With new download service Game Pass, the Xbox One ecosystem becomes even more varied – and cluttered
The Xbox Game Pass is here, bringing variation – and clutter
“I think it’s not about the number [of games], but the fact there’s always something new to play”
The stock market, inevitably, got into a bit of a flap about Xbox Game Pass. Microsoft’s latest Xbox One initiative will, at its launch this spring, offer 100 games to download and play for a monthly subscription fee of £7.99. The day-one line-up has its highlights: Halo 5 and the HD remake Gears Of War: Ultimate Edition sit front and centre on the marketing materials, to suggest strong, reasonably contemporary firstparty support. But beyond that lies a selection mined not from Xbox’s recent past, but its distant back catalogue: games such as Fable III, Payday 2 and SoulCalibur II. It’s this element that sent investors into a tizzy. Shares in Gamestop, the largest US videogame retailer, and Game, its UK equivalent, took a hit. The bricks-and-mortar game store relies heavily on sales of second-hand software – a market that Microsoft appeared to have just cut off at the knees.
The reality is, of course, somewhat different. For a start, a Gamestop employee doesn’t knock on your door 30 days after your purchase and ask for their game back. While the ‘Netflix for games’ tag is an obvious one to apply to Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s vision is different. Rather than seek to steadily expand the service’s catalogue, the company intends to rotate titles out over time; if you’re not done with a game by the time Microsoft calls its number, you’ll be able to buy it at a discount. Fair enough, perhaps, but given the obvious comparison with video-subscription services, vices, and the straight line that at is commonly drawn between ween Netflix and Amazon’s growing catalogues andnd their rising user numbers, we can’t help but feel a little deflated. flated. Xbox Game Pass is not,ot, it seems, going to be thee allsinging, all-dancing, ultimate video game-subscription service of our dreams.
Still, Parimal Deshpande, directorctor of marketing for Xbox Game Pass, seems delighted with what the service, ce, which is live now for Xbox Insider members, has to offer: during the course of a 20-minute interview, he says the word ‘great’ 13 times. “I think it’s not about the number [of games], but the fact there’s always something new to play, and that there’s diversity and great quality,” he tells us. “We don’t think in terms of this number, or that number. We think, ‘Do you have something great to play every time you switch on an Xbox One and go to Game Pass?’ And we feel the answer is yes, if there’s the right balance of quality games.”
There’s a certain logic to that – one of the launch games, NBA 2K16, will eventually be made obsolete by a successor, albeit one that will have itself been rendered moot by a new game on store shelves. And there is certainly precedent for it in the videogame world, where PlayStation Plus, Humble Monthly and Microsoft’s own Live Gold offer up a rotating selection of free games each month. While the headlines may have screamed ‘Netflix for games’, Game Pass is meant as something different. “Although the comparison is natural, we don’t really see it [that way],” Deshpande says. “What we see in the end is staying true to what our fans have asked for, which is, ‘Give me great quality; quality matters’, and that comes through loud and clear.
So that’s what we’ll deliver, and what you’ll see at launch.”
There are benefits to this approach, too. As anyone who’s tried browsing Netflix, Spotify, Steam or the App Store with no specific agenda of late will know only too well, discovery is the bane of any digital service. In games, the common open-floodgates approach has made it harder to sort the wheat from the chaff. By controlling numbers and putting quality at the centre of everything – and while the launch line-up may not be minty fresh, exactly, there’s no disputing its calibre – Microsoft can offer a level of curation that its competitors long ago sacrificed at the altar of quantity. The Game Pass catalogue is helpfully arranged in channels – not just by genre but by games that are family friendly, for instance, or have been recently added to the service. Those that are leaving the rotation soon will be highlighted to ensure users have enough time to play through them, while a traditional Featured channel will help Microsoft showcase the service’s current highlights. Viewed like this, the rotation system makes more sense.
What’s slightly harder to get one’s head around is that this is the third subscription of its kind on the console. Both Live Gold and EA Access offer free games – the former on a fortnightly rotation, the latter through a steadily growing catalogue of ageing titles – for a monthly fee. Full participation in the Xbox ecosystem will now run to almost £18 a month. That’s not expensive given the benefits, but it does make for a murky, convoluted value proposition. Deshpande points out, fairly, that each service offers something different – Live Gold may offer free games, but is primarily about accessing online multiplayer – and suggests Microsoft simply wants to give its players as many choices as possible. “We don’t think it’s confusing,” he says. “We think they’re complementary.” He’s coy on whether Microsoft might bundle everything up for a lower price, saying only that the company will be doing “something special for our Gold members” when Game Pass launches.
One possible, if slightly cynical, reason for this is that Microsoft knows that Sony’s lead is unassailable this generation, and that if it can’t get enough new users it should just find ways to make more from those it already has. And while the stock market is a twitchy beast, there’s no doubt that this at least has the potential to sorely undermine the highmargin second-hand market on which videogame retail so relies. Deshpande is saved from responding to that by his PR team diving on the grenade, but in a later statement Microsoft tells us it is “working with retail partners, such as Gamestop, on offering Xbox Game Pass to their customers”. Given that the original vision for the Xbox One included measures that were clearly designed to cut the pre-owned market out of the picture, quite how hard Microsoft intends to work with retail chains is another matter. Clearly the company’s 2013-era vision for its console hasn’t been entirely abandoned, so much as put in a drawer and redrafted in a more customer-friendly way. As Deshpande might put it: great.
Still, the ultimate goal – publicly, at least – is to offer the Xbox One owner as much choice as possible. Between EA Access, Live Gold and the ever-growing backwards compatibility library, the number of games on our ‘Ready To Install’ lists already stretches well into the triple figures, and Game Pass will increase that even further. Xbox One may not be able to compete with PS4’s hardware sales; nor can Microsoft keep pace with the market leader in securing exclusives. Yet if we measure the two consoles simply in terms of the number of games available to play, things change. There’s perhaps a wider, darker point to be made here about the player’s ownership of games in the digital era – while there is precedent for publishers, platform holders and licensors taking games away from you on a whim, no-one’s ever thought to build an entire service around it. For Deshpande and Microsoft, it’s what Game Pass brings to the overall Xbox ecosystem that truly defines it.
“Choice leads to the enrichment of the experience,” he says. “In the past, you only had one relationship [with a game]: you bought it, played it and kept it forever. Now you still have that choice, but you also have a different one. Choice leads to enrichment, and enrichment leads to people exploring games or content that they might otherwise not try. You can buy a game new, or used, or you can try it through a subscription service and if you like it you can buy it… it’s a beautiful [thing]. As long as those choices aren’t limiting you, the experience just gets richer and richer over time.” Unless, of course, you hold stock in Gamestop.
“Choice leads to enrichment, and enrichment leads to people exploring games or content”
Parimal Deshpande, director of marketing
Publishers will likely treat Game Pass the same way as Live Gold and PlayStation Plus – as marketing tools for forthcoming games. TekkenTagTournament2, for example, will whet appetites for this year’s Tekken7