Microsoft’s latest Inside Xbox contained a wealth of mostly lackluster information, focusing mostly on the revitalized push for more Xbox exclusive titles. While more Xbox exclusivity will be a celebratory occasion for many fans of the console, the more interesting aspects of Xbox’s future rest upon the shoulders of innovation. Enter Project xCloud, Microsoft’s upcoming streaming service.
What is Project xCloud?
As mentioned above, Project xCloud is a streaming service set to officially launch sometime in October. Specifically, the service is designed to host games on remote servers, making them playable on any compatible device with an Internet connection (smartphone, smart TV, tablet, etc.). The digital age is no longer coming, it’s here, and has been for a while; xCloud is another service that will take the industry even further away from physical discs.
The Positive of Project xCloud
The good news about xCloud is that it makes playing games far more convenient when not at home. The service essentially eliminates the necessity to either travel with one’s console or fret over the lack of access to a game system. With the ability to access one’s titles on the go, xCloud’s convenience factor looks tremendous, especially for those avid travelers stuck on long flights but with access to Wi-Fi.
Possible Implications of Project xCloud
With the upcoming release of systems like Google Stadia, Project xCloud adds to the possibility that a new trend may take shape in the gaming industry. Streaming is now a fundamental part of gaming, with many players making a decent living off their livestreams through a combination of skill, amusing or fascinating commentary, and dedication. As a result, companies such as Microsoft and Sony have started looking for ways to augment the popularity of streaming services and further cement their place as the premier console providers.
The aforementioned new trend has already begun manifesting with the upcoming Google Stadia, a console where all games will be digital and, rather than installing them to the console itself, will be accessed and played over a cloud service. With the implementation of xCloud and rejuvenation of Sony’s PlayStation Now, this speed of this development may increase. In the future, it’s possible that rather than purchasing a game, installing it, and playing it, consumers will see an increase in the use of models similar to the Xbox Game Pass—pay a subscription and earn access to a large library of games.
In lieu of purchasing the game itself and, therefore, possessing the right to own that title and play it at will, the market may shift towards offering an ever-changing library. For those who enjoy collecting their favorite games, digital or physical, and keeping them in their vast library, cloud services may render their hobby obsolete. The problem for collectors is that the use of libraries such as Xbox Game Pass is that the selections inevitably change as opposed to merely expanding.
While xCloud is not a library in the same way that Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation Now are libraries, it is a potential stepping stone in that dystopian direction, where games are simply rented via a subscription service instead of owned. Basically, subscription services like the two mentioned above are an assassin’s paradise: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The companies behind those features can do as they please, because who actually reads the entirety of the Terms of Service?
For collectors, having a vast library is important, as it displays both dedication to, and passion for, their hobby (or profession). When purchasing a title, it is permanently added to one’s library, where it is available to be downloaded and played at will. In the case of digital copies, the game is forever available to the account on which the game was purchased. Physical copies offer the same availability so long as the disc is present.
Ownership does not expire. However, for those gamers who are not collectors and tend to be done with games after a certain amount of time or upon completion with no interest in having them sit in their library forever, the buying option is less important and, indeed, can feel like a waste of money. Moreover, digital copies cannot be sold back. Thus, physical copies have an advantage in the sense that they can be sold back to certain retailers, such as Gamestop or other specialty shops.
For those who are less keen on keeping titles once they’re finished with them, particularly those games whose main selling point is the campaign experience, renting is a much more logical option. This is where subscription services, such as Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation Now, are useful. With a large library of games available for a monthly subscription fee, players who would rather try games out before committing to them or gamers who prefer to play something and then be done with it benefit the most from these services.
The downside to features like Game Pass or PS Now, however, is that the library always changes, and players have almost no control over which games stay in the library and which ones don’t. Instead of just expanding, the library shift completely, usually in incremental steps: a game here, another there, until eventually everything available is different. Thus, those gamers who would like to go back and play something they loved a few years ago may be out of luck unless they buy the game outright. Of course, that same title will probably be available for sale at a much lower cost at that point, which is a generally favorable outcome.
The problem with gaming over cloud services is always latency. The further away the server’s location from any given gamer, the more latency that player is likely to encounter. Push a button to eliminate a foe and watch in helpless indignation as the appropriate action is taken several milliseconds (or seconds if it’s that bad) later. Latency can often be the difference between a good or bad outcome. There’s little more infuriating than being unable to perform well due to lag.
If Microsoft’s xCloud doesn’t address latency properly, the service will rightly receive backlash. There’s no point in being able to play from anywhere if one’s performance is hindered by either shaky Internet or unstable cloud servers. A missed prime kill not only results in the loss of a game, but the loss of pride and faith in technology, thrown controllers and mice, and emotional outbursts that plague online communities.
Microsoft’s Project xCloud is a promising feature coming to both the Xbox One and Project Scarlett. The convenience of being able to play one’s games from anywhere with an Internet connection at 60 frames-per-second is without equal (one of the reasons the Nintendo Switch has done so well outside of its exclusives).
Convenience notwithstanding, the vicissitudes of change brought about by Project xCloud may be a double-edged sword. Collectors may suffer the misfortune of having to revert to purchasing physical copies of games, cluttering their living space with more stuff. Moreover, latency is a hurdle Microsoft will have to address, and perhaps the consumer unfortunate enough to only have satellite Internet available to them will agonize the most over the level of ping when trying to utilize xCloud’s features (stuck in the Dark Ages of the Internet).
The potential drawbacks are not necessarily reasons to forego giving Project xCloud a chance. Indeed, the ability to play Xbox games on the go is beyond intriguing. Nonetheless, beware the possible flaws, and give Microsoft time to work them out (hopefully before the service’s official launch) if any of those deficiencies come to fruition.