The original Xbox console first launched 20 years ago to the day on Nov. 15, 2001, and to say Microsoft’s gaming brand has evolved since then would be an understatement. What was once a singular console is now an entire ecosystem, one that lets you play Xbox games on consoles, computers and even right from your smartphone via the cloud. And when you factor in Microsoft’s ever-popular Xbox Game Pass service, accessing the latest Halo and Forza titles is now as easy as signing up for a Netflix subscription.
To discuss this evolution and see where Xbox is headed next, we sat down with the person in charge of it all: Microsoft’s executive vice president of gaming, Phil Spencer. Here’s everything we were able to glean from the head of Xbox, including some of the new ways you’ll be able to play Xbox titles, the big games to keep on your radar and why it’s still so dang hard to buy an Xbox Series X.
How 20 years of Xbox brought us to the Game Pass era
“I thought it was a bold move by the company,” says Spencer, who was joining a new internal games studio at Microsoft when the original Xbox first hit shelves in 2001. “[It was] a group of innovative, disruptive thinkers inside the company that wanted to go do something different and were able to make that happen.”
That big bet paid off, as the Xbox brand is now in its fourth generation with the Xbox Series X and Series S consoles, and is part of a larger ecosystem that includes Windows and cloud-based games. Microsoft is celebrating its 20-year gaming journey in a number of ways — you can buy an Xbox Wireless Controller and an Xbox Stereo Headset adorned with the 20th anniversary logo, to name just a few examples. But if you really want to see what Xbox’s two-decade legacy is all about, you don’t have to look much further than Xbox Game Pass.
Microsoft’s monthly subscription service contains hundreds of games that span its whole console history, from OG Xbox titles such as Crimson Skies to modern hits like Forza Horizon 5. We’ve long considered Game Pass to be the best value in gaming, and by the looks of things, it’s only going to get better — and will soon let you play on even more devices.
Microsoft’s subscription service runs $10 to $15 a month depending on which tier you pick (you can currently try a month of the service for just $1), and lets you play titles on everything from consoles and PCs to just about any device with a web browser via the cloud. Considering that many new console games go for as much as $70 each, being able to access all of Microsoft’s first-party releases as well as a slew of major blockbusters like Star Wars: Squadrons or Destiny 2 for $15 a month is a heck of a value. But while day-one access to the latest Halo and Gears games is great, Spencer says that the real magic of the service lies in the hidden gems.
“Yes, you can go to Master Chief. You can go to Forza Horizon 4 and Forza Horizon 5 when it comes out,” says Spencer. “But for me, these great games, that maybe wouldn’t have been discovered because they didn’t have the same marketing budget as another game or might have fallen in the shadow of something bigger happening in the industry, have really been just special moments.”
Spencer cites striking pixel-art adventure Echo Generation as one of his favorite new Game Pass releases from a smaller team, and notes that indie games that launch on the service often go on to sell well across all types of platforms. For gamers, that means an even bigger variety of unique, creative titles to choose from that go outside the typical blockbuster box — even if you’re not in the Xbox ecosystem.
Having used Xbox Game Pass for a few years now, it’s become a pretty reliable way to discover new games in addition to saving on the ones you were going to buy anyway. The PC, console and mobile apps all do a good job surfacing both new blockbusters and more niche releases, and you can also filter by genre if you want something more specific. We’ve personally sunk lots of time into titles like Cyber Shadow or The Medium, which we might not have plunked down $20 to $50 on to purchase individually.
“Game Pass has really turned into that discovery mechanism for players looking for something unique and new that maybe a retail purchase would’ve been a barrier to them trying,” continues Spencer.
More ways to play Xbox games are coming — even without a Game Pass subscription
As the Xbox Game Pass library grows, so does the number of platforms you can play its games on. On top of downloading titles to your Xbox One, Xbox Series S or X and PC, you can also stream Game Pass titles to just about any smartphone, tablet or computer. Microsoft is taking this “play where you want” approach even further, as it’s starting to roll out the ability to access cloud games from your console — and will eventually let you stream games right from your smart TV.
Console streaming, in which you stream a game from the internet to your Xbox, is a big addition to the Xbox ecosystem for two reasons. You can try out new titles without having to wait to download them, and folks using the older Xbox One consoles can still have a way to play current-gen exclusives like Microsoft Flight Simulator or the upcoming Forza Motorsport. Considering that the $499 Xbox Series X is still very hard to find — and not in everybody’s budget — this is a great way to get more mileage out of your Xbox One.
“We’re not trying to say that streaming to an Xbox One is exactly the same fidelity or latency as local,” says Spencer. “Clearly it’s not, but families are going to make their own decisions about when is the right time for them to upgrade. We didn’t want that to be a barrier to people playing.”
Speaking of removing barriers to people playing, Xbox announced earlier this year that it plans to bring Xbox game streaming directly to televisions. This will arrive via both smart TV apps as well as dedicated streaming hardware — think a Roku stick for gaming — that could turn any TV set into a gaming center. So when is all that coming?
“There’s really no blockers other than the physics of time,” says Spencer. “In terms of us, we’re definitely talking to TV manufacturers. Many of them have [web] browsers in their TVs today. And we’re all in, we’ve got no reason to try to block any game or the service from any device. In terms of dedicated hardware devices itself, I think we’re definitely interested in that space and we’re prototyping some things and looking at different opportunities.”
Regardless of where you stream your Xbox games, Spencer was also quick to note that you’ll eventually be able to buy games a la carte and play them from the cloud. While you can already buy stand-alone Xbox titles for your console and PC, the ability to stream them from other devices has been exclusive to Xbox Game Pass subscribers. As such, this is a pretty significant move that borrows one of the biggest strengths of rival services such as Google Stadia — you can simply buy the games you want to play rather than having to subscribe.
“We will have the ability for you to own games that you can stream. That’s an important consideration as well,” says Spencer. “I look at Game Pass as one of the options that people do on our platform. But if people love to buy games, that’s great. I have no issue.”
So when the heck will you be able to buy an Xbox Series X?
As great as Microsoft’s multi-platform approach is, lots of people still just want to sit on the couch and play their games on a console. So much so that the $499 Xbox Series X — the company’s latest flagship console built for immersive 4K gaming — is still nearly impossible to find anywhere.
“We need more of them!” says a laughing Spencer the very moment we brought up the new consoles. “There’s a lot of things we’re doing. Managing supply chain right now is quite a bit of work, and I’m not an expert at it at all. We’ve got good teams that are, but it’s [everything] from shipping to parts and supply to the whole, to retail availability, to dealing with scalpers and bots. The fundamental issue right now we have is more demand than supply.”
We’re big fans of the latest Xbox consoles here at Underscored. The Xbox Series X impressed us with its zippy load times and gorgeous 4K graphics, and the entry-level $299 Xbox Series S delivers most of the same features while ditching the disc drive and targeting a lower-resolution 1080p experience. The Xbox Series S is thankfully not that hard to find in stock these days, but if you want the premium next-gen Xbox experience, you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for a chance to score one during a major restock.
What Xbox learned from PlayStation — and what’s next
After just a few minutes chatting with Spencer, it becomes clear that he’s not just a Microsoft executive — he also genuinely loves to play games. He raved about recent favorites like Psychonauts 2, Death’s Door and The Artful Escape with a breathless enthusiasm, but he wasn’t just trying to shill games on the Xbox platform.
Spencer also gave a shout-out to Amazon’s successful new online multiplayer game New World, and had high praise for the work that Nintendo and Sony are doing in general. So when we asked what he thought of the Xbox Series X’s direct rival in the PlayStation 5, it’s perhaps no surprise that Spencer sees Sony’s console as a source of inspiration rather than just a competitor to beat.
“I think Sony did a nice job with the PlayStation 5,” says Spencer. “What the fans and the notoriety of PlayStation teaches me is, having a dedicated focus on your customer, continuing to surprise and delight them over the years with great work, really builds a loyal fan base. And I see that in PlayStation. I want that in Xbox.”
To many gamers and critics, PlayStation’s biggest strength is its library of beloved exclusive titles over the past decade or so, which include such massive franchises as Uncharted, The Last of Us, God of War and Spider-Man. It’s an area where Xbox has had plenty of room for improvement by comparison, and it appears that the company has been making big moves in recent years to address that criticism head-on.
“We’ve heard the feedback from customers and, it’s right, they should hold us accountable to shipping great games,” says Spencer. “And we take that seriously.”
Xbox recently purchased gaming juggernaut Bethesda, a move that has brought huge franchises such as Doom, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout to Game Pass while ensuring that hotly anticipated titles such as Starfield and Redfall will come exclusively to the Xbox ecosystem. At the same time, Xbox has continued to improve on its existing flagship series, as made evident by the well-received Forza Horizon 5 and the very promising Halo Infinite.
That’s all good news for pretty much any type of gamer, as you’ll have lots of cool new stuff to play whether you’re on an Xbox, a PC or streaming from pretty much any device that can run a web browser. And if you’re thinking of finally diving into Game Pass — or gifting it to somebody for the holidays — now is the absolute best time to do it.
“I look forward next year and I see Redfall. I see Starfield. We’ve invested a lot in the [Xbox Game Studios] organization, and now we’re really hitting our stride,” says Spencer. “And it’s this combination of launching new things, telling new stories, investing in new launches and sustaining the huge communities that are out there. It’s a lot of fun to be a gamer right now.”