Microsoft held a virtual pre-E3 briefing event this week, with the focus of announcements coming around the future of Xbox Cloud Gaming, with Phil Spencer and other senior executives spelling out their ambitions for the service.
While there was a lot of pontificating about the potential for growth and Microsoft’s vision for the positioning of its games segment, most of which was largely refined takes on what has been Microsoft’s excellent, consistent and easy to comprehend strategy for many years, there were also some standout announcements for the immediate future of cloud gaming, covering a raft of initiatives both in software and hardware, in the home and in the cloud.
X IN THE CLOUD
First up, Microsoft is starting to install Xbox Series X hardware in its Azure data centres. At present Xbox Cloud Gaming uses modified Xbox One S hardware to power the games that subscribers play. However, with the service looking to target PC monitors and TVs, more powerful hardware is a good idea.
While the server-based version of the Series X will be different in many ways, it’s intriguing that Microsoft must still have chosen to take key components (such as the CPU/GPU) away from its manufacturing of retail units to divert to this effort, what with the Series X still perennially sold out at present. Although the amounts are probably fairly small admittedly.
“We’re now in the final stages of internal testing, and we will be upgrading the experience for ultimate members in the next few weeks. The world’s most powerful console is coming to Azure,” said Kareem Choudhry, Microsoft’s CVP of Cloud Gaming.
XCLOUD ON XBOX ONE
In a blog post Microsoft also announced that games only playable on the new Series X/S hardware would also be playable on the old Xbox One hardware via Xbox Cloud Gaming.
“We’re excited to see developers realize their visions in ways that only next-gen hardware will allow them to do. For the millions of people who play on Xbox One consoles today, we are looking forward to sharing more about how we will bring many of these next-gen games, such as Microsoft Flight Simulator, to your console through Xbox Cloud Gaming, just like we do with mobile devices, tablets, and browsers.”
PASS THE TV REMOTE
Next is the announcement that Xbox Cloud Gaming will be coming to smart TVs in app form in the near future. “We’re working with global TV manufacturers to embed the Game Pass experience directly into internet-connected TVs so all you’ll need to play is a controller,” said Liz Hamren, CVP of Gaming Experiences & Platforms. It’s something that we thought Stadia would come with at launch, or soon after, given Google’s relationships with TV manufacturers, but which never materialised.
If Microsoft can get the app pre-installed on a handful of major brands – it has a good relationship with Samsung for starters, although we can’t see Sony taking it on – then that could hugely increase its exposure, much as Netflix’s inclusion on TVs did for that service. While the app could roll out quickly, we wouldn’t expect any big take-up until it’s installed as a default on the menus of new TVs, and even then it will be interesting to see what controller support is provided. Still it’s an important next step for the service.
STICK IT TO THEM
And that step will come alongside a dedicated Xbox Cloud Gaming streaming device. “Beyond that, we’re also developing standalone streaming devices that you can plug into a TV or monitor, so if you have a strong internet connection, you can stream your Xbox experience,” Hamren confirmed, though no timescale was given. Such a device would likely be sold cheaply, like an Amazon Fire TV Stick, or even given away with a year’s subscription, and could come even bundled with a controller, at a price or with a further commitment to the service.
If Microsoft can reduce the entry point price for console-style gaming from £200 down to effectively free at the point of purchase (and half that or less than the cost of its current All-Access console deals to date) then it could address a far larger market than has been possible up until now.
Xbox Cloud Gaming is also coming to console, errhh, what? But it does actually make perfect sense, with Xbox consoles soon to support the service in order to provide an almost instant ‘try before you download’ system.
Details were vague on whether this would be simply a timed access to existing games from the off, of whether developers could craft demos, or simply pre-determined game states, in order to give potential buyers in the marketplace a taste of what they’re browsing.
It’s an incredibly exciting potential new tool for publishers, and something we’ve been looking for someone to properly implement for quite a while now. And Choudhry noted it would come to “the Xbox app on PCs, and integrated into our console experience, to light up all kinds of scenarios…”
CLOUDS OVER RIO, SYDNEY, TOKYO…
Xbox Cloud Gaming is also spreading its wings to new regions as the service is now set to cover Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Japan. Brazil and Mexico are exactly the kind of countries that cloud gaming has always been excited about, with huge potential audiences and little in the way of a current console install base.
Current support is almost entirely European, alongside the US of course, with Korea being the standout experiment in bringing console-style content to a traditionally mobile and PC region. A launch in Japan is likely based on trying to bring the Xbox brand to the country through a more mobile-friendly effort.
Finally, the browser-based client for Xbox Cloud Gaming is coming out of Beta and will be available for all Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers in all supported countries in the next few weeks. So anyone who signs up will be able to play Xbox Game Pass titles on aging PC hardware or a laptop.
While there are no firm dates on most of these moves, it’s good to see Microsoft continuing to make steady progress with its cloud gaming plan, these are all welcome steps to truly making cloud gaming a significant new pillar for content delivery.