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Xbox's ‘Netflix for Games’ will win Google battle, but is it the right strategy for the console war?

Microsoft folding its cloud streaming platform into its 'Game Pass' subscription service highlights Xbox's unusual long-term strategy

Halo Infinite
Halo Infinite will be available to stream on xCloud as well as releasing on the next generation Xbox

It had been mooted for a long time that Microsoft would directly tie its cloud gaming initiative -currently codenamed Project xCloud- to its Xbox Game Pass subscription service. Plenty of coy nods and talk from top executives of Game Pass being Xbox's 'centre of gravity', even ahead of the launch of a next generation console in the form of the Xbox Series X, suggested that the service would form the bedrock of its next-generation strategy.

Now that plan has been confirmed, in September Xbox will fold xCloud into the Game Pass 'Ultimate' tier, a £10.99 monthly subscription that gives access to hundreds of games across console, PC and now streamed via mobile devices.

It is a move that will further overshadow Google's hitherto strained effort to bring cloud gaming to the masses with Stadia. As of now Google's prospect involves players buying games at full price before being able to be streamed, while its selection -while improving- is still on the miserly side.

Not every game on Game Pass will be available via xCloud, but the suggestion is that the majority will. Xbox's own exclusives will certainly be on the service, with the potential of full back catalogues of blockbusters like Forza Horizon, Gears of War and Halo, before the latest game in the latter series -Halo Infinite- releases as part of the Series X launch later this year.

Microsoft will release the Xbox Series X later this year

Game Pass has been a steadily improving success, snapping up a tremendous amount of games as Microsoft push the service as the very centre of its Xbox ecosystem. Microsoft recently announced that Game Pass has now surpassed 10 million subscribers.

Game Pass's ready-made library and promise of further exclusives dwarfs Stadia's offering, while a subscription model -much closer to the fabled 'Netflix of games'- suits the concept of streaming down to the ground. Players are much more likely to test out games with an instant stream in a risk-free model, much like you might take a nibble of a Netflix film or series you would never consider paying full whack for.

Xbox boss Phil Spencer planted that idea for his audience himself, claiming in an interview with The Verge that while testing xCloud he would use the streaming service as a 'snackable trial experience' before committing to a full download on a console or PC. Whether Spencer actually does this himself is irrelevant, as it is a clear goal for what xCloud is trying to achieve for Xbox, allowing you to directly click a link or video before the game immediately launches on your phone or tablet.

 “We want that trial to be as easy as it is in music and video today, where I can send you a track in Spotify today and you can stream it instantly,” Spencer said. “Over time, anywhere I see a game I should be able to give it a try.”

(As an aside, Xbox has been much more comfortable and open with Spotify comparisons for xCloud rather than Netflix, but I can't exactly place why.)

This is a feature that Google placed front and centre for Stadia ahead of its launch, though it is only being implemented now. The tech giant will no doubt be frustrated to see Xbox coming in and stealing its thunder, the volume of which has been difficult to amplify since Stadia's mixed launch in November.

Xbox Game Pass gives its subscribers access to hundreds of games on console and PC, including the Gears of War series

To Google's credit, Stadia is ramping up its efforts, recently announcing more exclusive games and additional features. However when faced with a choice, it seem more likely that players will be allured to Xbox's wider library and cleaner model.

In a direct cloud-gaming match-up, it's difficult to see any other winner than Xbox with Game Pass and xCloud feeding off each other. Perhaps Microsoft’s smartest move on this front is positioning game streaming as a compliment to hardware, for now at least, rather than heralding it as an all-out replacement as Google have.

What is perhaps less clear, and more intriguing, is whether Xbox's continued gambit to put Game Pass at the centre of its ecosystem is going to pay off in the long run against more traditional rivals.

Gaming is set to be a huge business this Christmas, fired by a lockdown boom as new and lapsed gamers turned to digital worlds as entertainment. Both Microsoft and Sony are releasing powerful new consoles with the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 this winter. However, Microsoft has stated that it doesn't expect to develop any Series X exclusive games for at least 'a couple of years' instead bringing its first-party offerings to both the existing Xbox One consoles and xCloud.

Sony, on the other hand, has stated the opposite. PlayStation has had the upper hand on exclusive games for several years now, first-party titles such as The Last of Us, Spider-Man and God of War helping the PS4 to a much larger sales success than the Xbox One. PS5 will launch with exclusives with many more in the pipeline.

Unlike the Xbox Series X, the PlayStation 5 will have first-party next-gen exclusives such as Spider-Man: Miles Morales

It is intriguing, then, to see Xbox apparently ceding ground for its new console in an attempt to bring its titles -such as Halo Infinite- to a wider audience at the outset. It has also made moves to ensure that games bought for Xbox One can be upgraded to the 'next-gen' version, for free, when players upgrade their console. While there are not set to be any games that can only play on Series X, Microsoft have continually stated that any new games will run best on the new hardware.

Most home console launches are a hard push to get players to buy new boxes, offsetting tremendous production costs and safeguarding the console’s future. Instead, Xbox is on a charm offensive to get players to buy into that ecosystem. And if that means waiting to splash out on a new box, hey, that’s fine too.

None of this is done out of the goodness of their hearts, of course, with Microsoft banking on the subscription model and wider investment in an ‘Xbox ecosystem’ being the path to long term success for video games. It could be a masterstroke and, if nothing else, it certainly means the company has several bases covered.

However, there is no guarantee that this is going to be enough for players hungry for cutting edge games. The suggestion from Xbox is that the leap to ‘next-gen’ is not going to be as big as players may expect, while PlayStation will be hoping that its developers will be free to stretch the muscles of its new console in a way Xbox developers will not.

If anything has been proved over the years, the quality of the games are always the real driving force for new hardware. Xbox is set to highlight its upcoming titles next week. Will it have enough to bolster its approach compared to Sony’s recent unveiling of its own PS5 games? Either way, both companies are setting out their strategies for a console war like no other.