Microsoft could do the unthinkable: introduce a Netflix-like game streaming service with minimal lag.
The company first announced its xCloud game streaming service in October, saying it will see the use of specially-designed server blades packed with Xbox hardware to stream games across the world. Microsoft claims its internal test version requires an internet connection of just 10 megabits per second. Reports suggest the follow up to the Xbox One, “Scarlett,” will offer a $150 version that only supports game streaming, with the heavy lifting done server side. If true, xCloud will play a key role in the next generation.
“xCloud is not just another offering from Microsoft; it is the ideal combination of Microsoft’s consumer brand and its Azure cloud platform assets,” Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at GlobalData, tells Inverse. “xCloud could also be a way for Microsoft to get into mobile in a meaningful way without owning the mobile OS. Microsoft will need to piggyback on low-latency 5G mobile networks that are just starting to be built now in order to fully realize its mobile gaming ambitions, but xCloud is going to be a major initiative for the company.”
Sony’s PlayStation Now offers something similar, with access to hundreds of PS4, PS3 and PS2 games for $19.99 per month. But reviews are mixed, and it’s unclear whether Sony plans to offer a similar streaming box for the PS5. Its $99 “PlayStation TV,” which made a similar offer to consumers, quietly disappeared from shelves in 2016.
Here’s why xCloud could be different when its public beta tests launch in 2019:
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Microsoft has a lot of reasons to be optimistic. It has 54 Azure cloud service regions, dotted around the globe, with access from 140 countries. By comparison, Amazon S3 has around 14 data centers and Google Cloud has 16. The Cloud Security Alliance claims Azure runs 29.4 percent of public cloud infrastructure, with Amazon Web Services at 41.5 percent and third-placed Google Cloud at three percent.
It’s a much stronger starting point than Sony. The company built startup Gaikai for $380 million in 2012, which Crunchbase claims had an annual revenue of $4.3 million, before launching its PlayStation Now game streaming service in 2014. Azure, meanwhile, made Microsoft $7.8 billion revenue last year, nearly doubling the previous year’s revenue. In terms of cloud clout, it’s almost no comparison.
“[Microsoft] is well equipped to address the complex challenge of cloud game-streaming,” Kareem Choudhry, vice president for Microsoft gaming cloud, said in a statement. “Azure has the scale to deliver a great gaming experience for players worldwide, regardless of their location.”
Choudhry may be right. While the initial version runs on just 10 megabits per second, the company plans to create “ways to combat latency through advances in networking topology, and video encoding and decoding.” With its strong reputation in cloud computing at stake, a misfire on xCloud could have repercussions for Microsoft beyond its gaming division.
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Smooth, frictionless game streaming has remained frustratingly elusive despite a number of multi-million dollar efforts. California-based startup OnLive offered a similar service when it launched in 2011, but its poor performance led to Digital Foundry declaring it an “often unsatisfactory experience.” A popular 4chan meme from the time joked that OnLive would need to harness “tachyons,” fictional time-bending molecules used by Ozymandias in Watchmen to block visions of the future:
OnLive regularly reached a lag of 200 milliseconds, while PlayStation Now varies between 180 milliseconds down to 38 in some cases. RTings claims anything below 40 is good, but humans can notice a difference at just 15. It’s hard to overstate how groundbreaking a minimal-lag service from Microsoft could be.
19 Predictions for 2019: What Inverse Thinks
Eight years on from the launch if OnLive, it could be time to take another crack at the idea. Microsoft has 40 years of cloud experience behind it, the Azure infrastructure to support it, and the marketing resources to encourage users to try it. It probably won’t replace a standard home console, and rumors suggest Microsoft is planning a more standard offering anyway, but Inverse thinks the odds are looking good that the company can wow with something that beats PlayStation Now.
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