funded live streaming platform, and the creativity of Xbox Game Studios.
I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I’d be betting on Red(mond).