Microsoft details how xCloud will let you play Xbox games on an Android phone

Image: Microsoft

Google may have stolen the show at this year’s Game Developer Conference with its Stadia cloud gaming reveal, but Microsoft is hard at work on its own service, xCloud, that it’s already testing now. At a GDC developer session yesterday, Microsoft representatives from the xCloud team gave us a little more detail into how games designed for Xbox consoles will translate over to mobile devices, where players might be used to either a Bluetooth controller or on-screen touch controls.

xCloud, like Stadia, is designed to be a cloud gaming service that will stream high-quality, console and PC-grade experiences to any screen. Microsoft is starting with its existing Xbox library of games, with a focus on first-party titles like Forza Horizon 4, and Android phones, given Microsoft’s willingness these days to work across operating systems and platforms. (It’s also worth pointing out that Microsoft no longer has a phone platform of its own.)

Of course, streaming a game designed to be played on a controller to a mobile device, where users might be without a Bluetooth controller and using touch controls instead, will present a bit of a challenge. According to Gus Apostol, a principal program manager working on xCloud, the way that will work without requiring developers to entirely rearchitect their games is through a set of xCloud-specific developer tools, including the Touch Adaptation Kit tool and Microsoft’s cloud aware APIs.

The Touch Adaptation Kit will be a way for developers to easily apply touchscreen controls to a game designed to be played with a controller or mouse and keyboard. Microsoft says all developers will need is a JSON, or JavaScript Object Notation, file to map the required inputs into a transparent overlay, like you’d get with a standard ported mobile game that’s been rebuilt to work on iOS or Android. Although in this case, it’s happening over Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform, and so it requires much less digging into the game’s code than if you were to port the game with native touch controls.

As for the cloud aware APIs, Microsoft says it’s developing them specially to take advantage of how xCloud users might play a game on mobile devices. That includes the implantation of new save states in the event that people register shorter play sessions in a game not originally designed for bite-sized playing. The APIs will also let developers easily adjust visual interface items like text legibility and menu layout, so that they function better on smaller screens.

We still don’t know much else about xCloud in its current form. Apostol wouldn’t say anything about when the service is supposed to arrive or even when it might be open to beta testers. However, following Google’s Stadia reveal, Xbox chief Phil Spencer sent out a division-wide memo, since leaked to Thurrott.com, that illustrated that Microsoft was closely paying attention to the competition.

“Google went big today and we have a couple of months until E3 when we will go big,” Spencer wrote in the memo. “We have to stay agile and continue to build with our customer at the center. We have the content, community, cloud team and strategy, and as I’ve been saying for a while, it’s all about execution. This is even more true today.”

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Microsoft, add Xbox One streaming to the Android app already. I don’t want to hear about xCloud to Android, but just local streaming that is still locked down to Windows 10 PCs only. (edit: Actually, add an Xbox streaming app to Nintendo Switch as well.)

Also, with the rumors of Microsoft adding native Xbox One game compatibility in the latest Windows 10 previews (testing with State of Decay), it seems like maybe that won’t be a consumer facing option, but rather for xCloud streaming to include both PC and Xbox (exclusive) games.

I wish there were either a gaming specific SKU or "mode" for Windows. Give me a launcher either that is or has a Steam Big Screen mode-like setup (TV friendly) that can run games from Windows Store, Steam, uPlay, Origin, Battle.Net, Epic, etc. either through keyboard/mouse or controller and when I do launch a game, none of the window to full screen flip thing: make it look seamless like with Xbox (ie, go straight to running in full screen, black screen until it is ready to roll preroll branding items is totally fine).

Oh, I’d love that. I have a PC that is for gaming specifically and I do use controller, but can I do this end to end? Not without a custom launcher and some configuration.

I could have sworn that the concept of ‘game mode’ was written about, or mentioned by Microsoft at some time, but I can’t find any reference.

Your idea is very interesting….

They have game mode, but it seems more of a performance thing. I don’t know the specifics, but essentially anything running in the background that isn’t mandatory is throttled to allow your game to get full resources. Think that’s the extent of it though (good as it is, not knocking it)

When the Win10 reveal was happening, The Verge’s writeup made it seem like your Steam library would sync into it or some such, but essentially it only works if you check at install to make start menu shortcut.

Are you guys thinking about Game Mode through the game bar? It works, and you can apply it to anything the system will accept as a "game". It’s not life-changing, but MS has been doing work to make the experience of playing a game better. Pausing notifications automatically, firing up the game bar when something is detected. Letting you do things like record or broadcast games directly. And all of that on Steam games too. I don’t think they’re that far off that they need a whole new SKU.

You are talking about CShell, ala Composable Shell, where one of it’s composers could be a gaming shell that acts as a neutral aggregator.

Google built the 7500+ POPs with each connected by fiber. Versus everyone else connected using the public Internet. When gaming at home you should not even hit the public internet. This also gives a very consistent amount of latency.

So Google can offer much lower latency. Which should give a better user experience.

I think it’s safe to assume MS will have POPs as well. They already have them for Azure, so it’s not a stretch to assume they will have POPs for Xcloud.

It is going to take a LOT more tan multiple POP’s to make the experience equivalent to what we get with the console experience today. Anything sub par to that is going to be disappointing…

I don’t see big game developers producing content for Google. They have their hands tied with Playstation, Xbox and PC. Also, look at what Epic did. They completely bypassed Google. Why would anyone want to pay Google for something they have no experience in.

Yea.. I see this angle talked about relatively very little. Google is building on Linux.. that means major game devs now have to target another completely different platform, ones with machines that are at least slightly different than normal consumer machines (for better and worse). I have no doubt we’ll see some awesome Stadia-exclusive experiences. But, I’m just not sure multi-platform developers will see this and think it’s a worthwhile proposition right off the bat.

It will probably depend on how Google pays them, what their cut is.

But no AAA third party dev will want to put up games on a subscription service on day one. Only MS does it with first party, and indie third party titles recently. xCloud will have advantage where the same games compiled for Xbox Anaconda will work with xCloud. GameCore will help them build games that can cover PC, console, xCloud.

Don’t choke on all of that koolaid.

"It’s also worth pointing out that Microsoft no longer has a phone platform of its own."

Where oh where is Surface phone? Andromeda?

If xCloud is a part of Gamepass for $10 a month, then I think it will be a big hit. To be able to play from anywhere using any device sounds good to me.

also if it’s part of Xbox Live Gold. If Gold members can stream all the digital games they already own then that’s a big win for Xcloud.

They need to tidy up the gold gamepass link. You can currently have gamepass on its own but cant play online multiplayer games. That makes even less sense if games are streamed.

agreed. make multiplayer free for everyone on Xbox Live. Include Xcloud under Gold and you give users an incentive to continue on with Gold + the games with gold and sales with gold.

But.. Xbox Live makes boatloads yachtloads of money. I get it, but I always kinda look askance at people expecting MS to drop Gold, when relatively few people are complaining about it and lots of people are happy to pay for it. Heck, people seem generally ok with paying for Nintendo’s new pretty-dang-subpar online service too (but, that might just be in the bubble that I frequent). It pays for so many other things in the Xbox division, and is a big part of why making expensive console hardware is still profitable.

But.. Xbox Live makes boatloads yachtloads of money. I get it, but I always kinda look askance at people expecting MS to drop Gold, when relatively few people are complaining about it and lots of people are happy to pay for it. Heck, people seem generally ok with paying for Nintendo’s new pretty-dang-subpar online service too (but, that might just be in the bubble that I frequent). It pays for so many other things in the Xbox division, and is a big part of why making expensive console hardware is still profitable.I wouldn’t complain, of course, but I actually expect MS to expand even further. Take a Netflix approach, and allow access to Gold benefits across a certain number of multiple platforms with a standard subscription. But what do I know. They might still drop it.

This. xCloud should be an integrated benefit of both GamePass and Xbox live gold.

Stadia’s controller is actually genius. Besides reducing latency, it basically makes every device "compatible" with the Stadia controller. Even a Samsung fridge if they really wanted.

Microsoft added Bluetooth to their newer Xbox one controllers I guess for a similar purpose. That covers all phones and most things like Android TV boxes and fire sticks, there aren’t many devices with WiFi but no Bluetooth. Google’s WiFi version on paper sounds better though especially if the latency claims are true.

There’s nothing to stop Microsoft from copying that idea (WiFi controllers) if they need to. Except (I suppose) Microsoft’s ego.

this has gone back to the 360 days. The reason the 360 and Xbox One use 2.4 GHz controllers (the common frequency of Wifi) was cost and latency. Using 2.4 GHz, the latency was something like 7 ms to 11 ms. Using Bluetooth (which the PS3 and PS4 used), the latency was closer to 30 ms.

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