Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription is a service to beat

    Microsoft’s ambition for the “Netflix of games” has yet to come into perspective four years ago, between the announcement of the Xbox Game Pass and its launch. Though Phil Spencer and the Xbox team were clear about their intentions, the public’s impression of the game subscription service was murky.

    Now, as the programme approaches its fourth birthday, the public image has improved, and the verdict is nearly unanimous: Xbox Game Pass has been hailed as a cost-effective and accessible alternative to traditional game purchasing for many players.

    We’re looking back at how Xbox Game Pass has evolved from an unproven concept to the backbone of Microsoft’s gaming ambitions, as Sony takes a bigger step into offering its subscriptions with its “all-new PlayStation Plus” and Nintendo has tried its hand at a similar service with some of the benefits of Nintendo Switch Online.

    Microsoft intended Xbox Game Pass to be a rental business at first. Internally, the project was dubbed Arches, even though the concept would never be commercialised in such form. Following the popularity of other media streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify, Microsoft decided to go with a subscription model, and so Game Pass was established.

    No addition to Game Pass has had a bigger impact than Microsoft’s promise to release all of its first-party games on the programme on the same day in 2018. Since then, Xbox Game Studios subscribers have had free access to over a dozen games, including the latest Halo, Gears, Forza, State of Decay, Psychonauts, and more.

    The choice now emphasises the most significant difference between Game Pass and Sony’s recently announced service. Sony’s revamped PlayStation Plus won’t include first-party games at launch; Sony’s Jim Ryan said the company is “in a good virtuous cycle with [its] studios, where the investment delivers success, which enables yet more investment, which delivers yet more success,” and including exclusives at launch would “break that virtuous cycle,” according to Ryan, which largely seems to imply PlayStation believes not having its exclusives sell upwards of 20 million copies will be enough to justify the investment.

    Microsoft released an equivalent subscription for PC users two years after launching Xbox Game Pass, exposing the service to a whole new audience. At the same time, Microsoft launched Game Pass Ultimate, a $15-per-month premium tier that combines Xbox Game Pass, PC Game Pass, and Xbox Live Gold.

    Ultimate has now established itself as the best Game Pass offer — and, according to many, the best deal in gaming, period. Ultimate also provides access to the whole EA Play catalogue, which includes Mass Effect Legendary Edition, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, It Takes Two, and all of EA’s current sports games, in addition to Game Pass access on console, PC, and through the cloud.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, when Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft, he envisioned a subscription- and cloud-based future for the company, paving the way for Spencer and the Xbox team to make Game Pass a reality. Spencer received support from Nadella to run a video game subscription service that could (optionally) deliver games through the cloud rather than local hardware, building on the trust he gained through 2014’s lucrative acquisition of Mojang — an option that’s been realised over the last couple of years when Microsoft rolled out Xbox Cloud Gaming as part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.

    The future of Xbox is the future of Game Pass. Microsoft has made it obvious through its rhetoric and decisions that Game Pass is the way forward in gaming.

    Microsoft has collected 25 million users in less than four years, establishing a new industry within games. The collection has grown from 100 to 450 games, including prominent third-party titles like Outriders, MLB The Show, Back 4 Blood, and Tunic at launch.

    The monthly pricing of Game Pass has remained unchanged despite all of these additions. The $15/month price tag for Ultimate will most certainly remain in place for the foreseeable future, according to Spencer, who also told Axios Game Pass is “very, very sustainable right now.”

    Xbox Game Pass has evolved from a perceived risky venture to a cornerstone of the entire Xbox experience in just four years. The service is the consequence of a nearly decade-long course correction that began when Phil Spencer took over as Xbox’s CEO after the disastrous launch of Xbox One. There were concerns about Xbox’s demise not long ago; now the business is at the vanguard of gaming’s next frontier. Game Pass, combined with excellent hardware upgrades such as the Xbox One X and Series X|S, has restored trust in the brand and reignited a sense of community enthusiasm last seen during the Xbox 360 era.

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