With the planned 2019 launch of Project Xcloud, Microsoft isn’t ignoring the game industry’s current mania for streaming gaming. But in a recent interview with Gamespot, Microsoft Xbox head Phil Spencer tempered near-term expectations for the supposed streaming gaming “revolution” some are expecting.
On the one hand, Spencer told the site that streaming is “one of the directions the industry is headed” and will be “inevitably… part of gaming.” At the same time, though, Spencer said he doesn’t want to oversell the speed of that transition.
“I think [streaming] is years away from being a mainstream way people play,” Spencer said. “And I mean years, like years and years.” Comparing the trend to Netflix’s now two-decade-old transition to streaming movies, Spencer said, “I think game streaming will get there faster than 20 years, but it’s not going to be two years. This is a technological change. While it seems like it happens overnight, it doesn’t.”
That somewhat echoes the view of industry executives like Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot, who said last year, “there will be one more console generation and then after that, we will be streaming, all of us.”
More convenient, but more lag
While Spencer talked up the “convenience capability” of being able to stream Xbox games on devices like smartphones, he also highlighted the drawbacks compared to playing on a local console. “I don’t think anybody should tell you that there’s no lag,” he said. “The experience [streaming on a phone] is not the same as running the games on an Xbox One X. I’m not going to say that it’s an 8k 120-hertz thing. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re going to bring convenience and choice to you on your phone.”
“To me, it’s about what you as a gamer want to do, and I’m not trying to tell you that owning a box that plays video games is a bad thing or that somehow that’s not needed,” he said elsewhere in the interview.
This could all be read as a veiled dig at Google’s upcoming Stadia streaming service, which does not offer a local play option. We’ve been impressed with the responsiveness of both Stadia and Xcloud in recent live demos in controlled settings, and Id Software Senior Programmer Dustin Land said at GDC you could “hardly tell what was local and what was remote” in recent blind tests of Stadia running the upcoming Doom Eternal. But Spencer’s comment taps into a fear among a certain segment of gamers that the streaming gaming experience will be noticeably worse than the locally run games they’re used to.
Regarding latency mitigation, Google’s Phil Harrison told Ars Technica in March about unspecified “innovations that we have put in our data centers at the hardware level which are not visible to the outside world” and “a lot of work in the encode end of the equation in the data center, a lot of which is not disclosed publicly.” Harrison did allow that “different games have different sensitivities” to input lag, though, and acknowledged that “there is a top of that [esports player] pyramid… investing in lowest possible latency mouse pads. Maybe we’re not going to reach those players day one. But I think that aspirational pyramid beneath the pinnacle pro players is absolutely for Stadia.”
Elsewhere in the Gamespot interview, Spencer tamped down reports that Microsoft is still planning a low-cost “Xcloud console” focused on streaming. “We are not working on a streaming-only console right now,” Spencer said directly. “We are looking at the phone in your pocket as the destination for you to stream, and the console that we have allows you to play the games locally.”