The next step for Xbox Cloud Gaming: Let me buy games to own

Galaxy Z Fold 3 Xcloud Pillars
Galaxy Z Fold 3 Xcloud Pillars (Image credit: Windows Central)

Source: Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Windows Central)

A few months ago, Microsoft revealed that it had completed a wide-reaching upgrade for its Xbox Cloud Gaming service, moving the server infrastructure from older Xbox One S hardware to the current-generation Xbox Series X. The boost in GPU power for video encoding, coupled with rapid NVME SSD speeds, has vastly improved Microsoft's cloud gaming offerings across the board. It's so good, in fact, that this past summer, I think I've spent more time in the cloud than on a traditional console.

However, as I spend more time in the Xbox Game Pass-backed cloud gaming platform, I've found one glaring weakness that didn't previously affect me – you can't buy cloud games to own.

Xbox Cloud Gaming is still technically in beta, and this feature may well be in the roadmap. Still, moving forward, I don't think Xbox Game Pass alone is enough to take it fully mainstream.

The one thing Stadia does better

Xbox Game Pass xCloud

Source: Jez Corden | Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Jez Corden | Windows Central)

It's been fairly undeniable that Google's own Stadia platform outperformed Xbox Game Pass cloud gaming in most conditions. Based on your WiFi setup and physical location, that could still be the case. For me, though, the transition to Xbox Series X servers has virtually eliminated the performance delta, both when used in the UK and South Germany. Testing both platforms side by side (something wholly possible using the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3, hilariously), the differences have become largely superficial. Google also canceled all of its in-house projects, and developer interest in supporting the platform has been pretty lukewarm thus far. There is something that Stadia still does better than Xbox Game Pass, though.

I've been living with my girlfriend as of late, who has taken dominion over my lovely QLED TV. In years prior, I might've pushed back a fair bit, but thanks to Xbox Game Pass and cloud gaming, I've comfortably shifted to the phone screen. Even the newly-released Hades plays like a dream on Xbox Cloud Gaming, despite its reactive combat design. Thanks to pervasive cloud saving, I was also able to continue on with my Xbox Pillars of Eternity playthrough without issue, too. Well, sort of.

Pillars of Eternity is a huge game, with countless hours available to completionists. The game has taken up the vast majority of my leisure time as a result. And the more I cover game-streaming technologies, it's clear how frequently cloud games leave the platform for good.

This has created a dilemma for my ballooning backlog. While I play Pillars of Eternity, now permanent on Xbox Game Pass following Microsoft's acquisition of Obsidian Entertainment, will I miss out on the chance to play other cloud-enabled games? You need only take a quick glance at the full list of Xbox Game Pass games to see how regularly games leave the service. I have the option to buy these on console and PC, taking advantage of the generous discount for Xbox Game Pass subscribers. When it comes to the cloud, I have no such option. When Darkest Dungeon or Streets of Rage 4 depart, I can only stream them from my home Xbox — providing it's accessible at the time and my upload speed delivers just a fraction of Microsoft Azure's best.

There's no upfront transparency about which games are permanently in Xbox Cloud Gaming's library, and temporarily in the library either. When compared to Google Stadia's buy-to-own model, Xbox Cloud Gaming's revolving door library seems archaic by comparison. Why can't I have the best of both worlds?

The hurdles, and the downsides

Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Matt Brown | Windows Central)

While Microsoft hasn't stated this publically, one has to assume buy-to-own cloud games are on the roadmap, somewhere (Correction: Microsoft has stated (opens in new tab) publically that buy-to-own was on the roadmap for 2020, all the way back in 2019.) Microsoft is all-in on the cloud, and the relatively small library of compatible titles falls short of the service's vast potential. There are thousands of Xbox cloud-compatible games that would be ready to go at the flick of a switch. Obviously, Microsoft will add buy-to-own in the future, but what's taking so long?

There are likely a few reasons why we haven't got it already. More games mean more customers, which means more server load. By keeping the library small, Microsoft can more effectively manage the load on its Azure server racks. Xbox Cloud Gaming is still referred to as a "beta" on the app and website, which gives us a hint that this is just a slice of what's to come.

Additionally, the ongoing chip shortage is likely affecting the speed at which Microsoft can grow the platform. With server blades based on Xbox Series X console technology, they share the same parts, semi-conductors, and chips. The shortage affecting Xbox Series S and X console sales at retail is undoubtedly affecting how easily Microsoft can acquire servers too, likely putting a damper on the scale-up speed. Manufacturers have warned that the shortages could last all the way into 2023, too.

Cloud servers

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Finally, developer and publisher skepticism may be playing a part here, alongside complexities with Google's storefront. If Microsoft were to sell cloud licenses for its games, it wouldn't be able to do so through its Google Play app, due to Google's fees and rules. Similar rules and fees have blocked cloud gaming from hitting iOS altogether, although Microsoft offered a workaround via a web app.

Several publishers are also building their own platforms, including Electronic Arts and its own "Project Atlas" cloud technology. The publisher has supported Microsoft, bundling EA Play into Game Pass Ultimate, but would it also be willing to sell its games too? Or would it prefer to do so through its own platform, and avoid paying Microsoft's mandatory licensing fees?

There's also the matter of platform shifting entitlement. I can totally foresee some publishers wanting to charge players twice to access games in the cloud, much like we often have to pay twice for games on Xbox and PC today. I can only hope that Microsoft is able to enforce against this.

Clearly, nailing the rollout of Xbox Cloud Gaming is a delicate balance of publisher, developer relations, navigating app store policies, on top of massive technical and logistical challenges. Microsoft is likely the only company on earth right now that could build this business at any sort of scale, and getting it right is an unfathomable challenge that I certainly can't comprehend.

Gaming life in the cloud

8bitdo Xbox Controller xCloud

Source: Jez Corden | Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Jez Corden | Windows Central)

Microsoft has always said that it sees Xbox Cloud Gaming as supplementary to its growth, rather than central. The fact the developer platform and the hardware relies on the traditional home console install base should dispel any theories that Microsoft plans to quit native gaming entirely any time soon. They have millions of players across both console and PC, generating billions in revenue for the platform. The idea with Xbox Cloud Gaming is to capture new audiences, in new locations, among customers who have no desire or need to play games outside of their phones.

Microsoft, devs, let me give you money, I WILL totally buy games in the cloud.

Navigating around the current chip shortage, server loads, user acquisition, publisher and developer compensation, and more is a delicate balancing act that will take time to get right, not to mention the enormous technical challenge of building a service that can reliably mimic console gaming remotely. The fact we're even at this point feels almost like some kind of sci-fi fantasy. Blockbuster famously thought the same about Netflix, though, before streaming changed how we consume TV and movies forever.

Movies and TV are not games, though. And until we live in a future with magical quantum internet speeds that are near instantaneous across the entire globe, native gaming will remain the preference for most. What Xbox Cloud Gaming has done for me, though, is provide access to that gaming lifestyle from anywhere, irrespective of TV or console access. It reminds me of my youth, playing Sega Mega Drive or Super Nintendo at home while taking my Gameboy and Pokemon to school. I left that gaming lifestyle paradigm behind with Xbox, until now.

I can ultimately only comment as an end-user. It just struck me as interesting how drastically my perception of the service changed after the Xbox Series X upgrade, and how it changed my usage. I never expected Xbox Game Pass' cloud service would become a primary method of gaming for me, yet for the past few weeks, it most definitely has. And now, I'm hungrier than ever to see it grow.

In short, what I'm saying is: Microsoft, devs, let me give you money, I WILL totally buy games in the cloud.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

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!

  • In short, what I'm saying is: Microsoft, devs, let me give you money, I WILL totally buy games in the cloud.
    I completely agree
  • How about digital purchases from Microsoft Store are added to your personal XCloud library to stream?
  • This would be amazing. I want this to be the way of the future.
  • That's the ideal scenario. But I can imagine greedy publishers wanting to sell the games twice.
  • I think the biggest hurdle is implementation.
    If there is a specific set of games, it is much easier to spin up a virtual cloud xbox on a server than if every possible xbox game needed to be ready to go on all content delivery nodes. For what it's worth, I've found cloud streaming my xbox one x & xbox series x to be superior to xcloud, but I have gigabit upload and I use ethernet so it is ideal conditions. I'm sure lower upload speeds would be fine, but ethernet is essential. If your console is on wifi I would not expect a great experience for anything that requires quick actions.
    I've used mine to play mortal kombat 11 remotely, which ran great. Also this article mentions stadia but not geforce now. GFN is BY FAR the best as far as graphics(ray tracing, basically every video setting on ultra, limited to 1080p though), and you get to play games you own(which work on an offline pc). Stadia you're screwed if your internet isn't running well, and it's honestly just a matter of time before google pulls the plug on stadia and everything you bought is gone
  • " just a matter of time before google pulls the plug on stadia and everything you bought is gone" I swear you guys will be saying this same thing over and over even 10 years from now. And Google already stated they would either refund or move your games to another service. But hey, let's just ignore reality and continue to say Stadia is dying despite being the best functional game streaming platform at the moment.
  • "GFN is BY FAR the best as far as graphics" Sure, as long as the game you're playing only gets the 1080c or 2080d rigs. I love GFN for the handful of games I play that work well (No Man's Sky is fantastic there, for example) but then I have games that are supported and are unplayable. I bought The Crew to play there and despite being a seven year old game it can't achieve a stable 30fps on 720p and low settings unless you restart over and over to get the 1080c rig as it usually gets the 2060b. Stadia may not look as good but it's consistent. I know The Crew 2 is always going to run pretty well because there's no issue of hardware allocation. While I understand the "Google graveyard" the reality is that Google has never taken away something people have paid for. Google Play Music migrated everyone's purchases to YouTube Music and provided DRM-free files for example.
  • I'm sure this will come down the road but it's weird that it's still not enabled.
    It's also weird to see games that have already left Game Pass appear in the app so you can buy it, or because you own them.
  • At least at the moment they can't do this, because it would be too expensive. In comparison with Stadia Xbox Cloud Gaming still is getting outperformed by a lot. This is primarily because Stadia was developed for the cloud from scratch, while Microsoft basically uses Xbox hardware in their racks. This is why Google can offer "free" access to their infrastructure for clients who bought a game, while Xbox even at 1080p is a subscription based service. But people, when buying a game in the cloud, want to be able to play the game without a subscription. Something Microsoft can't offer with their more expensive hardware stack.
  • Another thing you didn't mention between Stadia and Xbox Cloud Gaming is that one needs to subscribe to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate to play those cloud games, spending monthly or yearly just to access this feature. Stadia is completely free and open after the initial sign up.