We already have Xbox Game Pass for Console, for PC, and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Do we really need more? Here's why I think the answer to that is yes!
Xbox Game Pass is Microsoft's big Netflix-like gaming service that continues to make headlines. Only recently, Microsoft acquired Bethesda and ZeniMax's subsidiary studios, boosting Game Pass with over 20 new games. Additionally, Microsoft recently revealed that Outriders is dropping day one into the service, which marks a first for a major third-party AAA game.
Xbox Game Pass is at the forefront of Microsoft's lofty ambition to reach all of the world's 2-3 billion gamers, cramming its service with some of the best Xbox games out there. To achieve this, Microsoft is betting on new markets spear-headed by Xbox Game Pass for PC, as well as Xbox Game Pass on mobile phones, and soon, the web. It's with that in mind that I wonder if it's time for a dedicated cloud version for Xbox Game Pass, called "Xbox Game Pass Lite," or "Xbox Game Pass Go," which could also circumvent some potential issues with competing storefront policies.
Entry to cloud gaming
Right now, to get access to Xbox Game Pass for cloud gaming, you have to buy in at the most expensive tier — Game Pass Ultimate. I've always felt this was a little bit strange if this is supposedly designed to be your most accessible format for the service. With Game Pass Ultimate, you also get Game Pass for console and Game Pass for PC, but I often wonder if cloud-first gamers would be interested in using these services or not.
It could be that the $15 per month Xbox Game Pass Ultimate tier is the best and most cost-effective way to fund the service, given the massive investment to build the server infrastructure. However, do potential users look at Xbox Game Pass for PC and console on Game Pass Ultimate and think "well, I don't have an Xbox or a gaming PC, so why would I subscribe to Ultimate just to get the cloud feature?" In that vein, a cheaper, cloud-only option for Xbox Game Pass be a good way to market the service to new users who perhaps aren't necessarily interested in grabbing an Xbox console or a gaming PC.
A cheaper, cloud-only "Xbox Game Pass Go" could also be an interesting option for families. I've heard that Microsoft is exploring some form of a "family plan" for Xbox Game Pass, but there are hurdles to overcome with third-party publishers to that end. If you have a younger sibling or child, grabbing a cheaper subscription to give them access to cross-platform games like Minecraft Dungeons could be a cost-effective alternative while we wait for a full-blown family plan option.
Indeed, third-party published games create a range of issues.
An option for third-party stores
The Google Play Store and iOS App store have strict rules about how games can be delivered by their partners, and there's a potential conflict for third parties in game distribution. Google, iOS, and others would rather you play games via their storefront. Apple is notorious for blocking competing streaming services, arbitrarily enforcing rules for games that it doesn't enforce for music or entertainment.
Apple anti-competitively wants to block xCloud and similar services, perhaps driven by fear of losing another paradigm shift similar to how they lost out to Spotify and Netflix.
Microsoft would put Xbox Game Pass on PlayStation and Nintendo Switch consoles too, if given the chance.
Apple's app store has already noted that it wants Microsoft to sell every game on Xbox Game Pass as a separate entity, despite not requiring Netflix or Spotify to do the same for the content on their respective platforms. Google Play also has rules about how in-app purchases can happen through its storefront, putting a limitation on the types of games that can be distributed through Xbox Game Pass on Android.
I feel like Microsoft would put Xbox Game Pass on PlayStation and Nintendo Switch consoles too, if given the chance. When Xbox head Phil Spencer was on stage discussing the Bethesda acquisition, he very carefully noted that this was about platforms that support Xbox Game Pass — not necessarily Windows PCs and Xbox consoles. There's a conflict there for Sony and Nintendo, since they would naturally prefer it if you were playing their games sold through their storefronts. The likelihood of PlayStation accepting Xbox Game Pass is pretty slim, but given that the Nintendo Switch has a large performance delta against PC and Xbox, though, I could see a possibility of a slimmed-down, Xbox Game Studios-focused cloud version of Game Pass for Nintendo Switch that wouldn't necessarily compete directly with Nintendo's store.
A smaller library of games that are wholly owned by Microsoft would reduce conflict with other storefronts, potentially, allow Microsoft to use those storefront's payment systems for in-app purchases, and allow them to deliver its own games to platforms that might not be powerful enough to run them natively.
Absorbing Xbox Live Gold
Recently, people noticed that Microsoft had de-emphasized the "Xbox Live" branding in some aspects of the Xbox OS. Microsoft later noted that while it isn't removing the Xbox Live branding completely, it is decoupling it from some system features that are now just commonplace components of owning an Xbox.
I've written before about my belief that years down the line, Xbox Live Gold as a subscription service could go away. I think one way to start a shift in mentality about Xbox Live Gold is to perhaps fold it into any prospective cloud-only "Game Pass Lite" service. Xbox Live Gold has already been a contentious issue in the community, given that Xbox Game Pass PC players don't have to pay for it to access multiplayer. And with the rise of cross-platform competitive gaming in titles like Call of Duty and Fortnite, the argument for paywalling multiplayer is waning.
Folding Xbox Live Gold into an entry-level form of Xbox Game Pass would help to further the adoption of Xbox Game Pass, and help grow Xbox's cloud aspirations at the same time.
More options on Xbox Game Pass, more users
Xbox Game Pass is all about accessibility and ease of use. The fewer barriers your service has, the more users you will acquire. Obviously, there are profitability constraints to consider, but the fundamental barriers tend to be price and platform.
Getting Xbox Game Pass to more platforms will increase its growth. If a cheaper version, potentially with fewer games, can circumvent skepticism from Apple, Nintendo, and others, it may be worthwhile considering to further grow the platform. A cheaper variant may also serve as a gateway to higher-tier subscriptions to Game Pass regular up to Ultimate, in similar way to how Netflix has higher-paid tiers for 4K streaming.
It could also be the case that Xbox Game Pass is already cheap as it possibly can be without losing tons of money. I don't have the data to back that up, but I feel it in my gaming guts that a subscription tier that is, at least, cloud-only is missing from the lineup right now. Either way, the future of Game Pass is an intriguing one.
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