OPINION: I'm someone who's been a bit sceptical of cloud gaming. Ever since the announcement of Google Stadia and the problems I had with it three years ago, the idea of subscribing to a game pass service has grown in popularity and arguably, in 2022, has become a core focus behind the likes of Microsoft's own development strategy.
Alright, I'll attest to becoming a fair supporter of Microsoft's excellent Xbox Game Pass service, not least because of the 100+ AAA titles on offer for what is quite the reasonable monthly price, and therefore of cloud gaming in general. You might even call me an Xbox fanboy, given I was defending the Xbox Series S as a console before it had even been released, and have been a user of Microsoft's consoles ever since I laid hands on the original Xbox.
As a result, it's been sad to see Microsoft slump for practically the last decade, given the kiss of death the Xbox One immediately received back in 2013 with its £429.99 launch price, which was significantly more expensive than the PS4 at the time. Now though, with rumours and Microsoft's announced commitment to the development of an Xbox Streaming Stick, codenamed 'Keystone', it might be high time for Microsoft to redress the balance of console gaming.
Xbox Game Pass has been a runaway success for Microsoft, with iterations on both Xbox and PC allowing for nearly everyone to get in on the act of paying a monthly subscription to play some of their favourite titles. This comes with the vast library on offer not only of Microsoft-supported games, but also the added bonus of having access to EA Play with a Game Pass Ultimate subscription bundled in to give people even more games to play.
Combine with this the fledgling power of Project xCloud, Microsoft's Xbox cloud gaming service that allows Game Pass Ultimate subscribers to, at no extra cost, play their library of games on devices such as a phone, tablet, or computer, without the need to download titles, and it looks like Microsoft is beginning to set the wheels in motion for something even bigger.
The advent of affordable, or low-cost hardware for people to play the library of Xbox games on would be excellent, especially if combined with the existing power Project xCloud offers and the positively massive library Xbox Game Pass currently offers, given that Sony doesn't really have a viable alternative at the moment.
Streaming sticks aren't a new innovation by any means, with Amazon Fire Sticks having been around since 2014 for media streaming. There hasn't specifically been a device, to my knowledge, that has been specifically developed for cloud gaming. By developing one, Microsoft would also fill a gap in the market for both a gaming streaming stick and a low-cost method for playing AAA titles.
After all, this current console generation has been the most affected by scalpers and fewer people than ever before have been able to experience the power of Microsoft and Sony's latest consoles, especially those still after a PlayStation 5. The supply of Microsoft's flagship Xbox Series X has seemingly steadily increased in previous months, although the fact remains that not everyone has £449 to spend on a new console. If you get one, you obviously need somewhere to put it and have the right display to get the best experience.
It wouldn't need to be a large device, but have enough ports to offer a steady connection - fan-made renders on forums have imagined the device as offering an Ethernet port for hard-wired networking, alongside a USB-C and HDMI-out to display, which makes perfect sense. Rumours for Keystone have showed that it may be roughly the same size as a Roku stick, which would mean it wouldn't be obtrusive at all and could sit easily around the back of a decent-sized TV.
Pricing such a device would be tricky, especially given that nothing like it really exists. The closest you've got is arguably a Fire TV Stick 4K Max, and Nvidia's Shield TV, which gives access to their GeForce Now service, as well as linking up a user's Steam libraries so they can play those games on a bigger screen, over a network connection, that is. The Fire TV Stick is priced at £54.99, while the Shield TV sits at £179.99.
Microsoft referred to the device as being 'low-cost hardware', but it remains to be seen what it is low cost against. Defining those parameters would be key to the device's success as if it's available for not much more than a standard media streaming stick, then I'm sure you'd have quite the long list of takers. Go towards more of the Shield TV's price, and you risk people simply laying the extra £80 or so for an Xbox Series S.
As things stand, there is the option for those with 2022 Samsung Smart TVs to access Xbox Game Pass as an app, which fundamentally looks to offer the same experience, but without the need for any hardware. If this integration goes well and works without major hitches, then it may well roll out to other platforms, and act as the forerunner to Project Keystone.
Whether an Xbox Streaming Stick ever sees the light of day does of course remain to be seen, but if it does, Microsoft has the potential to redress the console gaming world and utilise its unique powers with both a successful subscription service and excellent cloud gaming platform to create a low-cost option to get more people than ever playing next-gen games.
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