Microsoft is in the middle of readying a batch of new Xbox “Scarlett” consoles to go up against Sony’s next-generation PlayStation 5 and the exceedingly popular Nintendo Switch. But its most exciting gaming product isn’t its new console, it’s arguably its new game streaming service, called Project xCloud, that it says will let gamers play AAA titles on any device anywhere in the world.
The company debuted the service in October of last year, stating it was designed to work across various consoles, PCs, and even mobile devices like iPhones and Android phones. On March 12, the company demonstrated Project xCloud for the first time, streaming Forza Horizon 4 from its Azure datacenters to an Android device attached to an Xbox controller, which can be seen in the video above. During the demo, CEO Satya Nadella promised that public trials for the service would go live later in 2019.
There hasn’t been an official word as to when Microsoft plans on releasing the product, but it is definitely laying the groundwork: During a March 14 media event, it announced it would make the Xbox Live network available on iOS and Android devices through a new cross-platform software development kit (SDK).
The SDK will allow app developers to bring features like achievements, Gamescore, and friend lists to mobile users. This is a crucial first step toward expanding Microsoft’s horizons in gaming without replacing consoles, explained Kareem Choudhry, Microsoft’s chief VP of cloud gaming, during the Forza demo.
“We’re developing Project xCloud not as a replacement for game consoles, but as a way to provide the same choice and versatility that lovers of music and video enjoy today,” he said. “We’re adding more ways to play Xbox games.”
Here’s everything we know about Project xCloud:
Project xCloud: Launch Date
The awaited streaming service is rumored to be tied to the upcoming Xbox Scarlett releases. Microsoft is rumored to be working on two variants for its next-generation consoles, code named “Anaconda” and “Lockhart.”
Lockhart is expected to be a lower-cost model that could make up for lack of power by leveraging cloud computing from Microsoft’s datacenters. The CEO of semiconductor company AMD, told CNBC that the company is partnering with Microsoft to create a cloud-centric console.
“We’re partnered with them in game consoles – I think we have a vision of where cloud computing is going, and we’re working closely with them,” she said. “We’re working with both Sony and Microsoft on consoles, and they both have their specific secret sauce that we’re helping them do.”
If xCloud is Lockhart’s “secret sauce,” then gamers might not see it until 2020. Piers Harding-Rolls, the Director of Research and Analysis Games at IHS Markit previously told Inverse that he’s not expecting a “proper unveiling” for the Scarlett consoles until the first half of 2020.
Project xCloud: When Do Trials Begin?
Interested users might not need to wait that long to give xCloud a test drive. A third console, named “Xbox Maverick,” is also reportedly in the works and has been described as a disc-less device that could be available for pre-order in April 2019, according to reporting by Windows Central
It would be the first major console to ditch CDs or cartridges, and it could be the piece of hardware that lets gamers participate in the public trials of xCloud. Maverick is said to be separate from next-generation Xbox consoles, sort of a piece of stop-gap tech to gain an early edge on Sony and Nintendo. But its release could still be what initiates xCloud’s public tests.
Project xCloud: Price
Microsoft hasn’t announced how much it would charge for an xCloud subscription, but there are a few available services to serve as hints.
Xbox Game Pass is described as the “Netflix of video games” and lets Xbox and PC users play a range of Xbox One and Xbox 360 games for $9.99 per month. xCloud will essentially be an upgraded version of this pass since it’ll work on more platforms, so it’ll likely cost more than $10.
Sony and Nvidia offer similar services, called PlayStation Now and GeForce Now respectively. Sony’s service costs $19.99 per month while Nvidia’s charges a hefty $25 for every 20 hours of streaming. It’s more likely that Microsoft will take up a similar price as PlayStation Now, seeing as it’s xCloud’s direct competitor. So a monthly fee of somewhere between $15 to $25 should be expected.
These estimates don’t take into account that Xbox Maverick or Lockhart might be require hardware to run xCloud, which would likely cost hundreds of dollars.
Project xCloud: When’s the Next Update?
Microsoft has begun ramping up the xCloud teasers lately. We could get a major announcement, and even an Xbox Maverick teaser, at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) next week. The company has scheduled an xCloud media event on March 21 that will discuss the “future of streaming games on mobile devices.”
It will be a pay-to-attend event so it’s unclear if a live stream will be offered. But a more cohesive plan expected to be laid out for attendees.
Project xCloud: How It’ll Work
xCloud will directly benefit anyone who wants to play graphically demanding games but doesn’t want to splash out thousands for a PC or a console.
So far, it looks like Microsoft has stripped down multiple Xbox One consoles and placed their parts into an array of server blades, to the according video below. xCloud users will simply select a game to run on their phone, the servers would then start it up, and stream the visuals right to the users’ phone.
A big possible downside here is input latency. Every time a player presses a button, that information needs to be sent to the server and the in-game action needs to be sent back to the users in a never-ending loop. All that back and forth could result in a laggy experience if their internet connection isn’t optimal. However, there’s been chatter that Microsoft is working on a hybridized solution, according to Thurrott.
The publication reports that xCloud would stream all of the graphically-intensive aspects of a game through the internet, while input latency will be dealt with locally. Hardware would be necessary to pull this off, which suggests that users might need to buy either Xbox Maverick and Lockhart to use xCloud, at least at first.
Project xCloud: What Devices It’ll Work On
Microsoft is casting a wide next for xCloud compatible devices. It will include: all Android devices, PCs, and Xboxes from the get go. Seeing that the company has made Xbox Live available on iOS devices means iPhone and iPads on next.
The company is even said to want to make the Xbox Live feature available on PlayStations and the Nintendo Switch, though for this they’ll need approval and it’s not looking good.
“Our goal is to really unite the 2 billion gamers of the world and we’re big fans of our Xbox Live community, but we don’t have any specific announcements as it relates to Switch,” Microsoft’s Choudhry told The Verge.
Project xCloud: Available Games
Microsoft’s GDC keynote description suggests that all Xbox One Games will be able to be streamed on xCloud. It reads:
“Project xCloud is an open platform with a customizable client user design experience where streaming starts with Xbox game developers not having to modify a single line of existing game code.”
The company has already shown off: Forza Horizon 4, Halo 5: Guardians, Gears of War 4, Sea of Thieves, and Cuphead streaming on xCloud. There are plenty more titles where those came from.
Project xCloud: Who’s the Competition?
As previously mentioned, Sony and Nvidia already have similar services, and there’s another on the horizon: Google’s Project Stream. Similarly to xCloud’s vision, the search giant wants to enable gamers to play big-name titles on their Chrome browser.
A beta version of Project Stream was already tested in October of last year in a trial that lasted until January 15, 2019. Google gave testers a chance to play a full version of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey straight from their browsers, no downloading or installing required, and early adopters responded positively.
Project Stream has also been said to be shipping with a low-cost console to enable latency-free gameplay. Kotaku reported last June that this companion hardware will be full-fledged console, instead of a Chromecast-like dongle, news was also reported by The Information.
xCloud has some stiff competition. But bringing graphically demanding games to the hundreds of millions of smartphones in the U.S. could be what it takes to stand out from the rest.