Here’s why Microsoft’s Xbox Project xCloud feels like the future of video games

"The Netflix of video games" dream lives on

I’ve been fascinated by the potential of video game streaming since now-defunct platforms OnLive and Gaikai experimented with the technology in the mid-to-late 2000s.

I spent time with PlayStation Now last year and, most recently, Stadia, Google’s streaming effort. While both services have several strengths and weaknesses — for example, PlayStation Now’s library is impressive, while Stadia’s is lacklustre at best — the concept of game streaming hasn’t truly clicked for me until Microsoft’s Project xCloud.

I’ve spent the last few days playing Project xCloud’s beta at home, at the MobileSyrup office and during my lengthy commute, which includes spending time at Toronto’s Union Station and on the Go Train. While the experience isn’t perfect, it’s been mostly resoundingly positive.

The magic of xCloud is that it allows me to take marquee Xbox titles I actually want to play on the go with me. The beta version of the service includes notable games spanning across several genres, including the following: Sea of Thieves, Wreckfest, Gears 5, Halo 5 and even Halo: The Master Chief Collection

As someone who grew up with Halo and has a nostalgic connection to the franchise, being able to play almost any game in the long-running series nearly wherever I want is truly mind-blowing. It’s one of those rare instances in the tech space where a 14-year-old version of myself wouldn’t be able to comprehend that it’s now possible to play any Halo game from my smartphone.

Whether playing games over data or a weak Wi-Fi connection, even in beta the experience was relatively stable. There were bouts of lag in certain areas of my home while playing more graphically intensive games like Halo 5 and Wreckfest, particularly with online multiplayer. I also experienced instances when the resolution would lower, where my connection would disappear entirely, and substantial artifacting, especially when on mobile data. There’s controller input lag, too, though I found it generally less noticeable than it is with Stadia and PlayStation Now.

Also, my dream of playing Xbox games on the Go train also isn’t exactly possible right now. While my mobile data connection is mostly stable as the train chugs along, there are instances where it completely drops. Since xCloud delivers games over the internet and the quality is dependent on the speed of your connection, the game was unplayable several times throughout my approximately 50-minute commute.

So while xCloud is far from perfect, the overall experience was superior to my time with PlayStation Now and Stadia.

Several questions remain unanswered about the platform. For one, when does Microsoft plan to expand beyond just Android devices to iOS, iPadOS and, more importantly, Chromecast and other smart television platforms?

Being able to hook my trusty Pixel 4 XL up to an Xbox One controller, complete with a mount that affixes the smartphone in the perfect position, fulfills my childhood dream of wanting to be able to play Halo: Combat Evolved on the go nearly anywhere. Still, there are certain games I’d primarily want to play on a larger display.

While xCloud features several titles I’m interested in, Wreckfest, a spiritual successor to the classic Destruction Derby franchise, is the game I’ve found myself playing the most. I can’t help but wonder what the game would look like on a TV when running through xCloud. Games also sync across the cloud, which means you can start a title at home and continue playing on-the-go, similar to the Nintendo Switch. The experience with this, again, wasn’t entirely perfect. I had saved files fail to sync in some instances, and my progress disappear altogether the next time I launched a title through xCloud.

There are also other concerns about Microsoft’s game streaming effort, particularly in the context of Canada. While the affordability of substantial mobile data plans has improved significantly over the last few years, xCloud still eats up a sizeable number of gigabytes in a short period, amounting to roughly 2GB per hour depending on the game you’re playing.

Pricing is also unknown since the service is still in beta. Will xCloud adopt the “Netflix of gaming” model similar to Game Pass? Or, is Microsoft planning to take an approach similar to Google’s Stadia, charging an outright cost, with subscribers still needing to buy each title individually? As it stands, Microsoft hasn’t revealed its future pricing plans for the service. I’d much rather pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to every title on xCloud than purchase each game on its own.

This is part of why Stadia hasn’t resonated with me yet despite being available on more platforms; most of the games on Google’s streaming service are older or titles that I have no interest in playing, which makes shelling out the full price for them a tough sell.

One thing particularly fascinating about xCloud is that Microsoft isn’t positioning the service as the only future for video games. The company has Game Pass, its Xbox and PC game subscription platform, and the Xbox Series X is still on the horizon.

Microsoft is positioning xCloud as just another way to play Xbox titles, bringing a level of versatility to video games that has never existed in the past.

Now, excuse me while I get a few minutes of classic Halo 2: Anniversary multiplayer while on lunch. The future of gaming finally feels like it’s here.

MobileSyrup has several other Project xCloud stories worth checking out up on the site right now, including Brad Shankar’s impressions of the streaming platform, as well as an interview with two leads on the project. Anyone who has applied to get into the xCloud beta will likely start getting confirmation emails shortly.

Note: Microsoft also offers the ability to stream games directly from your Xbox console over Wi-Fi and data. I found the experience far more glitchy, laggy and, in most cases, unplayable. That said, it’s great that the option is available, especially since not every game is likely to hit xCloud. Hopefully, these problems are fixed in a future update.