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The End of Ownership? (Premium)

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I signed up for an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription yesterday, and now I feel like I’ve taken a step into the future.

It’s only a step, to be sure. The real future, the not-so-distant future, isn’t just about accessing a subscription library of Xbox games. It’s about a subscription library of games that works anywhere, on any device. That future, of course, is called xCloud. Or Google Stadia. Or PlayStation something-something. Or whatever.

But these things happen gradually, in stages. When it first launched, some incorrectly called Xbox Game Pass the “Netflix of video games.” It wasn’t that, and it still isn’t: Sony’s PlayStation Now, which lets gamers stream games over that service, is the closer fit; Xbox Game Pass requires you to download games—often really big games—before you can play them.

That distinction is critical, and it is the first important difference between the world of today and that of the future, at least here in Xbox-land. Where streaming content allows for instantaneous (or at least near-instantaneous) choices, downloading requires you to wait. The future is on-demand.

How on-demand remains an open question. Today, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate promises over 100 games on Xbox One plus another 100 on the PC. But those collections are small compared to the broader library of games available on each platform. And as bad, the collection changes over time: New titles are added all the time, yes. But titles are removed as well.

This is the way of things. Several years ago, I was visiting friends in France, and they were quite interested in Netflix, which was then officially unavailable there, so they needed a U.S. credit card and a VPN solution to make it work. Back then, Netflix wasn’t the original content powerhouse it is today, and its collection consisted mostly of middling TV series and straight to video movies, with just a handful of reasonably decent content.

My French friends hated Netflix. What they were expecting was a sort of iTunes Movies and TV shows experience, but on-demand. The shows and movies they wanted to watch were not available on the service. My response to this was that they needed to think a bit differently, that instead of expecting specific titles, they should browse through what was available, create a queue of those titles, and then choose from that when they wanted to watch Netflix.

That’s what Xbox Game Pass is like today: If you can find games you want to play, it’s a good value. If you can’t—I’ve spent the past 15 years playing Call of Duty games semi-exclusively, and there are no COD titles available on the service—then it probably seems like a huge waste of money.

Microsoft is counting on two things here. One, that the library will improve to the point where it will attract a wider audience. And two, that there are fewer gamers like me than there are those who like to experiment and play a diverse range of games.

It’s a good idea. But I’ll point out that the game library in what’s now called Xbox Game Pass for console hasn’t exactly grown by leaps and bounds since the service was first announced two years ago. Back then, Microsoft was talking up “over 100 games.” Today, it’s still marketing that same rough figure.

Adding PC support is interesting, though, and it represents another step forward towards a more heterogeneous future. I’m not a PC gamer per se—I switched to the console semi-exclusively when the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, leaving mouse and keyboard behind—but I do like the idea of gaming on the go, and that’s not really possible with Xbox consoles.

In anticipation of this future, I’ve spent some time recently with PC games, though the PCs I’ve been using—my All In One (AIO) desktop and my laptop—are not exactly gaming-class PCs. This has consisted mostly of Epic Games, which you should explore—they offer a free game every month, too—plus some classic games I played to death many years ago, like the original DOOM.

I can say that PC gaming is a bit like riding a bike: It never really leaves you. And with this weekend’s release of the new Xbox app and the availability of Xbox Game Pass on PC, I’m finding that PC gaming has evolved to the point where it can be simple enough. Not as simple as on a console, of course, especially given the different PC configurations that are possible. But simple enough.

This gives me hope for that real future, of game streaming that is not bound by a particular device (a console or a PC) or even by a small set of devices (a console and a PC). One where there is a reasonable library of content, as with today’s Netflix. Where I will almost certainly find something I want to watch—sorry, play—no matter my mood.

Hey, it’s happened before, to music, to books, to movies and TV shows, and more. And it’s happened in broader ways out in the world, too.

I assume many of you are Star Trek fans. I’ve always been fascinated by Star Trek and its hopeful take on a future in which money and the accumulation of things are obsolete. This is science fiction in every sense–I don’t believe that money will ever really disappear—but recent technological advances have perhaps forever altered our sense of ownership of physical things.

Regarding money, I do feel like we’re witnessing the beginning of the end for cash money. But we’re still paying for things. It’s just that we’re doing so differently. In a very short period of time, we’ve added tap to pay capabilities to credit and debit cards, and usage of phone-based electronics payments—-Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung, Pay, and so on—has exploded and is even more secure than using credit cards.

As momentous, our relationship with things, especially things we could only purchase and own in the past, is changing dramatically. Ownership just isn’t as important anymore.

Consider Uber, Lyft, and other ride-sharing services. The discussion there often centers on local laws and regulations, and whether these services unfairly harm traditional services like taxis and even public transportation. But the bigger impact, perhaps, is that Uber and its ilk eliminate the need for many to even own a car because they are so inexpensive compared to traditional taxis. And a coming generation of people, accompanied to using their smartphones to order everything from pizza to a ride to a weekend getaway vacation, don’t really value owning their own vehicles in the way that we older folk tend to.

They may be on to something. Car ownership, like home ownership, was once just an assumed purchase for many, despite there being a reasonable debate over the relative merits of doing so. 30 years into home ownership—we’ve now “owned” four homes in three different states in the U.S.—I’m not convinced we’ve come out ahead financially.

I know there’s more to it than the money, and that most people understand, I hope, that many homes are not investments at all. Or don’t care. Homes, like cars, are expensive, and they’re often life-altering milestones too. But it’s still interesting that this conversation about ownership applies to so many things these days.

Back to gaming…

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