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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 is Windows Central's Senior Games 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.

17 Comments
  • I hope that feature come in 2019 together stadia
  • The best thing about this Xcloud service is developers only have to make the game for Xbox consoles and it will just run on Xcloud. It breaks a massive barrier for the developer. When you consider they already have to make 3 versions of the game. Xbox, Playstation and PC. You get the same Achievements, friends list and media content. MS has really planned this well. And it will coexist alongside the console really well. I plan on using streaming when I cant use my console in the home. I will still buy consoles, but use streaming alongside it to continue my games when away from my hardware.
  • You already have a 4K TV so most probably a smart TV capable of streaming XCloud. You probably own PCs or tablets capable of streaming this service to your TV. You already said you don't care of physical games and blurays. Why would you buy another console?
  • Pretty much for uncompressed fidelity. And if my internet ever failed, I can still play.
  • Ah ok, makes sense. For you, streaming services like XCloud still have limitations...
  • I think it probably always will have limitations. At the end of the day there is always the chance the internet goes down. Whether that be ISP issues or sever Issues on the cloud side. I honestly think for a long time yet I'll have a console in the front room. And just use Streaming services for playing when the wife wants the telly or maybe taking a controller with my phone on trips or holidays. Honestly don't see myself relying solely on streaming personally. It's weird. I'm happy to lose Physical media. But I feel like I need to have a hardware option for my games. Especially the big cinematic games in its native fidelity option on the big screen. Something like the sort of games Ninja Theory make. Story driven, visual games. With big surround sound etc. Do you think Streaming will be something you look at alongside your hardware? Or are you not really interested?
  • "Do you think Streaming will be something you look at alongside your hardware? Or are you not really interested?"
    Right now I don't know. I'm totally against a 100% digital, renting or streaming world. But I'm not against them existing. I do buy digital games when 1) I have no choice (a small indie game that can't afford to publish a game physically) or 2) when there is a deal. There are advantages of being able to stream games when you're not at home but I don't think I'll use that feature too much. Internet speed is not a problem for me, but it will definitely depend on the pricing and how they implement it. The way they can get me is through games. If they make great games that I want to play I'll probably get in just to play those games;
  • Me too. If I can run my games natively in the living room or in the office, I'd run it natively.
    Talking about gaming on the go, if I can run my games natively on my Alienware, Surface or phone (and if I can have all my Xbox games on phone, phone games == pointless to me), I'd run it natively too. Streaming on a train or in the basement seems unrealistic and it' not possible to stream on a flight tho.
    My LTE is fast, I pay 7000jpy for 7G, it slows down after 5G... I think...
  • btw, I went to London, Brighton last year. Same as Taiwan, Japan or Korea, I totally get why internet can be cheaper in those regions.
    I lived in one of the CBD in Australia for a real long time, and I totally get why internet there is more expensive. Population density says everything.
  • It very much the same reason to have a personal copy of Microsoft office on disk rather than just rely on 365, assuming Office is the choice.
  • Even xCloud won't solve the ISP Data-Cap issue. No matter WHAT the big tech companies roll out in their data-centers, it's still the "last mile" ISPs who will continue to charge outrageous amounts to actually USE any of it.
    Streaming a 1080p@60hz game will eat up tons of data very fast so unless the big 3 who are getting in to this race to control streaming: Google, Microsoft, and Amazon can do (lucrative for the ISPs) side-deals to exclude their streaming content from end-user's data-caps. It's going nowhere fast.
    (and the advent of 5G will only make it WORSE.)
  • This. If I can get a terabyte of data on a 5G plan I'll be sweet, but that is a LONG way from what providers are offering. When it comes to broadband, high data plans are available but my internet is still only ADSL2+, so 20Mb at best (it never is that high, usually between 5 and 12) so it just simply won't cut it.
  • Do you live in a or near a big city? I would think Google and MS has done the research to see how many people would be potential customers with good enough internet speed.
    When MS first announced this, they started with there are 2 billion gamers in the world, and it follow with Spencer saying "what if everybody in the world could play Halo"...
    ofc this is probably just marketing talk, but maybe you don't need a good internet speed to use this service and the quality of the stream will depend on your internet quality.
  • Second largest city in Australia.
  • Google are launching Stadia in Europe, Canada and the US. Maybe that's why they aren't going to other country (in 2019). I guess it depends on how well the country is covered.
    I live near a major European city and I have 100 Mbps at home and regularly 4G/4G+ when I'm on mobile. And I don't pay a lot for it.
    Maybe people in major European, Canadian and US cities is the target market. MS/Google thought it was enough to see is it'll be successful or not.
  • Yet another sellout to google. I hope investors WAKE UP and fire all of the top tier at Microsoft before they wake up one morning and realize the company has nothing left but a hollow shell.
  • Like Sony, I would have hoped that MS would not have made such a big promotion for this service, for many gamers are seeing MS as a company migrating away from the console space. I do not think this would kick off well with hardcore gamers this generation, but by next generation I see this as something more embraced by gamers. Also, the touch control thing? I hope they drop this garbage and simply expect players to purchase or own an Xbox controller. On my phone the only title I play when waiting somewhere is Solitaire. A simply game like this does not require much regarding controls; however, an FPS or driving game? Let's not go there, grab an Xbox controller. Besides, what is the greatest gaming platform on the planet at present...Android devices. This market is much larger than all console makers and PC together and exponentially is growing super fast. I have many students who do not own a PC or current console and play games everyday, but on their phones.