Companies seem convinced the future of gaming will have everyone streaming games to their systems instead of purchasing, downloading and managing them individually. Nvidia's been pushing GeForce Now for years, and Google recently announced its own Chrome-browser-based Project Stream. Microsoft already made its belief in that future clear with Xbox Game Pass, but now it's revealed the platform-agnostic Project xCloud service to show that its vision for game streaming isn't limited to Xbox.
Project xCloud actually seems contradictory to Xbox's interests in a few ways. Microsoft has positioned the service as a way for people to play games without having to worry about what device they own, while Xbox followed the "offer strong exclusives or die" mantra. Project xCloud is entirely digital, while one of the Xbox One line's strongest advantages over the PlayStation 4 is its support for 4K Blu-ray. Xbox and Project xCloud merely share a letter.
At least that would've been the case a few years ago. But even as Microsoft has worked to improve the Xbox product line by introducing the Xbox One S and Xbox One X, it's also been tearing down the walls between console and PC owners. Many games can be played on Xbox and Windows 10 with one purchase, the company has focused less on Xbox-exclusive titles and "Xbox" has become a Windows 10 app.
All of which means it's not anywhere near as surprising to read statements like this from Microsoft in 2018 as it would've a few years ago:
"Today, the games you play are very much dictated by the device you are using. Project xCloud’s state-of-the-art global game-streaming technology will offer you the freedom to play on the device you want without being locked to a particular device, empowering YOU, the gamers, to be at the center of your gaming experience. ... Ultimately, Project 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."
The company said Project xCloud relies on a new customizable blade "that can host the component parts of multiple Xbox One consoles, as well as the associated infrastructure supporting it." Microsoft plans to introduce these blades to Azure data centers, allowing it to leverage its existing cloud infrastructure for the new service. It will also offer tools for developers who want to make their Xbox games available via Project xCloud.
Project xCloud's success will depend on Microsoft's ability to overcome the obstacles that have negatively affected other game streaming services: making sure the games look good, that there's minimal input latency and people are able to play without having to wait ages for games to load. Relying on Azure can help solve those problems, but Microsoft actually has some pretty lofty goals for the service:
"Developers and researchers at Microsoft Research are creating ways to combat latency through advances in networking topology and video encoding and decoding. Project xCloud will have the capability to make game streaming possible on 4G networks and will dynamically scale to push against the outer limits of what’s possible on 5G networks as they roll out globally. Currently, the test experience is running at 10 megabits per second. Our goal is to deliver high-quality experiences at the lowest possible bit rate that work across the widest possible networks, taking into consideration the uniqueness of every device and network."
Microsoft said it's privately testing Project xCloud on smartphones and tablets now. The company will allow testers to use the Xbox Wireless Controller or a device's touchscreen, with the promise that it's "developing a new, game-specific touch input overlay that provides maximum response in a minimal footprint for players who choose to play without a controller." Public testing for the service is scheduled for 2019.