My relationship to Xbox consoles is, honestly, feels a little contradictory when I try and put it into words.
If you were to ask me which of the three main console manufacturers I feel best represents my tastes in video games, Microsoft would likely be at the bottom of that list. I grew up on Nintendo’s brand of bright, colourful, family friendly adventures and, as an adult, PlayStation’s big budget narrative adventures have consistently been some of my favourite video games to play.
I don’t dislike Microsoft’s library of exclusive titles, their slate of exclusive shooters and racing games has just never risen above any of their competition.
However, if I sit down on an evening unsure what to play, or looking for something new to get stuck into, the Xbox is usually the first place I go looking for something to play, and that’s largely thanks to Game Pass.
I recently took some time to think, in earnest, about the last time I actually spent money and purchased a video game on Xbox. It certainly hasn’t been for at least a couple of years. As someone who owns a PS5, a Switch, and a decent gaming PC, I have very much fallen into using the Xbox Series X as a Game Pass and Microsoft exclusives machine.
If I am craving just trying a few little indie games I know nothing about, Game Pass probably has something worth trying, where I won’t risk having bought something I didn’t gel with. When Microsoft exclusives do release, I can spend some time with them, and feel okay dropping off whenever they stop holding my attention. Game Pass lets me have a very casual relationship with Xbox exclusives and unknown indie titles alike, and while I may not actually own most of what I play on the platform, it works pretty well for me.
Around a month ago, a new piece of gaming hardware entered my gaming life, the Steam Deck. Produced by gaming storefront host and ocassional game developer Valve, the Steam Deck is a Linux based PC wedged into the form factor of a handheld gaming console. It has a sizable screen, nice sizable controls, and aims to provide a pretty solid PC gaming experience that as much as possible acts like a console, at least on the surface.
As the Steam deck is a Linux based device, it doesn’t natively have access to the Windows store, or Game Pass games, as they exist on a Windows PC. You can technically get the Steam Deck to boot into Windows, but that experience is, right now, very much lacking in polish. However, if you’ve got a decent internet connection, you can play your Game Pass collection on the Steam Deck via Xcloud. A streaming based solution with surprisingly low lag and high visual quality, you essentially open up a specially tailored browser window and play Game Pass titles on a handheld, streamed in from gaming hardware in Microsoft’s offices.
Since the Steam Deck got support for Xcloud, I have basically not touched my Xbox Series X, and I am finally starting to understand some of the appeal of a future Xbox has been pivotting towards for years. The idea that you can play Xbox games, no matter your device. It’s kind of okay if you don’t own an Xbox console, for a lot of users.
For the unitiated, over the past several years Microsoft has basically been pivotting hard away from the idea of having their big name titles be exclusive on launch day to those who have purchased their newest possible consoles. This began with increasing the frequency with which their games were ported to PC, then increasing the frequency with which they came to PC on the same day as the console release, then moving toward the idea that purchasing one copy of the game entitled it to play wherever you wanted. You could buy a game on Xbox, then play it on PC via the Windows store for no additional cost, moving your saves, achievements, and profile over with ease.
While many game publishers have, over the years, attempted to move gamers to a future where they stream games in over the internet rather than play them on local hardware, usually these industry pushes fail. We saw it with OnLive, Amazon Luna, and perhaps most visibly Google Stadia. However, what I think sets Microsoft’s solution apart from the competition is that it has been introduced via a bit of a backdoor. If you have Game Pass Ultimate, Microsoft’s subscription tier to play their library of Game Pass titles on both PC and Xbox, you get their Xcloud streaming service thrown in for free. This means a lot of people have access to it, and can try it without risk. They’re not giving up the option to download those games for offline play, but can try them streamed to a device if they like.
I could have tried Xcloud at any time, but having a gaming handheld support the service made the prospect feel worthwhile. I never gave it a shot on PC, because on PC I might as well just download and run the games natively. And, you know what? The experience on Steam Deck has been low latency enough, with a high enough visual quality level, I have kind of stopped using my Xbox Series X, for the most part.
Now, part of my positive experience will be down to my very high quality internet connection, which won’t be the case for everyone reading. Part of it is because the Steam Deck screen size hits a sweet spot where detail is easier to see than it would be on a phone, without the screen being large enough to see the visual quality dips inherent in streaming titles. The rooms in my house where I want to play Xbox games have a good Wifi signal strength, and I don’t really play the kinds of twitch reaction competetive games that require frame perfect precision. I am somewhat of a perfect storm of the kind of person who can have an experience via streaming that feels comparable to playing on original hardware.
There are times where, because of my job, having an Xbox console is helpful. If I want to stream a game on Twitch, I’d rather have a dedicated system running the game natively and pumping it into my capture card. I’d rather know for work that issues with my internet connection won’t stop me playing through a game for work. If I get offered review codes early for games, I need original hardware to play that software, as it won’t yet be streamable on Xcloud.
And there are certain things that will always be downsides to not owning physical hardware. I lose the option to purchase and own a specific game forever, and play it whenever I want. I lose the ability to play in high quality on the TV as an option, for games where that spectacle is enjoyable. I lose some of the grand scale of some big budget games.
But, the more I have been using Xcloud on the Steam Deck as my primary way to play Xbox games and Game Pass indie titles, the more comfortable I am becoming with the idea that, if I were not able to own an Xbox console, that would very much be okay. If I had to sell my console tomorrow, I would probably not feel too beaten up about it. Of all the consoles I own, it’s the one I could most comfortably give away to a friend and not really feel the loss too strongly.
I play Xbox games probably more often than games on any other system. I really think I’d be okay if I didn’t own an Xbox.