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Xbox Game Pass makes a strong case for Microsoft’s game subscription service

(Washington Post illustration/iStock/Microsoft)

Earlier this summer, one of my friends on Xbox Live started playing games that surprised me. My friend, who normally leaned toward AAA games, began branching out and playing lesser-known RPGs like the Banner Saga and artful platformers like Ori and The Blind Forest. I chalked this up to anomalous behavior until he told me he had been downloading games off Xbox Game Pass. Over the past month, I’ve had the chance to browse the offerings on Game Pass, and the breadth of games impressed me.

Game Pass offers a number of my favorite games from recent years, such as indie masterpieces What Remains of Edith Finch and Outer Wilds, cult classics such as Alien: Isolation, and some of the best shooters on the market, like Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Gears 5. (Speaking of Gears 5, Microsoft has promised that all games made by the company’s first-party studios will be available on the service at launch.) Even as someone who plays an inordinate amount of games for work, I’ve found gems that I hadn’t gotten around to, such as Untitled Goose Game and Wandersong.

Such discovery is fairly typical for new Game Pass users, according to Ben Decker, the head of gaming services marketing at Microsoft.

“After an [average] Xbox owner joins Game Pass, they play 40 percent more games and they play 30 percent more genres,” Decker said. “And the number of games they’re playing goes up not just inside the Game Pass catalogue.”

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Such are the benefits to the consumer — more titles right at your fingertips and no added cost for experimentation. In an era of digital subscriptions, it’s clear that quite a lot of people are content with licensing entertainment products rather than owning them outright. Now that philosophy is pushing into gaming, with both Game Pass, Microsoft’s Netflix-like subscription service; and the iOS-based Apple Arcade. For a nominal recurring fee, users can access a wide menu of titles.

Based on early returns of both services, such a dynamic is beneficial for both users and game publishers, with the subscription fees reducing consumer costs to trying a new game since they don’t need to shell out $60 for a title they may or may not like. The service could be of particular benefit to smaller, independent developers. Decker said some smaller games from independent developers have seen their “user base go up by as much as 30 times.”

Even for games that already have huge fan bases, Game Pass has been a boon, Decker noted.

“When we put the Minecraft: Xbox One Bedrock Edition in, the player base for Minecraft went up by 20 percent,” Decker said.

The question there will be whether AAA publishers of non-Xbox exclusive games will be willing to introduce their titles to the service on launch day. As of now, it seems like there is potential for that, as Microsoft was able to persuade developers of big games such as Devil May Cry V, Outer Worlds and Metro: Exodus to introduce them into Game Pass while they were still hot from the presses.

Decker said one of the first concerns Microsoft had to address when approaching potential partners was to reassure them that not any and everything would be put up on the service and that their titles wouldn’t get overlooked or lost in the pile.

“We keep the catalogue highly curated so that we can drive discovery, so our partners are seeing real uplift,” Decker said.

The service also seems to be fostering growth for live streams as well, something of particular interest to Microsoft given its investment in its Mixer streaming platform. Subscribers to Game Pass Ultimate, which allows players to access the Game Pass catalogue whether playing on console or PC, are “seven times more likely to stream gameplay than a standard Xbox user,” Decker said.

He attributes such positive metrics to the fact that Game Pass is designed to provide a frictionless experience, reducing barriers for consumers. With Game Pass, it costs nothing to try a game for the first time. If you don’t like it, you just don’t play it anymore.

The ease-of-access philosophy has manifested elsewhere as well. The Game Pass catalogue has been designed to be easy to navigate. There are tabs that group games by genre and let consumers know what’s new and what’s leaving the catalogue. Moreover, consumers can download a Game Pass app for Android and iOS devices that lets them browse the catalogue and initiate downloads while out and about.

So, what’s the future hold for Game Pass? For starters, it will be coming to Microsoft’s next-generation console.

“We’re committed to Game Pass being available on the next gen,” Decker said. “It’s not an experiment on the current generation of consoles. This is a service that our members can count on being on whatever products we introduce in the future.”

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