It's a buyer's market, make no mistake. Companies like Tencent, Sony, and even Netflix are dishing up cash to take ever-increasingly lucrative slices of the big gaming industry pie. Microsoft's blockbuster Bethesda acquisition last year sent shockwaves throughout the industry, leading other big companies to sit up and take notice.
Most of Microsoft's major acquisitions in this space have been for "core" game studios that build mature-rated games, leaving fairly large holes in their efforts to court more casual players. Of course, Microsoft owns Minecraft, which is not only one of the biggest mobile games on Earth, but one of the biggest media franchises period. However, most of Microsoft's internal efforts to adapt Xbox franchises to mobile have fallen short.
Outside of the purchase of Minecraft Pocket Edition, the company somewhat lacks the expertise to really target the mobile market, and that could be a big problem ironically for its efforts around Xbox Game Pass. Microsoft has made no secret that its intentions with Xbox Game Pass and its cloud platform are to grow beyond the console, but if people didn't want mature core console-style games via Xbox, why does Microsoft think they're going to want to play them on their phones?
This is why I think Microsoft really needs to buy in some expertise in this space. Mobile gaming is a completely different beast to console gaming, and if Microsoft is going to adapt and grow the Xbox footprint, ignoring this could be at their peril.
Massive industry, with massive potential
I don't need to reiterate just how big the mobile gaming market is. We're not talking about the console's install base of a couple hundred million users give or take, split across Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch. We're talking about literally billions of gamers, who have either grown up in markets where consoles are taxed too heavily, or simply aren't interested in the paradigm. Free-to-play games that run perfectly fine on mobile devices are more than enough for most players, with mobile publishers like Gameloft, King, and Tencent spending millions of dollars in user acquisition via ads and other means.
Microsoft's efforts have generally been a bit low ball you could say. Minecraft Earth was a staggering failure, with gameplay that was aggressively locked behind paywalls, without enough of a base game to get people hooked. Furthermore, Microsoft did practically zero marketing for the game whatsoever, which is a big no-no in the mobile gaming industry. Forza Street seems to have fared better, but again, it hasn't exactly lit the world on fire, and Gears POP! was also killed off last year.
These games weren't completely lacking in quality, but they didn't have the right gameplay loop for the market. Gears POP! especially was hilariously low-budgeted, and didn't really do the brand justice. The old Halo Spartan Assault and Strike games were much better titles, but again, they could've been a bit more exciting in terms of their combat feel. They were also quite tough, which isn't really the experience you want while playing casually, at least generally speaking. These games were also initially exclusive to Windows Phone, which obviously stunted their growth potential.
Microsoft's mobile games were also stupidly aggressive with their paywall models. I remember playing Tentacles: Enter the Mind on Windows Phone and adoring it — I'd go as far to say it's one of the best mobile games I ever played — but you'd come to a point where you hit a progression wall so, so damn hard you couldn't really continue without spending loads of cash. The same was true of Age of Empires: Castle Siege as well.
These games chase "whales" for monetization, i.e., either rich players with more disposable income than good sense, or those susceptible to predatory gameplay design decisions that trigger addiction responses. Given the controversy around loot box mechanics in recent years, I'm not sure Microsoft would be a fan of going down that route for monetizing its mobile games, should it ever make any. However, mobile games like Fortnite, Pokémon Go, and Genshin Impact have managed to build decent games that don't really require players to spend anything to enjoy them, yet still manage to take in hundreds of millions of dollars per quarter, purely on the basis of how fun they are. A crazy concept, I know.
However Microsoft decides to tackle this incredibly lucrative industry, it seems to me that they really, really need to get some outside help on board to make it all happen.
Bringing cloud games to mobile needs a mobile touch
If there's one thing Microsoft does know how to make, it's console games. Games like Halo Infinite, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Starfield, and many others, have huge potential to grow Xbox Game Pass, and Xbox Game Pass's mobile footprint along with it. The problem is, a lot of these TV-first games just don't play well on mobile devices, and even the best Xbox controller phone mount clips don't really help.
We've written about this extensively before, but just to reiterate, games designed for large TV screens often have user experiences to match, i.e., on a mobile device screen, UI elements and fonts will often be too small to see and interact with. Touch controls will overlay onto the screen, obscuring the UI too, making some games simply impossible to play. Turn-based games like Wasteland 3, Darkest Dungeon, and Gears Tactics, you'd think, would be ideal for mobile gaming on Xbox Game Pass. Sadly, because of how these games are designed, many Xbox cloud games on smaller screens with touch controls are a menace.
You're not going to entice new customers who are used to premium mobile-first experiences with this, nor are you going to attract console players who are used to full-blown tactile controls and legible user interface elements. However, that doesn't mean there isn't hope.
Microsoft has a small team within their cloud gaming effort that is dedicated to improving the mobile gaming experience of specific games that are in Xbox Game Pass. Thus far, only HADES and Minecraft Dungeons are truly optimized for mobile device play. Minecraft Dungeons even has touchable menus. Both games re-arrange their user experience to suit mobile device play, and the difference it makes is truly staggering.
I think if Microsoft really wants to grow Xbox Game Pass cloud gaming's opportunity, they need to really get a tight grip over the quality of the library therein. Only two games, two are truly optimized for touch-based play, out of dozens. The rest require either bigger screens, or full-blown controllers to really enjoy, save for a couple of outliers like Streets of Rage 4.
This won't be an issue when Xbox Game Pass cloud gaming comes to TV sets as an app, nor is it an issue on full-size laptop displays streaming from the Xbox app on Windows 10 or Windows 11. It's only an issue really on mobile touch devices. And considering that's where most of the growth potential probably is, getting more developers on board that can either build or adapt games to be touch-first capable is going to be key to growing out that platform.
Building an Xbox mobile pillar
Microsoft does already have millions of users in the mobile space, across Xbox Game Pass cloud gaming, Minecraft, and Solitaire, but we're talking about billions here. I believe casual gaming via Xbox Game Pass cloud or native Xbox games on mobile could help onramp users who typically aren't interested in console games, or those who may not even consider themselves to be gamers at all.
Whatever the vehicle is, growth for Xbox will ultimately benefit the core, giving Microsoft more tools to grow its console and PC gaming platform as well, leading to more high-end experiences such as Starfield and the like. But, I don't think it'll work with what they are offering today. Games that are designed for TVs are only going to appeal to people who want to be in the console ecosystem, and sure, there are countries where consoles are prohibitively expensive, and Xbox Game Pass cloud will find success there. Microsoft also wants inroads in those core markets too, like the U.S., where it was revealed recently that Apple is technically the biggest gaming company of the lot, owing to its large 30% iOS app storefront cut.
I suppose the real problem is availability, ultimately. Many of the biggest mobile game devs and publishers are already owned or part-owned by Microsoft rivals like Tencent. It's hard to say which of the big mobile publishers, if any, would even be available to acquire. Sometimes you need more than money.
Either way, I'm confident that if Microsoft truly intends to burst free of the console install base, gaming mobility has to become a bigger pillar at Xbox. I'll leave it for people paid far more than I am to figure out the details on how to do that, though. Ahem. Good luck, Microsoft!
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!