Game Pass Kind of Stinks

In 2019, The Outer Worlds was released by Obsidian Entertainment. It was billed as Fallout in space. People went nuts for it. For many Fallout fans, New Vegas (also produced by Obsidian) was the best Fallout game in the series so there was real excitement for The Outer Worlds (spoiler: it was very mediocre).

The true icing on the cake was price. You could buy the game for sixty dollars, or sign up for Game Pass and play it as part of their Netflix-like service. For ten to fifteen dollars a month, you could play both The Outer Worlds as well as a ton of other games such as Halo or Gears of War.

The Outer Worlds is basically Starfield with better writing and less fast traveling.

Game Pass was a novelty of sorts at the time, so Microsoft did something wild. Instead of asking ten to fifteen dollars per month, Microsoft lowered the price to one dollar per month. It was too good an offer. I took the plunge. I signed up for Game Pass. Now, four years later, I’m happy I’m off it.

The Past is Prologue

Game Pass seems to have appeared out of nowhere. The truth is, it’s the end result of lots of bad decision-making.

Microsoft has always lusted after the living room. In their worldview, they wanted to create a multimedia center for each and every television. This was decades before smart televisions and was quite visionary for the time. A game console was the natural Trojan horse. Hence the Xbox project was born.

They released the Xbox in 2001 and followed up with the Xbox 360 in 2005. Despite the epic “red ring of death” fiasco, the 360 was a beloved console by gamers. In 2013, Microsoft finally took their shot in the living room with the Xbox One. This time, gaming was a secondary consideration. For the Xbox One, it was all about television. Not only did it include voice activation, but it came with a Kinect camera that responded to motion controls. Unfortunately, the console landed with a thud.

The Xbox One failure destroyed careers and set back the brand for a decade.

Sony took advantage of Microsoft’s fumble. With aggressive pricing and a seemingly “gamer first” approach, the PS4 massively outsold Microsoft’s offering. In the process, they produced award-winning games like Spider-Man, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Last of Us, and lots more.

Microsoft was left in the dust. The battle was lost but not the war. Microsoft turned to their secret weapon: their wallet. Hence, Game Pass was born.

Game Pass Benefits

Game Pass is a Netflix-like service. For a low monthly payment, you get access to a large assortment of games. For the Ultimate service plan, you can even play those games over the cloud. Even better, those cloud saves would sync up with your local saves.

This provided an awesome way to test out games without having to install them. You can instantly launch a game in the cloud, play it for a while to see if it is good, and then download the game to your Xbox. Your save will automatically sync up.

On top of this, Microsoft is releasing its first-party games on the service. This means you don’t need to pay seventy dollars to play a game like Starfield. It is included as part of your monthly subscription. Microsoft just purchased Activision Blizzard so you can expect to see their extensive back catalog put on the service.

Sounds too good to be true. Naturally, it is.

The Problems

Game Pass actually sounds pretty good! You can play all the games you want, and if you want to buy those games, you actually get a discount. Alas, things grow murky once you look beyond the marketing.

The Games

It goes without saying, Game Pass lives and dies on its games. While the service does include a wide assortment of games from first-person shooters to simulators, the library is still quite shallow. Chances are, there is something you will want to play. But also, there are lots and lots of games you don’t want to play.

Microsoft knows this. Microsoft is buying up third-party studios as a way to expand their offerings. This provides them with new titles down the road but also provides a treasure trove for a back catalog.

This list keeps growing bigger and bigger

Yet, for all the games on the service, there are few new “top tier” games and in 2023, the marquee titles have been nothing but duds (more on that later).

This is a common sight on Game Pass (credit: rockstarintel.com)

There are third-party games on the service. These tend to be smaller indie games. Every once in and awhile, a big game such as Grand Theft Auto V shows up, but they don’t last long on the service. It’s more of a timed demo.

Lock-In

Microsoft makes its money by offering an overwhelming value. Then, once the customer is hooked, they make it hard to leave to leave the Microsoft ecosystem. Game Pass is no exception.

Game Pass does this in a very subtle way. Every game featured on Game Pass is provided to subscribers at a slight discount. Naturally, you use the Microsoft Store – not Steam – to make your purchases. Should you leave Game Pass, you can still access your purchased games. But note, that you are still using Microsoft services.

For Microsoft, every day is a good day to lock you into their ecosystem.

Should you make the mistake of buying the game on a different service such as Steam – good luck accessing your save files. In the case of Astroneer, I needed to download a third-party script to transfer my saved files from my Game Pass library to my Steam library. It’s not a simple copy-and-paste job. It requires using Power Shell to run commands as well as running some Python scripts. All this for some save files.

Mind you, my main Game Pass experience was with the PC. With the Xbox, you have no choice but to use Microsoft services. That’s the price of an affordable gaming device.

Race to the Bottom

Game Pass is great because it gives developers a revenue stream during development. This revenue is based on the perceived value of the property. This is judged by Microsoft through some internal review process. Hilariously, Game Pass undervalued Baldur’s Gate 3 seeing it as a low-value title.

(credit: thegamer.com)

Yet, this flat fee encourages developers to make up for additional revenue by way of “micro-transactions”. I’m sure there must be guidelines for developers, but at the end of the day, Microsoft is their customer. The gamer is just an additional revenue stream.

This means developers are encouraged to produce as little as possible to meet Microsoft’s standards. The less money developers spend on game development, the more they make from Game Pass profits. The game developer lessens their risk. Microsoft gets another title to their library. Gamers get a weaker game.

The Game Pass App

The Game Pass app is awful. Just awful.

There is some good. It’s well organized to find games. It even includes a random game picker as a way to try new things. It lists games by genre or you can see them all once.

Unfortunately, the app is aggressive in its notifications. I found this to be true for both the Xbox Series X and the Game Pass PC app. Both apps make use of red notification bubbles to inform you about new games on the service or marketing messages.

Marketing gone amok

I have found some solutions to disable them, but they always come back. Good luck journeying through the labyrinth of settings and options in both Windows and Xbox. I’ve tried a number of things, but in the end, I just held up my hands and did my best to ignore them.

First Party Studio Game Offerings

Let’s just say it: they suck.

Bethesda was meant to be a crown jewel in Microsoft’s service, but Bethesda has long lost its mojo. Starfield was exceptionally mediocre and Redfall was an unfinished stupendous flop.

As for other tent pole games, there isn’t much to brag about. Halo Infinite turned out to be laughably bad. Back 4 Blood was a colossal disappointment. These are games meant to sell the service but they all ended up crash landing.

Back 4 Blood was a huge “get” for Game Pass, but it turned out to be painfully bad.

Microsoft spent an obscene amount of money purchasing game studios but those studios have produced only pale imitations of their past offerings. The best thing to come to Game Pass in 2023 was Vampire Survivors – an indie game that costs five dollars on Steam.

Redfall was another anticipated Game Pass title that was universally disliked.

Microsoft has supposedly taken a “hands-off” approach to managing these studios as opposed to Sony which is very much involved in the game development process. And we can see the results. Sony continues to produce banger after banger whereas Microsoft is struggling just to produce a single hit. Something needs to change.

The Future

Game Pass is at a crossroads.

Microsoft just spent sixty billion dollars on purchasing Activision Blizzard. Some people hope for more games to the service such as Call of Duty, Diablo, and World of Warcraft. This may be true, but Microsoft did not spend sixty billion dollars to give away its products. They plan on making it back.

It’s hard to say how Microsoft recovers its investment, but there has already been an increase in prices. There will probably be a greater push for micro-transactions and cheaper titles. At the end of the day, customers will be paying more money, for less value. Or as Cory Doctorow has so elegantly put it, we will see enshitification of Game Pass that is already pretty shitty.

That said, Game Pass is pulling in LOTS of recurring revenue. It’s most definitely making a profit and helping Microsoft’s stock price. By all accounts, to the suits in charge, the future for the service is as bright as the sun in the sky.

But for consumers, the service is best surmised by the Pod People MST3K episode:

By Brian Moakley

Brian Douglas Moakley is a writer and technologist who lives amongst the quiet hills in New England. When not reading tales of high adventure, he is often telling such stories to all who will listen.

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