Cloud Streaming games and how Google and Microsoft are defining it:
Games are rendered on remote servers and streamed to players as video, while their input is sent back via a controller, dongle, keyboard, mouse, etc.
Between last week's sneak announcement from Google about the specifics of its Stadia platform and Microsoft's blow out E3 2019 keynote, it's taken some time for the dust to settle around the state of cloud-powered game streaming going into the Fall and beyond.
Despite both Microsoft and Google having their respective audiences in the palm of their hands while expounding on their cloud gaming systems, there appears to still be a cloud of confusion that hangs around the vital details of what xCloud and Stadia will offer and when.
With a few days removed, here is what we know about both cloud gaming offerings.
Both Google and Microsoft have claimed that their respective Stadia and xCloud cloud streaming options would be available beginning in late 2019. More specifically, Google's Stadia will be available in a limited rollout in November 2019, with the Founder's Edition being the first and only available tier for the remainder of the year.
Moreover, Microsoft's xCloud will only begin its public "testing" of xCloud in October 2019 despite being used by Microsoft employees around the world currently.
Both Google and Microsoft talked up 2020 expansions of their services with Stadia opening up additional tiers that would include its Pro and Base subscriber channels, however, Microsoft executives were vaguer as to the official release window beyond the testing timeframe.
As both are testing the waters with tempered rollouts in late 2019, the availability window for both services is relatively small when compared to their other international offerings.
Google was clearer in where Stadia would be made available listing fourteen countries that include the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland.
Once again, Microsoft was vague on its roster of supported regions only offering that it had put custom xCloud blades in 13 datacenter regions where it already hosts Azure cloud including North America, Asia, and Europe. Unfortunately, Microsoft executives were tight-lipped about what cities or countries within those regions will be allowed to test or eventually see the official rollout of xCloud.
Another important where question, is where the games will be playable, as in what devices can users stream games on.
Ironically, the very thing that differentiates xCloud and Stadia from more remote play options and the very their very selling point, is becoming the most construed detail of the services.
While Google and Microsoft sell Stadia and xCloud as the play any time anywhere streaming solutions across TV's, phones, tablets and PCs, the reality is that in their current states, they are neither play anywhere or at any time.
At release, Google Stadia will support game streaming to its Google Pixel 3, XL, 3a, and 3a XL and any device sporting a Chromecast Ultra in conjunction with the specialized Stadia controller for gameplay on a TV or through the Chrome browser on PCs.
"...Controllers must be HID-compliant and connect via USB cable if you’re playing on Chrome or mobile.
Also, you must use the Stadia Controller if you want to play on your TV. Third-party accessory makers could theoretically release compatible controllers under the “Made for Google” program. However, they’d have to directly connect to the Chromecast Ultra, which is also required for playing on your TV. Until that happens, your only option on the TV is the Stadia Controller." - Android Central
Eventually, Stadia will support more Bluetooth and HID-compliant controller options, more smartphones, and additional tablets. Not for nothing, non-Pixel mobile devices will still be able to download and install the Stadia app, not to be confused with the streaming service. The Stadia app allows users to manage purchases and download devices.
On the Microsoft side, the company says its early focus is refining the experience on smartphones and tablets with no clear indication as to when TV or PC support would arrive.
As it stands, neither option appears ready for primetime TV display gameplay and that Google is putting a focus on its Pixel devices and Chrome browser for its immediate Stadia efforts while Microsoft is looking to iPhones, iPads and Galaxy devices to push its xCloud.
Beyond quantifying and defining exactly what Stadia and xCloud are as services, there remains the various what's of the companies offerings such as what is the cost, what is included, what are the requirements, so on and so forth.
The first and perhaps, the most important 'what', is the cost?
Google was clear when it announced its pricing for its various tiers, where the company offered its Founder's Edition, which is the only way to try out Stadia in 2019, for $129.99. The Founder's Edition includes:
- Limited Edition Stadia Controller in Google's Midnight Blue color
- Chromecast Ultra, valued at $69.99
- A three-month subscription to Stadia's Pro tier gaming options
- Early enrollment into Stadia Gamertags
- Additional three-month Stadia Pro subscription for a friend
Other Stadia pricing includes the Stadia Pro tier which will cost $10 per month and include features such as 4K, 60 frames per second and HDR gaming, dependent on a robust internet connection. Ten dollars a month will also include Dolby 5.1 surround sound, access to a limited library of games, eventually, access to exclusive deals and for a limited time, access to the full Destiny 2 experience including all DLC's and add-ons.
Then there is Stadia Base which is the services Free tier which streaming up to 1080p at 60 fps and only stereo sound.
There is a rather larger caveat the remains an outlier in the Stadia story and that's the requirement of adopters to purchase and in some instances, repurchase their games to play on Stadia. The $10 a month is just the cost of leasing server space, for the time being, gamers will need to purchase their games, some at full cost, to play them on Stadia.
Microsoft, on the other hand, had nothing to offer in the way of pricing. With the company only beginning its limited testing in October, there will presumably be sometime before fans and users receive that level of information. Microsoft did mention that beyond the testing phase of xCloud, gamers who use their own consoles as Project xCloud servers will be able to do freely rather than using xCloud streaming at an undisclosed price.
The biggest what question still up for debate is the one regarding what games can users expect to play?
Google has announced its Stadia platform will launch with over 30 titles that include Doom Eternal, Borderlands 3, Destiny 2, Rise of the Tomb Raider, NBA 2K, Mortal Kombat 11 and the Division 2, just to name a few. Since its unveiling, more studios have announced their support of Stadia that include Ubisoft and Gearbox Software.
Microsoft, on the other hand, plans to leverage its decade's old library of games.
"Microsoft claims when Project xCloud launches, it will support streaming of every single Xbox One game that’s been published, or any other Xbox or Xbox 360 game that can be played on the Xbox One console.
That’s a total of over 3,500 games. Over 1,900 games are currently in development for the Xbox One console, and all of them can be played via Project XCloud. Developers will be able to let gamers access their Xbox One games via Project xCloud with no additional work on their end." Android Authority
Theoretically, the technology between Stadia and xCloud should not be that dissimilar.
Google claims that Stadia will leverage custom 2.7 GHz hyperthreaded x86 CPUs and AVX 2 SIMD. Stadia will also make use of custom AMD GPUs to harness HBM2 memory and 56 compute units to direct 10.7 teraflops of power.
Unfortunate, Microsoft did not do themselves any favors during their E3 2019 keynote by conflating their xCloud specs with that of their upcoming Xbox console release, Project Scarlett. Right now, there aren't very many specifics about Microsoft's gaming cloud but the company has only gone as far as saying they'd be using components similar to current Xbox One offerings.
"The power of Project xCloud – the seamless compatibility for developers and the new places to play for gamers – comes from Azure datacenters spanning the globe, with hardware that shares a common set of components with our Xbox consoles. We’ve already deployed our custom Project xCloud blades to datacenters across 13 Azure regions with an initial emphasis on proximity to key game development centers in North America, Asia, and Europe."
To keep pace with Google's Stadia, Microsoft has already mentioned that it will be putting Project Scarlett blades into its data centers and leveraging the 4x capabilities it offers over the current Xbox One X blades in the company's server portfolio.
With Console Streaming from your Xbox One you'll be able to:
✅ Turn your Xbox One into your own personal console server
✅ Stream your Xbox One library, including Xbox Game Pass, for free
— Xbox (@Xbox) June 9, 2019
The only other spec specific talk Microsoft engaged in regarding xCloud during E3 2019 has been its ability to leverage the power of the upcoming next-gen release of Project Scarlett. Similar to its enterprise cloud strategy, Microsoft is looking to utilize a hybrid multifunctional deployment of xCloud that would make Xbox One consoles free servers for xCloud streaming.
Another important 'how' question is that of, how developers support the platforms.
From the Stadia side of things, developers will have to manage a few tweaks to get their games on Stadia's Linux-base platform using Google's cloud development tools. The company has yet to detail what the specific tools are, but several studios have touted their support for Stadia with industry titan Rockstar games being amongst the latest in production for Stadia. While the lure of access to Google's Machine Learning technology to help developers port games quicker maybe a draw, there are still a sizable number of developers looking for specifics from the company.
“The specs were really impressive,” adds Cranz. “Those were on par with a 2080 [GPU] from Nvidia and a really nice Intel processor, so [equivalent to] a really good gaming PC. But it’s a completely new platform that people will have to develop games for, so I don’t know how easy it’s going to be to translate games that are already developed for console or PC. This [keynote] felt like less like something for the general public, and more like a pitch to the developers.”
Microsoft's wording when explaining their development to consumer path with xCloud describes an almost hands-off approach to getting their games on this relatively new platform.
Today you can play three generations of amazing games on Xbox One. That means that Project xCloud has the technical capability to stream more than 3,500 games, without any changes or modifications required by a developer. 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.
There are currently more than 1,900 games in development for Xbox One, all of which could run on Project xCloud. Developers creating those games continue working normally – building with the tools they have – while we do the work to make their games accessible to the broadest set of players possible.
The why and who of the whole game streaming ordeal is just as nebulous as the seemingly more specifics of when, where and how.
For Stadia, the why and who answers seemingly lay in a different motive than Microsoft's intentions with xCloud but both ultimately end up in the same future.
Stadia attempts to break the wheel of console gaming cycles and lowers the bar of entry to gaming by commoditizing the initial buy-in experience. Leveraging its vast market share in browser and smartphone usage, Google sees an opportunity to capitalize on an industry evolution at the right time. Without an already established base of users, Google's Stadia platform at the moment is for hobbyists and explorers who may either have some discretionary income to support an additional monthly fee or for gamers with relatively small libraries or achievement histories. With the limited amount of titles, no discussion of in-game achievement porting, and that developers have to specifically re-tool games to perform on Stadia may be a little bit of time before Google's gambit pays off in dividends for gamers with extensive PC or console libraries.
On the Microsoft side, their xCloud is for testers, right now. The company, to the frustration of many, is slowly rolling its xCloud out and for good reason. As with Windows, Microsoft is factoring in multiple moving parts and attempting to leverage its solid gaming base for this future value proposition. Microsoft's motivation is two-fold, the first is attempting to pivot the narrative of its arguably disastrous Xbox One console generation where its console was outsold at almost a 3:1 ratio. When the console becomes secondary, Microsoft's software chops can help them win.
The second motivating factor remains parallel to Google's intent to capitalize on a cascading evolution of gaming. Nintendo's experiment with the Switch proved that console-level gaming on more mobile form factors is deserving of developer attention, and without having to invest in new R&D to create a device, both companies can use the massive cloud infrastructures to produce similar, if not better results. When available, xCloud will be for the dedicated Xbox Live users already in Microsoft's stable, some 60 million paying customers. To expand beyond that will depend on how effectively the company can push its cross-play paradigm in the near future.
Google, by order of the sheer concrete numbers revealed for the Stadia platform, is ahead of Microsoft's xCloud efforts. Google has already completed its beta testing, has pricing and an initial start date. Google will begin selling hardware (Stadia controller and Chromecast Ultra) sooner than Microsoft. Google's Stadia continues to gain developer support with each day that passes beyond the initial E3 press conference.
While seemingly behind in detail specifications, rollout and pricing, by way of development, Microsoft's xCloud will have development, hardware and game support that outpaces Stadia.
Both Stadia and xCloud pitch any screen, but the reality is that both services are screen-limited in their initial release or testing. Stadia will work with the limited amount of Pixel 3 line of phones as well as TV with very rigid restrictions for now. There are no details about tablets, and the browser-play requires a second look at requirements for gamers.
Microsoft has run tests of its xCloud on Samsung Galaxy phones during its presence at E3 and claims to be fine-tuning for tablets as well, but as it stands, there doesn't appear to be a plan for PCs beyond a possible tangential association with its recently announced Xbox Game Pass Ultimate/new Xbox Windows 10 app and even then there is no talk of a particular delivery method for PCs.
Right now, the dust is still settling and the details emerging, but it seems fair to assess that it just too early to tell which companies approach will be the silver bullet to success in the future of cloud-powered game streaming.