Xbox Cloud Gaming launched in beta for Australian audiences on October 1, 2021, and has become another feather in Game Pass’s increasingly storied cap. The service, part of the Game Pass Ultimate monthly subscription, allows users to play games hosted on the Xbox Game Pass platform on just about any device of their choosing. Your phone. Your smart TV. Your seven-year-old laptop. All you need is a wireless internet connection, a device with a compatible browser, and an Xbox controller.
It’s a great service in theory as well as function and certainly feels like it predicts a hardware-free future. I can see this console-free aspect being an attractive prospect for a lot of people. Provided you have a stable enough internet connection and can afford the monthly Ultimate subscription, the need to even purchase an Xbox console evaporates. This would certainly serve Xbox’s interests. Hardware manufacturing has always been an expensive venture. Manufacturers typically take a loss on every console they sell. The prevailing industry strategy has always been to recoup those costs on the sale of games and accessories. This is why EB Games and JB Hi-Fi are always so keen to sell you a bundle.
When hardware makers get out of the hardware game, as Sega and Atari did, they often refocus on game publishing. Xbox wants to get out of the hardware game so it can sell you a platform instead. At the most basic biz-dev level, Cloud Gaming is how Xbox can ditch hardware altogether and focus on the things that make them money.
It isn’t the first to try. Google made a lot of noise in the industry when it launched its Stadia cloud gaming platform in 2019. Though it raised eyebrows at the time and publishers like Ubisoft readily came on board, Stadia ultimately fizzled. After failing to gain any serious ground in the market, several of its high profile executive team were moved onto other projects, the corporate equivalent of calling time-of-death.
By wrapping Cloud Gaming around its popular Game Pass platform, Xbox sees how it can succeed where Google ultimately failed. Games come first. The library informs the platform and its functionality, not the other way around.
And so here we are, on the edge of another epochal industry shift. Xbox’s plan for the future is now quite clear, and what it offers ranks among the best deals in video games. It has everything it needs to turn the industry on its head, and Xbox Cloud Gaming has a critical part to play.
So it was a real bummer when I couldn’t think of a single reason to use it.
When Xbox Cloud Gaming launched, I was able to fire up several games and play them over the air using my home internet connection. It was a neat trick. The novelty of not having to download game files or updates after decades of nothing else couldn’t be overstated. But I also couldn’t think of a reason I’d need to use the service just yet.
Though I’d used Game Pass to cherry-pick a few titles I was curious about, they didn’t take that long to download. The games I played more often, games with larger file sizes, were already installed on my SSD and up to date anyway. As far as playing at home went, I was all set. There wasn’t really any room in the equation for Cloud Gaming.
But as the year wound down and I started making plans to head home over Christmas, a thought occurred. Finally, here was an opportunity to test Cloud Gaming in a real-world setting outside my own hyper-optimised setup. I’d agreed to stay with my sister and her partner in Brisbane over Christmas and catch up with friends and family from there. I could use their modest home theatre setup as the basis for my experiment.
And then I forgot all about it. When your job is to think about games full-time, it’s important to get away from them during holidays, weekends, and time off. So I did. I saw some old friends. I had Christmas with my family, which was a balm after enduring endless Melbourne lockdowns. I felt the laser of the Queensland sun on my face and got a lot of cardio in as I walked the hilly city’s streets. I didn’t think about video games once. It was nice.
About a week into the trip, I found myself alone at my sister’s place. My sister, a photographer by trade, was on a job that evening and my brother-in-law, a professional guitarist, was playing a gig in the city. I hadn’t made any plans for that particular night and so, the time to try Xbox Cloud Gaming in an untested environment had come.
A bit about the setup: My sister lives in a tiny little suburb adjacent to the CBD and so has access to a high-end domestic NBN connection. Neither my sister nor her partner is a network engineer. She needs overall speed for uploading, sending, and storing her photos. He is happy as long as YouTube and Netflix work when he needs them to. They use the default hardware from their internet service provider, and the router has been placed in an unused bedroom off the living area to reduce clutter. Their TV is a decade old HD Sony panel with a lot of miles on it. It cannot display 4K resolutions nor HDR colour. My old launch model Xbox One, rehomed after I upgraded to an Xbox One X, is their primary media box. It is as close to the Everyday Millennial Setup as you are likely to find.
I used that launch model Xbox One as my testbed. As the oldest supported hardware on Microsoft’s docket, Cloud Gaming can extend its life far beyond what its nine-year-old hardware could achieve on its own. To double-check my findings, I re-ran the same games on my iPhone 11 Pro, meeting with similar results. I also attempted to get the service running on the 2021 model MacBook Pro I use for work but was not able to coax it into running anything.
You know I’m a big Sea of Thieves fan so naturally, that was my first port of call. The game loaded quickly and with all my settings in place. The image was crisp with very little artifacting, fragmenting, or blur. Even on my sister’s old-as-the-hills panel, Rare’s multiplayer pirate game looked as beautiful as ever. And then I tried to move my character. There was a full 1.5 seconds of input lag. An entire, actual second-and-a-half went by after moving the sticks or pressing the buttons on my controller. I have never been prone to motion sickness, but this just about did it. The short delay between input and action made my stomach drop.
Hopping over to Halo Infinite produced a similar result. I simply couldn’t control Chief well enough to properly play the game. Gears 5 and even Subnautica met a similar fate. Large, 3D action games via the cloud were off the table.
With that in mind, I decided to go all the way to the opposite end of the gaming spectrum — low-fi indies. If more complex 3D games were a bit much for the connection to handle, perhaps the situation called for something less intense? I fired up Stardew Valley and ran through the early game setup. Right away, I could feel the input lag was significantly reduced. I was able to play Stardew unimpeded, as though it was installed on the console itself. Spiritfarer also ran flawlessly. Dead Cells, with its faster gameplay, suffered from a little input lag but not quite as much as the 3D stuff.
Throughout the experiment, I found myself thinking “if only I could get this running on the Switch.” I’m sure Xbox would like to solve that problem too, but without a native web browser or an official Xbox app on the Switch, that remains a pipe-dream. Such a scenario would signal a second revolutionary shift within the industry, the old walled gardens crumbling into ruins.
My holiday experience with Xbox Cloud Gaming promises a bright future, but one that isn’t quite here yet. Or, at least, it’s not quite here for Australians. The issue of input lag only partly lies with the Xbox Cloud Gaming platform. The bulk of it lies with Australia’s globally inferior internet infrastructure. A top-end domestic NBN connection can’t reduce input lag issues in bigger and faster games, and that’s, unfortunately, as good as it’s going to get for the time being. The Cloud Gaming platform remains in beta here in Australia, presumably because Xbox needs to gather data on exactly how to optimise it for our legendarily inferior connection speeds.
As time goes by and the Cloud Gaming platform evolves, I’m sure there will be significant leaps in performance for Australian users. For now, it’s all about the indies. It’s the perfect way to enjoy a few light indie games when you’re keeping an eye on the kids by the pool at the hotel. Anything more substantive than that, you’ll need significantly faster internet than we as a nation can provide
Unless you want to brave play on a high-end business connection while you’re on the clock and frankly I wouldn’t blame you if you did.