Microsoft’s bullishness about Xbox as a cloud-gaming platform got a lot bolder on Tuesday with the surprise launch.of a previously teased change: an upgrade to the server farm that powers the cloud portion of Game Pass Ultimate. Long story short, it’s now much more powerful, enough to make Xbox’s $15/month Game Pass Ultimate an increasingly attractive subscription option.
Xbox Game Streaming, which was previously known as Project xCloud, works much like Google Stadia, Amazon Luna, and other cloud-streaming options. Pick a game, and a server farm will spin up a personal instance and beam its gameplay video to your preferred, Internet-connected device while tracking your local button taps. The concept is a downgrade from locally owned hardware for a few reasons, including button-tap latency and hits to any ISP bandwidth caps. But it’s also arguably easier for some households than buying a new console.
The Xbox version has been quite attractive thanks to its value proposition. It includes over 260 games as part of a $15/month subscription, as opposed to a smaller Luna library, service-compatibility issues with Nvidia GeForce Now, and the a la carte pricing universe of Stadia. (Game Pass also comes in $10/month flavors, meant specifically for local hardware.) Up until now, however, the catch has been measly power on the server-farm side, since its cloud instances regressed to the “base” Xbox One console spec. Earlier this month, Xbox execs confirmed that its server fleet would begin upgrading to the Xbox Series X spec, which supports higher frame rates, higher pixel resolutions, faster loading times, and advanced rendering features.
Today, Microsoft flipped the switch. More power is now live for a large number of titles on Xbox Game Streaming, now running on your Android app or web browser as if they had booted on a Series X console.
Great showing immediately, blank spots will likely be remedied
Depending on the game in question, the upgrade is apparent across the board. In particular, the Series X port of 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon now loads nearly instantly and includes menu toggles for either higher resolution or higher frame rates, just like its Series X sibling. Other games appear to need further optimizations to juggle the specific specs of these Series X server blades, particularly 2020’s Ori and the Will of the Wisps, which has a bizarre 1 minute 44 second loading time before the game’s main menu appears. Some Series X-compatible games don’t currently notice the server upgrade, particularly the next-gen version of NBA 2K21, while Xbox console exclusives like Gears 5 aren’t currently on the Xbox Game Streaming interface.
Since the upgrade isn’t yet formally announced by Xbox’s news feed or major company executives, today’s blank spots are likely to be remedied soon enough. We’re also keeping an eye on other major infrastructure updates coming at some point to the Xbox Game Streaming ecosystem, including a native console app that will turn the base Xbox One into an optimized streaming box and similar apps coming to smart TVs. All of that has been given a vague “2021” release window. Hopefully, more native apps will mean further optimized visuals and performance, since the web browser version currently caps at 1080p resolution and doesn’t support HDR. (Want more power and performance in the meantime? There’s an Xbox for that.)
Higher performance on cloud-gaming services isn’t currently a Microsoft exclusive, though neither Luna nor Stadia supports anything that resembles “next-gen” rendering. GeForce Now includes a higher subscription tier that unlocks “RTX” server access, which adds ray tracing and other bells and whistles to a compatible library (though, again, this is limited to some extent by licensing agreements there). And Xbox Game Streaming is poised to show off a major ray-tracing title in the near future, with Doom Eternal‘s Series X/S patch coming June 29. From the look of things, its streamed version will function in kind starting on that day (and won’t require users to download an additional patch, which is a nice cloud-streaming touch).
In a different year, the argument against cloud gaming would be a lot easier. Why stream a game—and deal with issues like bandwidth caps, image compression, and button-tap latency—when a perfectly fine home console can handle a ton of games? But in the chip-shortage nightmare of 2021 (and beyond), cloud gaming can sound a lot better than waiting for next-gen consoles to return to stock—or at least tide over interested gamers and families while they wait for either a Series X/S or PlayStation 5. And that may be the perfect window for Xbox to strike with its Game Pass Ultimate value proposition.