20 moments that defined Xbox: #18 — Xbox Cloud Gaming

By Sean Carey,
Cloud gaming is the future of video games, and while there will always be a space for consoles and PCs, Microsoft knows the importance and just how big streaming games from the cloud can be — so much so, Microsoft is pointing a lot of its resources towards its own service in the hopes of breaking the back of a potentially huge and untapped market. With just a phone, a decent internet connection, and a Bluetooth controller (sometimes the controller isn't even needed), potentially anyone in the world can access the Xbox ecosystem to play a game. In today's Xbox20 defining moments article, we're looking at Xbox Cloud Gaming, Microsoft's entry into the game streaming space.

Xbox Cloud Gaming

It's unclear when Microsoft started dabbling with cloud technology to specifically stream games, but reports seem to suggest it was sometime in the early-to-mid 2010s. As The Verge reported back in 2013, Microsoft demonstrated a cloud gaming prototype during an internal meeting that saw the Xbox 360 title Halo 4 running on a Nokia Lumia 520 Windows Phone (RIP) and a low-end PC with the game being streamed from the cloud. In the demonstration, Microsoft showed off the prototype using the phone with an Xbox 360 controller attached using an accessory — sounds pretty familiar, right? According to the report, Microsoft had managed to reduce the latency to just 45ms, which is pretty impressive.

In 2016, Microsoft's CVP of Cloud Gaming, Kareem Choudhry, who was working on backwards compatibility features at the time, thought more on the possibility of providing games without the need of a console. "We 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 of, 'What does it mean to play a console game without a console?'" Choudhry then went to Xbox chief Phil Spencer and asked for a team to investigate the idea further. In 2018, Microsoft saw the potential and officially created an Xbox cloud team and labelled the project, Project xCloud.

Phil Spencer teased the service on stage at E3 2018, saying that 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, which explained 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 datacentres. New server blades that could hold the components of multiple Xbox One S consoles were constructed and deployed into various Azure datacentres across the world. Later, Microsoft would upgrade these server blades to include custom Xbox Series X hardware, which would allow for 1080p/60fps streaming.

Our first look at Project xCloud came in 2019 when Microsoft gave a brief demo of the service in action, running Forza Horizon 4 on an Android phone. Later that year, Xbox users would be invited to trial the service and help shape the future of cloud game streaming. The trial was limited to the US, UK, and Korea, required users to sign up for the chance to be selected, and would only be available on Android devices through a new app. You'd also need a Bluetooth controller and a pretty decent internet connection if you were to get any actual use out of the service. Over time, the Project xCloud preview would add more games, for users to trail, including Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, Tekken 7, and more. It would eventually roll out to more regions across the world, but those with iOS devices were still left out. That was until Microsoft announced a special TestFlight preview for iOS users, though it was extremely limited — only 10,000 users would be accepted into the preview and just Halo: The Master Chief Collection was made available to play. We soon found out that Project xCloud caused a bit of a rain cloud to form over Microsoft and Apple's relationship.

After the test phase ended, Apple would deny Microsoft from bringing its game streaming app to the App Store due to its asinine store policy. Instead of reviewing the app as a whole, Apple's policy required every game included in the xCloud streaming app to be individually reviewed by Apple to see if they would meet its Store's guidelines, which Apple says it couldn't do. Microsoft said at the time, "Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass." For now, iOS users would be left standing 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 over 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 subscription, especially when you compared to Google Stadia's Pro subscription at the time. Sadly, there was still no word on an iOS rollout, but soon after, Microsoft announced a bit of a game-changer for xCloud. Some games in the xCloud library would be getting touch controls, which meant that 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'd see swathes of games add touch controls over the coming months.

xbox cloud gaming

Finally, in 2021, Microsoft announced that a beta of Project xCloud (now renamed Xbox Cloud Gaming) would come to iOS devices by a rather ingenious workaround. Microsoft developed a browser-based solution that iOS users would be able to navigate to using Safari instead of downloading an app, circumventing the use of Apple's App Store and its policies. This also meant that Windows users could also get in on the action too using their browsers. Later, Xbox Cloud Gaming would also come to Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S consoles, giving those with previous-gen consoles the ability to play Xbox Series X|S games such as The Medium and Recompile without the need for the latest hardware.

Microsoft has built a fantastic service with Xbox Cloud Gaming that we think easily beats out the likes of PS Now and Google Stadia. It has a huge catalogue of games, some of which can be played using touch controls, works remarkably well on a variety of devices, and is included in the price of the already outstanding value for money Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription. So, where can Microsoft go from here with the service aside from bringing more games into the fold? Well, we already know that Microsoft is working to bring the service to streaming sticks and smart TVs, which could bring Xbox and the service to a vast number of people who currently don't own a console. And while it might not be strictly to do with Xbox Cloud Gaming, we do 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 collaborate with independent studios to build games for the cloud," so we know Microsoft is also doing work in the gaming space. Reports have also suggested that Microsoft is working with developer Mainframe to develop a cloud-based MMO game that players could access through any device. Whatever Microsoft decides to do next with Xbox Cloud Gaming will be very interesting to see.

That's it for part 18 of our 20 defining Xbox moments! What do you make of Xbox Cloud Gaming? Are you happy to have it as part of your Game Pass Ultimate subscription? Let us know your thoughts down in the comments below, and don't forget to check out the other entries into this series.

Sean Carey
Written by Sean Carey
Sean graduated from Southampton Solent University with a first-class honours degree in Journalism, which he uses to keep TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies topped up with gaming and industry news. When not scouring the web for the latest big story, you’ll find him tearing up the streets in Forza Horizon 5, or failing miserably in Call of Duty: Warzone.