5 things you need to know about Microsoft's Project xCloud

UPDATE: Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members can try xCloud in beta from today

It might sound a lot like the secret weapon from a straight-to-DVD action movie but Microsoft’s Project xCloud game-streaming tech could have a pretty major impact on your future commute.

But what exactly is it and how does it work? Here’s everything you need to know.

Additional reporting by Matt Tate

1. It streams games to your phone

Or your tablet, or “another connected device” as Microsoft puts it. That means phones, laptops and PCs, but could eventually include TVs and other streaming kit.

All the heavy lifting that your Xbox One would normally do is dealt with by specially designed blades that sit inside data centres in 54 Azure regions around the world. That means Microsoft has the potential to make Project xCloud available in 140 countries.

Microsoft’s demo showed Forza Horizon 4 being played on an unnamed Android phone using a standard Xbox controller paired over Bluetooth, although you will be able to play using onscreen touch controls as well.

It looks pretty seamless, and you can see it for yourself in the video above, but playing over a sturdy Wi-Fi connection in a controlled studio environment is one thing. Getting the same experience out in the wild is a very different kettle of fish.

2. You’ll need a pretty solid signal

Anyone who’s ever tried to stream a football match on a train will know how inconsistent it can be. One minute your team’s on a flowing counter-attack and the next things have juddered to a halt on the edge of the box. By the time the picture has caught up with the signal the ball’s up the other end of the pitch and in the back of your own net. Now imagine that when you’re in control of the players.

Streaming video is one thing, but streaming games is quite another. The big enemy is latency: the time it takes for the game to register your button presses. If that’s not instantaneous it quickly becomes unplayable, particularly anything involving multiplayer.

Microsoft’s data centres keep this to a minimum but that makes no difference if the phone you’re trying to play on can barely open a webpage. 5G can’t come soon enough.

3. It’s not meant to replace consoles

When the PS4 and Xbox One launched back in 2013 many predicted it’d be the last physical gaming hardware we’d ever see. But here we are six years later and both have been updated with newer, more powerful models.

Microsoft says Project xCloud isn’t designed to replace its console but to complement it. Playing on your phone will never beat sitting in front of a 65in 4K TV with the surround-sound booming, but people don’t like it when you set all that stuff up on the bus.

4. It won't just work with Xbox controllers

In its current testing phase, xCloud works with the standard Xbox One controller and runs on Android devices. 

Microsoft has announced that this will change when the service launches properly next year, though. Windows 10 PCs will naturally be supported, with plans to bring iOS on board too. And perhaps more surprisingly, Sony's DualShock 4 pad will be compatible, as well as controllers from Razer. Flexibility is a big selling point for Google Stadia, and Microsoft is clearly keen to ensure that xCloud has the same appeal. 

5. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members will have access to over 100 titles in beta from September

We've known for a while that xCloud will be rolled into Microsoft's brilliant Game Pass service, and last month the Redmond company confirmed that the streaming platform would extend to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members at no additional cost. 

Microsoft recently announced that from September 15, Game Pass Ultimate members in 22 markets will be able to play over 100 games from the cloud on their Android phone or tablet. No luck for the iOS crowd at this stage. 

Once you've downloaded the xCloud app, you'll technically (internet-providing) have instant access to a library that includes Gears 5Yakuza Kiwami 2 and Sea of Thieves wherever you are. Everything from your existing Xbox profile carries over, so you can start playing a mission on your Xbox Series X at home and finish it on your Google Pixel 4a on the bus. This is Microsoft's clear vision for the next generation of gaming, and if you're already invested in the Xbox ecosystem it's really quite exciting. 

We'll get more information on the full list of games nearer to launch.

UPDATE: As of today, Game Pass Ultimate members can access Microsoft's game streaming platform in beta on Android devices. You'll need to download the Xbox Game Pass (Beta) app from the Google Store first, and not all of the 100+ games Microsoft has confirmed for the official launch will be playable.

And as xCloud remains in beta, you shouldn't expect performance to be consistent or indicative of what the final experience will be like come September 15.