Palworld is here, and it's absolutely blowing the f up — and it's a defacto Xbox console exclusive right now, thanks to Game Pass.
While most of the funfest has been on Steam, Palworld is also driving a huge amount of growth on Xbox as well. Xbox Cloud Gaming has been suffering queues, which often happens when a big game enters the service, and Palworld has also been riding high on the most-played games lists on Xbox consoles in various territories. However, it's not all peachy in the world of Pals, at least for Xbox.
Palworld's inclusion on PC Game Pass has offered players the cheapest way to obtain the game, shaving $15 off the Steam asking price in exchange for the $10 monthly subscription via the Xbox app on Windows 11 and Windows 10. However, Palworld's inclusion there has also been driving discussions, once again, about the state of the PC Game Pass Xbox app in general.
I was planning to revisit the app for an article, given that I've been pretty critical of the Xbox app in the past. Let's re-examine where we are today, and what Microsoft still need to fix moving forward.
PC gaming with caveats. A lot of caveats.
It would be a lie to say the app hasn't improved. My most recent tirade about the Xbox app was back in 2021 (whew, how time flies), and looking at the screenshots from back then ... the app itself hasn't really changed a great bunch, at least on the surface. However, usability tweaks, performance enhancements, new features added, and pointless features removed have undoubtedly improved the experience — but we're still a long way from where we need to be here.
At the absolute basic level, the app works fine. You can install games, generally launch them, without issues. However, there are an array of niche problems with Windows 11, the store delivery mechanism, and other factors that can break installations from the Microsoft Store and the Xbox app as a by-product. All too often do I get questions on how to fix broken installations on the Xbox app on PC on my socials, prompting me to write that guide there on some of the common pitfalls. Recently, I haven't fallen afoul of any particularly bad issues, but I did struggle when I acquired my ASUS ROG Ally last summer, with stalled installations and games failing to launch, until one day the issue seemingly fixed itself. That's really one of the main issues with the Xbox app — the consistency of the content delivery experience is sub-par compared to, well, Steam, which right now remains totally and absolutely the benchmark for these types of services on PC.
There are a range of mild irritants, such as pop-ups containing useless information like the above, or the fact some games miss features such as Xbox achievements. I'm not a fan of the way the library is structured, with "Jump Back In" and "Play Later" right up at the top, even if they're empty, taking up a ton of space for no reason. There's no configurability here, and it's incredibly annoying — Steam lets you wholly customize how your library is curated, and again, Steam is the benchmark here. To find your games you need to scroll down the page and use a cacophony of filters and drop down menus, which are a pain to use on a touch screen device like the ASUS ROG Ally. Sometimes I wonder if the people using the Xbox app on PC actually use it day to day, or if they've ever used Steam, to get an idea of the delta in user experience. Beyond these mild irritants, there are far worse issues with the Xbox experience on PC too.
You really don't need to go far to find games that are straight up just hard-broken on the Xbox app for PC. I installed Fallout 3 GOTY Edition to test it out, given reports from different corners of the internet that it straight up won't launch on PC. The reviews say the same thing. Lo and behold, after an administrator pop-up, the Fallout 3 launcher just crashes and becomes unresponsive when you hit "play."
This kind of touches on the main issue really with the Xbox experience on PC — the games are all too often far behind their Steam counterparts. Either the layers of extra Windows policy bullshit on top causes issues. The developers have abandoned the games on the Microsoft Store due to low usage, and the low usage is the result of the games being sub-par vs. their Steam counterparts. Palworld also suffers from this quite prolifically. Palworld devs explained that the reason the PC Game Pass version is several months behind the Steam version is Microsoft's certification process, which is a complaint I've heard very often from developers I've spoken to.
There are tons of other games that are missing features on PC Game Pass. Death Stranding doesn't have its latest DLC on the Microsoft Store, vs. the Steam version. Users on this forum thread discuss how games like Forspoken, Jusant, The Ascent, and Control are missing graphics features like FSR and DLSS on PC Game Pass, while supporting it on Steam. Various games are missing Xbox achievements. Some games do eventually get their fixes in, but I can't see certain games that publishers have wholly moved on from getting up to parity on the Microsoft Store for PC. And what's worse, this often even extends to first-party titles. Quantum Break has a lighting bug on the PC Game Pass version that isn't present on Steam, and Pillars of Eternity is getting a bug fix patch on Steam, with no mention of the same patch hitting the Microsoft Store version.
The Xbox app also frequently sports separated multiplayer pools that won't connect to Steam, owing to the extra hoops developers often have to do to get that working correctly. Warhammer 40K: Darktide notoriously was separated between the Microsoft Store and Steam for a fairly long time before being connected up, and it's looking like Palworld is about to go through the same cycle. And sure, Microsoft can't wave a magic wand and force developers to prioritize their platform over Steam — assuming they would even have the resources to do so — but for the end user, all they see is an inferior product offering with PC Game Pass branding on it.
There are various other issues too, of course. Installing mods has been a common complaint, with compatibility being iffy and inconsistent. I'm also endlessly annoyed that there's no cloud save upload visibility in the app too, which has created version mismatch scenarios for me moving between my ASUS ROG Ally, my main gaming PC, and my Xbox. If you overwrite with the wrong cloud save, which is very difficult to manage on PC and Xbox, you could lose hours of progress.
Microsoft advertises and aspires to cross-platform capabilities, but the underlying toolkit still seems really underbaked to deliver on that vision.
It's not all Microsoft's fault, but it is their responsibility to solve.
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Building a competing solution to Steam was always going to be an uphill battle. Long time Windows Central readers will remember the cycle Windows Phone went through, where the "app gap" would eventually kill the platform entirely. It didn't matter that Windows Phone 8.1 as a platform had a better UI, better features, and better hardware offerings than competitors at the time — it didn't have Snapchat, it didn't have Pokemon Go, and it didn't even have an official YouTube app. And if it did have major apps like Twitter, Facebook, or even first-party apps like Skype, they were almost always more polished and feature-complete on competitor platforms. That's where the users were.
It's a chicken and egg scenario. If there are fewer users of PC games on the Microsoft Store, then the priority for fixes will be elsewhere — but Microsoft can't get the users without matching Steam on the absolute basics. Therein lies the vicious cycle.
Things have improved without a doubt. The app is more performant generally than it was previously. File access did eventually arrive to at least approach mod support. Some extraneous features like the community tab were removed, correctly so, to improve performance. And we've seen smaller tweaks here and there to make the app more usable, like the new compact mode for handheld devices. Increasingly, though, I wonder if a rethink might be in order.
Microsoft acquired Activision-Blizzard a while ago, and with it, the Battle.net app. Battle.net is, in my view, the best video game launch this side of Steam. And while it is a bit showy, it's at least consistently functional and performant. Battle.net adds the capability for in-game chat between all of Activision-Blizzard's games, which is something Xbox lacks right now, and even offers a better messaging experience overall than Xbox itself. I'm not suggesting Microsoft should, or even could, simply dump its PC Game Pass operation into Battle.net, but it might be worth exploring how a different content delivery system, bypassing the aging mechanisms of the Windows 8 era, might solve a lot of these problems.
There are of course other considerations to be made. For Xbox Play Anywhere between cloud, console, and PC to work, parity needs to be maintained between the different versions, and the console-parity versions may offer a different experience for a variety of reasons, when compared the regular Steam console executable.
Microsoft needs to explore ways of achieving this absolutely desirable pro-consumer goal of "any game you own, on any platform you want, with all of your progress intact" — all without increasing the burden on its developer partners in the process. They need to maintain the integrity of the Xbox console experience, without opening players up to the more hackable PC versions. They also need to figure out how to gain support of the developer community without simply throwing a Game Pass money bag around, to increase the userbase of the platform.
It's doubtless a hard needle to thread, and PC Game Pass is a major growth area for Microsoft right now. Let's be totally real, even with the problems, Game Pass is still the best deal in gaming today. It's easy for me and others to sit down and critique, but it is also a product that Microsoft hopes to sell for money.
It still needs to be better, and it needs to be better faster — especially when huge, trending games like Palworld introduce millions to the platform for the first time, only for them to be left disappointed.