My Xbox Series X is six months old. Over the course of those six months, I’ve changed a lot as a video game consumer.
Almost everyone who plays video games as a serious hobby knows it: A large backlog of games that you bought as supposed bargains in some sales, only to never play them. A shelf full of still welded 3DS games that sound interesting on paper, but with their 240p resolution cannot stink against the large 4K TV in the living room. Or the collector’s items that were bought at full price on the day of the release because they wanted to support the developers and that are now also welded together. If you take one of these games off the shelf to actually play it, it turns out after a few hours: It’s actually not that good, and you could have done better things with the money.
In any case, my own game collection would be pretty well summarized with this paragraph, and since the big digital sales at the latest I have completely lost track of how many games I buy on average each year and how many I own in total. That changed fundamentally in 2021 and this year I know exactly which titles have found their way into my collection so far – in total there were exactly two pieces. Why is that? Have I started building a model railway or have I started studying law? You already know the answer, of course, because it’s in the headline.
The digital backlog for the flat rate
While in the past you had to laboriously build a collection of games from hundreds of titles, most of which you will never play, owners of an Xbox One, Xbox Series or a gaming-enabled Windows 10 PC can now use it with little effort and at a low price come this dubious pleasure. Ultimate subscribers are not only supplied with more games by Microsoft than they could play via Game Pass and EA Play, but also via Games With Gold and the irregular Free Play Days. More than 20 titles appear on all channels combined within a month, and overall, despite this flood, Microsoft has achieved a remarkable standard of quality. The software junk from free riders, which floods the Microsoft Store as well as Steam or the Nintendo Switch eShop, is definitely not represented in these programs.
Of course, nobody is obliged to find this concept good. Players with a very narrow taste, who limit themselves to a few franchises known to them, may not get their money’s worth even with such a cheap and extensive subscription service. For me personally, however, the Game Pass absolutely paid off: since November last year, over 40 games have found their way onto my Series X, and I liked around three quarters of them so much that I like to spend more time with them have. Since I had paused my subscription in the meantime, I paid less than two euros per game on average for a line-up that included AAA titles like Resident Evil VII and current indie gems like Narita Boy.
Can it even be worthwhile for Microsoft?
Of course, given these numbers, the question immediately arises whether a business model like Game Pass can be profitable at all. Xbox Marketing Manager Aaron Greenberg also makes no secret of the fact that the Game Pass in its current form does not bring any profit and is therefore an investment. A later return can result mainly from increasing user numbers. Since services like Spotify or Netflix now have well over 100 million subscribers, the number of Game Pass subscriptions could increase at least tenfold in the medium term – especially if cloud gaming is finally possible on PCs and consoles. Unfortunately, it is also conceivable that Microsoft’s first-party titles in particular will move more in the direction of live services in the medium term in order to remain profitable through DLCs and microtransactions despite being published in Game Pass.
While many voices also criticize the price dumping and the resulting decline in the value of video games, the game pass concept could also have a positive impact on the game industry. Microsoft is not forcing developers and publishers to have a uniform business model, but negotiates individual deals for each game that is to appear as part of the subscription. Large publishers like to be paid for the actual number of downloads and players with royalties. In the case of indie titles, on the other hand, it can happen that Microsoft bears part or all of the development costs and in return is allowed to offer the finished game in the Game Pass from day one, while the developer makes risk-free net profits with sales on other platforms. In this way, games can also see the light of day that would have failed in the classic profit forecasts of the major publishers.
Does Sony have to follow suit?
In the last generation of consoles, not least due to the catastrophic marketing of the Xbox One, Sony was able to build up a practically monopoly in the field of high-end consoles and is using this market power to continue to sell its exclusive titles at full price even in the Game Pass age to sell. It is noticeable, however, that Returnal was no longer able to match the sales figures of Demon’s Souls Remastered or Spider-Man Miles Morales, although the installation base of the PS5, which is still considered a unicorn, should have more than doubled since then and fans are actually like hungry hyenas first exclusive in over five months. Of course, this is at least partly due to the fact that Returnal is a niche title.
For me personally, however, I can say that the Game Pass was actually the deciding factor in my not buying Returnal. I’m no longer willing to pay eighty euros, if I’m lucky, for a title that looks quite interesting, but which I don’t like stylistically, where I can’t judge whether I like it playfully, and which would ideally be played through after twenty hours . In contrast to that, I paid less than the price announced for Returnal for half a year with the Game Pass and was allowed to spend hundreds of hours in dozens of games from all sorts of different genres. In 2021 I will only pay the full price for releases that meet my taste in all aspects and can entertain me for weeks.
Of course, this paragraph is only an individual opinion. For many PlayStation fans, the Game Pass is not an alternative for brand loyalty alone. It is already practically certain that Sony will be able to celebrate the next big blockbuster with Horizon 2: Forbidden West at the latest and collect Game of the Year awards. However, since most investors in modern capitalism are not only demanding net profits, but constant growth, Sony could come under considerable pressure even if they only lose small market shares to Microsoft. How many players will be willing to pay eighty euros for a game they haven’t even played in two to three years? That will also depend on how much subscription services have normalized by then.
After a good six months, I am completely satisfied with my Xbox Series X and Game Pass. For me, the biggest incentive of the subscription service is not the financial savings, but the opportunity to play all sorts of games completely risk-free. In this way, I’ve already discovered quite a few titles with the next-gen console that I really enjoyed and that I would not have even considered without the Game Pass. From this point of view, I am cautiously curious to see whether and how the market will develop in the coming years due to the existence of subscription services. Can Phil Spencer realize his vision of a Spotify for video games? Will all of the games really be released as part of such a subscription in the medium term? Perhaps the upcoming E3 will provide the first answers.