Microsoft this week pulled the covers off a brand new thing called xCloud, the company’s much-talked-about streaming service that they first spoke about at E3 2018. xCloud will be Microsoft’s way to allow for gamers to play their Xbox games on any device, regardless of form factor. The name is goofy as heck, but it’s still a work in progress and will get its own catchy name when the time comes. What’s remarkable about this initiative is how similar it is to PlayStation Now, right down to its implementation.
In a blog post on Microsoft’s website, the company explains that xCloud “is about providing gamers — whether they prefer console or PC — new choices in when and where they play, while giving mobile-only players access to worlds, characters and immersive stories they haven’t been able to experience before.”
They continue, saying “to realize this vision, we know we must make it easy for developers to bring their content to Project xCloud. Developers of the more than 3,000 games available on Xbox One today, and those building the thousands that are coming in the future, will be able to deploy and dramatically scale access to their games across all devices on Project xCloud with no additional work.”
xCloud is a streaming on-demand service for Xbox games that run on custom servers developed by Microsoft for this specific feature. Without needing to alter anything about the core operating system, the hardware, or the games themselves, Microsoft is able to offer this service to anyone, and the infrastructure they needed to provide this service has been built up over the last three years. On Windows 10 computers, you are able to remotely stream games from your Xbox One connected to the same local network with as little as 2ms of latency, and you can use your Xbox One controller as intended so long as you have the correct adapter, or with a USB cable. Sony has a similar local offering through Remote Play on the PS4, but it needs a custom app and a USB cable, or another custom wireless adapter to enable all functionality.
It’s a cinch for Microsoft to move from the local in-home streaming functionality to providing this on-demand over the internet. The servers are Xbox One motherboards fitted to a custom server blade design, and simply stream over the same Xbox streaming service to your device remotely. When you make use of the service, you sign into your assigned Xbox online as if you’re logging into a guest console, and play any one of the games associated to your account, or any of the Xbox Game Pass titles that you can play for free with a Game Pass subscription.
For bonus points, all your games will automatically be updated as soon as new updates are available because the Xbox blades don’t have any storage of their own – all that is kept on a SAN connected with high-speed fibre links. The theory here is that you don’t have to wait for anything, even new game releases. It’s a powerful marketing tool, offering to save time for people.
Sony still has PlayStation Now on offer, which uses custom PlayStation 3 server blades to run PS1, PS2, and PS3 titles remotely. There’s nothing available for PS4 players just yet, and part of that is because a project like this needs absolute scale. Sony doesn’t have datacentres here in South Africa to allow us to have a near-local link to reduce latency, but Microsoft did announce the opening of two Azure datacentres in South Africa earlier this year, intended to serve the Southern African countries close to our borders connected to the same undersea international cables.
Microsoft hasn’t announced pricing or availability, and hasn’t gone into any detail about what kind of devices they’ll be supporting. They are, however, targeting a mobile or fixed internet connection with download bandwidth starting at 10Mbps to enable a smooth streaming experience. MyBroadband does regular features on the local network performance from cellular providers, and the average download speed country-wide is about 4Mbps, and the same is true for ADSL connections. But in time these things will be fixed and we’ll have better and faster options for internet connectivity.
Personally, I also hope that this service is not price-prohibitive. It needs to offer the same incentive as owning or renting a console, with the caveat that there’s more latency in the stream. I know this would be a hit with a lot of people who just want to try things out and see if they like what Microsoft has to offer, so a service like this also needs to offer up some free first-party titles to sweeten the deal.