X019 Project xCloud interview: How the service is expanding today and what it means for gaming tomorrow

As Stadia prepares for its launch next week, Microsoft was in London talking up its own xCloud service as part of its X019 fanfest. We sat down with Project xCloud’s Kareem Choudhry, corporate vice president, and Catherine Gluckstein, general manager.

The service, already in preview in the US, UK and South Korea, received three major announcements, alongside some undated promises for the evolution of the service. 

Firstly, as of today the library of titles has been expanded from a handful of first party games up to 50 titles. Most importantly, these are coming from more than 25 partners, including 505 Games, Bandai Namco, Capcom, EA, Square Enix, Take Two and Wargaming. As well as UK based publishers such as Codemasters, Curve Digital and Team17. 

“There’s a really interesting paradigm with cloud gaming, so we’ve chosen a broad variety of games to understand the changes when people stream content rather than play it on a console, do they play for different lengths of time, do they want to play different types of games. And so we’ve really tried to choose a large variety of games to test that,” said Gluckstein.

Secondly, the preview will also be extending its reach in 2020, coming to Canada, India, Japan and Western Europe. An interesting spread of countries to add to the current three. To support this, the preview will also be coming to Windows 10 PCs, hugely expanding its reach. 

Gluckstein spoke on the choice of new regions: “Japan is a very big console gaming market, but not traditionally a very big market for Xbox. So it’ll be very interesting to see how we play within that market, particularly within preview. 

“And as Phil [Spencer] mentioned with India today, that’s really all about expansion. Actually, India is a huge gaming market, I think there are more people who play games in India than the population of the US! About 300 million. So a huge gaming market but not really a market we’ve ever played in before so a really interesting place for us to go and learn.”

Xcloud’s potential will certainly revolve around its ability to bring new consumers to the kinds of gaming content that traditionally have only been consumed on consoles and more powerful PCs, and India is a great testbed for that.

Finally, Gluckstein talked briefly for the first time about xCloud’s plans for a commercial rollout. Details were thin on the ground but its sounds simple enough. 

“We’ll be announcing tonight a very early look into our commercial plans for 2020. We will enable anybody who owns games on Xbox to stream those games, and will also be bringing game streaming to Xbox Game Pass.” With no pricing mentioned, it sounds like Microsoft will be rolling the service out for free for those who buy content outright and those who subscribe. Though we’ll have to wait for confirmation on that. 

Read more of Microsoft’s outlook on the fledgling service below.

Will this expansion into more territories take focus away from those already active?

Gluckstein: So, what we have set out is a very clear platform and system within, the x cloud group on that actually, for us to roll out additional markets is not that hard, and we kind of have our playbook now. I kind of actually say to the team, it’s actually like if you’re a retailer, like opening new stores, we can kind of know the playbook that we need to go through.

Will xCloud be coming to iOS soon?

Gluckstein: We actually have some Apple devices here [points towards a series of demo units]. So we already have our app up and running. It’s a prototype right now, we’re testing it internally within Microsoft. And obviously, we’re in discussions with a broad range of partners. And we, we certainly would like to bring it to the iOS ecosystem.

Will it be on every platform, is there anywhere you wouldn’t put it?

Gluckstein: We really see this as a multi year journey. So what you want to be very careful with is how you prioritise and where you prioritise your time and, and investments, and really looking at where those you know, early wins, because we really do see the potential of reaching the 2.6 billion gamers around the world. But then there are your first customers and they’re the people that were trying to prioritise against.

Is Microsoft approaching this holistically, does it care whether a consumer streams a game or plays it on a console? Is the company pulling together so to speak?

Choudry: We’re about putting the gamers at the centre and they just want access to the content. Are you coming in via console? Are you coming in via PC? Are you coming in via xCloud? Are you playing across all three? Physical purchase, digital purchase, Game Pass subscription, we’re actually happy to support all those and we’re about presenting the choices and you know what’s best for you, as a consumer, it’s presumptuous and arrogant for me to declare what it is you want to need. We’re going to lay it all out, and you get to decide.

Do you think gaming will change the way games are designed and the types of games that get launched?

Choudry: That’s a great point. I’ve been working in gaming for about 20 years. And what I’ve noticed is that every technological advancement results in two things, one, like an explosion of the diversity of content that takes advantage of that new technological base, and two just a proliferation of diversity of business models. So I think I think we’re going to see both. 

And to get a little bit more longer term on our strategy. We’re starting with a lift-and-shift and taking the content that works phenomenally well in our console, putting it into the data centres, making it streamable without any additional development work required by any of the IP owners. They don’t have to crack their bits. They don’t have to do anything. We do all that for them. 

And then the next evolution is really something that we call ‘cloud aware’. We’ve already put in the API’s in our SDK so the game can query ‘am I streaming?’ So if they wanted to, they can make on the fly adjustments of changing font sizes or putting some of their latency mitigation code from the multiplayer stack over to the input stack. 

And then eventually, as part of a multi year journey, we get to this notion of being a cloud native game, one that runs holistically in the cloud, and then streams to multiple endpoints. And so that’s the arc that we’re on right now. And we’re starting with a platform that supports the over 3,000 games that run on Xbox today.

How do you see your competition in the space?

We really think the key ingredients are the three C’s: content, community and cloud. We’ve got a phenomenal first-party cloud in Azure with 54 regions, 140 countries, an incredible incredible asset. We have the content library, both first-party and third-party and the Game Pass subscription. And we’ve got the vibrant multiplayer community already. So I think any company that wants to be successful in the streaming space, I believe they’re going to need significant investment, history, heritage and success across all three of those at the same time, and combine them in the right way. I like our position across those three.

Anything fun you’ve learned during the preview to date?

Choudry: My favourite one was when we launched in our preview, we started noticing that some of our Xbox Live anti-cheat detection was triggering, and it took us a little bit to figure out why. Turns out because you’re playing on a console that’s housed in the data centre, it’s ping time to the server is incredibly low, sometimes zero milliseconds. And the algorithms that we’ve made to detect cheating over the years are like, hey, that’s not something that should happen. Like it was never before realistic for a client to have a zero millisecond ping time. So we had to actually go in and update some of our anti-cheat detection. And that’s just part of the fun of being out there and being in preview.

Gluckstein: And just some fun things for the UK market. Our UK South data centre has actually been our busiest data centre of all the markets that we’re serving. And the key time that people are playing is between eight and 10 at night.

With ease of access, are we going to see gamers with less experience than console owners and how are you going to ease them in, especially those without controller experience?

Gluckstein: Absolutely, it is something that we think about a lot. Right now within preview, we’re live with the controller, but we are looking at what a touch controller would look like. And you know, there’s a lot of work around that. We also put the API out to the development community, because we think that’s where the real genius is going to come in terms of when they build games and you’re absolutely right. We’re needing to think in different ways than we have about our community. And I think that just opens up tremendous opportunity all round.

Choudry: What we will probably do is take more of a platform approach where, ‘hey, how can we generically map a controller to touch controls’, but while at the same time leveraging our heritage within the game development community to enable them, what controls do you want in your game? And the system that we’ve set up is that that’s something that they’re able to work on and rev without having to modify their game as well. It all happens on the client, so they don’t have to crack open the bits, they don’t have to redevelop their game, it’s really just working can be done on top of it.

This was a group interview, with thanks to Chris Dring, GI.biz and Vic Hood, Gamesradar, for their questions and input. 

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