Xbox Project xCloud's coolest thing is its approach to phones

Xbox Project xCloud
Xbox Project xCloud (Image credit: Microsoft)

Few things make me want to never play a mobile game quite like the words "on-screen gamepad," being such a universally awful experience. But it doesn't have to be that way, as proven by Microsoft at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) while showcasing its Project xCloud plans. For developers, a key component of the xCloud experience is what Microsoft has dubbed the "Touch Adaptation Kit," and how it'll make any Xbox game feel more natural for phones.

It's a huge deal, and something only Microsoft has spelled out in such clear and understandable terms. Here's how it works, and why it matters.

No controller needed for Project xCloud

When most think of playing an Xbox One game on your phone, there's a general lean towards using a physical gamepad. But having to walk around with your controller at all times is absurd, and doesn't address the generation of gamers growing up with a glass screen as their first input method. Instead of shying away from this, the xCloud team has fully embraced the concept and come up with an incredibly elegant solution.

It starts with the standard Xbox controller layout, represented on the screen. Every button, present on the glass.

Not a great look, if we're all being honest. A lot is going on here, and for a lot of Xbox games you end up needing to use a bunch of these buttons at the same time, which you can't do with just your thumbs. So instead, developers can tweak this layout to suit the immediate needs of the player at the time. In some cases, like Cuphead, this is super easy.

You don't need a ton of buttons for Cuphead, and there's no real demand for the full controller button labels on the screen. So instead, you get the icons for what those buttons do and a single simple joystick. It looks way better.

And for more complicated games like Forza Horizon 4, you don't have to use the traditional controller layouts or button styles. Instead of a joystick, you get a steering wheel icon with left and right curves. On glass, it makes way more sense and makes even this busy controller layout a lot more manageable.

It's a huge deal to create an environment where there's a lot of room for developers to play around and offer a unique experience.

Glimpsing at the glass future

The plans for this kind of input variation go far and wide. It will be possible for you to use standard touch inputs for things like menus or pinch to zoom for in-game maps. Developers will be able to give access to these tools with relative ease, according to Microsoft.

But the coolest thing, in my opinion, was a glimpse of the future. During the demo, Microsoft described ways in which Halo on your phone might work, and it was super exciting.

The xCloud approach feels new and exciting, and wow do I suddenly want to play Halo on my phone. I never thought I would say that.

You do a lot of different things in a game like Halo, so what would it be like if the controller layout was always adapting to Master Chief's current needs? What if your controller layout was optimized for vehicle combat when you were in a Scorpion or optimized for turret combat when you were on the back of a Warthog? What if the controller layout for tactical combat was unique, so when you were hurling grenades or sniping from a distance it's standalone experience inside the larger game on your phone? What if the controls disappeared entirely in the middle of a cut scene, and return once you spring back into action?

This is what the xCloud team is thinking about, and it feels so different from any other game streaming content plan right now. Microsoft seems to really get the idea of gaming where you are, instead of forcing the player to adapt, and that's incredibly promising. We still need to see game companies deliver on these experiences, of course, but for right now the xCloud approach feels new and exciting, and wow do I suddenly want to play Halo on my phone.

I never thought I would say that, which makes me feel this whole xCloud thing is probably on the right path.

Xbox Project xCloud game streaming: Everything we know

Russell Holly

Russell is a tech nerd who chases the best of everything, from phones to game consoles to laptops and everything glowing or beeping. He's the Managing Editor of gaming content for Mobile Nations and can be found contributing to all of the Mobile Nations sites. Reach out on Twitter!