The li­brary

With new down­load ser­vice Game Pass, the Xbox One ecosys­tem be­comes even more var­ied – and clut­tered

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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

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