Microsoft will be entering the next-generation console war wielding cloud gaming as its weapon of choice. The company’s upcoming Xbox “Scarlett” consoles are both expected to leverage the company’s announced cloud gaming service, xCloud. A video game platform that Microsoft’s head of gaming, Phil Spencer, promised will deliver “console quality gaming on any device.”
The service was first announced at E3 2018 with a splash but has since fallen into the background of the gaming industry. Microsoft’s last update came during GDC 2019 on March 21, where it demonstrated how game developers could seamlessly optimize their work to work on devices like smartphones and tablets. But that was largely overshadowed by Google’s Stadia announcement a few day’s prior.
xCloud is destined to face some stiff competition for similar products. But on April 30, Spencer teased that a beta test version will be ready for the public very soon. And it could show off exactly what the service has up its sleeve.
Mike Nichols, chief marketing officer for Microsoft’s Xbox division, told The Telegraph on April 12 that the company is aiming to uniquely merge cloud gaming and console tech. That’s a notable differentiator from Stadia, which wants to move away from consoles and PCs altogether.
“We’re developing Project xCloud not as a replacement for game consoles, but as a way to provide the same choice and versatility that lovers of music and video enjoy today,” he said. “We’re adding more ways to play Xbox games.”
That could be exactly what the company needs to one-up Sony, its biggest competition. Ben Arnold, the senior director of innovation and trends at the Consumer Technology Association previously told Inverse that while the PS5 is expected to lean into virtual reality, Microsoft could clench the rising interest in streaming services to promote its consoles.
“The timeline [for VR] is a little bit extended because we’re still up against the desire to have great content as a way to drive more hardware adoption, but the content can’t get funded until there’s more hardware,” he said. “As that gets figured out, all of this momentum in streaming, cloud, and subscription services will develop.”
Here’s everything we know about Project xCloud:
Project xCloud: Launch Date
The awaited streaming service is rumored to be tied to the upcoming Xbox Scarlett releases. Microsoft is said to be working on two variants for its next-generation consoles, code named “Anaconda” and “Lockhart.”
Lockhart is expected to be a lower-cost model that could make up for lack of power by leveraging cloud computing from Microsoft’s datacenters. The CEO of semiconductor company AMD, told CNBC that the company is partnering with Microsoft to create a cloud-centric console.
“We’re partnered with them in game consoles – I think we have a vision of where cloud computing is going, and we’re working closely with them,” she said. “We’re working with both Sony and Microsoft on consoles, and they both have their specific secret sauce that we’re helping them do.”
If xCloud is Lockhart’s “secret sauce,” then gamers might not see it until 2020. Piers Harding-Rolls, the Director of Research and Analysis Games at IHS Markit previously told Inverse that he’s not expecting a “proper unveiling” for the Scarlett consoles until the first half of 2020.
Project xCloud: When Do Trials Begin?
Spencer tweeted on April 30 that hat xCloud’s internal development stage has come to an end. Now, the engineers that built the cloud gaming platform will have a chance to try it outside office walls. After that, public tests will begin at an unspecified date this year.
“Congrats to Project xCloud team for completing their takehome release,” Spencer wrote. “Excited to get feedback from our internal teams ahead of public trials later this year.”
The timeline fits neatly into the forecasted launch date of both Xbox Scarlett consoles that are expected some time in 2020. Public tests for xCloud could begin in late 2019 and last until mid-to-late 2020 when Microsoft is expected to unveil its next-gen consoles.
Project xCloud: Price
Microsoft hasn’t announced how much it would charge for an xCloud subscription, but there are a few available services to serve as hints.
Xbox Game Pass is described as the “Netflix of video games” and lets Xbox and PC users play a range of Xbox One and Xbox 360 games for $9.99 per month. xCloud will essentially be an upgraded version of this pass, and will work on more platforms, so it will likely cost more than $10.
Sony offers a similar service called PlayStation Now that costs $19.99 per month. It’s more likely that Microsoft will take up a similar price as PlayStation Now, seeing as it is xCloud’s direct competitor. So a monthly fee of somewhere between $15 to $25 should be expected.
These estimates don’t take into account the cost of next-gen hardware.
Project xCloud: When’s the Next Update?
During GDC 2019, Microsoft introduced developers to its Touch Adaptation Kit. This cross-platform software development kit (SDK) will allow game-makers to port their titles to xCloud without having to reengineer the title from scratch.
The main point of friction was figuring out a way to transfer the game’s control scheme to work on a touch screen instead of a controller. xCloud is suppose to allow gamers to play games on their phones or tablets, which means they won’t always have an Xbox controller handy.
Figuring out a way to make gamers’ favorite titles just as good on significantly smaller devices will be a crucial for luring console gamers to the service. Whether game developers can figure out how to seamlessly pull that off, though, remains to be seen.
Project xCloud: How It’ll Work
xCloud will directly benefit anyone who wants to play graphically demanding games but doesn’t want to splash out thousands for a PC or a console.
So far, it looks like Microsoft has stripped down multiple Xbox One consoles and placed their parts into an array of server blades, as you can sort of see in the video below. xCloud users will simply select a game to run on their phone, the servers would then start it up, and stream the visuals right to the users’ phone.
A big possible downside here is input latency. Every time a player presses a button, that information needs to be sent to the server and the in-game action needs to be sent back to the users in a never-ending loop. All that back and forth could result in a laggy experience if their internet connection isn’t optimal. However, there’s been chatter that Microsoft is working on a hybrid solution, according to Thurrott.
The publication reports that xCloud would stream all of the graphically-intensive aspects of a game through the internet, while input latency will be dealt with locally. Hardware would be necessary to pull this off, which suggests that users might need to buy the Scarlett consoles to use xCloud, at least at first.
Project xCloud: What Devices It’ll Work On
Microsoft is casting a wide next for xCloud compatible devices. It will include: all Android devices, PCs, and Xboxes from the get-go. Seeing that the company has made Xbox Live available on iOS devices means iPhone and iPads on next.
The company is even said to want to make the Xbox Live feature available on PlayStations and the Nintendo Switch, though for this they’ll need approval and it’s not looking good.
“Our goal is to really unite the 2 billion gamers of the world and we’re big fans of our Xbox Live community, but we don’t have any specific announcements as it relates to Switch,” Microsoft’s Choudhry told The Verge.
Project xCloud: Available Games
Microsoft’s GDC keynote description suggests that all Xbox One Games will be available to stream on xCloud. It reads:
“Project xCloud is an open platform with a customizable client user design experience where streaming starts with Xbox game developers not having to modify a single line of existing game code.”
The company has already shown off: Forza Horizon 4, Halo 5: Guardians, Gears of War 4, Sea of Thieves, and Cuphead, all of them ready for xCloud streaming. And, of course, there are plenty more titles where those came from.
Project xCloud: Who’s the Competition?
xCloud has its work cut out for it. Google, Sony, Nvidia, and even Amazon either have cloud gaming services available, will be making them available, are rumored to be working on one. Microsoft will also need to differentiate itself from the pack if it plans to stay relevant.
Luckily, Sony is the only member of the bunch that actually has the same gaming industry chops as Microsoft. But given Sony’s stable of exclusive titles like Spiderman, it will still be crucial for xCloud to secure exclusive game releases and offer bundle packages to attract as many users as possible.
The future of game streaming, then, could also wind up looking a lot like the landscape for video streaming. It’s hardly unusual for people to subscribe to Netflix, HBO, and Hulu. Game streamers will probably shoot for a similar landscape, using exclusive titles that gamers are itching for to make multiple subscriptions more palatable. It will take some workshopping, but xCloud could be a cash cow for the Xbox maker.