Analysis: Cloud gaming on Xbox illustrates Microsoft’s console strategy versus Sony

(Microsoft photo)

Microsoft announced Tuesday morning that the long-awaited debut of its cloud gaming service on the Xbox family of consoles is slated for this holiday season, following previous releases from Xbox Cloud Gaming on PCs and mobile devices.

Console owners who subscribe to the Ultimate version of the Game Pass service can play compatible games from this service almost immediately via Microsoft’s cloud servers. The feature is assigned its own tab on the Xbox Game Pass console UI that indicates which games on the service are compatible with Cloud Play.

This allows you to try out games with the touch of a button instead of waiting for a potentially lengthy local installation, as well as playing a game over the cloud while waiting for it to be installed locally.

Xbox One users can also play games like the latest Microsoft Flight Simulator that are otherwise tied to the X | S series hardware via the cloud. The processing power of your local Xbox doesn’t really matter if it’s just transferring your input between a remote Microsoft cloud server. So in theory, you can use the cloud to give your Xbox One some sort of virtual upgrade.

The benefits Microsoft would surely conjure up all boil down to immediacy. Playing a game from the cloud is as easy as pressing the start button, which brings Game Pass a step closer to the “Netflix of Games” analogue.

Do you want to try something new without waiting for a download? Cloud gaming. Would you like to do something while the download you started completes? Cloud gaming. Do you have a bunch of local people and are you just looking for some party style to play? Cloud gaming. It has a lot of personal use.

Of course, it also has its typical disadvantages. Cloud games are notorious bandwidth hogs that are roughly comparable to streaming HD videos. If your home ISP has a data limit, playing until you finish on Xbox Cloud Gaming will ensure you hit it.

Xbox Cloud games are limited to 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second, similar to the Xbox Series S. There are some games, such as the Microsoft Flight Simulator mentioned above, that are disabled by this. They lose their sense of visual spectacle to such an extent that a hard-capped cloud version is a profound misrepresentation of the overall experience.

It is also not available everywhere yet. At the time of writing, Microsoft maintains a webpage that states which countries are currently able to access which services through the Game Pass project. Since Game Pass essentially consists of four loosely bundled services at this point, international users should keep an eye on this page to see what parts of the service are available in their country.

In short, and based on my experience with the browser version of Xbox Cloud Gaming, this is great for trying out a game, but if your plan is to incorporate real-time into a particular title, you’re still better off with an old-fashioned one local installation.

This is doubly true for anything that has a significant online component, because even the thickest internet pipes will have a hard time maintaining a connection to Microsoft’s cloud and a game server at the same time. A good example here is Microsoft’s own State of Decay 2, which I think had just enough lag to get mad when I dialed in via the cloud.

An official Microsoft mockup from Gamescom 2021 of how to find cloud-compatible titles on the Xbox Series X | S console UI. (Microsoft image)

What this does, despite its shortcomings, is to continue to build on Microsoft’s current strategy in gaming. Earlier this summer, just before E3, Microsoft released a recorded conference discussing its gaming initiatives in which Xbox’s Phil Spencer referred to the Game Pass service as a “recognition engine.”

Even now that Xbox games on the Pass require local installation, Microsoft’s internal numbers have shown subscribers play 30% more genres and 40% more games. In theory, removing this installation process from the equation so players don’t have to wait before jumping into something new should only improve those numbers.

This in turn illustrates the strategy of Microsoft in the ninth generation of consoles. Sony continues to rely on its vast library of exclusive products, international appeal and an overwhelming lead to sell the PlayStation 5. Nintendo has its own tentpole franchises that keep it relevant, as well as a hammer lock in the portable market.

It’s easier and faster to explore new games through the Xbox ecosystem than it is on the PS5 or the Switch.

The appeal of Microsoft right now, in those months leading up to Halo Infinite’s release, lies in the way it sheds the rough edges of video games as a hobby. It’s easier and faster to explore new games through the Xbox ecosystem than it is on the PS5 or the Switch.

Once again, major console exclusives, from major Microsoft third-party acquisitions like Bethesda, are beginning to filter out onto the Xbox that should add more than simple convenience to the platform. Right now, however, Microsoft’s main selling point for its console is its ease of use at the consumer level, and it’s more compelling than I thought.

Microsoft’s Xbox Insider Program members can help test Xbox Cloud Gaming this fall. Presumably, the results of this testing phase will determine exactly when the service will be rolled out to the general public.

Microsoft’s cloud gaming announcement came during its press conference at this year’s Gamescom. The show, which traditionally takes place in Cologne in late summer, is usually the gaming event of the year with the most visitors, measured by the number of visitors, and a calendar highlight for the European games industry. Due to COVID-related issues, this year’s show has of course been switched to a virtual format.

Other major Xbox announcements at Gamescom included a longer look at Techland’s long-awaited zombie parkour game, Dying Light 2: Stay Human, due to be released on December 7th; announcing a deal with Humble Games that will bring 10 new indies to Xbox Game Pass; several in-depth updates to Microsoft Flight Simulator, including a racing mode and the addition of electric air taxis; and the unveiling of a console version of Paradox’s great strategy game Crusader Kings III.

One notable omission in the Gamescom presentation, however, was all other news about Halo Infinite, which is slated for later this year.

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