Update: 11/29/2020 (Revised to include impressions on XBox Game Pass Ultimate for Mobile as well as other relevant platform updates/revisions.)
PREAMBLE: DEE Digital Future is Here…and On-Demand!
We’ve entered an interesting time in digital culture: thanks to the internet becoming near universally ingrained into everyday life and both traditional ISPs and mobile providers reaching bandwidth throughput that can carry ridiculous amounts of data even at the low-end, we’ve hit a point many have previously attempted to bridge but hadn’t fully “cracked” until now…the streaming (and not simply downloading) of games. Properly. Effectively, the modern rental system digitally delivered.
As has become commonplace in the past year alone thanks to major media outlets preparing for “the streaming wars” (which, itself, is a WHOLE other topic for discussion), the video game industry is also mobilizing for what will be the next evolution of their own “wars”…one no longer determined solely by physical console units, but by service platforms and access to them.
Given that when Digital Era Entertainment was founded broadband internet and robust mobile data were still at lower-tiers and higher barriers for entry, and having dreamed of seeing the entire industry gain this level of unprecedented accessibility to content (I correctly hoped services like Netflix and YouTube would evolve to the point of being “premier” entertainment platforms once the internet speeds and physical hardware could catch up), the fact that we’ve FINALLY arrived at this point is beyond exciting.
While these platforms are attempting things previously attempted (anyone happen to remember OnLive? I sure didn’t until I sat down to write this and actively thought about it, hahah), seeing what will likely be the dominating “streaming/on-demand subscription” platforms start to take their “final form” made it worth sitting down and examining them. This will not be a traditional review insofar as “ratings” go, but more of an examination of the pros and cons of each platform to provide informed opinions as to which ones you should (or shouldn’t) invest in. For today, I’ll be starting off with two that are very similar in terms of pricing (despite having had VERY different rollouts), and which are currently providing me with hours of entertainment when I’m not working on any of my plethora of other responsibilities/projects: Microsoft’s Game Pass Ultimate (PC and Mobile versions, specifically) and Sony’s Fall 2019 version of their Playstation Now service.
NOTE: These reviews are being conducted on Home service at Gigabit speed from Verizon FiOS, so this is likely a more “ideal” condition compared to other options, such as the inconsistent/unreliable Optimum 300Mbps speed service that I was using some of these services on until recently. As no ISP is alike, results WILL vary, so my apologies if your experience differs as a result.
…More Like Playstation “It’s About Time”
First launching as an open beta in July 2014, this service has been evolving steadily at what has been (effectively) a generational pace, not coming to full fruition as of Fall 2019. I’ve personally demoed the service at numerous points during that time, and have seen the platform evolve from a low-grade “hotel rental”-style price-gouging affair to the properly priced “all-access on-demand” platform that it has finally become. With more being teased for the service following the PS5 launch in November 2020, expect future updates to this section as well should that come to fruition!
WHAT I LIKE: Needless to say, this service has come a LONG way. Let’s start with the pricing: industry standard $9.99/monthly up to $59.99/annually, you get a LOT for the price of a single video game purchase: As of this writing, there are 750 games to stream (with 300 available to download directly), which stretch across three generations of Playstation and include the current one. The games range from smaller/”indie” titles to major releases such as Tekken 7 and our 2018 Game of the Year winner “God of War.” While not every game under the sun will be represented, there is a VERY healthy selection of games, including delightfully offbeat offerings like one of my longtime favorite “budget titles” in the third and fourth installments of “Way of the Samurai.”
The service also doesn’t necessarily require a Playstation 4 as it can be accessed via a Windows PC. (This wasn’t the only place at first, however…more on that shortly.) Full disclosure that I’ve only tested the PC app once on a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 during my last trial in 2017, but over FiOS WiFi and on a stable 50/50Mbps connection. I did have good results, so I can only assume with adequate speeds and consistent signal, other users should have satisfactory results as well. Stream stability and input registration for the main PS4 app in 2017 and now in 2019 was generally solid, though full disclosure that I was testing the 2019 update on the aforementioned Gigabit service from Verizon FiOS, so this is likely a more “ideal” condition compared to my last two outings.
(Of note was that my 2014 beta was conducted on “premium” DSL from Optimum in the early beta, both at 25Mbps and later at 50Mbps, neither of which were consistent/stable enough to work as advertised, and which both negatively colored my opinion of the initial beta and that particular internet service provider as a whole.)
Equally appreciated is that, as mentioned, 300 of these games can be downloaded to hard disk to not kill your available bandwidth, particularly for the higher-resolution games which have hard upper limits on their graphical fidelity when streamed. You can also transition your saves to and from the “streaming” and “downloaded” versions in order to resume a game if you choose to purchase it in the future, or if you had started it in the past. The flexibility is welcome, particularly if you still have old saves that you’d like to make use of. With that being said…
WHAT I DON’T LIKE: …In typical Sony fashion, this is only accomplished with a Playstation Plus account being active ATOP your selection. As we’ve discussed internally in the DEE CODE podcast group chat alone, we feel it would be more beneficial to have it as a complement to the offerings of Playstation Plus, even if it slightly increased the membership of that service.
There are also some hiccups to the backwards compatibility (though these are out of necessity) : a great example was when I wanted to play PS3 fighting games with my Hori Fighting Commander; while it’s cross compatible, because it lacks the trackpad, I cannot “select” or “start” games, which means for PS3 fighters or retro game compendiums, I’m more limited in my controller options. (I can imagine the frustration is amplified for anyone who wishes to use higher end peripherals like arcade/fight sticks who will likely run into similar difficulties.)
On a related note, as mentioned before, PS4 and Windows PC weren’t the only available options originally…at the outset, you could access the service via smart TVs, PS3, PS Vita, and even Playstation TV. While I can understand the need to axe most of these choices due to obsolescence/future obsolescence, it seems a bit silly given workarounds made possible by cloud services in 2019 (including other service offerings that’ll likely be covered in a future installment). On the plus side, due to the rise of mobile gaming compared to even when the service launched, I imagine there will be some variety of Android TV/iOS version (given Sony’s support of the Android platform for multiple devices; Remote Play is already a feature there, so this should be possible down the line).
Lastly, the idea of the “limited” release windows, while understandable from a corporate perspective, makes me a little annoyed that this will be an obvious tactic to leverage people to buy in for quick cash infusions. Not the most egregious offense when you consider that in the early beta there was a time where you could legitimately pay between $1.99-5.99 or so for a FOUR HOUR rental session for a Playstation 3 title…ON A PLAYSTATION 4! (Update: Since the original publication, XBox Game Pass did start cycling out games over time as well, so this is no longer a platform-exclusive criticism and required clarification here.)
OVERALL IMPRESSION: When compared to the original iteration, this is a LOT more for your money and a FAR better investment than even a year prior to the writing of this assessment. There are still a few potential areas for potential improvement, namely in the library offerings and possible discounting/bundling with Playstation Plus, but there is a LOT of value here, particularly for people who are just picking up the console before the next generation of Playstation drops.
(And if the service translates to that new hardware too, it’ll be a GREAT starter for the price of a single game without all the fuss of figuring out what game/games to start with.)
A Game Experience Not to Pass
Originally available only on the XBox One platform when it launched in 2017, it was expanded to include limited PC titles that were Play Anywhere-ready before adding ANOTHER offering strictly for PC players, as well as a combo package that includes XBox Live Gold service included. While initially a stretch for inclusion in the original iteration of this piece due to this being the almost exclusive focus of it, Microsoft’s branch of the service on PC in particular allows for on-device installations to sidestep any connectivity issues. With the mobile streaming/cloud-based xCloud beta having come and gone and now being worked into the Game Pass program proper as simply the mobile app/component, impressions for what is objectively the most article-appropriate part of the service can be found below.
WHAT I LIKE: Are you a jaded XBox fan like myself who skipped this generation because you can’t be bothered to pay for a system to play a glut of generally lackluster first party titles and stuff you can play cheaper elsewhere (with better exclusives)? No problem! We gotchu, fam- we got “Gears 5”, “Forza Horizon 4”, and plenty more Microsoft exclusives for you out of the gate, with more games dropping all the time!
In all seriousness, Play Anywhere was already a brilliant move by Microsoft after their fumbling of the XBox One launch and the general uselessness of the XBox hardware now that Microsoft’s overall company focus is returning to software (albeit mostly cloud-based). Let me be clear, I have a deep rooted appreciation for the XBox brand, and it was my preferred platform for two consecutive console generations, but Microsoft has done nothing but disappoint on the gaming front this generation…
…Until now. Frankly, if I did own an XBox One (2020 update: Series X/S), I’d be swimming in not just retro goodness with incredible upscale rendering (thanks to the expansive backwards compatible library the console already provides that is also creeping into the digital Game Pass offerings with haste), but enjoying MANY catalog titles that I wouldn’t already be playing on other platforms thanks to the Game Pass service’s offerings alone: I’m thoroughly enjoying multiplatform and PC games that have sat in my respective digital storefront queues for what feels like an eternity waiting to be purchased for cheap…mostly because of the increasingly difficult choice what digital storefront/platform to get some games on. (This will come back up to a very small extent in the review of GeForce Now, hahah.) These offerings include fairly recent games that you may or may not be seeing on our 2019 Game of the Year list, so I’m VERY pleased by this! In addition to strong first party selections, indie and AAA megahits from third parties such as past Game of the Year candidates “Dead Cells” and “Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus” and new releases such as “The Outer Worlds” are also available. And it. Is. GREAT.
As of late 2020, mobile streaming proper (originally as xCloud, now simply the mobile option of XBox Games Pass) was added, and I was able to add this critical element to the review: used across this benchmarking was “River City Girls”, “Battletoads (2020)”, “Halo Master Chief Collection,” “Untitled Goose Game” and “Forza Horizon 4.” Briefly, the app is currently available on Android, but limited ONLY to proper mobile units (i.e. phones/tablets) and not, say Android TV units. Microsoft boasts about 100 games available as of the post-xCloud period, and much like I mentioned in the PC-centric original iteration of this piece, the roster is pretty strong and varied which is great! I sampled both on my Pixel 3 as well as (admittedly sideloaded due to the Android TV limitation) on my NVidia Shield to compared Wifi and Ethernet experiences. I’ll cover part of my findings in the latter section, but regarding wired experience and pairing the device with the 8Bitdo-crafted SN30 for Android (XBox One and other Bluetooth-enabled controllers can be used), it was a fun and intuitive setup that didn’t take much time to set up once I was up and running! (And the ability to play XBox Games on the go with an easily-portable controller is an exciting prospect.)
Another perk offered here (that is surprisingly not offered on the Playstation Now service) is discounts on Microsoft’s digital storefront for games if you’re a Game Pass holder. This incentivises permanent purchases which is VERY handy if you want to keep a particular game in your permanent library should you opt out of the service at some point. And when you take into account the Play Anywhere games, this is VERY helpful if you’re jumping between PC and XBox One. (Note: while not mentioned explicitly in the followup piece, Google Stadia DOES offer a similar incentive via Stadia Pro.)
WHAT I DON’T LIKE: For PC games in particular, it’s the same headache as doing ANY Windows Store game purchase: it’s going to be locked into the Microsoft ecosystem, so that means no Steam library compatibility, inability to quickly/easily add games to an organizer like Kodi, nor cross-compatibility with devices like Nvidia Shield (until Microsoft decides to extend access beyond the platform, which is slightly more likely given their recent steps to open up the XBox platform to even rival consoles and implied app-based expansions). In fact, some games (such as “Battletoads” in my case) have baffling terminal issues which render them unplayable on PC, though this appears to be a general platform issue as the issues have been prevalent with Steam version of the same games as well. Originally, I had criticized the Microsoft Game file structure for making gamesaves not as intuitive to retrieve from, but it appears that cloud functionality has been improved to allow for transferal of data between PC/Console/Mobile, as was evident from my “Forza Horizon 4” and “Halo Master Chief Collection” save data being accessible once synced at the start of gameplay. Also, while the PC selection currently boasts approximately 147 games (as of the initial writing), with a regularly increasing volume moving forward, the newest games are, for the most part, first-party Microsoft games. Again, this is MUCH more generous than Sony (as they aren’t offering any “new” releases day and date), and equally beneficial if your main hook is that you want to play Microsoft games without investing in MORE hardware. But if you’re looking for a convenient, non-EA “rental” service, well…hope you haven’t played the bulk of the selections on tap, hahah. (Of note, at time of update, EA Play is now included with Ultimate, so a selection of EA games are also available. Go figure, hahah.)
I also need to note that my experience with speed and visual quality was all over the place, but not enough for me to dislike the opportunity presented by the service: specifically, over Wifi on the Shield, I had numerous drops in service (this was mostly on my router for being finnicky with Wifi signals, but figured it should still be mentioned), and quality on something like “Forza Horizon 4” (which ran buttery smooth in the xCloud test on the same hardware) struggled visually until I switched to Ethernet. Ethernet did improve not just the visuals, but the gameplay stability/fluidity as well; case in point, on my Pixel 3 over Wifi, I ran tests with “Battletoads” and “Forza Horizon 4” and while the visuals and overall gameplay stability were there, there was noticeable slowdown for each compared to playing on hardlined Shield. Regardless, the visuals were FAR more improved, likely because it was playing on hardware more properly optimized to process the signal. Lastly, unless this is to be added later, local/single-screen multiplayer for things like “Untitled Goose Game” and “Battletoads” were NOT possible, which is a shame since those games are perfect for “pick up and play” fun if other players are available at the time.
OVERALL IMPRESSION: Even with my inability to properly test the console side of it as well, as well as my nitpicks with the Microsoft gaming ecosystem’s Apple-like “locked down” nature on the PC side and the initial speed issues over Wifi on mobile, my experience with the service has generally remained fantastic and has encouraged me to look into a future acquisition of Xbox hardware proper for the first time in a generation by way of the next gen Series X/S. Even with the price increase in 2020 to cover the mobile functionality (from $5.99USD-$9.99USD/month for PC Pass, $14.99/mo for Ultimate), the scalability of price and value for what you get is by a huge margin the best overall value, offering, and performance. With the release of the Series X/S, the value of this package (and the flexibility of it) cannot be understated.
WRAP-UP: Further Down The Stream We Go
So there you go! Because of additional developments in 2020, we finally have a roundup of some of the other new services that have popped up, as well as a deep dive into Nvidia’s GeForce NOW (which, as of the follow up, is formally out of beta). And with the continuous outpouring of new streaming services, if you’d like our takes on streaming services outside of gaming as well, please let us know!