Microsoft's 'Netflix for video games' service launches, but you can't get it on iPhone

Key Points
  • Microsoft's new game streaming service, xCloud, is now available on Android phones.
  • It will compete directly with Google's Stadia, which launched last year and lets people play PC games on Android phones, Google Chromecasts and in the Chrome web browser on any computer.
  • The idea is that you can play games that normally require an Xbox game console anywhere you have a fast enough internet connection without the need to ever buy an Xbox.
Microsoft Project xCloud will let people stream games to mobile devices, too.

Microsoft's new game streaming service, Project xCloud, is now available on Android phones and tablets. It competes directly with Google's Stadia, which launched last year and lets people play PC games on Android phones, Google's Chromecast Ultra and in the Chrome web browser on most computers.

Think of xCloud as the "Netflix of gaming." MIcrosoft's game streaming service lets you play high-quality games, which normally require a powerful Xbox game console, anywhere there's a fast enough (10Mbps or better) internet connection without the need to ever buy an Xbox. Netflix, by comparison, requires half that speed, or 5Mbps, for an HD video stream.

The service may help attract casual gamers into Microsoft's ecosystem, since they don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on an Xbox. Game streaming is included as part of Microsoft's $14.99/month Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service, which offers more than 150 Xbox games. Most games also require an Xbox controller paired to your phone over Bluetooth, though a few like Microsoft's "Minecraft Dungeons" also support touchscreen controls.

Google Stadia is free, but you have to pay full price for games, which range in price from about $14.99 to $60 or more. Premium Stadia subscribers get access to more free titles per month and 4K gaming, if their internet connection is fast enough to support it. Microsoft's solution is much more like Netflix than Google's, offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of games that you don't pay for individually but have access to as long as you pay the monthly fee.

Your experience relies entirely on how good your internet connection is. That can sometimes be a problem. At home, where I have fast internet, it feels very similar to playing directly from my console. But it won't work if your connection is too slow, a problem that Google Stadia also has. It's one reason why carriers are pushing newer 5G networks that will one day offer fast enough data speeds so games can be played anywhere you have your phone.

Some industry leaders aren't entirely sold yet on streaming services like Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud. In an interview with Protocol published on Tuesday, Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick said game streaming won't transform how we play games. Take-Two is an important player in the gaming industry. It publishes hit games like the Grand Theft Auto series and "NBA 2K" and some of its titles are already available on Google Stadia's competing platform. 

Zelnick told Protocol said streaming services are too reliant on Wi-Fi or cellular networks that won't always be fast enough.

"I'm speaking against my own interests, right? We're supposed to paint this picture of nirvana; however, I just don't think it's nirvana," he told Protocol. "Nirvana is making great hits, and then people will find them. We've sold 135 million units of Grand Theft Auto V, 32 million units of Red Dead Redemption. I wish I could tell you that there will come a point where various cloud gaming services will mean those numbers are doubled or tripled, but I don't really see it."

Gamers who own iPhones and iPads also can't use Microsoft's new service on those devices. Apple's developer rules prevented game-streaming services until very recently. And, while Apple updated its developer terms on Sept. 11 to allow these sorts of services, Microsoft thinks they'll still offer a "bad experience for customers" since Apple will require Microsoft to offer each game as a separate download.

You can try Microsoft Game Streaming now by doing this:

  • Sign up for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. It's $14.99 a month after a $1 free trial.
  • Pair your Xbox controller with your Android phone or tablet by pressing the small pair button on the back and opening Bluetooth on your Android phone and then selecting the controller.
  • Open the Google Play Store on your Android phone.
  • Download Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass app.
  • Open the app and sign-in to your Microsoft account.
  • Tap the "Cloud" tab on top.
  • Choose "Play" under the game you want to play.
Why streaming services can't kill video game consoles just yet
Why streaming services can't kill video game consoles just yet