the xbox game pass

Once upon a time, your options for playing games were fairly simple. You could go down to your local game store and purchase a boxed copy, an activity that my parents almost never did, and one that I did very sparingly with my paper-round money (you could also buy second-hand, but Game, Gamestation and co were notorious for scalping you on trade-ins). You could go to your local Blockbusters (yes, I’m nostalgia-baiting here) and rent the game for a period of time, returning the game at the end of that or paying a hefty late fee. You could also do both with a strategy that my brother and I invented: renting Metal Gear Solid for the PS1 so many times that your mother is forced to buy it just because it makes more monetary sense. This was a terrible lesson for young-me to learn. Lastly, you could borrow the game off someone else who already owned it. For you see, back then, we used to get complete games that you could share — rather than barely finished, microtransaction stuffed, locked-to-account, buggy seventy quid releases. I suppose there’s a hidden fourth option as well, of going to your friend’s house and playing it there, something I did for basically every N64 title and for Elder Scrolls: Oblivion until I could run it myself.

Cut to the current era, where your options for getting games are roughly the same, with some important differences. A large number of games are sold D2C (direct to consumer), so you pay the company directly and are provided with a copy of the game on their service. While some of the larger AAA spaces have mostly abandoned maintaining their own platforms (Ubisoft, EA) and have come crawling back to the motherships of Steam and Epic Games, it’s still important to mention that a huge volume of transactions go directly to the developer/publisher with no middle-man. If you’re playing on console, apart from renting, the other options are still available to you (despite efforts to kill the practices of second-hand). Most of the changes we’ve seen are the state of the games being sold (I have grumbled about this enough), the monetisation of those games, and the explosion of digital downloads over boxed copies. With the Xbox game pass, along with similar efforts from Sony and Nintendo (Ahahah), we’re seeing a new mechanism unfold.

AoEIV, whose file size depends on the time of day you decide to install it

When thinking about these new game passes from the perspective of a consumer, they seem utterly bananas. You pay a subscription fee on a monthly or yearly basis, and as part of that fee, you get access to a collection of games. For the consoles, these additional benefits are stapled onto the ability to play multiplayer, something I have never ever agreed with. That’s essentially it, that’s the whole scheme. There’s some differences in the detail, for instance Playstation Plus gives you access to games for as long as you’re a member, instead of Xbox’s sometimes rotating game pass list, but otherwise that’s the whole scheme. Now, if I told you that the list of games for Xbox game pass was somewhere in the region of 200+ games, you’d be inclined to believe that the subscription cost must be fairly steep. The issue is, it really isn’t, it’s a bloody competitive price point. Microsoft frequently runs promotionals where they drop the price to a single pound for a month, and my understanding is that time codes are given away like candy as well. So from a consumer perspective, the value proposition here is utterly absurd. Your choices are to buy Age of Empires 4 from Steam at £50, or get it as part of a subscription for as little as one quid — what a bloody choice.

I don’t think it would be unfair to say that the Game Pass has been a gigantic success, at least from an adoption perspective. Almost everyone I know has it, Microsoft continues to plough release titles onto the service along with other AA and AAA games, and the new integration with EA’s own (largely shite) service suggests that more and more companies are looking to hitch their wagon. The fact that there’s increasing unification between the Windows and console platform, and games coming out to make use of that capability (Halo Infinite), screams that Microsoft thinks Xbox Game Pass is the way to go for the near future. I cannot wait for them to scrap the whole thing next week, and for me to eat several miles of humble pie.

So why? Why, and how, is it reasonable for Microsoft to sell access to a huge library of games for as little as a quid? Why are release titles going on there? The answer can be found in topics we’ve discussed before: risk. Microsoft will be dangling a not-insignificant signing fee in front of developers, in the same manner that Epic Games poached a large number of titles from Steam with incredibly lucrative signing incentives. You will struggle to find a developer that will not take these fees, because it means they get to side-step the horrid process of ‘seeing if their game does well’. Gone is the cycle of boom and bust, where one completely duff release can sink your company, because you’ve been granted an instant buffer by Microsoft or Epic Games. Almost no small to medium developer is going to turn this down and chance the open market, which is why Epic has been so successful in their poaching. Even larger developers, see Back 4 Blood by Turtle Rock/2K, are going to take that money as part of risk management (especially good if they don’t have confidence in the long term success of their title, which in B4B’s case…is probably astute).

So it works extremely well for developers, but why does it work for Microsoft? Again, risk, and the nature of recurring charges. I’ve talked about this in the live services post, but subscriptions are the future for a huge number of companies. They look great in quarterly releases because you no longer have gigantic gaps in profit between product announcements and such, they’re far easier to analyse and quantify than trying to estimate how much a title is going to sell, and people tend to forget about them. By which I mean, people will let subscriptions renew, even when they’re not using the service. That, is free money for companies, and they absolutely love it (and make it as difficult as possible to cancel or amend these subscriptions). If you went down to the shops every three months to buy exactly one title for 20 quid, that’s a choice that you’re thinking about and consciously committing to. A subscription fee that silently extracts a few quid from your bank account every month, that’s something that just happens. How many subscription services are you subscribed to right now? How many are you consciously using?

Apparently Halo is the only title I play on Game Pass.

So the strategy is simple: wrangle you in with the 1 quid teaser fee, then when that lapses, up it to 7 or 13 quid (depending on game pass grade) without the customer really noticing. Would the service be sustainable if everyone was prudently cancelling their subscriptions? Almost certainly not, they’re hugely reliant on people leaving this stuff to run for half a year, twelve months, beyond. This is why you have to put your credit card details in for free trials, this is why you can normally do one-click subscribing but unsubscribing requires you to solve a sudoku square. Is it devious? Yes. Is it extremely lucrative? Clearly, because almost every AAA company has a subscription model now, and the ones that don’t are absolutely looking at how they can get it. I would absolutely love to have the stats on how long the average game-pass user remains subscribed, because I imagine it’s formidably long.

With all that in mind, it pains me to say that from the consumer-side, the game pass still offers a fantastic deal. One of the worst experiences that a gamer can have is to drop £40-70 on a game that either turns out to be a buggy unplayable nightmare, or completely mediocre. Game pass completely negates that — don’t like the game that you bought the Game Pass for? Uninstall it, slam on a new game, there’s probably something in there that you like. Not sure how the game will run on your rig? You’re losing very little for trying it, though you could go through a refund process on Steam if you didn’t want access to any other titles. I’ve railed against companies trying to essentially eradicate the idea of game-ownership before. I like owning games, I hate the idea of having them taken away, or my progress locked to some recurring fee. But in a world where game releases are increasingly buggy, increasingly unoptimised, and are increasingly shitty offerings for the price they’re being sold at, why in god’s name would I want to pay full price for it? In a world where the cost of a videogame is no longer “the price of a complete product”, but instead the price of entry into a bloody costly theme park, why would we not take the option that reduces the price of entry to nearly nothing?

It’s only going to get bigger, only going to get more popular, and there’s a serious risk of them raising the price if they reach a monopoly position. Does it suck for consumer rights? Absolutely. Does it feel terrible to buy DLC for a game that disappears with your subscription? Completely. I fully understand why people would want to boycott or fight against the practice. Game ownership is important, and the consumer rights that come with ownership (the ability to mod, the ability to repair, etc) are important. But does anyone actually want to own Back 4 Blood? If we lived in a world of fantastic releases, where I could have confidence they’d be complete titles, then this would be a very different discussion. I’d be telling you that, while the low price and massive library is very compelling, the externalities in buying into the ecosystem aren’t worth it. That’s not our world. In our world, I think £1 is a perfectly fitting price for the quality of product a lot of these companies are putting out right now.

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