At Microsoft’s X019 fan event the company had a slew of announcements. From the likes of Sega and Square Enix supporting efforts like Xbox Game Pass to Halo: Reach getting a PC release date, there was something for everyone. Even for those of us in fringe markets for the Redmond-based tech giant like India. One of the more interesting announcements of X019 was that Project xCloud, Microsoft’s cloud gaming service, is slated for a 2020 release date in India.
In fact, India was name dropped during the announcement along with a host of other countries getting Project xCloud. While some may think this could be a turning point for gaming in the country. That’s far from the case.
The Xbox brand is non-existent in India
Despite a flashy launch backed up by high-profile advertising, the Xbox One never really caught on in India, playing third fiddle in the nation to the point where Nintendo Switch sales have outpaced the Xbox One, industry insiders speaking to The Mako Reactor confirm. Tremendous when you consider that the Xbox One had a three year head-start and superior distribution along with Microsoft having an official presence in the country versus well, the Nintendo Switch largely being sold through grey and parallel channels.
What’s more is big first-party exclusives like Forza Horizon 4 and Gears 5 were launched here quietly with little fanfare. Third-party games from Sega, Konami, Capcom, and indies like Variable State (whose next title Last Stop was announced at X019) didn’t have a release in India be it digitally via the Xbox Store or even at local retail. Even Fortnite wasn’t available on the Xbox One in India until earlier this year.
India is a mobile market where payments are a problem
Efforts like Project xCloud live and die by their reach. And in Project xCloud’s case, a large part of it will be driven by mobile usage. The problem is, Project xCloud doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Indian users have access to free high quality games such as Call of Duty: Mobile and PUBG Mobile, as well as the likes of Garena’s Free Fire to name a few. A cursory check on India’s most popular mobile games suggests a market that sticks to a few favourites over longer periods of time.
Will Project xCloud do enough to break that stranglehold remains to be seen though it’s an uphill task. And that’s before considering that getting Indians to pay for games is an even bigger battle. Sure, you could point to PUBG Mobile revenue figures but when they’re built on the back of deep discounts and promotions aplenty, you have to wonder how sustainable this entire endeavour is to begin with.
Even Xbox Game Pass which has seen some traction regarding initial sign-ups (thanks to being bundled with Microsoft hardware) isn’t managed in a fashion that results in user retention due to the sheer lack of debit and credit card penetration in the country.
Heck, even Steam and the PS Store have cash on delivery options while Google allows for your Google Play purchases to be billed to your carrier as well as bringing in gift cards. Granted the results of some of these are mixed, but with 400 million smartphone users, more options are better. Not less. Traditionally, Microsoft has stayed away from all of these ways to pay in India, making it a tougher scenario.
How you expect to sell an entire country onto Project xCloud when related products and services launch with minimal effort and care and sometimes, not launch at all with the right payment options is ridiculous.
Scaling Xbox One games across Android devices isn’t easy
It’s pretty obvious that it’s not the Xbox One India install base, rather the sheer number of mobile users in India that have driven Microsoft’s decision to launch Project xCloud in the country. However there are some practical hurdles to overcome which Project xCloud’s product offering doesn’t seem to answer in its current state. For one, how would xCloud games scale across a huge variety of smartphone screens and specifications.
One could point to the vast amount of device data the company has across its other products like Microsoft Office, SMS Organizer, and OneDrive, though it’ll be interesting to see how rough the experience at launch would be in terms of scaling of UI elements in games on screens infinitely smaller than they were designed for.
Project xCloud data caps and latency concerns
How would Microsoft solve hurdles like data caps and latency? Microsoft could partner with local telcos in a fashion that Indiagames and Nazara did for erstwhile subscription services like Games on Demand and Nazara Games Club. How it worked was: signing up for either service waived any data charges incurred while using them (disclosure: I’ve worked on Games on Demand in the past).
While this could alleviate some pain points, I’m not too sure it would be well received in a market where users are now vocal about net neutrality violations. It doesn’t help matters that the telco industry is in the process of being derailed with Vodafone Idea as well as Airtel posting recording losses due to a Supreme Court order forcing them to keep license fees and spectrum usage charges aside for the Indian government.
Sure, Microsoft could partner with Reliance Jio for Project xCloud given their existing working relationship, but considering that Jio’s gaming divisions have little to show for their efforts and it raises questions on how Project xCloud could be executed in a smooth manner in India on that network. That’s not to say it would be a walk in the park with operators, they’re just as culpable as are ISPs.
So while Project xCloud may provide value to some, it may end up being just as niche as the Xbox One in India. Like most services in the country, a lot of it hinges on execution and Microsoft has proven time and over again that it’s far from up to the task.