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.
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?
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
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.