Video game streaming has come of age at E3 2019, and GameCentral has played both competing services, but which one seems the best?
Although the idea has been bubbling away for years, the ability to stream a video game direct to a TV or mobile device, without the need for any additional hardware, is something that only began to seem like a viable reality this year. Both Microsoft and Google announced their services a few months ago and both were available to play at E3 – although neither were given quite the prominence you might have expected.
Microsoft’s approach to the next generation of gaming is a multi-faceted one. There will be a new console, codenamed Project Scarlett, but there’s also Project xCloud that will allow you to stream games directly to a mobile device (although only Android at first).
There’s actually two sides to the service though, with the first being the ability to stream games from your console and the other not requiring you to own any console or game yourself. Both options will be getting separate betas later this year, although at the moment Microsoft is not saying exactly what the threshold is in terms of the speed and reliability of your broadband connection.
Microsoft were very careful to emphasise that xCloud (which is just a codename) is a multi-year project and it’s going to take some time before everything is running as smoothly, and is as widely supported, as something like Netflix.
In terms of what we saw at E3, the Project xCloud display was surprisingly small – with just a handful of playable units. The tech did seem to work flawlessly though, with Microsoft showing off Xbox One controllers with smartphones attached to them by a simple grip. Games such as Forza Horizon 4 and Halo 5 seemed to work flawlessly, with no visible difference to playing on a console in terms of resolution, latency, or graphical quality.
The problem is that in the controlled conditions of E3 you can’t really trust anything. The controllers were attached by wires to the stand and there was probably a hundred other ways to fake the demo beyond just that. Not that we think Microsoft were faking it, but there’s almost no point evaluating any of the streaming services until you can play them at home in considerably more uncontrolled conditions.
Technically Google weren’t at E3, which seems odd given the service is due to launch this year and so far they’ve only had two livestream events. Instead they were holed up at what seemed to be a retro games shop a few blocks away from E3 itself.
Here we were able to play a version of Doom Eternal running on (via?) Stadia, which was a useful comparison as we’d only just played a non-streaming version at a recent Bethesda event. Again, it would have been simplicity itself to fake the demo, although it was clear that this version of Doom was considerably less complete than the PC version we’d played earlier.
Stadia games are not streamed PC (or console) titles but are unique versions of the various games created specifically for Stadia. Although there’s no hardware at the player’s end of things Stadia is a new format in every other sense and the version of Doom Eternal on display was pretty buggy, with broken artificial intelligence and a moment where we got immobilised by the shadow of an in-game object (which sounds cool now we’ve written it down like that, but was actually just a common or garden glitch).
Most importantly though the game was only running at 1080p, and whether it was the TV screen or not the textures looked a lot muddier than we’d seen previously. What was very impressive though was that it was running at a consistent 60 frames per second, which is vitally important for a fast action game like Doom.
It’s very difficult to compare the two services, not least because the xCloud demos were running on small smartphones and the Stadia ones were on giant and (we suspect) poorly calibrated TVs. The initial impression though was that Microsoft’s plans seem more assured and practical, and seeing Xbox One games running on a smartphone was a genuinely impressive milestone in video gaming tech.
But as we said, the only meaningful tests are going to be those in a normal home environment and when using the services for portable gaming. If they work as promised though you’re looking at a future where any game can be played on any device without having to lug around anything more bulky than your smartphone (Microsoft has already said they’ll offer touchscreen controls for all games, if you don’t have a controller to hand, and we expect Stadia will do the same.)
But the limits of the concept are not the hardware or software of competing tech giants, but the quality of whatever broadband connection is being used to do the actual streaming. How either service will cope with sub-par connections remains to be seen but clearly streaming is the future of gaming. The only question is whether that future will be here sooner or later.
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