Xbox Cloud Gaming: Portable Gaming, Minimal Glitches

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Microsoft Xbox officially launched Microsoft Xbox Cloud Gaming, its cloud gaming steaming service last week. Xbox Cloud Gaming (Beta), as it is officially called, is the service that rose from Microsoft’s Project xCloud, after a couple of years worth of development, months of testing, and a failed effort to bring the service to iOS (though Microsoft is trying to revive a similar concept in an app that will allow streaming from an Xbox console.) I’ve been messing around with the service this week, playing a handful of games to give it a try and provide you my take on what I think of the service. I’ll be upfront in telling you this: I have some strong opinions regarding the effort to bring streaming gaming to Android devices by Microsoft, and I’ll share those with you here. The reality is – there is some good stuff going one here, but there is certainly room for improvement as well.

What is Xbox Cloud Gaming, you ask? Well, it’s a game streaming service. It’s not, in some ways, unlike other entertainment streaming services. You are likely familiar with services like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. Xbox Cloud Gaming brings a select set of games to subscribers via a data connection, to compatible devices. Those devices include a variety of supported Android devices, including Android-based smartphones, as well as an assortment of Android tablets. There are some other technical requirements, but this is where information starts to get a little bit spotty. Xbox’s site for the Xbox Cloud Gaming service lists the following basic requirements that must be met to get started.

Image Credit: Super Co-Op Bros from xbox.com

The graphic indicates your Android-based device must meet or exceed version 6.0, with Bluetooth 4.0+ support. However, the Xbox site does not feature any sort of list of supported devices or even a tool that you can use to search for your particular Android device to check compatibility. As our own Jason Porembski discovered last week, as he searched the Google Play Store for the “Xbox Game Pass App (BETA)” for his Android-based Samsung Galaxy Pro Note tablet, on which he has only version 5.0.2, he couldn’t even find the app, let alone install it. Sadly, it seems Samsung terminated support on the device, so no further OS update will even be made available via standard channels. This is a frustration that many an Android user has known, and this can be one of the more challenging parts of ownership of Android-based devices, with such a hodge-podge of manufacture specific OS versions that are layered on top of a base Android OS version. Without the unification of a single OS (like with Apple devices,) knowing what software will work with what hardware can be a bit of a guess. (This is the one area I freely admit that Apple is superior in.)

The challenges of device compatibility issues are hardly the end of the story. Cloud Gaming requires a 5 GHz wifi connection (or mobile data connection) with a minimum of 10 Mbps downstream. While 10 Mpbs doesn’t seem like a terrible tall order, as I began to actually play titles, as can be expected, I found different titles requiring a substantial amount of data to operate properly.

Its Beta, Bros!

Technically speaking, though the Project xCloud concluded with the launch of Xbox Cloud Gaming (Beta), it is still considered by Microsoft and Xbox to be a “Beta”. The Cloud Gaming site at Xbox.com addresses this exact issue in the FAQ’s. So for all the fanfare over the past couple of weeks about Xbox Cloud Gaming launching, its really just moved into a new, more expansive open beta test. We should be expecting some of the hiccups that we are encountering with the service at this time. Plenty of hiccups is what I encountered.

First of all, getting set up wasn’t too terribly challenging. Downloading and setting up the Xbox Game Pass Beta app from the play store was ok, and getting logged in didn’t take long. I was initially confused about getting set up as cloud gaming makes use of a newer Xbox Game Pass app, and I had already had the Xbox app on my phone- which does not support or provide access to Cloud Gaming. However, the Xbox Game Pass Beta app is a pretty minimalist app, giving easy access to all Game Pass games, and allowing a clean user experience for starting cloud games, as well as allowing the remote install to Xbox and PC of supported games. Frankly, its a pretty nice UI.

Once I was able to get into the Xbox Game Pass app, I wanted to test out a range of games to try to put Xbox Cloud Gaming to the test. Frankly, after having given some consideration to cloud gaming, and after having seen and heard about Project xCloud when it was going through its earlier Xbox Insider Alpha testing, I was under a bit of a false impression about how it worked and had my doubts about the level of stability of the game streaming to my device. After all, some of the games that are available are pretty large installs, when the game is installed locally on an Xbox. I had some concerns about how responsive games would be, and the level of frustration that might result.

Down to the Gameplay…

The first game that I tested out on Cloud Gaming seemed to be a natural fit for the platform – Minecraft Dungeons. Relatively speaking, Dungeons is a fairly small game with relatively basic graphics, and so my hope was to ease into the gameplay without overtaxing my internet connection. I wanted to give cloud gaming an underhand softball over the plate before I really put cloud gaming, and wifi, to the test.

We already love Dungeons and have spent a lot of hours playing through the game. I’m already quite familiar with the levels and the gameplay, and as I was playing with my Bluetooth connected Elite 2 controller, there was no learning involved in the controls as the controls mimic perfectly the console version of the game. Truth be told, it IS the console version of the game and not some augmented mobile version. This is one of the things that I really enjoyed about ALL of the games that I played on Cloud Gaming. What you get is the same game with the same familiar controls. There is no learning curve.

After running two levels in Dungeons, I decided to take things up a few levels to a game that I thought would be significantly more challenging for its high-speed, high-action level of gameplay, not to mention the level of complexity in the graphics, especially with respect to the game world. My second selection was Forza Horizon 4. Its been a while since I’ve played Horizon 4, and under normal circumstances, I would have played this either via my Xbox console or, more likely, my gaming PC, hooked up to a 75″ QLED display, and using a Logitech racing wheel and pedals. (I take my auto racing VERY seriously.) I had pretty low expectations, truth be told. Overall though, though the challenge of racing with a hand-held controller is real, and can feel very limiting when I’m typically using a steering wheel with a 900 degrees of steering ability lock to lock, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I was able to adapt my prior experience to this tiny screen format. My first race (a winter series road race) I placed 4th driving my navy blue Audi TTS, and then placed first on my second go. All things told, I was pretty surprised because I expected to encounter network lag issues that would have made playability a real issue in this title. Though I encountered some graphics deterioration at times, it didn’t really affect performance.

Video Credit: Kevin May/Super Co-Op Bros

The third title I selected to test out is my favorite zombie apocalypse game of all time (which doesn’t really say a lot, it’s not a genre I’m terribly well exposed to), State of Decay 2: Juggernaut Edition. Its been a few months since I’ve popped into this game, and there had been some updates to some of the gameplay systems, but I’m quite familiar. My review of this portion will be almost as brief as my experience playing it. I hated it. Controls were very unpredictable… Frankly, character control was always an area with State of Decay 2 that I found that, in the full-size version, were pretty challenging, with characters not always responding in the intended or expected manner. I think that lack of precision, coupled with the tiny scale of the graphics made this title just unbearably difficult to play. I may have spent all of 15 minutes running around just trying to get a feel for it, and decided quickly that I didn’t want to risk the death of one of my pretty well-developed characters, especially when State of Decay 2 has its single-death rule for your characters. I play so briefly that I didn’t even bother to capture any gameplay video.

As I played through these various titles on Xbox Cloud Gaming, I found myself uttering the same refrain to Jason. “It’s so damn small on my phone.” With this theme continuing to play out, I selected my fourth, and final game I used to test out cloud gaming. It was another “soft-ball” of a game that I purposely selected for its simple graphics and basic gameplay. Untitled Goose Game, from House House, is one of my favorite puzzle-solving games, not only for the Xbox but of all time. It features a quirky sense of humor (or humor, as its Aussie developers would likely spell it), simple graphics, amusing, and entertaining puzzle-solving challenges all seemed pretty perfect for the cloud gaming platform.

Video credit: Kevin May/Super Co-Op Bros

Frankly, in my mind, this is the perfect sort of game for Cloud Gaming. It doesn’t require an enormous amount of data to stream is simplistic graphics. I installed a data usage monitor on my phone out of curiosity as to what amount of data was being pushed to my phone via streaming, and while playing Untitled Goose, it maxed out at around 1.2 Mbps when the game was loading, and during active gameplay, sat around 800 kbps. Considering my 500 Mbps data connection coming into my house, and that I am utilizing a 5 GHz wifi connection, streaming Untitled Goose Game didn’t exactly put a strain on my network. For this reason, I thought this would make a great game to play on the go, without the benefit of a wifi connection. Though my Samsung Note 20 Ultra supports 5G and LTE, these services are not widespread in the desert southwest city of Tucson, AZ.

The Hiccups…

It is over the data connection, network lag, and graphics snags that I really ran into the biggest limitations with Xbox Cloud Gaming. Challenge number one is that I found playing any of these “full size” games, even on my Samsung Note 20 Ultra, which is physically a giant, by phone standards, as it is about as large a phone as one can have today, playing games that were designed to be played on a standard TV/monitor is challenging and painful on the eyes. I’m no spring chicken, and my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, but shrinking a game down that was designed to be played on a display that is, at minimum, in the 30″ range, is a real challenge. This was most apparent when I played Forza and even more so playing State of Decay 2. Because these games feature a lot of scenery and, as a result, have significant graphics that may go deep into the background, navigating, maneuvering, anticipating obstacles, or trying to shoot at distant targets becomes all but impossible. Dungeons and Untitled Goose Game, with their much shallower depth of field and platform style gameplay, are much more conducive to the small display as all the graphic elements are pretty much equally sized. Some games are definitely adaptable to a large smartphone, but others (like Forza and State of Decay) would really be better suited for a decent-size tablet.

The other big issue I ran into was simply over how well graphics rendered. Despite my network capabilities, it seems the servers that host these games are probably under a great deal of demand. Additionally, (without installing network sniffers and other software to trace the network signal,) it’s impossible to know how many various gateways the signal maybe hopping over to make its way down to my device. It seems that in order to have as minimal of an impact on the actual gameplay responsiveness, there were frequently graphic elements in all four games that did not render completely. That often took the form of blocks or stripes of graphics that didn’t render in their full color. These interruptions were a brief, but a frequent reminder that the game was not being run locally. I did find with the graphics pixilating a bit and not fully rendering, that I didn’t suffer much gameplay interruption, aside from a limited number of times that the a game just complete crashed out on me.

The most dramatic and telling test came when I turned off my wifi and attempted to play Untitled Goose Game over my cellular data. It was a very brief test as the game was completely and totally unplayable before it booted me out because of network issues. In fairness, I do not have great cellular service in my neighborhood, and I lack any 5G service as Verizon has yet to set up any 5G service in Tucson at all, so I was frankly not surprised. It will be interesting to test out and update how well cloud gaming works over 5G, the next time I can make my way up to the Phoenix area.

Video Credit: Kevin May/Super Co-Op Bros

In truth, I also briefly played Grounded, Neir Automata and loaded Sea of Thieves, just to see how they would work, and haven’t spent enough time in these titles to give an appreciable impression. However, I ran into the same graphics rendering issues with each and every one while playing over wifi.

Conclusions

Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud gaming has some real potential as a service. I know it’s still in its infancy, and overall I’m pretty happy with what I experienced. While I wasn’t surprised with some of the minor issues I ran into with network lag and how well games streamed to my phone, I was actually expecting a lot less at this early stage in Cloud Gaming’s life cycle. I think Cloud Gaming is here to stay and has a place in the mix of gaming platforms and game delivery. What I don’t expect anytime soon is for Cloud Gaming to take console gaming’s place. It will deliver a new and unique way for gamers to be delivered gaming, but I also think it will be very much filling a niche more than becoming mainstream anytime soon. Certainly, the current product life cycle, with new consoles from Xbox and Playstation about to land, is under no threat of being supplanted by Cloud Gaming services. The fact that Cloud Gaming is, at present, being offered as an already included service with Game Pass Ultimate further suggests Microsoft has no short-term plans for this service to be anything more than an additional way for Microsoft to retain current subscribers as well as a path to entice new players to subscribe.

It wouldn’t surprise to come back here in a couple of years to find that Microsoft is splitting off Cloud Gaming and making it an “add on” feature for Game Pass as well as offering a stand-alone subscription. The service will need some refining to improve game delivery to the point that there are very limited to no interruptions in the game streaming. Along with this, the eventual expansion of 5G cellular networks will serve to support these cloud-based gaming services, where there are currently only a handful of large markets in which 5G is very pervasive. Ultimately, cloud gaming is a convenient way to get an entertainment fix when you don’t have access to a fixed gaming setup like a console or PC, and offers the promise of a wide range of gaming possibilities, even if some of these have challenges in playing on a tiny screen.

Have you tested out Microsoft Xbox Cloud Gaming? What games have you played, and how did it run for you? Let us know what you think below, and join check out our forums where you can register to post about your experience and ask your own questions!

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[…] users: Xbox Remote Play is out of beta, and now available! Not to be confused with the anticipated Xbox Cloud Gaming which, while still in beta, was released in September only for Android devices as iOS users […]

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