Project xCloud brings Xbox One games to mobile platforms, first in beta trial form then as a subscription service down the line.
Here is everything you need to know about the Xbox cloud games service, including what devices will be compatible and how you can try it out for yourself.
What is Project xCloud?
It is a streaming service, in that all games are hosted on remote servers and live gameplay video is sent to a compatible device over the internet. In return, controller codes are sent in the other direction so, for all intents and purposes, it feels like you are playing a game loaded on the device itself, whether it be a smart TV, PC, tablet or smartphone.
It is not a new idea; PlayStation Now already offers a similar experience on PS4 consoles, while Nvidia is back into the beta testing phase of its GeForce Now service. Google too will launch its own cloud gaming platform this year, Stadia. However, Microsoft believes it has a distinct advantage over the others as it promises to utilise its vast library of over 3,000 Xbox and PC games.
It also has one of the largest network of data centres around the world.
This, combined with the company's Azure cloud server network, will ensure that game requests can be served locally rather than across continents, potentially reducing latency by shortening the distance between the end user and the data centre.
Latency is the enemy of cloud gaming, often adding many milliseconds between button presses and actions performed on screen. And, while that doesn't sound like much, milliseconds are vital when it comes to gaming. Say you press the button to shoot an onrushing enemy, a few milliseconds of latency can be the difference between hitting them and not. Or, in a driving game such as Forza Horizon 4, the difference between successfully drifting around a corner or ending up wrapped around a tree.
If Microsoft can dramatically reduce latency in comparison to cloud gaming services we've tested before, it could be onto a winner.
Does that mean my Xbox One or other games console will be defunct?
Project xCloud is not designed to replace existing or future games consoles. Microsoft believes that it is a different kind of service that caters for a different kind of user.
For starters, while it will likely be accessible through the Xbox One family of machines (plus Scarlett) in time, xCloud will also be available on phones, tablets, set-top-boxes, TVs, etc. Basically, anything that has a screen and an internet connection.
"We’re developing Project xCloud not as a replacement for game consoles, but as a way to provide the same choice and versatility that lovers of music and video enjoy today. We’re adding more ways to play Xbox games," said Microsoft's CVP of cloud gaming, Kareen Choudry in March 2019.
"[It] will also open the world of Xbox to those who may not otherwise own traditional, dedicated gaming hardware. True console-quality gaming will become available on mobile devices, providing the 2 billion-plus gamers around the world a new gateway to previously console- and PC-exclusive content."
What games are available?
When it fully launches, it will host hundreds of Xbox games - current and archive titles from its Xbox One and Xbox 360 line-ups. Maybe even a few original Xbox games.
Indeed, Microsoft claims it has the technical ability to stream many more games from the back catalogues of its three generations of consoles, even Windows PC games. Unlike with Google Stadia, developers don't actually have to alter or adapt their games to work. If they already work on an Xbox One, they will work on xCloud: "Project xCloud has the technical capability to stream more than 3,500 games, without any changes or modifications required by a developer," said Xbox's Major Nelson in a blog posting in May 2019.
"In other words, developers will be able to dramatically scale their existing games across devices, with no additional development, no additional code base maintenance and no separate updates. When a developer updates the Xbox One version of their title, those updates will also apply to all versions available on Project xCloud without any additional work."
The xCloud Public Preview period, which started in the UK, US and Korea in October, offers four games: Halo 5: Guardians, Gears 5, Killer Instinct and Sea of Thieves. More will be added during the Preview program.
When and where will I be able to use Project xCloud?
Project xCloud soft launched in October, as part of a Public Preview. It is available for gamers to test in the UK, US and Korea.
Even if you missed out on day one access, you can still register your interest to take part in the US or UK here, and in Korea here. Invites will continue to be rolled out gradually over the coming weeks and months to those who signed up.
The Public Preview is not the full service, just a paired back version for testing for now. There are also some caveats to use.
The main one is that the Project xCloud Public Preview is only available on Android devices. You need a phone or tablet running Android 6.0 or greater and with Bluetooth 4.0 at least, a Microsoft account and a Bluetooth-enabled Xbox One Wireless Controller. Xbox also recommends you acquire a phone mount for the controller, unless you are playing using a tablet.
The mount is reasonably inexpensive, however. We've found a pack of three of them for just £8.99 on Amazon.co.uk, for example.
Sadly, iOS support is not available at this time.
And, we don't yet have an idea on when the full service might launch.
How much does xCloud cost?
The Project xCloud Public Preview is free to access for all invitees. However, while Project xCloud will almost certainly be a subscription service, we don't yet know how much the full service will be when it launches.
Sony's rival service, PlayStation Now, currently costs £8.99 per month in the UK, but that allows downloads too. Google Stadia will also cost £8.99 per month for a Stadia Pro subscription when it arrives in November, but that doesn't include access to many games, just better quality streams and the occasional free title. Players will purchase games individually through Google's service .
Xbox Game Pass, the all-you-can-eat digital download service for Xbox One is £7.99 per month (or £10.99 for Game Pass Ultimate). That might be the best indication of price yet.
What devices work with xCloud?
We don't yet know the full list of devices that will end up running xCloud but the Public Preview is Android only, so that's a shoo-in for the full service too.
Since the release of iOS 13, Xbox One controllers have been iPhone and iPad compatible too. So we fully expect Apple compatibility as well, eventually.
In terms of other controllers and controls, Microsoft has said that on-screen touch controls will be developed for games, so that's one way of providing the experience on other devices too, but we're not that keen on the idea of trying to navigate through a hardcore session of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 using touch.
The company is dabbling with its own Nintendo Switch-style clip-on controller concepts, as detailed in a filed patent and leaked internal document, so they might be available to smartphone and tablet owners in future.
Other than those, it is thought that Project xCloud access will be provided through TVs and set-top-boxes too, such as Samsung and LG smart TVs and Android TV boxes.
What is Console Streaming?
Also announced during E3 2019 was "Console Streaming" - a dual-service that will be offered by Microsoft alongside xCloud.
Using the same technology, gamers will be able to use their own Xbox One consoles as an xCloud server and therefore stream their own games to a portable device.
PlayStation offers something similar in the form of PS4 Remote Play, but Xbox Console Streaming is different as you won't be restricted to having to be on the same home network. It will be available anywhere you have an online connection, including over mobile data (if your allowance is big enough).
There is no date on the Console Streaming yet, but it will definitely be launched before the end of 2019.