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 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!

20 Comments
  • I'm interested to see how Google plans to use Lynx Vulkan based PC UI with tiny context menus and text requiring mouse input on a phone.
  • Kind of like how Xbox One could run on Windows 10, with it's context menus and mouse input text fields.
  • Certainly more gamer focussed than Stadia
  • I'd like to know how. They are both streaming services as far as concern goes.
  • Don't know what Google used in Stadia but Xbox invested in techs like AI predicting user inputs in the cloud and co-rendering techniques, to reduce latency.
  • I feel as though Google is just looking for another way to data mine the hell out of users. Can you imagine how they will build even more of your profile based on how you play games. I wouldn't be surprised if you got flagged with a disorder if you generally decide to take dark or murderous paths in games.
  • You sound like a moronic fanboy.
  • This is really good, but I'm excited at the prospect of playing with a controller.
  • Me too. I'm already carrying a xb1 BT gamepad btw.
    And there were rumors, saying MS might be preparing a portable version of xb gamepad.
  • I hope that still come at 2019 for costumers. I loved it!
  • Nah, not gonna knock it, but a single screen device with touch controls doesn't feel fitting. If they work with a dual screen device with triggers on the bottom that would be more interesting to try
  • I'd rather see companies try to make more phone accessories for gaming but even though that layout was crazy, I did kinda love it a lot! Altho your right about the adaptive layouts being a much better play...
  • This sounds great like actually someone really thought about how to adapt full-fledged games input controls accordingly to a touchscreen. I'm excited for what Microsoft is cooking up!
  • I just find nothing fun about gaming on a phone. I have tried a number of different games, and there is simply zero fun in it. None.
  • Yes, and the few Games that I found vaguely enjoyable have quickly gotten extremely tedious or boring. I definitely don't want to fill the entire screen with controls, it's bad enough when it's just the bottom of the screen! Thankfully we live in world of USB and Bluetooth for external devices!
  • Yikes, onscreen keyboards on small devices typically suck.
  • MS has been trying to solve the issue of translating gamepad controls to touchscreens since the days of pushing Xbox Live on WP7 so they're way farther along than I'd say most others are. Ultimately no solution is going to be ideal but realistically the most common scenario you're going to be using this is when you're out and about so it doesn't have to be perfect. You always have the option of connecting a controller but sometimes that's too much of a hassle if you just want to pull out your phone and play something on the train or wherever and I think this could be an important difference maker compared to stadia.
  • This is literally no different to playing mobile games now, funnily enough they already have different touch input interfaces that only focus on the inputs required for whatever game you are playing. Give me a cradle that attaches to my Xbox One controller that my phone can sit it, anything other than that and this is just going to be as terrible as gaming on phones already is (for big titles, not mobile specific).
  • Until there’s advanced haptic feedback technology, On screen keyboards are going to be horrible no matter how these companies try to spin it. I honestly don’t see any difference between these onscreen layout than other mobile games out there.
  • At the bottom of the article, the image is wrong or price is wrong, $30 only eyes is 3 months.