The 2013 release of the Xbox One was mired with issues consisting of what many considered “anti-consumer” value propositions. DRM, always online, convoluted family sharing- all proposed ideas for next gen that were rejected by the gaming hardcore. Fast forward to 2018 and the landscape is quite different. Microsoft’s Xbox arm hasn’t managed to usurp the ever growing lead of Sony’s PS4 but it has certainly course corrected the very “tv/ entertainment-over-games” identity that it earned prior to Xbox One’s launch.
Xbox 360 and OG Backwards Compatibility, Play Anywhere, the Elite controller and Game Pass have all been fantastic additions to the Xbox stable. They are forward facing, fan first values that not only give consumers a great reason to get into the Xbox ecosystem but also to stay. If you bought games digitally or physically, they work on your new system. Prefer playing on PC, buy Microsoft titles and get two copies. One for PC and one for console. It all points to a future that says that there is more value in being in the Xbox ecosystem when compared to Sony or Nintendo. It says that Microsoft respects your dollars more than the competition. It says that the chances are much higher that your current and previous purchases will carry over to whatever the next Xbox console generation is.
Now Microsoft has taken things a step farther. Over on Xbox Wire, the recently promoted Head of Gaming, Phil Spencer, took to the site to share the news that “Moving forward, we plan to release all new Xbox One exclusive games from Microsoft Studios into Xbox Game Pass on the same date as their global release.”. All future titles, starting with Sea of Thieves on March 20th, will be fully playable for 10 bucks a month. Meaning that State of Decay 2, Crackdown 3, and the next Fable, Halo and Gears of War games can be played in full for an entire month simply by paying $9.99 the day of release and ending the subscription when the month is over. For the uninitiated, Game Pass is a Netflix-like subscription service for Xbox that gives access to over 100 games. It includes Xbox One, 360 and original Xbox games. Titles are downloaded, not streamed and therefore are playable in full fidelity with zero lag. It does NOT require Xbox Live Gold and gives a discount to members who want to buy a game that is included with Game Pass as well as a discount on associated DLC.
This is more than fantastic news. This is a potentially game changing announcement, not just for Xbox gamers but for the industry at large. It’s one thing to have access to some older titles that you missed or would like to replay, it’s something quite different to have access to full priced brand new games along with 100 others for $120 a year. The cost of just 2 games. If you were on the fence about Sea of Thieves, you can rent it on release day with over 100 other games for $10.
Let’s put this in perspective. Red Box game rentals are $3 a day with a maximum of 23 days before the game becomes yours. That’s $69 for a $60 game in less than a month. $9 MORE than 6 full months of Game Pass.
Gamefly’s base price of one game or movie a month is $15.95. Over a 6 month period it would cost you $95.70. That could be for 1 game or 6 but you have to wait for them to come in the mail and wait to send them back without guarantee that a new release you want to rent will even be available. No comparison.
Then there is PlayStation Now. Sony’s game streaming service can be used on PS4 or Windows PC and has 600 plus games across PS3 and PS4 including PlayStation exclusives. The service is (at the time of this writing) available at $9.99/ month or $99.99/ year for a limited time. The regular monthly price is $19.99.
Clearly, there is a market for rental and digital services in the gaming space. This isn’t all together a new thing. But having brand new exclusive titles day and date with release as part of a rental or subscription service is. This move is one that could certainly have an adverse effect on game sales at brick and mortar locations. It’s probably at least in part responsible for this announcement coming along with news that Microsoft would be bringing 6 month Game Pass cards to retailers. Let’s be frank, the decline of disc based sales for video games has been growing for a number of years and it is sure to continue. With plans based on the success of the program to take cues from Netflix and eventually see games released exclusively into Game Pass, the addition of first party titles might just be the first driving hit to the nail in the coffin of the last major disc based form of media.
Every other form of home media has gone this route. Movies, music and books in physical form are basically retro. We pay a subscription, we download or stream our content and we agree to licensing access as opposed to gaining ownership. Video games as a medium is GOING this direction. Period. Microsoft’s service is already doing several things right that may help to solidify it’s place as the one that got it right.
Let’s start with curated content. Like Netflix, Game Pass employs a system that puts it’s games into categories that include lists such as; Featured Games, Recently Added, Shooters, Action Adventure & RPG’s, Indies and Retro & Classic games to name a few. Why does this matter? Because it immediately separates the content here from that of the App Store by showing that it’s someone’s job to actually pay attention to what’s included and help subscribers more quickly find titles that interest them. You can even sort the entire list alphabetically.
Then there are Game Pass Quests. Each month there are new goals given to members. Completing the goal rewards members with prizes delivered to them via Xbox Messaging. For instance, the current quest for the month of February asks that you solve a simple riddle. The answer to the riddle tells you what game you should play during the month. Play for 5 hours for an Ultimate Mystery Gift or 10 hours for the aforementioned plus a sweepstakes entry for a 24 karat gold plated Project Scorpio Edition Xbox One X.
Microsoft is actually “gamefying” playing content within Game Pass, keeping members engaged and demonstrating that marketing opportunities for not only their own titles but also third parties exists within the model. I’ve personally won three $500k Shark Cards for GTA V and two single month codes for Game Pass between these rewards and the Xbox Live Quests. GTA V is not part of Game Pass but the additional GTA Bucks got me back into playing it just as the new Heist DLC was released. This means that there is potential to see a player base rise for titles that don’t choose to participate directly in Xbox’s service.
Beyond these two points the potential for the sale of DLC goes up as well. Paying $9.99 a month for so much content almost makes it feel like some of these games are free to play. Developers of free to play games survive on paid DLC and microtransactions as do many of the developers of paid titles. A person who has only spent $10 as opposed to $60 or even $40 is certainly more likely to spend $10 on DLC. Especially when there is a 10% discount on that downloadable content. There is also a higher likelihood that if you’ve purchased DLC you will either continue your membership so that the paid DLC doesn’t go to waste or buy the full game if you don’t continue service. It’s cyclical.
Now image that Apple adopted a similar plan for games in the App store. For $10 a month you get access to a hundred or so curated games and a discount on microtransactions. You probably already do the same thing for Apple Music or Spotify. Now imagine if it was just part of your phone bill. The same one you barely look at because you set up paperless auto pay.
The writing is on the wall. Game Pass is already successful for Xbox. It has expanded to become available in 40 countries. If the “incredible response” stated by Phil Spencer had only been positive feedback as opposed to monetary growth, I doubt we’d be seeing an initiative like this. One that says to third parties, “trust us, this works so well we’re essentially giving away our own games” and tells the competition that they better come up with a similar plan because this change is not about THIS generation of consoles. It’s about the future of gaming as a whole and how the way we consume this medium will change the way games are made, sold and distributed across all platforms. Get Ready.