Microsoft plans to bring its Game Pass subscription service to everyone who wants it. In a new move that sees the company “meeting gamers where they are,” Microsoft will roll out a new Xbox app for smart TVs. This app will allow anyone with $10 to spare each month and a fast enough internet connection to access the Game Pass library without the need for gaming hardware.
This is a move that many tech experts have predicted for at least a decade, and it’s easy to see why. Before the advent of broadband internet, people consumed media by purchasing physical copies of the movie, game, or album they wanted to enjoy. Once everyone had high-speed internet in their homes, though, things changed. Who would buy an album when they could stream it on Spotify? Who would buy a movie when it’s on Netflix already?
It was only a matter of time before this paradigm began to apply to video games. Some companies have already tried their hand at a full game-streaming platform. Google, for example, launched its Stadia service in 2020. However, these services have, so far, lacked the most appealing features seen in streaming platforms: paying one low price to access a huge library of content.
Enter Game Pass, Microsoft’s dominant gaming app.
What Is Game Pass?
If you’re unfamiliar with the service, Game Pass is Microsoft’s monthly subscription program that gives players access to a wide library of games. Many of the featured titles are from Microsoft’s first-party development teams, but there are also plenty of third-party titles available on the platform. Players can download games or stream them to their hardware, and they’re able to play as few or as many titles as they want as long as the subscription is active.
Game Pass is also Microsoft’s main source of income for its Xbox brand. It’s so lucrative that the company is less concerned about selling Xbox consoles than it is selling Game Pass subscriptions.
When it unveiled the service, it was exclusive to the Xbox console, but Microsoft quickly released a version of the subscription for PC gamers, too. After all, Microsoft owns the Windows operating system, so why not let PC players use their computers as Xbox systems? From there, the company went further by allowing players to use DirectX streaming services to play Game Pass titles on their smartphones. Their messaging has been clear: Game Pass makes them a lot of consistent revenue, and they’re eager to get as many people signed up as possible.
How Is This Profitable?
Most newly-released games are $60, and some titles are now retailing for as much as $70. Indie titles and smaller games might go for somewhere between $10 and $40, depending on the title and publisher. Game Pass, meanwhile, costs $10 per month and allows players to access a huge library of games. How can this be profitable for anyone?
Well, Microsoft has money to burn. The idea behind Game Pass is that, if enough players sign up and pay $10 each month, Microsoft will have a consistent, reliable source of revenue with which to pay its developers. While the company is secretive about how it pays the companies who put games on the Game Pass service, analysts presume that developers get paid based on how many hours their games are played.
If it sounds like this could warp the way video games are made, you might be right. Netflix and Spotify have disrupted the distribution of music and movies, respectively, so services like Game Pass could have an impact on the games industry. If developers are competing for hours played instead of copies sold, it could influence their design decisions.
No Xbox Required
Microsoft’s latest move to make Game Pass the de facto standard for gaming is its plan to roll out an Xbox app for smart TVs. This app will arrive on Samsung-brand TVs first and will allow players to stream Game Pass titles right to their living rooms. Gamers will only need to have a TV, a controller, and an internet connection. They won’t be able to download the games since they’ve got no hardware on their end, but they’ll have access to the same game library as players on the Xbox.
Microsoft even confirmed that players will be able to use whichever Bluetooth controller they prefer. Even Sony’s DualSense controller, the gamepad for the PlayStation 5, will be compatible with the new app. This shows Microsoft’s dedication to appealing to the widest possible swath of gamers. After all, who wouldn’t spend $10 to be able to play Halo online with their buddies? Even players who already own a Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 5 could be convinced to sign up for Game Pass if they aren’t required to pay for a full Xbox system.
This approach is ingenious. Not only does it broaden Microsoft’s reach, but it also allows them to compete with Sony without needing the Xbox to outsell the PlayStation. Nintendo has occupied such a space for several console generations, positioning its consoles as a supplemental product to go alongside a “main” system, like an Xbox or PlayStation. Microsoft, clearly sick of losing the console war, has decided to leverage its popular Game Pass service to reach more players without the Xbox system, or even a gaming PC, acting as a barrier to entry.
Sony is still sticking to its standard approach of selling consoles by making its first-party titles must-play blockbusters. They consistently release games with top-notch production values, gorgeous graphics, and gripping storylines. Recent releases like Spider-Man, God of War, Death Stranding, and Horizon: Forbidden West underscore the company’s current approach to selling its brand to new players.
However, Sony also seems aware that it needs to compete with Microsoft outside of simply outselling the Xbox Series X. To that end, the company unveiled a revamped version of PlayStation Plus, its similar subscription service that also offers a game library, complete with game streaming. The revamped PS Plus features three tiers, with each offering a selection of games. The higher tiers allow players to check out older titles from the PS4, PS3, PS2, and even PS1 eras.
Sony is also now releasing many of its first-party titles on the PC. While Microsoft typically releases new titles simultaneously on PC and on Xbox, Sony usually waits until a game has been out on PlayStation for a few years before porting it to PCs. However, this new approach has been lucrative for the company, and it has plans to release titles like Spider-Man on PC soon.
The New Shape of the Console Wars
The “console wars” might not continue in the same form that gamers have known them for the past thirty years. In previous generations, the most important thing for game developers was selling more consoles, and thus more games, than their competitors. Now, however, the console is largely becoming irrelevant for Sony and Microsoft. High-speed internet connections can allow players to stream games from off-site hardware directly to their home displays. Why would anyone need a system?
Some gamers might push back against this new paradigm, though. While movie watchers and music fans embraced Netflix and Spotify, respectively, gamers are uniquely defensive of physical media. Many players insist that owning their own physical copies of games allows them to preserve them for years to come. When Sony and Microsoft inevitably shut down their servers someday, players who have only accessed streaming games will lose their save files and will be unable to access the games they love.
Nintendo’s enduring success with the Nintendo Switch system might also seem to run counter to the idea that games will soon abandon consoles altogether. However, it might instead illustrate another path for console manufacturers: the Switch’s hybrid design makes it ideal for taking on long trips, and players who don’t have strong internet connections can still use it for mobile gaming. The same can’t be said for using Game Pass or PlayStation Plus on a smartphone–streaming games to a phone requires a high level of bandwidth.
Having Their Cake and Eating It Too
Microsoft might succeed with Game Pass in ways that Google never could with Stadia. Stadia requires players to purchase titles for a full retail price, while Game Pass only asks users to pay a subscription fee to access a huge library of games. This makes Game Pass the “Netflix of games” that tech enthusiasts have raved about for years.
Beyond this, the Xbox brand is much more recognizable than Stadia, and players who want to check out the newest entries in Microsoft’s more well-known franchises might be enticed by a console-free way to play. Players might even use the streaming service as a way to sample whether they’d like to own their own Xbox, and which titles they want to own physical copies of.
Stadia has no physical counterpart–if you like a game you play on the service, you can’t move your progress to a home console later. You’re stuck with the version on Google’s servers, for better or worse. So, can Microsoft succeed where Google has struggled? Curious gamers with Samsung TVs of their own can test the new Xbox app themselves when it launches in late June.