Xbox Project xCloud: Everything we learned at GDC 2019

Project xCloud
Project xCloud (Image credit: Microsoft)

2019 has kicked off with a major shake-up for gaming, laying the foundations for game-streaming services at the Game Developers Conference (GDC). As with films and music, video games are rapidly headed to the cloud, with established industry giants scaling backbones to accommodate. Tailing the recently-unveiled Google Stadia, Microsoft is talking Xbox streaming plans under "Project xCloud."

Hosting a dedicated Project xCloud session this year at GDC, Microsoft has provided further insight its plans for streaming. And while leveraging the existing Xbox library, its platform also significantly overhauls how you'll play.

Live from GDC 2019: Project xCloud's coolest thing is its approach to phones

How Xbox 'Cloud Aware' titles change the game

In an industry divided by consoles and platforms, games traditionally target specific devices, introducing challenges when translating to new platforms. However, expanding on the cross-platform philosophies at the heart of Microsoft's modern gaming strategy, Project xCloud looks to broaden the Xbox ecosystem beyond the living room. And at GDC, Microsoft is stressing its "device-aware" approach to game streaming, with the capability to alter games around a player's device.

Project xCloud's focus on Android-based mobiles is a notable departure from your average home console, yet Microsoft continues to emphasize no code changes are required to ship Xbox One titles via xCloud. Custom server blade deployment is underway, currently comprised of Xbox One S internals, allowing for processing on familiar hardware. And with Microsoft aiming to scale its xCloud offerings, it pitches a low-risk investment for third-party developers.

However, for looking to tailor their games around the xCloud experience, Microsoft is also building a fresh toolset. Titles deploying targeted modifications for streaming are dubbed "Cloud Aware" – a term we can expect to hear more over the years ahead.

Microsoft's Cloud Aware APIs will allow developers to build upon their existing Xbox One package, with settings automatically enabled once streaming is detected. It can be simple user interface adjustments, ensuring text is legible on a six-inch screen or redesigning menus for touchscreens. Taking enhancements further forward, Microsoft discussed reworking checkpointing to account for short mobile play sessions, or matchmaking players sharing xCloud servers.

It's about adapting existing Xbox One titles for xCloud and approaching new devices with bespoke refinements.

Taking control of the xCloud action

A fundamental aspect of the xCloud GDC showings focused on controls and how the Cloud Aware framework will support gamers on the move. While Bluetooth controllers serve a familiar ergonomic layout, Microsoft is also investing in touch inputs native to mobile devices. Dropping a gamepad requirement makes for more convenient gaming, accessible to mobile-only gamers too.

Microsoft will provide a default (yet cluttered) touch control setup for xCloud titles but Cloud Aware apps can offer deeper integration. The "Touch Adaption Kit" (TAK) makes this happen, allowing developers to configure custom on-screen layouts for titles. A simple JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) file is all that's needed, mapping layouts around the title's demands.

Microsoft's early proof-of-concept layouts showed how various genres are suited to bespoke arrangements. Platformers like Dead Cells and Cuphead require fewer inputs, allowing developers to map only the on-screen essentials. For Microsoft's racing flagship Forza, a touch slider can emulate horizontal thumbstick movement. And these buttons can also be contextually adaptive, switching layouts as you jump from on-foot to on-wheels in open sandboxes.

It's still very early days for Project xCloud, and Microsoft remains tight on details surrounding pricing and availability. With server deployment underway in datacenters across Azure's 54 regions, Redmond is still laying the groundwork for its promises. Pre-release trials are slated for late 2019, indicating more about the platform will surface at E3 2019 in June. Regardless, with the streaming wars now underway, exciting times lay ahead for all.

Xbox Project xCloud game streaming: Everything we know

Matt Brown

Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.