The start of Q4 2020 was supposed to be an incredible time for PC gamers – or gamers in general. Firstly, Microsoft and Sony released their latest Next-Gen consoles, the Xbox Series X and S and the PlayStation 5. Secondly, AMD and NVIDIA battled it out in the GPU market, and AMD unleashed the Ryzen 5000 CPU family that ate Intel’s 10th generation for breakfast. And lunch. And supper, and dinner, and as a snack in between. Unfortunately for Intel, the only thing the 11th generation of Core Processors can do is hold AMD’s beer. In theory.
Excellent Hardware, No Stock, High Prices
I think by now, about six months later, we all know how things played out. It is not about having the best performance anymore. Instead, it is about who can get products on the shelves or into retailers’ warehouses so people can buy them. It seems like the price does not even matter. Some affluent enthusiast gamers may be more willing to overpay for their hobby, and first-time builders might not know any better. I am neither in the first nor in the last category. I could afford new PC hardware, but I am not willing to overpay a single Oren for any of it. The reasons for these prices are manifold, and many YouTubers discussed this very topic in many a video.
The story I want to tell you today is how all of that brought me into Microsoft’s console hardware and gaming service arms. Well, I guess I kind of already spoiled the reason: PC hardware is ridiculously overpriced, let alone readily available to buy. But there is more to it than that.
Why Would I Want to Play Anywhere?
Before the launch of the new consoles, I believed Microsoft’s Game Pass and Play Anywhere feature is a neat idea, but I could not see an actual use case for it. I was thinking from the viewpoint of a PC gamer that wasn’t much into consoles back then. My thought process was that a PC gamer would not see any value in switching back and forth between a gaming computer and the Xbox console for any game. Sure, game progress is account-based and saved to the cloud, and transfers seamlessly to wherever you want to play. But why would someone decide to start on a PC and continue on an Xbox, or vice versa? I would argue that there is no good reason to own this combination of hardware at all. If Microsoft plans to release all their Play Anywhere games on both platforms, console and PC, then a PC player will no longer require an Xbox console. Effectively, there are no more Xbox exclusives a PC player cannot also get. Therefore, I concluded that the combination of PC and PlayStation is the way to play anything that is ever released. After all, there are great PlayStation exclusives that never made it to the PC or Xbox.
Now that I own an Xbox Series S and subscribe to Game Pass Ultimate, I can see a scenario where it starts to make sense.
The Netflix of Gaming
Let me address the game subscription model first. It has been about a month since I subscribed to Game Pass Ultimate, and I played more games than ever before. Granted, some of them have been short ones, like all the Gears games, but I have also ventured out and tried things I would otherwise not touch. Why? Because I am Scrooge McDuck. I prefer to invest my money in something that I know I will like. Now that I do not pay for each individual game anymore, there is no reason for me to hesitate. One of the results was my recent rant about Battlefield 4. Without Game Pass, I would have never tried it. The same goes for Dirt 5. In this case, I am convinced that I would have enjoyed it, and therefore I would not have regret paying for it. After all, I have played many of the Dirt games before, even its spiritual origin Colin McRae Rally. Despite that, I am confident I would not have bought it otherwise. I also want to try a type of game I usually avoid, the platformer Ori and the Blind Forest.
But this does not just apply to me. I have mentioned the Gears titles before, and I am not alone in playing them. All the games that are available on PC I coop with my sister. Would we have gone out and spent 60 bucks each (for the most recent 4 + 5)? I doubt it. Are the games worth it? Probably. They are noticeably short, which is the only real downside for that amount of money. They are certainly worth paying for, though. Either way, the "first-month-one-Oren" deal turned this decision into a no-brainer, and we tried it out. Now, I had already played 4 and 5, so I knew of the quality. Nevertheless, it would have been a harder sell to convince my sister to play them at full retail price.
And there is so much more, like Xbox 360 games that are not available on PC, namely Gears 2 and 3. And other titles I am yet to discover. I want to try the Yakuza franchise, Monster Hunter World, and many more. I have collected quite the backlog already 😅. Even the Xbox Games with Gold every month sometimes contain a few jewels or exciting titles worth checking out. I know that only applies as long as I subscribe, but keep in mind that these are non-Game Pass games. I would have to buy them otherwise to get access. It is not only about Xbox games, though. Even if you only subscribe to the PC-only version of Game Pass, all of the above except the Xbox parts still applies.
What I have not tried yet because I lack the necessary hardware is game streaming on mobile or game streaming in general. Until a few days ago, streaming on mobile was only available to Android users, and at the moment, I am on iOS. Once streaming goes out of beta and becomes available to everyone, I may give it a try. I am not a mobile gamer, however, so I do not see much benefit for me. I have a PC and an Xbox. Therefore, the only upside I can see is that it gets rid of the initial download and installation time. Or maybe it will enable 4K gaming on the Series S this way – because Microsoft’s powerful datacenters do the crazy math.
Do You Play Anywhere?
Oddly enough, I do. In general, though, I still think that this feature will not be the new normal. It came together for me because I was curious if and how well it works. I have tested with Gears 5, and it was great. My sister and I started on PC, and then I tried the Xbox with mouse and keyboard – yes, I wanted to use all the features – and it worked as If I was on a PC. My save games were there, I could invite my sister to join me, and we played as if nothing ever happened.
For an opposing example, I can report that this does not work with Titanfall 2, an EA Play title.
As of right now, I will pick and choose what I play where I play it, depending on my mood. During the week, that is likely to be the Xbox because I prefer not to move from one desk, my work, to another desk to play some games. I have written a dedicated blog post where I discuss this in more detail. Life has changed a bit since then, but the general premise still holds. Will I use this feature frequently? I am not sure. As a programmer, I prefer things to be DRY (don’t repeat yourself). This overlap in functionality that the Xbox and my aging gaming PC provide me has me torn inside. I want to use each gaming station for a specific purpose, therefore playing a game here or there is out of the question. Or so I would argue. It is a character flaw of mine, and I can use this opportunity to grow out of it. (Maybe. Likely not. Old dogs and new tricks 🤷♂)
I can imagine doing this for a highly addictive game; use the console during the week and a more powerful PC on the weekend to get the best visual experience. Another example I can come up with, and this has already happened, is when I couldn’t care less about the complexity of Windows and all the game launchers and instead just wanted to sit down and quickly get into a game without any hassle.
Long Story Short
With every media outlet trying to establish their own online service, and other areas of technology following suit, I understand and feel an increasing amount of "subscription fatigue". I try to keep them to an absolute minimum (which is why I still do not pay for YouTube premium, despite the very annoying ads). Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription has such a high utility for me at this point that I am gladly willing to pay for it. The game catalog is pretty extensive, and first-party titles are even added at launch. Sony’s offering cannot compete. When I bought the PlayStation about a year ago, you could not even download games to the console. Only streaming in amazing 720p was available – which is still valid for non-PS4 games, from what I understand. I could even switch back and forth between all compatible devices with Game Pass if I wanted to. It may be a niche feature, but I have already had the occasion to use it.
What About the Series S?
Here are a few quick thoughts because it is somewhat related, but also not.
- It is incredibly tiny. Imagine two 1L water bottles next to each other.
- It is whisper quiet.
- After getting used to it, I like the non-Windows simplicity to get in and get out of a game quickly.
- Quick Resume resumes quickly.
- No generic USB Microphone support. Come on; it is basically running Windows 😉
- I never thought I’d like it, but gamepad vibration is strong, especially in Dirt 5, and adds to the immersive experience.
- Attaching a keyboard works flawlessly, even in the menu. Special Windows keys do exactly what you would expect in the console UI.
- Newer titles show the limits of the hardware, e.g., Dirt 5 in image quality mode. The resolution is not very high.
To elaborate on the last point: I was absolutely aware of the performance limitations. When I connect my PC to the TV, I only play at 1080p, and the image is fine for me. Yes, I can see a difference when compared to a higher resolution. But I am astonished how well my TV upscales the image to 4K. Once I am immersed in a game, I rarely notice that it is only Full HD. Would I prefer a higher res? Sure! Unfortunately, products that can do that are either unavailable, overpriced and most likely both.