Microsoft today announced the first step in its much-awaited game streaming service in the form of Project xCloud. The service, for which closed trials are starting now, uses Xbox console components embedded into Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing centres to deliver console games to phones, tablets and beyond.
For developers, Kareem Choudhry, corporate vice president, Gaming Cloud, Microsoft, said in his blog post that: “[Developers] will be able to deploy and dramatically scale access to their games across all devices on Project xCloud with no additional work.”
More consumers with no additional development sounds like a dream, though obviously how Microsoft remunerates developers and publishers for streamed game time will quickly become the hot topic – as it is with Spotify and its ilk.
Microsoft’s Phil Spencer stood on stage at E3 this year and promised that such a service was in development, so it doesn’t come as a complete surprise. However, this is still a huge development in how games are delivered, if Microsoft can succeed where others have stumbled, and there’s good reason to believe that it can.
For starters, as the persuasive launch video points out, Microsoft has a combination of factors that no previous attempts, or potential competitors, have possessed.
It has a huge cloud-computing service in Azure, with data centres across the world. It has stable and affordable gaming hardware in the Xbox console, and the engineering ability to embed that hardware into server blades, in order to make for a cost efficient solution to providing games on a huge scale.
And it has the access to both publishers and consumers, with Xbox Game Pass being the obvious spearhead for the service, allowing subscribers (most likely for an additional fee) to play the games in that library, as well as games they may own on their accounts, on any compatible device – a list which obviously includes phones and tablets, but inevitably Windows laptops, low-spec PCs, TVs and set-top boxes.
That’s pretty much anything with a screen that you can get an Xbox controller to talk to. Though onscreen controls will also be available for those who don’t have a compatible controller.
The key issue for such services in the past has always been latency. Though arguably Microsoft has greater technical expertise and resources than any previous attempt at trying to crack this problem.
“Developers and researchers at Microsoft Research are creating ways to combat latency through advances in networking topology, and video encoding and decoding,” Choudhry said.
“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 bitrate that work across the widest possible networks, taking into consideration the uniqueness of every device and network.”
It’s a hugely exciting announcement, for both developers and publishers, potentially getting high-end console titles to more gamers, more conveniently, than ever before.