On Monday, Microsoft finally delivered two long-in-the-works updates for its Xbox Cloud Gaming Service (xCloud) that could mark a sea change for the future of cloud gaming.
One is that xCloud games are now powered by custom Xbox Series X hardware, a major upgrade from the Xbox One S consoles that have powered the service since its launch in September. This means xCloud now has faster load times, less latency, and higher-resolution 1080p streaming. But perhaps more importantly, xCloud is expanding from Android to iOS and PC via the web for anyone in 22 countries with an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription.
Taken together, the two updates mean that nearly anyone who has access to the service can play some of the biggest games on Xbox, including next-generation Xbox Series X games, right inside a browser across phones, tablets, laptops, PCs — and all for just $15 bucks a month, no $500 console required.
I’ve spent some more time with xCloud since the custom Xbox Series X server hardware started rolling out last week, and I’ve been impressed with the changes. Many games load quickly and look great on my MacBook Air or my iPhone 12 Mini. There is a small amount of latency, but it often isn’t too detrimental, especially if I’m playing something that doesn’t require fast reflexes or twitch aiming.
I should warn you that xCloud doesn’t exactly replicate the experience of playing a game on a Series X. There’s only a tiny amount of latency when I’m playing on my console, and for a close race in Forza Horizon 4 or a multiplayer match in Halo, I want as little latency as possible. xCloud peaks at 1080p resolution, and while that’s as high as my main gaming monitor goes (yes, I am in the market for a Real TV), if you want to play in 4K, you can’t do that with xCloud just yet. xCloud’s selection of more than 100 games, while a lot, doesn’t offer everything I might want to play. Fortnite isn’t on the service and neither is Microsoft’s own massive hit Minecraft.
While xCloud’s technology still can’t beat the responsiveness of playing on a console, what’s been more impressive to me is the way everything syncs from my Xbox Series X to xCloud because it’s all tied to my Xbox account. Ori and the Blind Forest loads right where I left off near the end of the game. I can hop into Nier: Automata’s overworld just to hear the game’s excellent music. If I want to play Psychonauts to bounce around the legendary (and unsettling) milkman level just for the heck of it, I can.
With xCloud, it’s easy to sample games quickly
I don’t have any of those games installed on my Series X right now, but with xCloud I can sample them all in the span of a few minutes right from my laptop or phone. And I could easily see myself testing something I’m interested in on xCloud before going through the process of installing a game onto my Series X for a full playthrough later. Browsing xCloud reminds me of cruising the vast amount of experiences in Roblox in that it’s easy to jump into anything that piques my interest, and if I don’t like it, I can quickly move on to something else.
This ability to dip in and out of games from the cloud isn’t particularly novel. It’s also easy to move from game to game on the collections of titles available on Amazon Luna’s channels or Google’s Stadia Pro subscription. But those platforms want you to invest in always playing via the cloud, which I don’t always want to do. (And after a certain amount of time, I’d probably hit a data cap.) xCloud, on the other hand, is more of an add-on to Xbox Game Pass that lets me play games that I already own or ones that are included as part of the subscription, and if I don’t want to play them streamed from the cloud, I can boot up my Series X.
I’d also argue that xCloud has a major leg up on Amazon and Google by offering a far more impressive selection of titles. And with big Xbox games like Halo Infinite and Bethesda’s Starfield, which will both presumably be available on xCloud, the service will only become a better value. Stadia’s roadmap is more bleak, especially since Google shut down its in-house development studios in February. I’m not aware of any exclusive games in the works for Luna, and Amazon already has a rather dismal track record with video games so far.
I won’t be moving full time to xCloud gaming quite yet. The latency is enough of an issue that I think I’ll usually want to play Xbox games directly on my Series X. But after the upgrades to xCloud announced Monday, the service is an excellent perk to the already great Xbox Game Pass subscription that makes it easier to play Xbox games over the cloud without having to think about it. The updates could be a big step toward bringing cloud gaming to more people after years of unfulfilled promise.