Xbox Cloud Gaming on TVs is going to change the rules for game discoverability

Xcloud Xbox 2021 October
Xcloud Xbox 2021 October (Image credit: Jez Corden | Windows Central)

As games get bigger and bigger, and my availability gets shorter and shorter, every opportunity to shave a bit of free time into my schedule is a welcome one. That's why I'm intrigued by this latest addition to the Xbox Insider Program's Alpha Ring.

Microsoft announced a while ago that it was going to bring Xbox Cloud Gaming to Xbox consoles. Notably, games like Flight Simulator 2020 that require next-gen hardware simply cannot run on past-gen consoles. Microsoft is bridging the gap using the cloud, and increasingly, other companies are looking into the tech as well. Kingdom Hearts was announced for Nintendo Switch recently as a cloud-only option.

Cloud gaming makes a lot of sense on underpowered devices like the Nintendo Switch, tablets, and smartphones, but what about the Xbox Series X? Why would you want it on there? And does it even work?

Here are some early impressions with the feature, now in beta.

So, how is Xbox Cloud Gaming on console?

The performance of Xbox Cloud Gaming seems to be a pretty contentious topic, depending on who you ask. During the summer, Microsoft upgraded its server infrastructure to Xbox Series X-based server blades. What that means is NVMe SSD loading speeds, for faster game loads. It also means more overhead for encoding video, which leads to more responsive play. The previous blades were Xbox One-based, and thus, didn't have a lot of horsepower to run the game and encode video streams simultaneously.

The Xbox Series X server blades have improved the situation immeasurably, but services like Google Stadia and GeForce Now still seem to provide better picture quality and lower amounts of artifacting, even if Xbox Cloud Gaming decided it has the edge when it comes to library quality and size. All services seem fairly evenly matched in terms of latency, although performance will vary depending on where you are geographically. No amount of fiber optic can offset the limitations of the speed of light, unfortunately.

Games that have a cloud option on the Xbox Alpha Ring now have a little cloud icon next to them, joining the Game Pass and X|S enhanced icons on their thumbnails. To find the entire library, you can dig into the Xbox Game Pass app or the Xbox Game Pass section from your Full Library under My Games & Apps, and there's a new cloud section right up there at the top.

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

After selecting a game, its title card will pop up, giving you the option to either install or play straight away from the cloud. And who'd have thought? It works exactly as you'd expect. The familiar rocket ship animation kick starts the server spin-up process, and after a few seconds, you'll be inside the game, as if it were running natively on your console.

I tried Yakuza: Like a Dragon, HADES, and Marvel Avengers streaming from the cloud. Marvel Avengers managed to hit 60 FPS at times, but it wasn't exactly consistent at doing so. Each game suffered from pixelized edges and blurry video feeds, which while hidden on my smartphone, were plain to see up on my TV. Importantly, the responsiveness of the controls felt virtually native. You can feel the struggle when using Bluetooth on a phone, but the full Xbox Wireless signal eliminates that uncanny gap.

The biggest downside is the sharpness of the picture quality (or lack thereof), but since I'm running this on an Xbox Series X ... why wouldn't I just install the game natively anyway? Sure, but this isn't supposed to replace native installations anyway.

So ... why bother?

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

I noticed immediately how Xbox Game Pass' console capability changed my behavior. I mostly used Xbox Cloud Gaming on my phone, and gravitate towards games that have simple controls, touch capabilities, and large UI. Playing a complex game like Pillars of Eternity on touch is simply not an option, so it's not something I'd ever attempt to do on my phone. Scarlet Nexus for example hit Xbox Game Pass cloud recently, and I gave it a try while waiting for an appointment on 5G. Despite having responsive controls, playing a 3D action game with touch just isn't my bag.

This is about discoverability from your sofa. Xbox Game Pass is designed to emulate the behavior of users on Netflix and Disney+. On those platforms, you can fire up a video stream and instantly try out a new show, and you'll know in the first minute or two whether it seems like something you'll want to watch. Movies and shows that hit streaming services first are almost designed around this type of grazing behavior, hooking you in at the start in hopes you'll stick with it. YouTube's own documentation advises that you keep your intros down to three seconds at most to avoid boring users.

I went from having to wait 10-15 minutes to download a single game, to being able to try out five to 10 games in the same time frame.

For Xbox Game Pass, if you have to wait for a 100GB download to run its course before trying something out, chances are you might just leave it by the wayside. Marvel Avengers, for example, is not a game I had any interest in whatsoever. I'm not a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I'm not a big fan of Crystal Dynamics' previous games (sorry, Tomb Raider fans). The trailers also didn't grab me either ... but now it's just ... there with cloud gaming, I thought "why not?" I have literally nothing to lose here. And guess what, I tried it, and ended up enjoying it. After a few minutes of play, Xbox even pops up with a small notification asking you if you'd like to start installing the game natively.

This isn't about replacing your console. It's about speeding up discovery of games you didn't even know you might like. No matter how many reviews you read or trailers you view, there's no comparison to actually trying out a game yourself. Xbox Cloud Gaming on console directly facilitates that faster than anything we've seen before. I went from having to wait 10-15 minutes to download a single game, to being able to try out five to 10 games in the same time frame.

Still a way's to go

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

Xbox Cloud Gaming on my console really opened my eyes to how much the picture quality needs to improve before it can truly compete with a native experience. 720-1080p looks fine on a smaller phone display in a simple game, but it really hurts the experience on something more photorealistic like Marvel Avengers, even if the controls are fully responsive.

Either way, it's another exciting step in Xbox Cloud Gaming's journey, which recently opened up to Brazil, Japan, and other new countries as part of its gradual rollout. I've argued in the past that I'd like to see a cloud-only Xbox Game Pass Lite subscription in the future. I've also argued that I want to see the ability to buy any Xbox game through the cloud, as opposed to the relatively small pool of titles we have available now. I've also argued for better Xbox Cloud Gaming mobile controller options for those, like me, who are too old school to play with touch reliably.

I suspect all of these things (and more) will hit the platform in the future, and every new feature is another step closer on that long journey.

Jez Corden
Managing Editor

Jez Corden is the Managing Editor for 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!

  • I'm just excited to actually play a game while it downloads. Such a great function that is way better than the fast start, which actually sucks if you already played the game as it doesn't synch cloud saves until you boot the fully downloaded game.
  • I'm really looking forward to game streaming coming to console, mainly because then the vast majority of game pass games I have installed I can just go and uninstall and save a whole bunch of storage on my console while still maintaining the load times I've grown accustomed to. Also, I've been lucky enough that for the most part cloud streaming has been working exceptionally well for me. I've made it my personal mission that I am going to play, and complete, Devil May Cry 5 on my phone (I have a Razer Kishi so touch isn't an issue) and it works, the game is responsive enough that I believe it's achievable. The only real issue currently is if you are playing on the move because then you are at the mercy of shifts from 5G to 4G which does cause a hiccup for a few seconds. As an aside I uninstalled Dragon Quest XI from my console and just play it on my phone now, even just with touch (although it's still much better with a controller). I like the fact that the touch icons for that game actually represent the actions they do, so the X is a map, Y is a chest icon and so forth. That was incredibly unexpected but very, very, welcome. Oh, and if they make it so that any game I own (digitally I would assume) becomes available from the cloud then that would make my gaming experience complete. Since I mostly but indie games these days and they really lend themselves to pick up and play bouts.
  • For myself I have been playing videogames since the early 80's the fact I can play console videogames just about anywhere now I'm pretty happy with that. I'm sure it will get better Microsoft is betting the farm on cloud. It's still in "beta" and I feel it's a bit early to be nitpicking. Just my opinion.
  • That title could use a rethinking: it suggests the article is about the upcoming XBOX streaming client for SmartTVs rather than cloud streaming on the consoles.
    The article itself is fine, though.
  • It's what I thought too!
  • The videogames consoles are played on Tv, and there are new abilities for higrade quality images and sounds.
    4K is the normal format for Tv now.
    Given a cloud service in streaming is very good.
    I wish a browser as windows and Edge for smart Tv.
  • I'd like to say from a PC gamer's perspective cloud gaming works flawlessly, given I do have a 3070 and top notch specs.