It’s been a tough row to hoe for Microsoft lately. In the past few weeks alone they made the stunning eleventh-hour decision to delay their upcoming next-generation console’s de-facto exclusive launch title, Halo: Infinite from Holiday 2020 to a yet unknown date in 2021; they publicly admitted their failure thus far to bring Xbox Game Pass to iOS devices due to Apple’s App Store restrictions; and they had no answer whatsoever to yet more Series X/S controller leaks appearing in the retail wild that allegedly revealed the planned November release date for the Xbox Series X, potentially stealing what little marketing thunder the company might have left leading up to launch.
Amid all that noise, Microsoft seemed desperate to put out at least one positive announcement that no one was expecting. So in retrospect it made a lot of sense when Microsoft announced that its Project xCloud game streaming service (which has been in public preview since last October) would finally be coming to the Xbox Game Pass App for Android devices on September 15th, only to then turn around the following week and shadow-drop it immediately in the form of a new, limited beta, referred to as the “Xbox Game Pass (Beta) App”. Take note that his app should not be confused with the current live version of the Xbox Game Pass App, or the Xbox App, or the Xbox Game Streaming (Preview) App, all of which are expected to be shut down in early September and replaced by this new app. It’s puzzling that Microsoft hadn’t already found a way to effectively simplify and merge them all into one streamlined app by now, but at the very least, integrating the nebulous and relatively new addition that is xCloud into an improved version of the Xbox Game Pass App is a good start, especially considering that the streaming service is now free-of-charge to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate (XGPU) subscribers.
Full disclosure: despite my being a dyed-in-the-wool, old-school hardcore console gamer, the concept of game streaming for consoles has always been fascinating to me. I was there front-and-centre with my PlayStation Portable a decade ago when streaming the PS3’s dashboard (along with a handful of titles I had no interest in playing) to the PSP was a thing. I’ve re-bought several digital games on PlayStation 4 that I already own on Xbox One just to have the option to Remote Play them on my PS Vita while in bed. And you can bet that ever since Project xCloud’s Preview Program expanded into Canada for Android devices this past January, I’ve been opening up the Xbox Game Streaming (Preview) App on my phone periodically to gauge how well the performance of Microsoft’s cloud gaming tech has been coming along. With the Preview app slated to be shut down in early September and xCloud now existing as part of a paid service however, the Xbox cloud gaming rubber has officially hit the road. So at this point it’s probably a fair question to ask: Does xCloud finally have the potential to be an effective tool in Microsoft’s arsenal against cloud gaming competitors like Google Stadia and PlayStation Now, or is it fated to be little more than a gimmick? In anticipation of the service’s September 15th launch date, I endeavored to find out.
It should be mentioned that in terms of overall appearance and functionality, not much is different in this beta version of the Xbox Game Pass App than in the current live version. They share a near-identical and newly streamlined interface which was recently overhauled in preparation for xCloud’s arrival, evoking a rounded-edge motif not dissimilar to the new Xbox Store on console. Popular games and important PSAs coming to the subscription service (such as the always prominent reminder of xCloud’s full roll-out in September) are still advertised in the large, side-scrollable top banner, and further down users can browse by games by genre or by categories such as “Most Popular”, “Recently Added”, “Leaving Soon”, or view the entire library. If you are so far down the Xbox Ecosystem rabbit hole that you care to enough to participate in Xbox Quests and collect Microsoft Rewards points, you’ll be relieved that the Quests section has also been retained. In the new beta version of the app, the xCloud games are accessed via a third, inconspicuous “Cloud” filter tab resting to the left of the “Console” and “PC” XCloud tabs, which of course filter out any games in the Xbox Game Pass library that are not available on those respective devices. Clicking on the Cloud tab will bring you to the selection of games that are currently available to stream (as of this writing only 38 of the over 100 titles available on Game Pass are streamable in the beta), and clicking on any title from there will take you that game’s individual tab, from where you can view details, screenshots and auto-playing trailers of the game, and most importantly, choose whether to remote-install the game to your home console or play it directly from xCloud.
The challenge of evaluating a cloud gaming service like xCloud is that in practice, there are many performance-impacting variables that lie outside of the control of the service provider, such as the speed and reliability of the customer’s internet or ISP, the customer’s hardware (e.g. modem and/or router), the streaming device’s proximity to the router, etc., so there’s always a chance that the following results were more due to factors on my end than on the part of Microsoft and xCloud. All that notwithstanding, for the purposes of this piece I strove to provide an environment that would give xCloud or any other game streaming service the best chance for success. Microsoft recommends a minimum internet connection speed of 5GHz or a mobile connection with at least 10Mbps download, as well as an Android device running Android 6 or higher with Bluetooth 4.0 or higher, so on paper at least my home setup was more than adequate for xCloud, with a robust 250 Mbps down/90 Mbps up via my fibre-powered Wi-Fi network and a fairly impressive 38/28 via my LG G8 ThinQ’s LTE mobile network. Getting set up was simple. After downloading the new Xbox Game Pass (Beta) app and logging in with my Microsoft credentials (I already subscribe to XGPU), I clipped my smartphone to my Xbox One controller via an optional (but highly recommended) MOGA Power-A cloud-gaming clip and was off to the races.
In the interest of being as objective as possible with my playtesting, I selected a sampling of games that I was already familiar with playing natively on Xbox One that place different levels of demand on the hardware, and by extension, the game stream. After all, if this was going to be a true test, I couldn’t go easy; I had to make sure that xCloud could actually walk the console-gaming walk. My choices were the following: Forza Horizon 4, Gears 5, Halo 3 and Halo 4 from the Halo: Master Chief Collection, Streets of Rage 4 and Untitled Goose Game.
First off, it can’t be overstated how well the basic nuts and bolts of the technology works, as there is very little fuss in getting a game started once your controller is synched to your mobile device via Bluetooth, and over the course of my tests, in most games I rarely experienced any discernable input lag in terms of controls, a marked improvement over what the experience was originally like in January. Regrettably, one notable feature missing from the Preview build that is still lacking in the Beta is support for the Xbox One controller’s rumble and haptic triggers, features whose absence are most felt in games like Forza Horizon 4 and Gears 5 where tactile sensitivity is strongly incorporated into their gameplay. For example, active reloads in Gears lack serious heft without rumble, and the haptic triggers are one of Horizon 4’s most signature and immersive ways of signalling to players what kind of driving surface they are on (and hence how close they are to running off the road). It might be a big ask to get these features working on Android devices, but hopefully there is a fix for this incoming.
Moving beyond xCloud’s controls however, it’s a bit disheartening to confirm that performance and overall game stability are still moving targets for the fledgling game-streaming service, at least on Android. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the games from my selection best known for pushing the visual envelope on Xbox One (e.g. Horizon 4, Gears 5 and Halo 4) collectively turned in the worst performance, suffering from noticeable signal interruptions, choppy framerate dips, occasionally glitchy audio and garbled image quality whenever there was fast movement taking place on the screen. Forza Horizon 4 in particular was the worst of the bunch, with extremely poor framerates (in the low 20s or worse) , constant audio drop-outs and data compression artifacting so severe that “waves” of pixelated blocks would wash across the screen at regular intervals, making it nearly impossible to drive my Lamborghini Huracán around Great Britain with any modicum of skill. The game was also saddled with a consistent input lag of about half a second, making it next to unplayable.
Halo 3, by contrast, was a far more enjoyable experience. Controlling Master Chief felt responsive, fast, and familiar. The excellent soundtrack, dialogue and sound effects came though crisp and clear with barely an audio hiccup, and while the aforementioned occurrences of dips in framerate and resolution that plagued its successor on xCloud were not completely and eliminated, they were greatly reduced. By about 10 minutes in I was already having so much fun re-learning how to dual-wield that I had almost forgotten I was playing the game on my phone.
The same could almost be said for Streets of Rage 4. As a classic 2-D side-scrolling beat- ‘em-up, SOR4’s large character sprites, smooth animations and colourful, mostly static levels lent themselves well to streaming, retaining much of the game’s solid framerate. The fast-paced nature of the game however meant that when the inevitable momentary signal loss or glitch reared its ugly head, the impact was much more detrimental to gameplay, as a one second loss of tactical visibility in a Streets of Rage game is often the difference between successfully avoiding an enemy attack or taking an unwanted nap on the pavement. On the bright side, I actually managed to get an online co-op session with my brother working (I played as Adam Hunter via xCloud while my brother played as Blaze Fielding on his Xbox One X) and aside from the random streaming glitch on my end and my inability to enable Xbox Live voice chat without crashing the Game Pass app entirely, it felt as though I was sitting right next to my sibling as we took out Wood Oak City’s human trash.
I flirted with Untitled Goose Game a number of times on xCloud largely because I figured it would be one of the least demanding games on the service, and while I really have no idea if that is technically true, the game ran quite smoothly on my home and mobile connections with few glitches. Since the game is largely about chilling out and causing mischief around town as a horrible goose, it was also the perfect palate cleanser for game streaming as you can play at your own pace and there is no sudden death or failure in the game for a problematic glitch to drive you towards. It also didn’t hurt that the game’s large and expressive characters, coupled with its clean and simple design made Untitled Goose Game the easiest of my selection to enjoy on a phone screen.
Unfortunately, that last point highlights an issue that I personally believe will present a far bigger challenge to the adoption of xCloud on Android devices than any of the game streaming-related “teething issues” mentioned above, which is the tiny screen of most Android smartphones. Let’s be honest here. At the end of the day, the Xbox One, Xbox One X and by extension the upcoming Xbox Series X weren’t built to run mobile or handheld games. They are powerful, HD consoles pushing resolutions of at least 900p and higher, and their content is intended to be enjoyed on screens large enough so that the average person can appreciate the fine details and legibly read the text. So it goes without saying then that if you’re not rocking an XL-sized Android device, Android tablet, or the razor-sharp, 20/20 vision of a boundlessly energetic teenager, streaming console games on a smartphone quickly devolves into a chore for the eyeballs. In my own testing on my LG G8’s modest 6-inch screen, I found this to be especially true of all the higher-fidelity games like Gears 5, Halo 4 and to a lesser extent Halo 3, where distant enemies nearly became indistinguishable from background elements like jungle foliage or shadow, and crucial information in the HUD proved very difficult to read. Case in point, I spent more than five minutes in Halo 4 being repeatedly killed by an Elite at the conclusion of a lengthy QTE event in an elevator shaft, simply because I wasn’t able to clearly make out the button prompt I needed to dispatch him with before he gutted me with a sword. Meanwhile, in Horizon 4 the same visibility issues made it almost impossible to anticipate oncoming vehicles or sharp turns when travelling at high speeds, and in conjunction with the lag the experience was like trying to drive on black ice. Even under optimal conditions, playing games ideally meant for widescreen TVs on a smartphone would prove a challenge, but when combined with all the aforementioned visual glitches I encountered in my tests, game streaming on Android is arguably the worst way to play your Xbox games right now.
So, for what reason do I remain optimistic about xCloud? Well, for starters, the Xbox Game Pass App for Android won’t be the only official entry point to xCloud Game streaming for much longer. As confirmed by The Verge last March, Microsoft is currently conducting internal testing of a Windows 10 version of Project xCloud, which when inevitably released to the public will come in the form of a new app that that reportedly supports both xCloud game streaming as well as local and remote Console Streaming. That last bit of news might be as shocking as the revelation that water is wet, but I personally believe that the full-fledged inclusion of PC into Microsoft’s xCloud stratagem is the chess move that will elevate Xbox Game Pass’ cloud gaming component from a neat gimmick to an essential feature that everyone will want to use.
The rationalization here is simple; while not as ubiquitous and portable as Android devices, PCs by nature of their design are able to leapfrog several of the challenges that stand in the way of an enjoyable game streaming experience. A desktop or laptop can easily make use of an ethernet port (natively or via an adapter) to take advantage of a wired internet connection when available, providing faster and more stable performance for cloud gaming. PCs generally pack more horsepower than smartphones, allowing for much better streaming quality at faster speeds and higher resolutions. PCs support far more input devices (i.e. controllers, headsets, keyboards, etc.) as well as many of their bespoke features (such as the Xbox One controller’s rumble and haptic feedback triggers). Finally, on PCs, xCloud users won’t have to compromise screen real estate anymore, even if they are going portable. With their many different shapes and sizes, Windows 10 laptops, ultrabooks, Surface tablets and the like should be able to strike the perfect cloud-gaming middle-ground, balancing portability and power with screen sizes large enough to provide the “full-fat experience” of gaming on a home console.
The second reason I’m optimistic about xCloud is that little nugget about Console Streaming that I mentioned earlier. Observant gamers who tune-in to the big E3 Press Conferences every year might remember that when Head of Xbox Phil Spencer formally revealed Project xCloud at the 2019 Xbox Showcase, it was announced as part of a two-pronged strategy alongside “Console Streaming”. Spencer mysteriously described the latter as a new, upcoming platform feature that “turns your Xbox One into your own personal and free xCloud server”. Of course, all of this was quickly drowned out by the following announcement of Project Scarlett (a.k.a. Xbox Series X) being in the works, and since then Console Streaming has been quietly pushed further and further into the background as the next-gen console wars have been heating up. But what many people do not know is that the ability to stream your Xbox Console to your PC either remotely or locally via the Xbox Console Companion App (formerly known as the Xbox App for Windows 10) has quietly been a been a thing since as far back as 2015. As someone who has been using the Windows app more and more frequently to stream my Xbox One X to various PCs in the household when my work-at-home-during-Covid wife needs to borrow (read: hijack) my workspace, I can attest to near-rock solid framerates with only the occasionally brief signal interruption when console streaming most games. Better yet, since I am streaming directly from my Xbox One X as opposed to the vanilla Xbox One server blades that xCloud utilizes, all the benefits that the added horsepower of the Xbox One X hardware brings to a game when it is played natively on the console are also present when streaming, including higher framerates, increased graphical detail, and more responsive gameplay. And yes, Console Streaming on PC via the Xbox Console Companion fully supports the Xbox One controller’s rumble features and haptic triggers.
In other words, Xbox Console Streaming is currently at a level of stability, reliability, and performance that its twin sibling xCloud desperately needs to be at right now. Console Streaming works, and it works well. Therefore, the smart money then is on Microsoft to bring Console Streaming to every current and future version of the Xbox Game Pass App as soon as possible, either as a supplementary xCloud feature for XGPU subscribers, or as a free service to any gamer with a Microsoft Account and an Xbox console, in order to whet their appetite for xCloud streaming and tempt them to sign up for an XGPU subscription. There’s already a precedent for this on Android, as the Xbox Game Streaming (Preview) App for Android also supported Console Streaming with similar performance to that of the Xbox Console Companion on PC, so it’s less a matter of “if” than “when”. The average customer won’t likely spend any time trying to split technical hairs between what is xCloud versus Console Streaming (Microsoft will likely market them both under the simpler portmanteau of “Xbox Cloud Gaming”), and if Console Streaming can be counted upon to work well 99% of the time, satisfied customers will be more likely to put up with the glitchier Cloud Gaming features that are “still in beta” until they are ready for their close-up.
If the recent struggles of other streaming services like Google Stadia and GeForce NOW have taught us anything, it’s that no Cloud Gaming initiative is too big, ambitious or well-funded to stumble catastrophically out of the gate. The race to a potential future where all game content can be streamed to and enjoyed on any device will be a marathon, not a sprint, and as my own experiment with Microsoft’s xCloud seems to suggest, the finish line to that future is a long way off, despite the company’s relentless faith (and many years of investment) in the technology. All that being said, Microsoft still stands the best chance of success in the Cloud Gaming space because much like the company’s approach to the Xbox Ecosystem as a whole, its success won’t be dependent on one singular device, platform, gateway, or even use-case. The Xbox Game Pass App with xCloud is already on lock for Android devices with PC coming soon, but if Microsoft is destined to have their way we can expect them to negotiate an end to their deadlock with Apple and put the app on iOS devices in short order, granting access to the remaining, untapped third of the mobile market. And there are other non-mobile platforms where the app could appear, like Samsung Smart TVs (a near certainty given Microsoft’s long partnership with the Korean electronics manufacturer). In a page from Google Stadia’s playbook, even Xbox consoles could employ xCloud in more subtle ways to power quality-of-life features, like allowing players to instantly stream a game they’ve just started downloading to eliminate wait times. The best part however is that with so many potential uses and options for accessing xCloud, many of the technical issues that would stop another cloud gaming service in its tracks will likely become only minor inconveniences on Microsoft’s service (like switching to local console streaming if xCloud performance is spotty). Provided Microsoft keeps putting its cloud gaming eggs in as many different baskets as possible, it’s difficult to fathom a future where xCloud won’t have an increased influence on videogaming as we know it. The future of the service looks extremely bright.
In the meantime though, here’s hoping xCloud gets a serious performance boost in time for its September 15th coming out party on Android, otherwise it’s going to be a rough start. An XL-sized Android device and rose-coloured prescription glasses are recommended.