A Netflix for Video Games? Not Quite

Posted on May 29, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Xbox, 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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