After teasing it at this years E3 conference, Microsoft has officially announced a cloud-based game streaming service called Project xCloud, which aims to let you play Xbox games on your smartphone. Like similar streaming services before it, none of which have yet managed to supplant the traditional console-under-your-TV approach, the service would relegate all the computational heavy lifting to computers in a data center far away, and beam the game play directly to your hands in real time.
The details around xCloud, due to launch with public trials in 2019, are scarce for the time being, but promotional videos show games being played on tablets with touch controls (which seems less than ideal) and on smart phones attached to actual Xbox controllers. The promo videos also hedge the service’s potential just a little bit, explicitly pointing out that home console play will continue to be the flagship experience.
The service is latest in a long line of attempts by multiple companies to make large-scale game streaming work, dating back over a decade. In 2009, a now-defunct company called OnLive attempted to blaze the trail by letting users stream PC games to less powerful computers and even Android tablets.
Over its active years, the service suffered from number of quality-affecting problems, such as noticeable lag that made games like shooters unpleasant to play, and a tough-to-swallow business plan that required users to pay both for access to OnLive and also for access to individual games. Ultimately, in 2015, its assets were sold off to Sony which repackaged them into PlayStation Now, a service that’s widely considered an improvement over its predecessor, but has hardly changed the landscape of console gaming. Similarly, Nvidia’s Geforce NOW service has shown promising improvement on the technical implementation of game streaming, but has yet to significantly cut into the hegemonic practice of playing video games on the machine you actual own.
With Project xCloud, however, Microsoft is pretty uniquely suited to overcome the traditional hurdles of game streaming technology. Microsoft has already been fine-tuning game streaming on the household level with Windows 10’s ability to stream games from the console in your living room directly onto your Windows 10 PC or tablet. It’s an experiment that has given Microsoft plenty of excuses to develop new video encoding/decoding technology as mentioned in the promo video for Project xCloud.
Microsoft also has the Azure Cloud, an enormous and powerful network of data centers that are geographically diverse (an important detail when it comes to high quality, high speed streaming) and well-established.
But perhaps most important is the weight of the Xbox brand. Previous game streaming upstarts like OnLive and Nvidia have endeavored to make streaming work by creating the infrastructure to let you stream other companies’ games. Microsoft is in the relatively unique situation to provide both the streaming and the games, and to use one to bolster the other to try and wedge its streaming service into the mainstream. The mysterious Halo: Infinite is on the horizon, for example. What are the odds it will prominently feature and support Project xCloud in a bid to marry Halo‘s legendary popularity with mobile-friendly gameplay the likes of which Fortnite has made so ridiculously popular? It’s a mix Microsoft alone is positioned to whip up.
There are no details on how exactly Project xCloud will manifest as a service you can pay for, though Microsoft’s increasing interest in all-you-can-play subscription services like Xbox Game Pass lay the groundwork for a Netflix-style setup where games are streamable to your phone instead of just to your Xbox. It’s a tantalizing proposition—and has been since the days of OnLive. Maybe this time it will actually work.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics