Xbox Game Pass wisely trades streaming for stability. Now it just needs games.

Ever since Netflix went digital and allowed subscribers the opportunity to instantly gorge on thousands of films and TV shows, I've been wondering if gaming would ever get to the point where it could offer a similar service. Sony's attempt with PlayStation Now was a move in the right direction, but its high price, lackluster library, and hobbled tech all but ensured that it wouldn't find a substantial following outside of a small, die-hard audience with stronger-than-average internet connections. It seemed like the dream of the never-ending buffet of games was doomed before it ever got off the ground.

A few days ago, Microsoft unveiled a very intriguing new service called Xbox Game Pass, a program that attempts to fix many of PlayStation Now's biggest criticisms. For $9.99 a month, Xbox One owners can subscribe and gain access to a rotating library of over a hundred different games. I got a chance to mess with an early preview version of the program, and while it lacks the immediacy of the Netflix-style streaming provided by PlayStation Now, it makes up for it with stability and a much lower cost of entry.

Signing up for the plan is easy. Just pay for a month of service, then head to the Membership section of the Games and Apps menu. Here, you'll be whisked away to a special version of the store where every game you see is available for you to play, like some kind of video game Willy Wonka wonderland. Pick a game, hit download, wait until it's installed on your hard drive, and voila - you can now play your chosen game to your heart's content. Games will get rotated in and out on a monthly basis (not unlike Netflix), and if a game disappears from the program (or you let your subscription lapse), you won't be able to access your downloaded games unless you purchase them from the store.

I tested the program out for myself to see how quickly I could get started playing. In the early alpha version of Game Pass, only a handful of games were available: 

  • A Kingdom for Keflings
  • Banjo-Kazooie
  • Comic Jumper
  • Dark Void
  • Defense Grid 2
  • Gears of War: Judgement
  • Gears of War: Ultimate Edition
  • Halo: Spartan Assault
  • Hexic 2
  • Jetpack Refulled
  • Kameo
  • Max: The Curse of Brotherhood
  • Monday Night Combat
  • Ms. 'Splosion Man
  • Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising
  • Perfect Dark Zero
  • Sacred 3
  • Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space
  • Sunset Overdrive
  • The Maw
  • Viva Pinata

It's mostly older games but there's some good stuff in here - and at any rate, it's a free preview so I'm not expecting heavy hitters. Since I already owned most of them, I decided to try Dark Void (yup). I hit download, waited the ten minutes or so it took to arrive on my hard drive, and loaded it up. There I was. Playing Dark Void like it was no big thing. Cool.

Even as underwhelming as Dark Void is, it's clear that the Game Pass is really easy to navigate, and it'll even give you discounts on DLC and game purchases should you want to keep playing something after it leaves the program or your membership expires. However, how quickly you'll be able to access something is totally dependant on your internet connection and the size of your file. For example, I also accessed a copy of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, but I had to leave that running overnight - turns out, 44 gigabytes takes some time to download. 

Game Pass, then, is a far less elegant or technologically impressive solution than PlayStation Now, which beams game streams directly to your TV like you just hit play on a TV show in Netflix. Thing is, PlayStation Now suffers from noticeable input lag and stream compression if your connection is less than ideal - Game Pass just downloads the game to your hard drive like you purchased it from the store. Also, while the current preview line-up is rather spartan, the fact that Microsoft has included both Xbox 360 and Xbox One games implies we can likely expect both last and current-gen games in the mix when it launches later this year - a marked improvement over PlayStation Now's PS3-only library.

And that's really what it all comes down to: the games. If Microsoft can support Game Pass with a steady stream of modern classics and new releases, $9.99 a month is a solid deal for the value-conscious gamer, acting as either a good supplement to the free games you get through Xbox Live, or as a way for those who can't afford new $60 games every month to have a substantial library at their fingertips. If it's just Perfect Dark Zero and three-year-old Xbox One games, though, then Game Pass will probably languish in the same way that PlayStation Now has. 

PlayStation Now always felt like it was so close to being the all-you-can-play buffet we've wanted, but its ambitions haven't always lived up to the reality. While we wait for the tech to catch up with those ambitions, Xbox Game Pass seems like a nice compromise. Look for it when it launches on Xbox One this spring.