Xbox Game Pass has become Microsoft's most important innovation in recent years, bringing a huge unique selling point to the Xbox platform, giving gamers one of the best-value services the industry has to offer. The full list of games in Xbox Game Pass continues to swell, with hotly anticipated titles like Halo Infinite and Starfield on the horizon as day-one inclusions.
A lot of the emphasis tends to fall on Xbox Game Pass for consoles, though. Xbox is right there in the name, after all. Xbox Game Pass also has a sister service, called Xbox Game Pass for PC. You can get Game Pass for PC with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, or as a separate service. Game Pass for PC also includes dozens upon dozens of high-quality games, including coveted PC titles like Football Manager, and soon Age of Empires IV.
Xbox Game Pass for PC should be a driver of growth in the service. PC has one of the largest audiences out there, full of value-conscious consumers looking for a good deal. The reality is, however, that Xbox Game Pass for PC is an utterly sub-par experience in many respects, to the point that no amount of great games could offset how frustrating it is to use as a platform.
If Microsoft wants to see increased adoption in its key growth areas, especially PC, the service needs a massive quality injection.
The Xbox app's quality is atrocious
The focal point of my issues with Xbox Game Pass for PC revolves around the Xbox app for Windows 10. It's a marked improvement over the UWP "Xbox Companion App" of yesteryear, but that bar couldn't possibly have been lower. Sadly, Microsoft's pace of updates and improvements to the Xbox app on Windows 10 has crawled to a snail's pace, and it's becoming unacceptable.
The first issue with the Xbox app on Windows 10 is just plain ol' speed. Microsoft: You're competing with Steam and Discord for a lot of the features you're offering here. Expecting users to accept the painfully slow, well, everything given that competition exists just a click or two away isn't smart business.
You'd think that fewer features would lead to a more streamlined, speedier app. Apparently, that's not the case.
Sending messages on Xbox Live through the Xbox app is a painfully slow experience. Right-clicking menus and general navigation is held up by the loading of assets from the web, which is just poor design. If I click on something, the action should be instantaneous, in all scenarios. The fact the Xbox app can't offer this, while Steam, and even the Epic Games Store, can, is a big problem.
The Xbox app is also missing tons of features that competing platforms offer. The ability to right-click on a game on your library to access more settings is something Microsoft's Windows platform has been training me to do for years. There's no such feature on offer here. I can't hide or sort games in my library. I can't do anything to configure the style or layout of the app. I can't create playlists. There are no mod libraries, no discussion boards, no community features beyond the incredibly useless "your friends play this" list. There's no way to see developer updates at a glance. There's no way to see patch notes easily. I could go on.
Seriously, what exactly is the intent here? You'd think that fewer features would lead to a more streamlined, speedier app. Apparently, that's not the case. I was forgiving of the Xbox app when it launched, but it has since shed the (beta) tag long ago. Time to get serious about this stuff, I'd say, Microsoft.
Windows 10's game delivery system just plain sucks
My most hated feature of the modern Windows platform by far is the app package delivery system, which has never really been fit for purpose. When Microsoft started releasing games in UWP containers back in the day, the system buckled. It hadn't been designed to deliver packages that ran in the tens of gigabytes, and a lot of those legacy problems persist even today.
Given that the Xbox app uses the Windows 8-based package delivery system, installing games can be a nightmare for reasons that are often indiscernible. One frequent issue I and others often run into is where the Microsoft Store just gets stuck, and refuses to download or update anything. Often this can be fixed by resetting the Microsoft Store cache, but it's 2021, I shouldn't have to do this when all I want to do is access a game — in an entirely separate app.
The Microsoft Store is pivoting away from its container format with Windows 11, but it remains to be seen the extent to which that will impact games.
The container system was developed with security in mind, but it doesn't seem to be able to discriminate between what are hacks and what are mods. The Xbox app lets you "unlock" a game's files with a very patronizing warning if you want to mod games, but updates to the game or even Windows 10 itself can wipe any modifications made to game files, since Windows containers persistently verify the contents of an app package for "approved" files. Modding is a huge part of the PC space, not only for fun, but also to fix bugs. Those same mods could also solve another annoying issue with Xbox Game Pass ...
Xbox Game Pass PC game versions are often worse
Perhaps the most annoying thing of all with Xbox Game Pass is the fact you're often getting a sub-par experience when compared to Steam or Win32 versions on other storefronts. For whatever reason, whether it's issues with the container system, or issues with the Microsoft Store certification process in general, games on Xbox Game Pass often just fail to live up to the same quality standards as competing versions.
The Ascent for example supports NVIDIA DLSS on Steam, but not on the Microsoft Store. This is probably something to do with the game being ported from the Xbox version to Xbox Game Pass for PC, but that doesn't excuse the fact players on Xbox Game Pass for PC are ultimately getting a worse experience. I've also found bugs in various other games. Pillars of Eternity, for example, is completely broken on Xbox Game Pass for PC, with floating objects moving between screens. I've actually worked directly with Obsidian to get this fixed and troubleshot in the past, but the bug persists even to this day. The same bug does not exist on the Xbox or Steam versions of the game, which is intensely frustrating.
Microsoft is allowing developers to use their own content delivery networks for the Windows 11 store revamp, thankfully, and will ditch the container requirement for games and apps being listed on the store. But will those existing developers go in and update their games to the Win32 versions? I somehow doubt it. Even if they did, it would probably be at the loss of Xbox achievements in the process.
A long road ahead
Xbox Game Pass for PC just isn't good enough right now. From a broken app, to a broken content delivery system, to a broken modding platform, and broken game versions, every angle of Xbox Game Pass for PC just screams "just use Steam instead." The fact games like Sea of Thieves, Flight Simulator, and other Microsoft titles continue to trend on Steam despite being far more affordable with Xbox Game Pass could evidence this — people would rather pay for a more reliable, consistent experience.
Microsoft's ignorance of the PC gaming community feels apparent with the Xbox app on PC.
Microsoft's ignorance of the PC gaming community feels apparent with the Xbox app on PC. The lack of features, customizability, and configurability flies in the face of everything that PC gaming is about. In a world where Steam is driving incredible value with its massive sales, and gamers are faced with more competition for their free time than ever, offering a large library of games is nowhere near enough for Microsoft to penetrate this market. It's the experience that will drive adoption in Xbox Game Pass for PC, and right now, that experience just plain sucks.
Windows 11 offers a glimmer of hope that the situation will improve in the future, but there's no official roadmap on what (if anything) Microsoft plans to do to improve the Xbox Game Pass for PC service right now. Other gaming services just seem so much more serious about competing for my interest. I can jump into the Steam beta and get huge patch notes and information on what their plans are for future iterations of the app. Discord pops up with update information and sometimes even a video showcasing new features. It feels like the Xbox app's development has ground to a halt, without any meaningful new features in what feels like months at this point.
I'm optimistic that things will improve, and I have no doubt that the teams are hard at work synchronizing their vision for the Xbox app up with the big Windows 11 effort. Some transparency would be nice though, especially for those who are actively paying into the service.