A Netflix for Video Games? Not Quite

Posted on May 29, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Games, Xbox One with 22 Comments

A Netflix for Video Games? Not Quite

I’m intrigued by Microsoft’s new Xbox Game Pass service, which lets subscribers access over 100 game titles for a low monthly fee. Xbox Game Pass offers some compelling advantages over Sony’s similar PlayStation Now service. But it falls short of being a true “Netflix for video games,” as some have described it.

Microsoft announced Xbox Game Pass back in February, and [the service goes live for the entire Xbox community on June 1](this Thursday), this coming Thursday.

Xbox Game Pass is a compelling offering. And it’s worth comparing this service to PlayStation Now, Sony’s similar service.

For $9.99 per month, Xbox Game Pass provides access to a library of over 100 Xbox One and Xbox 360 games, and, yes, the latter titles are all backward compatible on Xbox One.

PlayStation Now, at $19.99 per month, is twice as expensive as Xbox Game Pass. But it also provides access to over 4 times as many game titles, with a library that is 450+ strong at the time of this writing.

But you can save money by subscribing in bigger time chunks; a three month subscription to PSNow is $44.99, or about $15 per month.

We could debate the relative quality of each game library, but there are some important differentiators to each.

For example, PSNow only offers older PlayStation 3 titles, whereas Xbox Game Pass provides access to both current-generation (Xbox One) and previous-generation (Xbox 360) titles. (Sony announced recently that it will bring PS4 games to PSNow by the end of 2017.)

Also, Xbox Game Pass is available only to Xbox console owners. With PSNow, you can access these games on a PlayStation 4 console or via a PC.

And it is that latter bit that hints at the real advantage of PSNow over Xbox Game Pass. Where PSNow is a streaming service—the games play “live” over the Internet—Xbox Game Pass is not. You will need to download a game to your Xbox One before you can play it. (Xbox Game Pass is not available on Xbox 360.)

Yes, both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. A streaming game service like PSNow will require a reliable and fast Internet connection, obviously, but then anyone paying $15 to $20 a month to sample and play games certainly has such a thing. But downloaded Xbox Game Pass titles can be played offline, which I’d argue isn’t that much of an advantage: How often do most gamers really need or want to play offline?

More to the point, it is PSNow and not Xbox Game Pass that is truly a “Netflix for video games.” After all, Netflix is a streaming video service, not a service like iTunes where you purchased content, download it, and then enjoy it. (Yes, I know that you can download some Netflix content now to devices for offline viewing. That is a secondary activity and always will be.)

This isn’t a subtle distinction. The benefit of a streaming service like Netflix is that you can quickly sample content and then reject it and move on to something else if you find out you don’t like it. In fact, my wife and I often spend an hour or more sampling content on Netflix before settling on something we want to actually watch.

This kind of behavior is not possible if you have to download the content first. In fact, it would be infuriating to wait for something to download before you could evaluate it.

And that is the problem with Xbox Game Pass, a situation that is made all the worse by the fact that most of the available game titles, especially those designed specifically for Xbox One, are quite humongous. Are, in fact, quite a bit bigger than even the biggest HD movie you may wish to download.

Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, for example, weighs in at over 44 GB. Halo 5: Guardians is 97.5 GB. So not only will you need to wait a long time before you can play, you’ll need a ton of disk space too.

Yes, Microsoft somewhat overcomes this issue by letting you start gameplay before a download is complete. But as any Xbox One user will tell you, this capability is disappointing in the real world, and you still need to wait to actually play a game.

Ultimately, you’re either a streaming service or you’re not, and if Xbox Game Pass doesn’t offer streaming—and it doesn’t—then it’s not Netflix for video games.

Fortunately, this situation is easily fixed, at least conceptually: Microsoft should allow subscribers to sample gameplay via streaming before they commit to a download. That would help gamers find the games they really want and not waste time downloading titles they later discover to be uninteresting.

From an implementation standpoint, what I just described may, in fact, be impossible: Xbox Game Pass works within the current Xbox Store infrastructure, where purchased games are downloaded then played. Making something like PSNow would require an all-new infrastructure that would be prohibitively expensive and may require game makers to modify their titles. I suspect no one on that side of this transaction is super-interested in that.

All this said, I’m still quite excited by Xbox Game Pass and the value it represents. And as is the case with Backwards Compatibility and Games for Gold, I’ll be watching over time to see how this particular service expands with new titles. Xbox Game Pass will live or die based on the strength of its library, I think. Even with that ponderous download requirement.

I’ll keep evaluating Xbox Game Pass over time. Yes, I’ve subscribed.

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Comments (22)

22 responses to “A Netflix for Video Games? Not Quite”

  1. Darmok N Jalad

    Personally, I think downloading is the better way to go. You will get a more consistent experience versus being at the mercy of network conditions and latency (especially if you have a console in a back room running off wifi). It's also a bit of a stretch to assume someone paying $10-20/mo will also have a superior internet connection. ISPs still suck overall when it comes to pricing (the best deals are for new customers, and I'm always evaluating my speed-to-price ratio). Plus we've moved to a fairly subscription heavy society. Something has to eventually give before the money for such things runs out. Even then, $10-20/mo is the cost of 2-4 new release games a year, so the pricing really isn't that premium if you log a lot of gaming hours.

    I think it will all come down to the library. I would prefer to see a commitment to cover the entire catalog, or at least a promise that game titles will only be added over time and not coming and going due to licensing or whatever. We've had that happen on Netflix and Amazon and it can really devalue the service.

  2. rwoods716

    Another issue with streaming games is licensing. There will be titles that are added and removed every month, so as it stands now, users can download a game and they'll have it for 30 days. With streaming, there's the possibility that they'll start playing a game and it won't be available the next day. Of course, there are ways to make this easier, such as a warning that the game you're about to play will expire in X amount of days. Just a thought.

  3. Thayios

    I was excited about the game pass as well until I saw that the majority of games are just backward compatible games. When I see some new releases in there I might bite, but until then, pass.

  4. Jeff Jones

    How do these two compare to the Geforce Now service from nVidia? They seem like the other big name in the game at the moment. I think you can link your Steam and Origin accounts for games you already bought.


    Also, didn't Sony buy parts of the old OnLive game service when it went out of business? I think those guys were the real ground breakers in this realm.

  5. adam.mt

    As others have said there are pros/cons to game streaming (first class internet connection required, latency, limited fidelity) and game downloads (time to start playing, storage requirement) so neither is a clear win. Since Microsoft has the technologies to enable game streaming it's a wonder they don't try to offer both. Its especially interesting that they've opted for downloads, obviously they consider this the better trade off for pro gamers. Just need the game line-up to improve now!

  6. ayebang

    I am confused with this article. Does this writer want to put bad image to Xbox ?

    First, he wrote Streaming is better than local download which I really doubt.

    Second, he wrote PSNow is better than Xbox Pass.

    Third, final conclusion, he wrote Xbox will fix that with new infrastructure which actually he should let this come first in his article.

    It is very bad attitude to Xbox.


  7. de Silentio

    I had Sega Channel back in the late 90's. That was just about as close to Netflix as you can get on a gaming system. The games streamed, there was a rotating selection of games, and it wasn't priced too bad (well, it was free for me, since my parents paid for it).

  8. jamiet

    Streaming is very convenient. Downloading the game gives you better visual quality and basically zero input latency.

  9. CaedenV

    I would think twice before complaining about a local install. Most of my friends are ardent PS users, all of whom have tried the streaming service, and all of them have dropped it. These are all adults, mostly networking engineers, with fantastic custom networks to get the absolute most out of their internet connections, and all of them had extreme latency and hiccup issues with the service. Simply not worth having.


    For myself; I am still not buying a console when I have a perfectly good gaming computer... still waiting for this Xbox service to hit PC. Would be awesome.

    • Mestiphal

      In reply to CaedenV:

      Typical MS... when they introduced backwards compatibility they explained how the Xbox One would run a 360 games visualized, this can be seen when launching a backwards compatible game, the first thing that shows up is the old 360 logo from the bootup screen.

      If MS replicates this same virtualization on the PC, then they could make all 360 games PC compatible.... it's not like they're making tons of money selling the 360 consoles, they can just sit back and collect the money from the gaming subscription from PC users. they can even tie and sell 360 games on the windows store

  10. Finley

    I would hope that this program will expand to the play anywhere games as that library grows and we can get the service across devices


  11. Waethorn

    I think Sony is in a position to be the first major game company to release a dedicated streaming box for their service because of the reasons above.


    If they release PS4 games for PS Now, and they allow those to be played on PC, they have a huge advantage over Microsoft, and it WILL be a "Netflix for games". After that, it would likely be only a matter of time before they start opening up the platform to additional hardware. PSTV2, perhaps?

    • adam.mt

      In reply to Waethorn:


      Seems Sony thinks differently!


      Quote "On August 15, 2017, we will be discontinuing the service on the following devices:

      • PlayStation 3
      • PlayStation Vita and PlayStation TV
      • All 2013, 2014, 2015 Sony Bravia TV models
      • All Sony Blu-ray player models
      • All Samsung TV models

      Additionally, 2016 models of Sony Bravia TVs will be discontinued on April 1, 2017." (source: https://blog.us.playstation.com/2017/02/15/playstation-now-service-update/)

  12. Salvador Jesús Romero Castellano

    I would happily give away the sampling capability to avoid the streaming problems: Latency, caped frame rates, and maybe others. Unlike movies, games are better on disk.

    This sampling thing is something in which I have not thought before and it's a very interesting addition to the conversation, Paul, but I do not understand why you emphasize this so much while at the same time almost not mentioning the downloading approach advantages.

    • Darmok N Jalad

      In reply to Salvador Jesús Romero Castellano:

      Yeah, services that stream video and music are very linear and network-related streaming issues are easily fixed with buffers. Video games have to react to user input instantaneously, so no buffer.

      Heck, I can't even stream my PS4 up to my desktop machine via wifi without quality issues. To fix that I either need to figure out how to get Ethernet up to my desktop, or buy a really expensive wifi router. With MS's version of this service, it's not a problem at all. I say all this as a PS4 gamer.

  13. irfaanwahid

    Paul, you're thinking from US point of view where getting high speed internet connection is not an issue. Where I come from (Nairobi) getting good speeds at low cost is still a dream. Granted we've way better internet infrastructure than a lot of African nations, but Game Pass games with download option is a deal for us.

    I personally feel having the download option is really good step by MS, and they could add stream option (for 1st world countries) later.

    I m excited with this offering, I've already subscribed to 14 day trial.

    • Mestiphal

      In reply to irfaanwahid:

      Back when the Xbox One was introduced there were rumors of a payment plan coming from MS to buy the console. I vaguely remember reason in some blog something to the extend of "if you can't pay for your console, maybe you shouldn't be playing", on the same mentality, those with access to internet speeds in the likes of Google fiber might think, if you can't get a super-fast internet, maybe you shouldn't be enjoying X content.

  14. Ugur

    I'd find it best if the services offered both, download up front and streaming.

    It's not the same for playing a game as watching a netflix movie stream because during gameplay it is way more important how fast and low latency the connection is in both directions, because the controls input has to go back fast, too and the game updates go to the user as low latency as possible to not have the feeling of delay between input/output.


    Regarding your talk on whether devs would like or not like retooling games for streaming services: To my experience (as dev), many of the better game streaming options did not require heavy refactoring for the games at all to be offered via streaming.

    I tried that a few years ago and i imagine newer services likely allow it with even less hassle.

    And many devs and especially publishers would actually prefer streaming options because it can be quite a help against piracy.


    Where the heavy and much work is required is more on MS' backend/server side because delivering streaming games requires quite the high speed infrastructure and ideally as many connection points as possible all around the world.

    (Just changing the store front part of it is the least amount of work side compared to the huge infrastructure work on the backend)


    For example back when there was still onlive (Sony's streaming service is basically an amalgamation of building on the foundation of the bought up gaikai+the bought up patents/technologies of onlive), depending on how close one was to their data centers, one could either have a great lag free connection and gameplay or have a laggy experience.

    I was close to one of their data centers and i could play streaming perfectly smooth even when using wifi at home (instead of the recommended cable connection to reduce lag on the last meters).

    So i had a pretty perfect picture showing no to very little compression artefacts and it always felt like it responded immediately to my inputs.

    But i read comments by others who were further away from the data centers and for them seems like some had more laggy input response and heavier artefacted look.

    Overall though, yeah, for anyone who wants to play competitively, things like fighting games, racing games or fps games, so basically anything that requires fast reactions and fastest response times, a download option is still a better choice than a streaming solution.

    (Now of course if most gamers on a platform use the streaming option and/or one could choose to play against streaming or download people that advantage in competitive play could be reduced).

    During the brief timespan onlive existed i played through some story based games like a batman series one on there and that was perfectly fine for me, but i wouldn't have used it to play a mp fps against others who play in non streaming way due to streaming lag likely costing you some hits in between.


    Overall, yeah, i hope MS introduces the option to stream play games over time, too (i imagine they are surely working on the infrastructure for years and could quite well introduce it in not too distant future, i wouldn't be surprised if it would be at this year's or the next E3), but even without that available on launch, i don't see it nearly as doom and gloom as you, again, download and streaming playback just have different pros and cons and the no lag during gameplay for the download option is not a negligible pro for the download option, depending on the game types one plays most and whether most others play streaming, too of course.

  15. Jan Abraham

    I quite disagree with you Paul. Local games are much better due to latency. Playing with any lag really sucks. In a perfect world the service would do both - allow streaming but default to downloading for the best experience.

  16. Michael Rivers

    There is a fundamental difference between streaming movies and games. A movie you just start and watch. A game needs to respond to controller inputs in a few milliseconds. Pressing the A button and having the signal travel all the way to a server across the country and back will never be the same as it just going across your living room.

  17. xxxdevxxx

    It is not about streaming that makes it Netflix like! It's all about to provide a mix of AAA Xbox One Games and other games to really attract gamers for PaaS/SaaS. If subscriptions surpass a certain critical mass then you have enough money to fund new games.

  18. John Dunagan

    I've been able to uninstall some of the Games for Gold I'm done with/tired of to recoup some space. Would love to hook up an external for some of these, so I can use the space that's left on my console for cache/temp space.

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