It was bound to happen sooner or later, but I didn't expect it to be this soon. I have completed a game from start to finish on Xbox Cloud Gaming, in something of a personal watershed moment for the viability of the nascent service.
I've long been an admirer and advocate of Xbox Cloud Gaming, which as of writing is part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Ever since the original leak back in 2012 that Microsoft was running Halo 4 on a Windows phone (RIP), the idea of being able to access all of my content from any device, at any time, was always an attractive one. Since then, we now have 5G connectivity bringing Wi-Fi-grade speeds to public places, folding smartphones with larger displays more ideal for gaming, and a range of Xbox cloud gaming mobile mounts and accessories to make gaming on the go more viable.
Generally speaking, since the pandemic, I've rarely had a decent reason to leave the house to even take advantage of that boost in mobility. But with the service now available on PC, I find myself using it more, and more, and more, particularly given that the latency is almost 1:1 on par with the real thing.
This past week, I found myself unwittingly moving from dabbling in Xbox Cloud Gaming, or using it as a backup, to actively opting for it. I rolled the credits on Eiyuden Chronicle: Rising, and did it entirely across multiple devices, without actually installing the game.
Given this personal milestone, I thought I'd offer some thoughts on its state in 2022, alongside my hopes for the future of the service.
Eiyuden Chronicle Rising: The perfect cloud game
One thing that tends to frustrate the Xbox Cloud Gaming experience is the fact a lot of games just are obviously not designed with touch or small screens in mind. The video encoding algorithm also has some limitations with 3D free-camera games, producing heavy artifacting or image tearing while rotating the camera, although this problem has gradually improved over time.
Obviously cloud gaming is subject to all sorts of potential points of failure, especially when the games aren't exactly designed for playing on phones. Whether its font sizes being too small to read, the gameplay being too twitchy for even small dips in latency, or touch UI elements overlapping on in-game elements, finding the right kinds of games to play is often part of the "fun." Thankfully, there is a wealth of games that are ideal for gaming on Xbox Cloud Gaming, and the list is growing every month.
Fixed-perspective games I find tend to work best with my internet setup. The image processing seems to perform better when it doesn't have to account for 3D camera movements. Isometric games like Minecraft Dungeons, or sidescrollers like Streets of Rage 4 fare well in the cloud, and games with turn-based combat like Gears Tactics can help offset any latency issues that may arise. I've often found that I don't feel like playing games that are too involved when I'm on the go, or on my phone, gravitating towards games that have soft or relatively brief gameplay loops that don't require huge amounts of attention, without huge time investment requirements.
Games like Hades have proven themselves to be great options in this regard, but the recently released Eiyuden Chronicle: Rising really had the right blend of light-hearted story, brief but addictive gameplay loops, and heavily latency-friendly action combat to completely suck me in.
Eiyuden Chronicle: Rising is a 2D hack 'n' slash prequel to next year's Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes. I was surprised to learn that Rising was essentially a Kickstarter stretch goal, and serves as something akin to a "big demo" to introduce the Eiyuden Chronicle world, built by the team behind the legendary Suikoden series.
In the game, you play as a team of adventurers on the hunt for ancient treasure. The game sets up the political landscape of the world alongside some of its magical cosmology, but what makes it so great for Xbox Cloud Gaming is its relatively forgiving side-scrolling combat, which affords players the ability to perform powerful and fun link-combo attacks that look every bit as spectacular as they feel to execute. Even with the added latency of the cloud and Bluetooth controllers.
The game's relatively simple, yet charming story complete with click-through dialogue boxes also lends itself well to gaming on mobile, which can be distraction-heavy with notifications popping up and the like. I never once felt compelled to fully install the game, given that Xbox Cloud Gaming has become stable and fast enough to offset the very need to do so.
Xbox Cloud Gaming is nearly ready for prime time
I found myself opting heavily for cloud for Eiyuden not only because it frees up the TV for other family members to use, but also because a European heatwave over the past few weeks made turning my Xbox on something I didn't really fancy. Both my Razer Blade laptop and my Xbox Series X output a non-trivial amount of heat while gaming, made all the worse by the lack of domestic air conditioning in Europe. While running games from the cloud on my PC or on my phone, the ambient temperature of the room was noticeably lower, as an unexpected side benefit. It also meant I didn't have to take up space on my HDD or deal with installing/uninstalling the game after I was done, a small but welcome convenience.
These are some very trivial problems potentially it's solving for me, though. Xbox Cloud Gaming presents a far bigger opportunity for others, particularly in territories where console and PC prices are by far and away too cost-prohibitive for most to buy, either due to local tax laws or tariffs, or any other number of factors. Growing economies like India and Brazil where "core" mobile gaming is incredibly popular present a huge opportunity for Xbox Cloud Gaming, and I've heard from sources within Microsoft that Xbox Game Pass' cloud services are leading to double-digit growth in some of these areas. And indeed, we exclusively revealed that Microsoft is working on a streaming device codenamed Keystone, which would be ideal in some of these scenarios.
As a kid, there was simply no way neither I nor my parents could afford to give me the same kind of access to core games as I do now as an adult — a service like Xbox Game Pass cloud would have given me far more games to play, ensuring that I always had access to the right hardware alongside it, for a far lower barrier to entry.
As global internet infrastructure improves, and Microsoft continues to refine its servers and encoding algorithms, we're getting to a point where Xbox Cloud Gaming can focus entirely on user acquisition and growth. And the potential for Microsoft, developers, and gamers, is truly huge.
The cloud promise is coming true
Xbox Game Pass and its cloud service still have a few issues to solve. I've argued in the past that there should be an Xbox Game Pass "lite" tier that focuses entirely on the cloud for users who don't have a PC or console. Microsoft is also potentially exploring an Xbox Game Pass Family Plan as well to further reduce the cost burden on families who want to share the service. There's also the matter of server load too; how many concurrent users can Azure support right now? If Microsoft slapped an Xbox Game Pass cloud app on smart TVs and started advertising it more heavily, would the servers be able to handle the load?
I also think that games that are ideal for Xbox Cloud Gaming are still too few in number, particularly on mobile devices. Eiyuden Chronicle: Rising is a relative rarity in the service, with its simple controls, story delivery, low-stakes gameplay loop, and camera perspective. Many games feel shoehorned when experienced on a phone with touch, with user interfaces that are too small or touch controls that are just too fiddly.
Microsoft is known to be exploring what "cloud-native" games may look like. Minecraft Dungeons is among the first, with very bespoke controls for mobile play, complete with full cross-platform connectivity and synchronicity. Microsoft now has a specific cloud game publishing team, and is rumored to be working with Hideo Kojima himself of Metal Gear fame on exploring what device-agnostic cloud games may look like. I've also previously reported that Microsoft may even be working on handheld accessories or even consoles specifically for cloud gaming mobility, too.
For years it felt like "the cloud" was this ethereal concept that was almost more of a buzzword than something that might be legitimately viable. Services like OnLive dispersed as quickly as they coalesced, and early versions of PlayStation Now and Xbox's "xCloud" impressed, but felt like they were more of a last resort solution, rather than a preferential mode of play. Quite firmly, we're starting to see that cloud services can be the first-choice solution, with Google Stadia, NVIDIA GeForce Now, and Xbox Cloud Gaming all offering near 1:1 latency conditions, in ideal network settings.
The process is gradual, and it could be a while before we see developers prioritize investment in cloud-friendly controls and user interfaces without Microsoft's express intervention. It's on Microsoft to prove that the audience is there, ultimately, and showcase exactly what cloud-aware games look like.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!