During the past month, I’ve been drowning the doubts and casting aside my console to plunge myself into the world of game streaming. No, I’ve not changed my mind about Stadia yet (you can read all about my thoughts on that here) but I’ve been messing about with Microsoft’s project xCloud – the invitation-only preview of a service that the company describes as being on at the start of a “multi-year journey”. So, armed with my invitation email, a MOGA gaming clip and a quick chat with a member of their technical team (all thanks to X019), here are my thoughts on what may or may not be the “future of gaming”TM.
For those who don’t know, xCloud is a game streaming service that launched its beta in October before expanded the number of users and titles on offer around X019 last month. The service is hosted on Microsoft’s datacentres and is powered by hardware based on the Xbox One S – so, unlike Stadia, there are no claims of 4K HDR here. Instead xCloud runs at 720p over both Wi-Fi and 4G, currently targets phones and tablets and is therefore well-suited to complement, not replace, a home console. At this time, it’s limited to Android devices and available only in the US, UK and South Korea, but part of that “multi-year journey” will see it rolling out to other countries, PCs and iOS devices (subject to Apple’s say so) in due course.
And, coming back to the present, the headline feature of the preview version of xCloud is that it’s absolutely free. Under that current incarnation you’ll have access to a list of over 50 games (and growing) in exchange for just some stat-tracking and optional user feedback. That’s a fantastic deal for anyone wanting some gaming on the cheap or just interested in trying out the technology. It means being able to play major exclusives like Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4 plus fairly recent multi-platform titles like Devil May Cry 5 and Madden NFL 20 for nothing, and for as long as you want to, during the preview period at least. So, for that reason alone, it’s well worth giving a go.
Interestingly, you don’t even need to own an Xbox to register or to use the service. What you will need is a Microsoft account, a preview invitation, an Android device (running Android 6 or above and with Bluetooth 4.0 support), and an Xbox Bluetooth controller. After downloading the app, a couple of taps and a short loading screen you will be on your way. And if you are a current Xbox Live subscriber, you’ll be able to play online multiplayer, access your existing cloud saves and have all of the bells and whistles that you’ll have come to expect (friends lists, achievements etc). So anyway, what’s it like to play?
Well, my early impressions of xCloud were universally positive. Thanks to a hunch, I had taken my controller with me on a trip to X019 in London so I was ready to go as soon as the invitation email arrived early the next morning. From the (dis)comfort of my crappy hotel bed, I logged in on my Android phone, connected via 4G, set up the controller, tapped a couple of buttons and jumped into a recent save from the Gears 5 campaign. There I was, over 100 miles from my Xbox One X but happily blasting, active reloading and sometimes fumbling my way through a particularly epic boss-fight. It was, quite frankly, rather wonderful.
Having followed game streaming for some time, part of that was about its potential. I had finally got hands-on with the technology and I was thrilled to find that it didn’t just work, but worked really well. The game loaded in what felt like around 30-60 seconds after which I was playing the full-fat Gears experience, using my cloud saves, my standard Xbox controller, on my phone! Sure, it wasn’t 4K HDR but I could barely notice the resolution downgrade on a 6-inch screen. I’d tasted the potential of game streaming – using any of my devices, with no downloads or obvious compromises and having access to full-fat gaming on the go – and I couldn’t wait to play more.
The few weeks that followed became quite the x-periment. I played games in my garden, pointlessly freezing myself in the name of science. I wandered around the house while driving around the UK in Forza (neither very safely if I’m honest). I played while out & about, testing both the 4G coverage in my area and the limits of my self-consciousness. Plus, for literally no good reason at all, I streamed titles that I could be playing on my console, while sat on the couch right next to it. Was it fun? Was it perfect? Does that matter? Well, the first two of those questions are easy.
Yes it was fun but, no, it’s certainly not been perfect. Firstly, aside from one bold (but ultimately doomed) experiment of gaming on a high-speed train I’ve only been kicked out twice. However, on both 4G and Wi-Fi, I’ve encountered a number of stutters and more serious connection issues. The experience has also varied quite significantly – something I’d in turn ascribe to time of day, the device I was using, the weather, or what my partner was watching somewhere else on our network. The reality, however, is that I’d have no idea when or why this would happen – which is both frustrating and a timely reminder of how many variables will need to be on your side for game streaming to work perfectly.
But, for context, these hiccups have been minor and pretty infrequent, with my overall connection to xCloud running incredibly well. I’ve gone whole sessions and even days with no issue at all, playing in multiple locations in and out of the home. xCloud has performed better than my expectations, better than any previous services I’ve tried and even Xbox’s own console streaming service. As an extra comparison, I signed up to the PS Now trial and played the two services back to back on multiple occasions. Playing over the same Wi-Fi connection on my PS4 Pro (PS Now isn’t available on mobile devices or over 4G) I had a greater number of, and more significant, issues in two days than I had with xCloud over around two weeks.
So it’s not perfect, but as a preview it’s already far ahead of my expectations and an existing paid service – which I don’t think is a bad start. As things stand though, the hiccups are definitely a compromise, as are playing at the lower resolution and on a smaller screen. In exchange for this you get flexibility, choice and portability – and each gamer will decide if it’s a trade-off that they are happy to make. For example, plenty of people already accept similar compromises when streaming Netflix. But will you accept them when they result in lost health, dropped places or missed jumps? It’s the biggest question mark I have left over streaming.
Ok, maybe second biggest, because controller lag is a similar but much thornier issue. With a solid stream and the “right” game I didn’t notice it at all – which, I’d say, is another huge technical achievement from the team. However, on the “wrong” game I could certainly feel the difference – even when the stream was strong and despite being a pretty terrible player. Objectively, the difference between those two cases is small, making it hard to predict just how much it could affect your enjoyment. However, as with CGI’s “uncanny valley”, it’s perhaps the small size of the difference that somehow makes it so noticeable. Hiccups aside, this means that although the xCloud preview usually looked good and ran well, it didn’t always feel good (or at least, could feel somehow “off”).
Which seems like the right time to go back to the question of “does it matter?” Well, that depends. If you are a competitive player (in either sense of the word) then, yes, I’d expect it the lag be a deal-breaker until things are improved. For the rest of us, it’s probably more complicated – depending on both what and how you play. For me, it was somewhere between fine and slightly annoying. It didn’t ruin my experience at any point but it did make a noticeable difference to my performance on something like Forza Horizon 4. Would I choose to have it? No. Could I get used to it? Possibly. Will Microsoft be able to improve it? Sure. Will it change how it feels to play? Fingers crossed!
And so, for now at least, while I’ve enjoyed testing xCloud, it’s rarely felt like the way I’d choose to play. To be fair, that’s understandable for something so early in technical preview and I think that Microsoft are also smart to be currently positioning it as complementing not replacing a dedicated console. It will be interesting to see how the technology and the positioning both change over the next year or so, and how xCloud fits in with the newly-announced Xbox Series X. For now, I’ll take my consoles at home for the pure experience and my Switch for on the go play. Next generation, with the technology refined and 5G coverage abound, it could be a different story.
So my month with the xCloud preview has given me a fascinating glimpse of how we could be playing games in the near future. Despite some issues, it’s a future that feels closer than I had expected and I’ll be excited to watch it unfold. Even in preview, xCloud already offers the chance to rediscover coach co-op using a second screen, plus the ability to play select Xbox games on the go and avoid hogging the TV. The service is not quite there yet but, with a little refinement, I can see it offering a real alternative to the home console model – albeit maybe not for everyone. Like it or not, game streaming is coming. And, as long as it’s an option, I can now say “game on”.