When Microsoft announced the Game Pass in June 2017, another monthly subscription service exploded towards a spectacular flame out. It was MoviePass that reduced its subscription price from up to $ 50 to a fixed $ 9.95 per share. month. Suddenly, subscribers could watch a movie every single day of the month for less than the price of a single ticket in most cities. It was obviously too good to be true, and millions of people took advantage of it while MoviePass was bleeding money and trying to bolster the film industry into a deal that would save it from itself.
It was amazing while it lasted.
Now five years in, Microsoft’s Game Pass is far beyond the possibility of a spectacular flame out. It’s a proven success: There’s no need to worry about Game Pass shutting down anytime soon, as more than 25 million subscribers pay monthly for access to hundreds of games. If you are an active player with different tastes, this is the best deal in gaming.
Like MoviePass, I think Game Pass is too good to be true, but on a much longer timeline. It will not be a flame extinguishing. Instead, the deal just gets a little worse as we continue to pay for a subscription that feels as universal as water or Netflix. An industry analyst recently suggested that there is no reason to worry about a future where gaming is dominated by a Netflix-like service, but I think Game Pass may ultimately reflect some of the worst aspects of Netflix’s recent history.
A price jump is (almost) inevitable
Game Pass is still in its subscriber build phase, with direct profits secondary to attracting new users. However, this does not mean that it burns cash: In an interview from November 2021, said Phil Spencer Game Pass is “very sustainable as it is today.” One could argue anything is sustainable in a business worth more than $ 2 trillion, but let’s assume that Game Pass is either profitable or reachable. Microsoft will be just fine; the much more likely outcome here is that Game Pass will be a worse deal for subscribers as time goes on.
In 2014, Netflix cost $ 8.99 for a standard subscription and $ 11.99 for premium; since then the price has risen five times and is now up to $ 15.49 and $ 19.99. It has almost doubled in less than a decade. Inflation can’t take that into account: the 2014 price will reach around $ 11 in 2022 money, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator.
So far, Game Pass has not risen in price from $ 10, though Microsoft added a $ 15 premium level in Game Pass Ultimate, which includes Xbox Live Gold, cloud games and more. But like any listed company, Microsoft has to make more money every single year, and Game Pass is a big part of their Xbox revenue. A price increase looks set almost inevitably when Microsoft has enough subscribers connected to its library.
Xbox Live subscribers had a seizure when Microsoft tried to dramatically raise the price of Xbox Live in early 2021, so the company quickly returned. Next time, Microsoft will probably just raise its subscription prices as if it’s boiling a metaphorical seed: slow and steady, and no one gets too scared. The one reason Microsoft might keep Game Pass cheap is that the company gets a 30% reduction on every digital purchase on the Xbox – the profit of keeping more people in the ecosystem could outweighs the benefit of increasing the price of Game Pass (and the inevitable loss of a few subscribers). But let’s be right: Microsoft wants to make more money both ways.
The deal is getting worse for developers
In Game Pass’s first few years, indie developers praised the offerings Microsoft made to get their games into the library. Their games could end up being profitable before they even came out, and Game Pass did not seem to affect how many copies they sold elsewhere negatively. I asked an indie publisher if great deals to include in Game Pass were still common. “The general consensus is that [Game Pass deals] are still good, “they said.
Maybe that will continue to be the case for years, but it will always be in Microsoft’s best interest to prioritize games that most subscribers play. In the long run, that goal is unlikely to interfere with creators making games that land outside certain demographic groups. It is also less likely that it will mean renewed offers for games that have already spent time in the Game Pass library, compared to boasting new additions.
This has become a major criticism of Netflix, which aggressively cancels shows after a season or two, even if they do well. The creator of The Baby-Sitters Club, which was canceled after two seasons despite having “far greater numbers” than HBO shows like Succession, said it looks like “Netflix’s internal polls may change month by month. ” Economically, it makes more sense for Netflix to kill programs that do lived to spend money on a new show that could potentially drive fresh subscriptions instead.
The industry analyst, speaking of Game Pass at GDC, wondered whether the mix of first-party games and other large franchises would cause smaller games to be “increasingly pressured” in terms of visibility, and whether “the terms of acquiring them or put these games into [Game Pass] starting to get worse. “With all the output from Bethesda, Activision Blizzard, and its other first-party game studios on Game Pass, Microsoft could conceivably maintain a healthy subscriber base in the future without even bothering with games outside.
No one is happy with streaming TV these days, with series and movies spread between Netflix, HBO Max, Disney +, Hulu, Amazon, Apple TV + and (hiss) Paramount + and Peacock. And that’s even before you get into boutique streamers like Criterion and Shudder. It wasn’t always like this: In the early years of streaming, Netflix secured huge portions of shows and movies for cheap money because the networks did not have their own streaming platforms. Now NBC wants you to pay $ 5 a month just to watch The Office.
So far, gaming has not seen nearly as unpleasant a proliferation of subscription services, but a few publishers have dipped their toes in. Ubisoft has Ubisoft +, and EA has EA Play, which is currently also bundled with Game Pass. Sony’s upcoming rival subscription program is already bad news for PC gamers, increasing the cost of streaming games on PC, and it’s easy to see Game Pass’s growth inspire more competition down the road from Take Two or Epic or Square Enix or Tencent or Embracer Group.
While the same disgusting splinter hits gaming subscription services, it will at least not be as annoying as it is with TV and movies – games are still easy to buy day one, which is often not an option at all with Netflix shows. But there are still all sorts of possible futures where subscription services make gaming worse:
- Game Pass loses its best third-party games to competing services
- Publishers require subscriptions to gain early access one week before you can purchase a game that EA has done with EA Play
- “Time game” polls encourage boring, laughable games
- Multiple levels pop up to access major games or expansions
- “I’m waiting for it to be added to a subgroup” is starting to hamper direct sales
- NFTs ruin everything in one way or another
Game Pass on PC is still frustratingly limited
Game Pass has been on the PC since 2019, and in that time it has gotten better – a little bit. The game selection was strong from the start, but the Xbox app used to access them caused a lot of frustration. It was better than the Microsoft Store, but still slow and came into that store as a backend. Games were packed differently than their Steam counterparts and often had unique performance issues or other drawbacks that were not fixed.
It took until March 2022 for an Xbox app update to let us select a custom game installation folder and add mod support, but this mod support remains spotted and buried, far from the dead simple modding of Steam Workshop or the practical simplicity of DRM-free games from GOG.
The shortcomings of PC Game Pass were easier to forgive when Microsoft first launched it in beta. But the app is constantly inflated and clumsy; it’s really bizarre that the company that makes windows is responsible for the worst apps and not the best ones. Three years ago, I was more optimistic that we would see regular crossovers between Game Pass versions of PC games and Steam versions, and that Microsoft would go fast to improve the app used to launch games. PC Game Pass is improved, but far slower and more sporadic than I hoped.
Since 2019, Valve has meanwhile made one lot with Steam, launching Proton for Linux compatibility, overhauling the store experience and library and download manager, creating a playtest feature for developers, and expanding remote play streaming. Its friends list and invitation system are still miles ahead of Microsoft’s integration of Xbox Live, though, again, Microsoft makes Windows.
This is a place where Netflix is not a good analogue of Game Pass, but Amazon Prime Video is: Just the thought of launching the slow, ad-filled, terribly designed app is enough to make me want to watch something on another streaming service instead.
The analyst, who recently spoke about Game Pass at the Game Developers Conference, predicted that subscription services will only account for 8.4% of the total gaming market by 2027. Right now, they are around 4%. So it’s not like gaming’s near future is going to mirror TV or music streaming or share identical pitfalls – I’m certainly not worried about Game Pass eradicating game ownership. Game Pass is still an incredible deal for now, but the final push for more earnings and a curated library of the most appealing games lies above it.
And at least on the PC, I find myself less and less interested in subscribing, the longer the app is simply a worse way to play games I could get on Steam. The new thing in the huge, cheap library is worn enough for me to focus on specific games, and I can often buy them for the price of a one month subscription instead.