The Xbox streaming device has been in the works for some time now, and judging by the latest photo, it could arrive sooner rather than later. Xbox boss Phil Spencer recently hid a prototype Xbox streaming device in a prominent place on his Twitter account and gave the world a glimpse of what the highly anticipated box could look like.
Judging by Spencer’s tweet and the long product development cycle, the Xbox streaming device may not be far off. But when it arrives, it will raise some interesting – and perhaps troubling – questions about the future of Xbox, both as a console and as an ecosystem.
Over the past few years, Microsoft has taken the Xbox Game Pass to the point where it’s almost a viable console replacement on its own. When the Xbox streaming device arrives, Microsoft’s grand experiment will, in fact, reach its apotheosis. With Game Pass’s many streaming features, Microsoft is essentially trying to convince consumers that they don’t need an Xbox console for the full Xbox experience, and an Xbox streaming device just might prove the company right.
The only question is, what happens after that? In a world of near-perfect cloud gaming, what is the future of the traditional gaming console?
(Image credit: Microsoft)
Before we dive into the potential implications of the Xbox streaming device, it’s worth noting that this product has been in development for a long time. Spencer hinted at an Xbox streaming device back in 2020, and Microsoft confirmed his comments in 2021. Earlier this year, Microsoft explained that the Xbox streaming device — a project called “Keystone” — has gone through several changes, which may explain why it’s been taking so long to release.
Whether we were playing shooters, racing games, action games, or role-playing games, streaming Xbox games on a Samsung smart TV seemed almost indistinguishable from playing the downloaded or disc version.
The prototype in Spencer’s photo is likely an outdated version of the device. But, in truth, how the device looks is not so important. We can safely assume that whether the device is a box or a dongle, whether it only works with Wi-Fi or offers an Ethernet adapter, whether it is powered by a TV or requires an external adapter, its primary purpose is to run Xbox Game Pass. Appendix. And we can also safely assume that the application will perform well.
This is not pure speculation; we already have a plethora of different Xbox Game Pass streaming apps, and they all work at least tolerably well. You can stream Xbox Game Pass games to Android devices and the best TVs with a dedicated app, or to the best iPhones and the best laptops via a web browser. You can even stream Game Pass titles directly to your Xbox console, eliminating the need to download a game if you just want to try it out or take on multiple multiplayer matches with friends.
While the streaming technology works better on some platforms than others (and is technically still in beta on many of them), you can play hundreds of Xbox games, at least tolerably well, without having to buy an Xbox or game. PC.
Perhaps the best proof of concept for an Xbox streaming device is the Xbox Game Pass app on Samsung smart TVs. Tom’s Guide had to try this app for themselves and it was a near perfect experience, even on a fairly standard broadband connection. Whether we were playing shooters, racing games, action games, or RPGs, streaming Xbox games was almost indistinguishable from playing the downloaded or disc version.
In terms of “streaming Xbox games to your big screen TV,” the Xbox streaming device seems to have the most DNA in common with the Smart TV app. And since we already know it works, we have every reason to believe that a dedicated device will be just as good. And if so, Microsoft may have the potential to turn gaming consoles into a boutique marketplace rather than a staple of the consumer electronics industry.
Console cost and benefits
(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)
We don’t want to talk too much about the Xbox streaming device. We don’t know what apps it will offer, or how much it will cost, or even if the gadget will be good. But what we can extrapolate from Spencer’s comments is that it will be much cheaper and more affordable than the Xbox Series X ($500) or Xbox Series S ($300). Presumably it won’t be powerful enough to run games on its own, but that won’t be an issue with the trusty can-enabled Xbox Game Pass app.
Let’s imagine a world where you can play 400 Xbox games for the price of a streaming device and an Xbox Game Pass subscription. Suddenly, console gaming is less of a hobby for dedicated gamers and more of a hobby for those with a stable broadband connection.
Now let’s imagine a world where you can play 400 Xbox games (and growing) for the price of a streaming device (maybe $50-$100) and an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription ($15 a month). Suddenly, console gaming has become less of a hobby for dedicated gamers and more of a hobby for those with a stable broadband connection. In the same way that video streaming services gave us all the ersatz collections of movies and TV shows, cheap cloud gaming devices and subscriptions can democratize gaming – for better or for worse.
Before the release of PS4 and Xbox One, some journalists (myself included) wondered if there was a future for the console market. The advent of mobile gaming, the resurgence of the PC market, and the rising costs of game development have created the impression that console games could lead to another 1983-style crash. That didn’t happen as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo reminded buyers that consoles still strike the perfect balance between affordability and quality, delivering a rich gaming experience at a price that’s affordable for middle-class consumers.
However, this was before cloud gaming existed to any significant degree. While the closure of Google Stadia exposes the potential pitfalls of cloud gaming, the technology is already quite mature. It’s also theoretically cheaper and more affordable than consoles or gaming PCs.
Microsoft has repeatedly said it wants to build an ecosystem, not just sell consoles, and it looks like the company is about to hit the ground running. There are a few more hurdles ahead, such as the release of the Xbox Streaming Device and the fine-tuning of Xbox Cloud Gaming’s performance, which is currently capped at 1080p and 60fps. But the single major missing piece of the puzzle is finding a way to let users stream games they’ve bought off the menu instead of relying on a subscription service. And this feature is already in development.
There will always be an audience that wants dedicated consoles and gaming PCs, just as there will always be an audience that wants physical copies of movies, books, and music albums. But if you don’t really need an Xbox console to play Xbox games, how will that affect gamers and the industry that surrounds them in the next few years? Will we be able to play what we want, where we want, on any screen? Or will we forever be tied to expensive streaming services and fickle cloud servers?
We can always hope for the first while preparing for the second.
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