It’s 2020, and playing a video game is no longer limited to popping a disc in your console and pressing the power button. Instead, we now have digital downloads and, more recently, game-streaming services that let you instantly begin playing the latest titles without having to install anything or make an à la carte purchase.
Two of the biggest game-streaming services — Google Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud — are both in their infancy, and each promises unprecedented freedom and ease of use for players. They’re sure to offer each other competition, but when it comes down to Google Stadia versus xCloud, which is shaping up to be the more impressive service? Here’s what we know about them so far.
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There is no dedicated console or box needed to play games on either Google Stadia or Project xCloud, but the two services don’t work identically, either. Depending on the systems you own, one could seem like the better choice, especially if you have a preference in the games you play.
Google Stadia is designed to run through your Chrome web browser. During initial tests as “Project Stream,” it could be used only on desktop computers, but you can now use it on devices like phones and tablets as well. Because it uses your Google account, this theoretically means you’ll be able to stop playing a game on your PC and start playing on your phone in mere moments.
Currently, Stadia supports televisions via Chromecast Ultra as well as Pixel phones and a selection of other devices. A February 2020 update adds support for several more devices, including Samsung Galaxy phones S8 or newer, the Razer Phone and Razer Phone 2, as well as the ASUS ROG Phone and ASUS ROG Phone II. The full list of compatible devices can be found here.
Microsoft’s xCloud doesn’t look to offer quite this level of seamlessness, but because the technology is built on the existing Xbox infrastructure, you will be able to carry all of your cloud saves and data across the devices you use for xCloud and your other Xbox games. If you play a game on your Xbox One at home and then leave for a week, you should be able to enjoy it via streaming from your phone while you’re gone. This is where one of xCloud’s other advantages comes into play — you will be able to use your own Xbox console as a server to stream games. This includes all of the games you have purchased for your Xbox, and you can do this without paying a subscription fee.
During its preview period, xCloud supported Android devices running on version 6.0 or newer and iOS devices running on iOS 13.0 or newer. Players were invited after registering and an invitation is not guaranteed. The program will be supported on Windows 10 PCs and Android phones and tablets, with more planned for the future.
Google Stadia’s freedom-of-choice approach continues for the controllers the platform will use. You are free to use several different popular game controllers you already own, including the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 and Microsoft’s own Xbox One controller and Xbox Adaptive Controller. Mouse and keyboard are also supported.
However, for more platform-specific interactivity, you can use the Google Stadia controller. In terms of form factor, it’s somewhere between the Xbox and PlayStation controller, with similar face button and stick layout, and comes with a share button. It also includes a Google Assistant button which allows you to speak into a microphone and get tips for your games on the fly. The Google Stadia controller is connected to the platform via Wi-Fi (instead of Bluetooth) and will set you back $69.99.
xCloud works a little bit differently. Using a Bluetooth connection, you can pair a standard Xbox One controller with your device of choice and play the games using the same control scheme you would have on your Xbox console — in demonstrations, the controller is mounted to a phone to do this. However, games will also have specially-designed touch control interfaces for those who don’t want to carry a controller with them. We saw Sea of Thieves using this input type during a demonstration, and it mapped actions to virtual buttons on the screen. You will even be able to use a DualShock 4 controller to play Xbox games if you’re a maniac.
Do note that the initial run of Xbox One controllers were not Bluetooth enabled. The way to tell is by checking the plastic surrounding the Xbox button on the top of the controller. If the plastic is connected to the bumper buttons, it’s an older controller and does not have Bluetooth built in. If there is no additional plastic piece around the Xbox button, it means it’s newer and has built-in Bluetooth compatibility.
In short, both streaming services do offer some flexibility with which controllers you can use — with a few slight differences. Most popular controllers will work with each service, thankfully.
Google and Microsoft are not promising the same streaming quality on their services, at least when it comes to resolution. This is hardly surprising, as Microsoft’s Xbox consoles continue to be its go-to destination for 4K and HDR gaming.
Google Stadia supports 4K gaming with HDR and 60 frames per second and will lower down to 720p resolution for those with slower internet speeds. In the future, it could get up to 8K resolution and 120 frames per second, but that might not be for quite some time. The GPU Google is using in its data centers allow for up to 10.7 TFLOPS of power, which is nearly double what the Xbox One X is capable of. To run games at 4K, players will need 35 Mbps or higher in internet speed. During our tests of Google Stadia, we found the quality of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey to be good, but not as impressive as if it had been running on a console.
Using the “Stream Capabilities API” included in what Google has dubbed the “Playability ToolKit,” developers have live access to a player’s stream capabilities, including HDR, surround sound, and resolution. This will allow them to adjust game settings on the fly, providing the best possible settings for players.
Additionally, Product Manager Khaled Abdel Rahman addressed latency concerns with Stadia at Google I/O, saying the team has weekly research sessions in addition to wider scale testing. The team is focused on trying to find a balance that works with the many inconsistent factors in each player’s situation.
Microsoft has not shared specifics regarding resolution targets for xCloud, but it will be leveraging its own 54 Azure data center regions to power the service. Considering the service is set to launch for Android in less than a month, it’s concerning that Microsoft hasn’t clearly outlined its visual targets — which could be a sign that it won’t look as good as its competitors, at least at launch. Because of the local Bluetooth connectivity, and assuming the service has low latency, it should provide players with an experience comparable to what they get on the Xbox One or PC, but at this points it’s still unclear.
What players might not get, however, is an experience on par with the upcoming PlayStation and Xbox systems. According to 3D Realms VP Frederik Schreiber, the PS5 and Xbox Series X systems will be far more powerful than Stadia in particular. We already know the PS5 and Xbox Series X will have built-in 8K support, which is already leaps and bounds ahead of what Stadia can do, currently. Plus, each of the next-generation systems will feature ray tracing and support up to 120fps.
Google Stadia has several third-party games available at the moment, with hundreds coming in throughout the rest of 2020 and beyond. Developers can sign up to apply for Stadia development on the official developer website. Stadia supports multiple game engines, including popular choices like Unreal and Unity.
Players can make use of Stadia’s State Share feature, which serves as an invite link to whichever game supports it. By clicking the link, you’ll be brought into the game at a specific point — wherever it’s saved and can be accessed from any device that Stadia supports. It’s like an enhanced version of a save state, but with added benefits.
Rime studio Tequila Works was featured during the announcement presentation, as well, so it will likely have involvement. Larian, the company behind Divinity: Original Sin 2, is also developing Baldur’s Gate III, but it isn’t exclusive. Alongside third-party games, Google is also jumping head-first into game development with Stadia. Former Electronic Arts and Ubisoft producer Jade Raymond leads Stadia Games and Entertainment, a first-party studio dedicated to producing exclusive titles for the platform. There are currently over 100 games available for Stadia, with many upcoming AAA titles planned for release on the platform like Cyberpunk 2077.
xCloud won’t be getting exclusive games, at least not ones that aren’t also available on Xbox consoles and PC. This means you’ll be able to enjoy the same games as someone playing Xbox games on a console or PC and vice versa. If you are choosing a service based on which will offer you more unique experiences, Google Stadia looks to be the early winner here, assuming you aren’t looking to play Xbox games. Though, many of Xbox’s games — especially the exclusive ones — are ones you won’t want to miss.
With that in mind, Microsoft is bolstering its first-party game development studios, with recent acquisitions of Obsidian Entertainment, Ninja Theory, Compulsion Games, and Playground Games, as well as the establishment of The Initiative. We will not see the fruits of these studios’ labor quite yet, but it points to exciting possibilities in a few years. The platform will launch with more than 100 games, including games not found on Stadia like Devil May Cry 5 and Halo Wars 2.
Google Stadia is designed to create a more organic and symbiotic relationship between game developers, content creators, and players, with a series of tools to enhance games — both during their creation and afterward. Developers will have access to the Style Transfer ML feature for environmental design, which could cut down on the time it takes to add skins or textures to play areas. During a demonstration at GDC 2019, we saw the A.I.-powered tool add several different textures to a black-and-white environment, effectively transforming it seamlessly.
Game developers and publishers will have an easier time getting their games into the hands of players, as well. When watching a YouTube advertisement for a game from a company’s official channel, there will now be a button you can click to instantly start playing the game. Because there is no download necessary, you can get from watching the video to playing the game in less than five seconds.
If a streamer is playing your favorite game on YouTube, you will be able to join them in their game, as well. Using Stadia’s “Crowd Play,” you can jump into the same game they are playing and even join their multiplayer session. Most excitingly, you can also jump into a version of the game with their save data and start exactly where they were. However, neither of these features are currently live yet.
You won’t find features like that on xCloud, but instead, you’ll be able to take advantage of Microsoft’s popular Xbox Game Pass service to access a huge library of games. Unlike Stadia, which requires you to purchase each game outright, xCloud has more than 100 titles available thanks to Game Pass. From a price perspective, this is definitely the best way to go — even if Stadia has more bells and whistles to utilize.
Pricing and availability
With Google Stadia, there are multiple options to choose from, depending on what you’re looking for — unlike, xCloud, which only offers one option in its current form. Here is the pricing structure for each service:
(Free) Stadia Base: The free version allows up to 1080p resolution at 60fps and features stereo sound. You can get this version right now.
($10 per month) Stadia Pro: This option allows you to play games in 4K, with 5.1 surround sound, as well as monthly “free” games, similar to PS Plus or Games With Gold, and exclusive discounts. This option is available now.
($15 per month) Xbox Game Pass Ultimate: With xCloud, there is only one option: Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. This, originally designed for use on Xbox Consoles and PCs, combines the benefits of Xbox Game Pass, Xbox Live access, and Games With Gold, giving you tons of games to choose from and the ability to play online. If you’re an Xbox user, you might already have a subscription, but otherwise, you’ll have to shell out $15. Again, it’s unclear what the resolution targets are, so it’s tough to compare it to Stadia, directly.
We do know Stadia requires you to buy games individually, so you do get more bang for your buck with xCloud. However, your games might look better on Stadia when using the Pro subscription service, since games will be streamable in 4K. We’ll have to wait until xCloud launches to see how games will perform overall, but from what we’ve seen, games will be playable in at least 720p.
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