Cloud gaming is the undeniably industry-altering shadow looming over this year’s E3 video game conference. Paired with the rise of subscription services, the idea of running games from remote servers could not only change how they’re are played, distributed and sold, but even how games are developed, thanks to the promise of running software off the equivalent of multiple consoles strung together.
The two frontrunners in the race are Google and Microsoft, two of the tech industry’s most powerful companies and two of the largest players in the existing cloud computing market. Both have the infrastructure, the expertise, and the resources to get cloud gaming off the ground, and we’re seeing that right now as Microsoft’s xCloud and Google Stadia transition from fledgling prototypes into full-blown products. Both platforms were here at E3, and I got to try them both — theoretically letting me give you insight into the cloud gaming future.
This might be the part of the article where you’d expect a hands-on comparison of xCloud and Stadia, with a list of pros and cons, like which service will have more and better games. You might have read an article or two already comparing the latency levels and debating which will win the impending cloud gaming race.
I’m not going to do that. I do have hands-on impressions with both Stadia and xCloud: They both work, they’re both impressive, and I’ll share more below. But you can’t properly compare xCloud with Stadia right now, and trying to do so is unfair to both Microsoft and Google.
As much as Microsoft wants xCloud to be as ambitious as Stadia, it’s impossible to ignore that they are fundamentally different platforms with different aims and in very disparate levels of readiness. For instance, the xCloud demo on the floor of the Microsoft Theater was just a handful of smartphones, playing various Xbox One games like Halo 5: Guardians and Forza Horizon 4. Each was rigged up to foldable controller grips, so you could just angle the screen appropriately and then hold the gamepad to play.
It worked smoothly, with little to no latency and at a resolution that I’m told was 720p and 60 fps. That said, the extent of xCloud’s readiness basically stops at “it works,” and that might be because Microsoft is fundamentally lagging behind Google.
Microsoft announced xCloud last year in October, right about the same time Google opened public trials for its Project Stream beta test that would create the foundation for Stadia. Google already had a splashy reveal at the Game Developers Conference in March, and it already held a virtual press conference to announce Stadia’s price, release date and games earlier this month. Microsoft isn’t as far along, and possibly for good reason: Cloud gaming is an unproven technology with a questionable business model, and a lot of pieces have to fit into place if it will ever compete with consoles, mobile gaming, or playing downloaded titles on PC.
Microsoft has also has different goals for xCloud right now. The company is primarily designing the platform to stream Xbox games to mobile devices, which you would then play with a controller or some type of onscreen touch interface, as Microsoft detailed back at GDC. Microsoft hasn’t yet shared a model for how xCloud would be packaged and sold, how games will make their way onto the platform, or how xCloud is supposed to go beyond mobile devices and work on televisions, laptops, or streaming set-top boxes. We won’t see a public test of xCloud until October, and while it’s fair to assume it will be much further along by then, we just don’t know and can’t assume it will be anything more than a technical trial to test xCloud’s viability — a full year after Google did the same.
Google’s Stadia is basically the other end of the cloud gaming spectrum. It’s designed to work mainly on browser windows and through a Chromecast TV dongle, although it will support Pixel devices at launch. It’s also, in Google’s eyes, close to ready for prime time. It’s launching a “founder’s edition” package and subscription in November, and will launch a free tier for everyone to access in 2020. Games will be bundled with a Stadia Pro subscription, or they can be bought outright and used on the platform as if it were a console or PC. You’ll also be able to access other companies’ subscription services on top of Stadia, like Ubisoft’s recently announced UPlay Pro.
None of this means Google is necessarily in a better position, though. Microsoft is actually in a fantastic place to take advantage of every part of its business once cloud gaming is fully ready.
It has the Azure cloud platform to run xCloud, an Xbox Game Pass subscription to deliver games, and a next-gen console called Project Scarlett that, when linked together and put in an Azure data center, could deliver comparable or even better performance than the 10.7 teraflops Google is promising with Stadia. Microsoft also has the built-in developer base and relationships to draw from — even if Google has poached quite a few PlayStation experts from Sony — and Xbox chief Phil Spencer even said onstage at the Xbox E3 press conference last week that any studio making an Xbox game is also by default making an xCloud title. But all of that is far off. Right now, xCloud is a future beta test of a limited service that’s still six months away from the public even getting a chance to try an early beta.
The other big issue is that grading a cloud gaming experience, especially at a trade show like E3, is just not a realistic way of talking about how well they’ll work for you, or how well they’ll work for the millions of people that may use them next year.
I tried Stadia earlier this week at the YouTube Gaming space here in downtown Los Angeles, and I was pleased with the experience. But Stadia was on a hardwired, private connection plugged into a Pixelbook, pretty much the nicest Chromebook you can buy, and streaming from a remote Google data center at an undisclosed location under conditions that were entirely under Google’s control.
With Microsoft, conditions were slightly more realistic, but still not like playing at home. I got to try Halo 5 on a wireless connection, with Microsoft’s demo hosted on a Microsoft data center located in the SF Bay Area, easily 300 miles from the show.
But I also don’t know what the internet connection speeds were in either demo, or exactly how the games I was playing were being streamed. For instance, I played Doom Eternal on Stadia, but Google didn’t say if it was a PC version of the game on medium or high settings, a console version with performance caps baked in, or a custom version.
The xCloud demo presumably streamed Forza Horizons 4 and Halo 5: Guardians directly from the Xbox One S server blades the platform is currently using, for a more apples-to-apples comparison with console. But I have no info on the performance levels of those titles beyond that they were running at about 720p, and that’s because they were streaming to Android smartphones and not to HD or 4K televisions.
That leaves us with a lot of incomplete information. Comparing the latency levels of xCloud and Stadia doesn’t mean much when the internet connections might be in completely different leagues, or the test environments have radically different interference levels. And why bother comparing the potential success of Stadia, a platform technically far along but with only a small amount of game developer support, to xCloud, a less technically sophisticated platform that could, in just a year or so, sign up hundreds of partners with ease?
It’s far too early right now to judge where cloud gaming will go. There’s no telling how the economics will shake out for developers, how integral subscription services like Xbox Game Pass will be, and just how hungry consumers are for services like this. Cloud gaming has sometimes been described as a solution to a problem nobody has right now. And that rings very true even after trying both xCloud and Stadia and coming away impressed by both.
Microsoft imagines playing your Xbox games anywhere, on any device. But right now it thinks you’ll do that with an Xbox controller and your phone affixed to it via an adapter. And Google wants to be able play on any laptop, phone or TV with a connection as slow as 10 Mbps. But who’s really going to want to do that when they have to buy the game, don’t get a physical or digital copy to use offline, and are stuck within the confines of the Stadia platform?
Cloud gaming is an exciting technology that really could change everything about how we access, buy, and play games. But it’s early days, and Google and Microsoft have much to work out before we can say we’re living in that future, instead of just brushing up against early prototypes of it.