A new service from Microsoft called Project Xcloud is on the way, and it will stream Xbox games, not just to consoles and PCs, but to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Microsoft shared new information about its plans in a blog post and a talking-heads YouTube video. The company made a vague announcement about the new service at its E3 press conference earlier this year, but this is the first time the industry giant has provided details about how it works and when it might become available.
Microsoft is testing the service right now. Multiple control methods will be offered on mobile phones and tablets. First off, users will be able to pair an Xbox wireless controller with Bluetooth, and Microsoft showed footage of this in action with a phone-mount attachment for the controller. If a user doesn’t have a controller, Microsoft says it is “developing a new, game-specific touch-input overlay that provides maximum response in a minimal footprint.”
Games shown in early footage of the service include Sea of Thieves and entries in the Gears of War and Halo series. However, Xcloud will not be limited to first-party titles; the plan is to implement the service in such a way that no additional work will be required to support it from third-party developers. Microsoft hopes to achieve this in part by running the games on what amounts to native Xbox hardware in its data centers. “We’ve architected a new customizable blade that can host the component parts of multiple Xbox One consoles,” Microsoft wrote in its announcement. “We will scale those custom blades in datacenters across Azure regions over time.”
Exploration of this concept is not new to Microsoft or the rest of the industry. Six years ago, documents leaked suggesting that Microsoft had targeted the now-defunct streaming service OnLive as a “potential acquisition target” because of the idea’s potential to disrupt the console market. A year later, Microsoft was testing streaming Halo to Windows phones. Sony acquired some of OnLive’s patents, and today it offers similar features in PlayStation Now, a service that streams games to your PlayStation console, laptop, or desktop computer. Additionally, Google recently announced a similar service for its Chrome platform called Project Stream.
However, Microsoft claims it now has a leg up over both Sony and its older self because of the global expansion of Azure, its enterprise-focused cloud-computing service. “With datacenters in 54 Azure regions and services available in 140 countries, Azure has the scale to deliver a great gaming experience for players worldwide, regardless of their location,” the blog post says. Project Xcloud is currently being tested out of one datacenter in Quincy, Washington. Microsoft claims that the current test experience is running at 10 megabits per second.
The goal is to make game streaming possible not just on broadband Internet in homes or upcoming 5G networks but on today’s 4G networks as well—that’s key, since many regions won’t see 5G for a while, and some of the non-core users Microsoft is trying to reach rely exclusively on mobile for Internet access.
In the video, Microsoft employees assure traditional gamers that consoles will still be a flagship experience but that this new service is about offering new choices and reaching more people who might not be inclined to buy a console. But given that many movers and shakers in the industry like Ubisoft believe services like Xcloud will eventually be essential rather than additive, there are concerns about saving games for posterity.
Creators and publishers of content and intellectual property generally have control over how their creations should be monetized and distributed, and that’s reasonable; it is their property, after all. If users don’t like the approach, they don’t have to buy the product. There are big upsides both financial and logistical in the short term to those creators for taking the streaming approach, and there are upsides of convenience for gamers who have strong broadband access, too. But there are also downsides, and game preservation is one of the most critical.
Some or all games streamed from the cloud in the future could be like today’s digitally distributed games in that they might not exist in physical media that can be resold or saved for posterity. But unlike today’s digital games, these streaming titles would not even exist as downloaded files that users could simply avoid deleting. So the preservation of games for future or revisiting players could become even more of a challenge.
That’s not just a problem for gamers who don’t want to lose their favorite games. It’s also a problem for developers, who often work long, difficult hours for years on end to produce works that could be lost in time.
The gaming industry as a whole has moved gradually to digital distribution, starting on PCs with Steam and its competitors before moving to consoles like the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch—and, of course, modern mobile games have always been digitally distributed. So this problem is not unique to streaming platforms. Many high-profile games are still offered on physical media in retail stores for now. But if cloud gaming eventually becomes as popular as companies like Microsoft, Google, Sony, and Ubisoft believe it will, though, the availability of physical media could change in the future.
If there’s no way to preserve current and future games that are only available in the cloud, we could be looking at something like the lost early days of MMOs and MUDs, many of which now exist only in gamers’ and creators’ memories. Games as a service are increasingly social events—”you had to be there,” people might say in the future of the transient communities that pop up around online-games-of-the-moment like Fortnite. That approach comes with its own creative and experiential opportunities for the people who make compelling games and the people who play them. But they’re definitely not the same as what today’s players have enjoyed in the medium’s first 40 years.
The public trial for Project Xcloud will begin sometime in 2019.
Listing image by Microsoft