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Why Xbox Game Pass on Nintendo Switch would be just the beginning

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What if Xbox transforms from a console to an app?

Xbox One X angle view of corner with power button Austin Pikulski/Vox Studios

Rumor has it Xbox One games will soon be playable on the Nintendo Switch. According to Direct Feed Games, and subsequently Game Informer and JeuxVideo, Microsoft plans to bring some Xbox games, like Ori and the Blind Forest, to the Nintendo eShop, and allow Game Pass subscribers to access the service’s catalogue via Project xCloud streaming. In theory, this would mean Gears of War and Halo would make their first appearance on Nintendo hardware. But the potential of this playbook is far bigger than the Switch.

It might sound shocking at first, but if we do get Xbox games on Nintendo hardware it will be the fruit of an ambitious strategy Microsoft has been developing for half a decade. Under Phil Spencer’s regime, Xbox leadership has been hellbent on transitioning and expanding the idea of Xbox from a console to a platform, from something you play in your living room to a service accessible anywhere.

In the fall of 2015, I had a chance to talk with Spencer and a few other members of the Xbox leadership team about the future of the company. This was shortly after the company had acquired Minecraft, a multiplatform megahit that hinted at the potential of games that weren’t perceived as local to consoles, PCs, or phones.

Here’s how Spencer described the shifting focus of Xbox beyond the traditional gaming hardware.

“I love that console experience,” says Spencer. “It’s obviously the core of what Xbox is about, and Xbox One is our most important gaming device inside the company. There’s no doubt about that. We also know there are millions and millions of gamers who access Microsoft [in other ways,] whether it’s Windows, their phone, Skype — it could be many different things every day [...] I don’t want to dilute what the Xbox console customer feels. I want to expand what we’re able to do for more customers.”

In the years since, Spencer and company have launched a number services and initiatives that shuttle Xbox games beyond the console. The Windows 10 Xbox app allows Xbox One owners to stream their games from their console to their PC; Xbox Play Anywhere simplifies game purchases, so that players who buy certain games on Xbox One get the game automatically on PC, and vice versa; Game Pass is the company’s take on Netflix-for-games, and is rumored to expand onto Windows 10 this year; Project xCloud promises to stream Xbox games on consoles, PCs, and smartphones; and Xbox Live will soon be coming to iOS, Android, and Switch.

Each of the projects mentioned above have helped Microsoft keep the Xbox brand interesting during an otherwise rough console generation for the company. But what’s most interesting about these services — Game Pass, xCloud, etc. — is their potential to merge and become something even more ambitious. For example, the Netflix-like Game Pass currently requires players to download each game onto an Xbox One. But combined with Project xCloud streaming service, subscribers could play the Game Pass’s catalogue on anything with a strong internet connection.

This is the backbone of the Nintendo Switch rumor. But more importantly, the combination could mean every smart TV, smartphone, and lower cost plug-in streaming devices like Roku — all of which have a far greater number of owners than Nintendo’s hardware — become Xbox platforms.

As a Switch owner, the idea of Game Pass is exciting, but I wonder how Microsoft will convince Nintendo to let the service onto the competing platform. Does Nintendo want Switch owners streaming dozens of Game Pass games when they could be buying Switch games? Maybe the answer involves Microsoft putting more of its games on the Switch eShop. Maybe Game Pass helps Nintendo sell more consoles during the long stretches between new first-party Nintendo games? Maybe Nintendo and Microsoft feel their audiences don’t have enough overlap to warrant concern? Whatever the case, there are still a lot of question marks here that could impede a deal. Though the two companies have become cozy with each other this generation, and a potential partnership of this scale feels more realistic now than it would have five years ago.

But the answer is simpler when it comes to the real money maker for Microsoft: Xbox as a streaming platform available on every app store. Microsoft could bring its streaming service to any smart TV and streaming device without all this backroom dealmaking necessary for Switch, and reach a considerably bigger audience.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see all of the above. Going off the others’ reporting, it seems Microsoft is certainly trying to bring Xbox Game Pass to Switch, but the real game changer will be if — like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon — Xbox becomes an app pre-installed on your next TV.

No, this isn’t the end of the Xbox console. Spencer has already confirmed future hardware is in the works. Rather it’s him delivering on a pitch from years ago. “As head of gaming inside of Microsoft,” Spencer said. “I think about how we make sure that all of those customers feel as supported and engaged as the Xbox fans do who own a game console.”