Microsoft has begun in-house testing of a new game streaming service know as Project xCloud. This will let users stream Xbox games directly to consoles, PC’s or even smartphones without the need for the user to download the content first.
A public trial is coming in 2019, Microsoft said.
The xCloud test runs on devices (mobile phones, tablets) paired with an Xbox Wireless Controller through Bluetooth, and it is also playable using touch input.
Microsoft has built custom hardware for its datacentres to support the offering. This includes a new customisable blade that includes component parts of multiple Xbox One consoles, as well as the associated infrastructure supporting it.
“Microsoft’s “Gaming Cloud” Corporate VP Kareem Choudhry said in a blog: “We will scale those custom blades in datacenters across Azure regions over time.”
Successful roll-out would represent a huge commercial opportunity for Microsoft: 2.2 billion gamers across the globe generated some $108.9 billion in game revenues in 2017, according to NewZoo.
A key factor in the announcement is that mobile-only players will be given access to Microsoft’s library of Xbox games without having to acquire the hardware that used to be necessary for the gaming experience.
It comes amid a surge of interest by tech giants like Microsoft and Google in the potential for game streaming, as hardware and networks increasingly make cloud-powered game streaming seem a viable proposition.
Choudhry said in a blog post announcing the tests on late Monday that: “Our Goal with Project loud is to deliver a quality experience for all gamers on all devices that’s consistent with the speed and high-fidelity gamers experience and expect on their PCs and consoles.”
The current streaming capabilities tests are been run on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets in conjunction with an Xbox Wireless Controller.
Mobile devices have slightly restricted what can be easily played due to the lack of buttons and controls that can be mapped. A normal console controller has thumb sticks, buttons and shoulder triggers. Yet the current design of mobile devices means that in order to properly facilitate a complex game control scheme an array of buttons need to be mapped on to the touch screen, resulting in a cluttered often unplayable experience.
Kareem Choudhry commented in the blog that they are: “Developing a new, game-specific touch input overlay that provides maximum response in a minimal footprint for players who choose to play without a controller.”
However, it is clear that the best experience will be delivered via a Bluetooth connected controller.
Microsoft Project xCloud
One of the main issues holding back the streaming of video games has been connectivity and latency issues. While a user may accommodate a brief break when video content is buffering, this event would break the immersive nature of a video game.
“In addition to solving latency, other important considerations are supporting the graphical fidelity and frame rates that preserve the artist’s original intentions, and the type of input a player has available,” Choudhry notes.
Microsoft researchers are developing ways to combat the latency issues by focusing research on networking topology and video encoding and decoding. During the current testing the system is capable of running efficiently at 10 megabits per second.
Project xCloud is been designed to work on 4G networks, but its developers believe it is within the roll out of 5G networks that the technology will be able reach the “outer limits” of it capabilities.
The sudden rise in companies testing their video game streaming capabilities is not the end of actual console hardware releases.
This is evident from comments the president of Sony Kenichiro Yoshida made to the Financial Times this week, where he confirmed that the company is designing the next generation of console hardware and successor to the PS4.
Sony is Microsoft’s biggest competitor in the console market and it would be highly unusual if Microsoft were not to release a next-gen console in the coming years. While Microsoft have not openly confirmed it, it is widely believed in the games industry that they plan to develop a next-gen console aimed for 2020; something Microsoft’s head of Xbox, Phil Spencer has just short of announced in interviews.