Microsoft will build native Xbox games for the cloud, and the woman behind Portal will lead

On February 1st, I shed a tear for the future of gaming, when Google decided it would no longer fulfill its promise to build games specifically for the cloud. But Microsoft is about to take up the torch: the company has hired former Google Stadia design director Kim Swift, best known for Valve’s hit game Portal, according to an interview with Polygon.

“Kim is going to build a team focused on new experiences in the cloud,” Xbox Game Studios publishing head Peter Wyse told Polygon, adding that Microsoft’s goal was to create “cloud-native games.”

Swift has spent over a decade in the games industry since her student project Narbacular Drop landed her team jobs at Valve Software, where she led development on Portal. She later became an artist on Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, created an unreleased game for Amazon, and was a studio design director at EA, according to her LinkedIn page.

But her more intriguing role might be the one she just left at Google Stadia, where she “oversaw the development of a dozen external development second party games” and “identified potential R&D within Google to develop into a new first-party project utilizing cutting-edge, innovative, machine learning technology.” That means she was working with Google and Google’s closest partners on games that might have truly taken advantage of the cloud.

Fundamentally, the games you can play on cloud services like Google Stadia, Amazon Luna, and Microsoft xCloud are not “cloud-native.” They were designed to run on existing consoles and PCs, so the only benefits you generally get from the cloud are faster load times, no need to install or patch games, and above-average graphics. Every game you play on Microsoft’s xCloud runs on a single Xbox board in a server rack, so it’s not all that different from the experience of playing on an Xbox at home.

But Google promised it would someday offer more: games that could tap the power of multiple servers to give you gameplay and graphics never possible with a single console in your home. Google poached games industry exec Jade Raymond to lead its development studios; in 2019, she told GamesIndustry.biz that it might be “several years” before they produced a game “that’s going to fully leverage the cloud.” (Stadia also boasts a handful of optional features that were exclusive to the cloud, but few developers have taken advantage.)

With Google’s studios shuttered, Raymond’s now working to create games for Sony instead, with no particular mention of the cloud — but Swift just got snapped up by Microsoft with an explicit mandate to build a new kind of native game for the cloud.

“We don’t know exactly what that looks like today, or what that even plays like,” Wyze told Polygon. But perhaps in a few years, we will. Metal Gear Solid and Death Stranding auteur Hideo Kojima has repeatedly said he would like to create a game explicitly for streaming, and VentureBeat’s Jeff Grubb says Microsoft is in talks to make a deal there.

There are other signs that Microsoft is getting serious about cloud gaming, too. The company recently announced it’s upgrading its xCloud servers to the latest Xbox Series X hardware instead of the old Xbox One S server blades it was using before, which should dramatically improve quality. Microsoft said it will let original Xbox One consoles in on the action, too, letting them play games like Flight Simulator that would previously have been out of reach if not for cloud streaming.

And in documents unearthed during discovery in the Epic v. Apple trial, we learned that Microsoft was attempting to lock down streaming rights from all of its game development partners in exchange for Microsoft drastically reducing its 30 percent app store fee.

Cloud streaming was a growing business — for Sony, anyhow.
Image from Microsoft document

Microsoft’s own internal documents suggested cloud gaming wasn’t a big concern in 2019— a presentation we spotted during the trial suggests the entire category only pulled in around $300 million in 2019, most of that coming from Sony’s PlayStation Now. (Google Stadia didn’t launch until November 2019.) Microsoft also comments in that presentation that neither Sony nor Google were thought to be profitable. And yet, the category saw 167 percent growth that year.

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