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Microsoft xCloud and Google Stadia hands-on: Why I can’t compare them yet

Cloud gaming is the undeniably industry-altering shadow looming over this year’s E3 video game conference. Paired with the rise of subscription services, the idea of running games from remote servers could not only change how they’re are played, distributed and sold, but even how games are developed, thanks to the promise of running software off the equivalent of multiple consoles strung together. The two frontrunners in the race are Google and Microsoft, two of the tech industry’s most powerful companies and two of the largest players in the existing cloud computing market. Both have the infrastructure, the expertise, and the resources to get cloud gaming off the ground, and we’re seeing that right now as Microsoft’s xCloud and Google Stadia transition from fledgling prototypes into full-blown products. Both platforms were here at E3, and I got to try them both — theoretically letting me give you insight into the cloud gaming future.This might be the part of the article where you’d expect a hands-on comparison of xCloud and Stadia, with a list of pros and cons, like which service will have more and better games. You might have read an article or two already comparing the latency levels and debating which will win the impending cloud gaming race. I’m not going to do that. I do have hands-on impressions with both Stadia and xCloud: They both work, they’re both impressive, and I’ll share more below. But you can’t properly compare xCloud with Stadia right now, and trying to do so is unfair to both Microsoft and Google. Here’s why. Image: GoogleAs much as Microsoft wants xCloud to be as ambitious as Stadia, it’s impossible to ignore that they are fundamentally different platforms with different aims and in very disparate levels of readiness. For instance, the xCloud demo on the floor of the Microsoft Theater was just a handful of smartphones, playing various Xbox One games like Halo 5: Guardians and Forza Horizon 4. Each was rigged up to foldable controller grips, so you could just angle the screen appropriately and then hold the gamepad to play. It worked smoothly, with little to no latency and at a resolution that I’m told was 720p and 60 fps. That said, the extent of xCloud’s readiness basically stops at “it works,” and that might be because Microsoft is fundamentally lagging behind Google.Microsoft announced xCloud last year in October, right about the same time Google opened public trials for its Project Stream beta test that would create the foundation for Stadia. Google already had a splashy reveal at the Game Developers Conference in March, and it already held a virtual press conference to announce Stadia’s price, release date and games earlier this month. Microsoft isn’t as far along, and possibly for good reason: Cloud gaming is an unproven technology with a questionable business model, and a lot of pieces have to fit into place if it will ever compete with consoles, mobile gaming, or playing downloaded titles on PC. Xcloud and Stadia are fundamentally different platforms at various degrees of completionMicrosoft has also has different goals for xCloud right now. The company is primarily designing the platform to stream Xbox games to mobile devices, which you would then play with a controller or some type of onscreen touch interface, as Microsoft detailed back at GDC. Microsoft hasn’t yet shared a model for how xCloud would be packaged and sold, how games will make their way onto the platform, or how xCloud is supposed to go beyond mobile devices and work on televisions, laptops, or streaming set-top boxes. We won’t see a public test of xCloud until October, and while it’s fair to assume it will be much further along by then, we just don’t know and can’t assume it will be anything more than a technical trial to test xCloud’s viability — a full year after Google did the same.Google’s Stadia is basically the other end of the cloud gaming spectrum. It’s designed to work mainly on browser windows and through a Chromecast TV dongle, although it will support Pixel devices at launch. It’s also, in Google’s eyes, close to ready for prime time. It’s launching a “founder’s edition” package and subscription in November, and will launch a free tier for everyone to access in 2020. Games will be bundled with a Stadia Pro subscription, or they can be bought outright and used on the platform as if it were a console or PC. You’ll also be able to access other companies’ subscription services on top of Stadia, like Ubisoft’s recently announced UPlay Pro. Photo by Nick Statt / The VergeNone of this means Google is necessarily in ...Read more

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