It’s unclear when Microsoft started dabbling with cloud technology to specifically stream games, but reports seem to indicate this was sometime in the early to mid 2010s. As The Verge reported in 2013, Microsoft demonstrated a cloud gaming prototype at an internal meeting where the Xbox 360 title Halo 4 was running on a Nokia Lumia 520 Windows Phone (RIP) and a low-end PC streaming the game from the cloud. In the demonstration, Microsoft showed the prototype using the phone with an Xbox 360 controller connected with an accessory – sounds pretty familiar, right? According to the report, Microsoft had managed to reduce the latency to just 45ms, which is quite impressive.
In 2016, Microsoft’s CVP of Cloud Gaming, Kareem Choudhry, who was working on backwards compatibility features at the time, thought more about the ability to offer games without the need for a console. “We’ve enabled people to play a game designed for the 360, without a 360,” Choudhry told GQ in a recent article. So how do we take that to the next step? I started asking the question, ‘What does it mean to play a console game without a console?'” Choudhry then went to Xbox chief Phil Spencer and asked a team to explore the idea further. In 2018, Microsoft saw the potential and officially formed an Xbox cloud team and called the project Project xCloud.
Phil Spencer teased the service onstage at E3 2018, saying Microsoft’s cloud engineers were building a “game streaming network to unlock console-quality gaming on any device.” Choudhry then revealed Project xCloud in a blog post later that year, explaining how Microsoft would bring the streaming service to gamers. To enable compatibility with existing and future Xbox games, Microsoft built its own custom hardware for its data centers. New server blades that could hold the components of multiple Xbox One S consoles were built and deployed in several Azure data centers around the world. Later, Microsoft would upgrade these server blades with custom Xbox Series X hardware, which would enable 1080p/60fps streaming.
Our first look at Project xCloud came in 2019 when Microsoft gave a short demo of the service in action, featuring Forza Horizon 4 on an Android phone. Later that year, Xbox users would be invited to try out the service and shape the future of cloud game streaming. The trial was limited to the US, UK and Korea, required users to sign up for a chance to be selected, and would only be available on Android devices through a new app. You’ll also need a Bluetooth controller and a pretty decent internet connection if you actually want to use the service. Over time, the Project xCloud preview should add more games for users to follow, including Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, Tekken 7, and more. It would eventually roll out to more regions around the world, but those with iOS devices were still left out. That was until Microsoft announced a special TestFlight preview for iOS users, although it was extremely limited – only 10,000 users would be accepted in the preview and only Halo: The Master Chief Collection was made available to play. We soon learned that Project xCloud was causing a rain cloud over the relationship between Microsoft and Apple.
After the testing phase ended, Apple would refuse Microsoft to bring its game streaming app to the App Store because of its ridiculous retail policy. Rather than reviewing the app as a whole, Apple’s policy required each game in the xCloud streaming app to be individually reviewed by Apple to see if they would meet the Store’s guidelines, which Apple says it doesn’t. could do. Microsoft said at the time, “Apple stands alone as the only general-purpose platform to ban consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass.” For now, iOS users would remain in the shadow of the cloud.
Project xCloud would launch in beta as part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate in September 2020 in 22 regions with a library of more than 100 games, including Minecraft Dungeons, Destiny 2, Gears 5 and more. Project xCloud would add even more value to the already competitive Game Pass Ultimate plan, especially when compared to Google Stadia’s Pro plan at the time. Sadly, there was still no word on an iOS rollout, but shortly after, Microsoft announced a bit of a game-changer for xCloud. Some games in the xCloud library would have touch controls, meaning users would no longer need a Bluetooth controller to play their games. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was the first game to implement the feature and was followed by Minecraft Dungeons. Surprisingly, they worked exceptionally well and gave users a new way to play. We would see a lot of games add touch controls in the coming months.
Finally, in 2021, Microsoft announced that a beta version of Project xCloud (now renamed Xbox Cloud Gaming) would be coming to iOS devices via a rather ingenious solution. Microsoft has developed a browser-based solution that iOS users can navigate to using Safari instead of downloading an app, bypassing the use of Apple’s App Store and its policies. This also meant that Windows users could also participate in the promotion through their browsers. Later, Xbox Cloud Gaming would also come to Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S consoles, allowing those with previous-generation consoles to play Xbox Series X|S games like The Medium and Recompile without the latest hardware.
Microsoft has built a fantastic service with Xbox Cloud Gaming that we think can easily beat PS Now and Google Stadia. It has a huge catalog of games, some of which can be played using touch controls, works remarkably well across devices, and is included in the price of the already excellent value for money Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription. So, where can Microsoft go from here with the service, other than bringing more games into the fold? Well, we already know that Microsoft is working on bringing the service to streaming sticks and smart TVs, which could bring Xbox and the service to a large number of people who don’t currently own a console. And while it may not be strictly related to Xbox Cloud Gaming, we know that Xbox Game Studios Publishing recently hired Kim Swift, Portal’s lead designer, as senior director of cloud gaming, to “accelerate our innovation and partner with independent studios to build games for the cloud,” so we know Microsoft is doing some gaming work too. Reports have also suggested that Microsoft is teaming up with developer Mainframe to develop a cloud-based MMO game that players can access from any device. What Microsoft decides to do next with Xbox Cloud Gaming will be very interesting to see.
That was it for part 18 of our 20 defining Xbox moments! What do you think of Xbox Cloud Gaming? Do you like having it as part of your Game Pass Ultimate subscription? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and don’t forget to check out the other entries in this series.