Xbox Game Pass: A Move Towards a Digital-Only Future
If you were to cast your mind back to the year 2013 you would probably remember a disaster of epic proportions. Cocksure after dominating much of the previous console generation, Microsoft bullishly announced the Xbox One with a host of features that not only were unwanted but were actively putting off consumers. One of those off-putting features was the move to a digital-only environment, something we all know is coming but the world wasn’t quite ready for at that stage. Now a lot has changed since that disastrous launch and Microsoft has done a lot to try and claw back the goodwill they lost in those opening months, but one desire from that launch remains and that is to move to a digital-only environment.
This time things are different, however. Gone is the sledgehammer proclamation from the Xbox launch and in its place are a range of incentives and features that are designed to slowly get people used to the idea of digital only, while still providing a host of benefits to the consumer. Perhaps the first test of the waters was the Xbox/PC only EA Access program. This program is a Netflix-like service that allows subscribers to access a range of games for a monthly fee. Despite some initial concern about the lack of quality titles this service has gone on to become quite a success for EA, with subscriber numbers steadily rising since the service’s launch.
The second major feature that Microsoft is using to guide people to the digital future it so desires is the “Play Anywhere” initiative. This program allows people to buy games on the Xbox One platform and then play them on their PC’s and vice versa. Saves are carried across between platforms and cross-system multiplayer matches are possible. Essentially what this does is make the Xbox ecosystem more than a piece of physical hardware, it makes it a gaming solution for multiple platforms and will surely pave the way for how the Xbox brand will function in the future. It appears that 3rd Party developers are also getting on board with this feature with Capcom releasing Resident Evil VII on it and Warner Brothers announcing that Shadow of War, the anticipated sequel to Shadow of Mordor also being released this way. It is the best type of new feature for Microsoft as it adds options for gamers without taking anything away. It also begins to create that digital environment in an unobtrusive and welcoming manner.
The latest program that Microsoft has come up with to lead us all down the digital path is the Xbox Game Pass which was announced today. Much like EA Access, this service will charge a monthly fee ($10.95 in Australia) and give gamers access to a library of titles that they can play as long as they remain subscribed. The service will also allow gamers to purchase the titles, if they so choose, at a discounted rate. This service is available today for Xbox Insiders with a limited selection of titles but on launch, Microsoft has stated that it will have 100 titles, both Xbox One and 360 games, available on the service. Depending on what titles Microsoft will have available (Halo 5, NBA 2k16 and Mad Max are some of the titles confirmed for launch) this service will be pretty good value, especially for the type of gamer that doesn’t buy everything on day one.
With the Scorpio coming later in the year and Microsoft honcho’s continually looking for ways to differentiate its self from market leader Sony, it is safe to say that more and more features such as these will be making their way to the Xbox environment. They serve to both add value for consumers and to move towards Microsoft’s goal of a future without bricks-and-mortar retail. It is a smart play from the software giant and is worlds away from the clumsy approach that they took during the launch window. There are however some problems that Microsoft are going to have to address to ensure these practices are sustainable.
The first is how will developers be treated? It is easy to imagine that indie developers will be encouraged to make their title available on the Xbox Game Pass. This leads to a worry that they will not be recompensed appropriately. Subscription services have a bad reputation for underpaying artists (hello Spotify) so this needs to be addressed quickly. Without appropriate payment for the community, Indie devs will take their games elsewhere and hurt Xbox in the process. If, however Microsoft set payments at a fair level there is nothing stopping this service becoming a great way for gamers to get their hands on underplayed indie gems.
The second problem inherent with the digital future is the same one that Microsoft faced upon launch and that is the infrastructure. Internet quality varies greatly from country to country and in Australia’s case, suburb to suburb. To move to a digital future there needs to be the internet infrastructure to support it and sadly in a lot of the world that simply isn’t the case. Microsoft could implement a few things to make things easier for those with dodgy internet connections however. Things like a 10 day check in, that would only force game pass subscribers to be online once every 10 days, would make the service much more appealing for those with limited net ability. Sure Microsoft would have a few users playing games for an extra few days after their subscription lapsed but the trade-off would be a nice dose of goodwill and help give the impression that Microsoft is thinking about gamers first and the bottom line second.
There is no doubt that in the future all gaming will be a digital process. Be it in 5 or 10 years time, it is going to happen. By creating programs and features that not only provide a service to gamers but also help to guide thinking towards that digital future is not only a smart move but one that all gaming companies and manufacturers will benefit from. There are issues with the approach, but if they can iron those out Microsoft will have prepared themselves well for the digital future they crave. Hopefully, in the process, they make it better for all gamers and ensure that no one gets left out in the cold. Only time will tell how it all pans out.