Microsoft has a major issue on hand that it doesn’t even appear willing to recognize. And no, we’re not talking about how whoever coined the name “Xbox Series X” deserves to join the Stadia marketing team. No, we’re talking about the Xbox Store on PC and the Xbox Game Pass.
With Microsoft integrating its Xbox and PC brands-In Microsoft-speak Xbox is your PC gaming experience-one advantage for PC gamers (in theory) is that they benefited from Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription service which was console-exclusive earlier. Xbox Game Pass offers a better selection of games than any subscription service on PC.
You don’t just get Microsoft exclusives (though you get access to virtually every first-party title). The Xbox Game Pass gives you access to a wide range of third party titles-and we don’t just mean obscure AA games no one’s heard of. You get Kingdom Come: Deliverance! Middle Earth: Shadow of War! Dishonored 2, GTA V, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and, well, a whole host of titles that you actually will play.
The problem, though, is that, as things stand right now, Microsoft’s download service is so fundamentally broken that the Game Pass is effectively redundant.
Microsoft’s delivery optimization service-which delivers Windows updates and Xbox games-has had problems for years. People have been complaining about forced Windows updates, failed updates, and bandwidth that mysteriously disappeared ever since Windows 10 arrived. But despite countless threads having been opened by thousands of unhappy Windows users, Microsoft never actually did much to optimize its server backend or fix the bugginess of the download service.
With Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft makes use of the exact same infrastructure. Servers that could barely deliver 3 gigabyte Windows updates without begging people to use the peer-to-peer distribution feature were repurposed to deliver 50 GB to 100 GB game downloads. The results are, unsurprisingly, appallingly bad.
I’ve been an Xbox Game Pass user for the past two months. There are two key issues with how downloads work on the service.
The first issue is what we discussed earlier: inadequate backend infrastructure. Don’t ask us why one of the world’s largest tech companies, with its own Azure cloud solution, doesn’t have the bandwidth to deliver to high-speed downloads to all Windows users. This is the message implicit in the peer-to-peer delivery optimization option: you’ll get faster downloads if you download games and/or Windows updates from other users, not from Microsoft servers.
In practice, this means that Xbox and Windows Update downloads don’t always make effective use of your bandwidth. I have a 50 Mbps connection and while Microsoft services often saturate the bandwidth, there are lots of times when downloads slow down to a crawl. 2 Mbps to 4 Mbps speeds are tolerable for incremental Windows updates, but they’re absolutely unacceptable when it comes to downloading full-fledged PC games.
The other issue has to do with the user front-end, the Xbox “beta” app. Microsoft conveniently sidesteps quality control issues by claiming its game launcher is in the beta phase (although that doesn’t prevent it from charging users for the Game Pass or for individual games on the service). The Xbox Beta app is fundamentally broken. It makes the Epic Launcher look like the mature, feature-rich solution Sweeney wants us to think it is. (No shade on the Epic launcher, by the way. Unpopular opinion: it does the job).
The Xbox Beta app, on the other hand, does not do the job. For starters, it’s a UWP solution, something that brings a bad taste to your mouth before you even launch it.
Since it’s a UWP app, you have minimal access to the actual files, making modding-or even just getting games to work with Steam Big Picture-a real pain.
The download/install interface doesn’t even come up at times with particular titles. You click download and then…nothing. The launcher’s download resume capabilities are literally worse than having no resumable downloads.
I tried to download Middle Earth: Shadow of War and the download was interrupted by a power cut. This has never caused an issue with Steam, the Epic Store, Google Drive, or even downloads on IDM. Not so with the Xbox Beta. After a restart and with working Internet, the download has completely disappeared: it’s not in the pending tab. Going to the game’s main menu, the “download” option is back, as if the download had never started. Clicking on that resulted in even more bizarreness: the Xbox Beta app resumed downloading…something-progress started with half of what was initially downloaded. And the target file size ballooned by a factor of two, indicating that the download was corrupted.
Trying to cancel the download did nothing: the app insisted the download was canceling while hogging all of my bandwidth. The only way to restore some sanity was to kill Delivery Optimization in the task manager and restart the computer. That didn’t help actually downloading the game, though.
While this anecdote might not reflect everyone’s experience with the Xbox Beta app, the combination of inadequate bandwidth, a broken front-end, and UWP nastiness means that the overall user experience is terrible.
If you thought that was bad, wait till you hear this: I intended to illustrate this article with screenshots of the failed Shadow of War download. Instead, when I opened the Xbox Beta app, I found that Shadow of War had somehow installed itself, completely without my knowledge and consent, and after I canceled it. That’s why these screenshots are for Gears of War 4. The terrible internet slowdown yesterday (with Netflix struggling to stream in SD) now makes sense.
At this point of time, the Xbox Game Pass is nothing short of misleading. It claims to give you unfettered access to over 200 games. In practice, you’ll probably only get to play those with smaller file sizes that, you know, actually download and install properly.