A couple of days ago my fellow Enthusiast, Andrew Gonzalez, wrote about how the issue with Xbox’s current exclusives is that they don’t have much replayability. His main issue was the lack of content for online titles like Sea of thieves and State of Decay 2. It got me thinking about how Microsoft will approach developing games with the success of Game Pass.
I have to admit to being a little sceptical about the idea of Game Pass. Who would pay a monthly subscription for access to some games? Well, it turns out that a lot of people would. With any subscription service, the most important factors are the cost and the content. Microsoft has done well in trying to make these two areas as good as they can make them. The cost is less than £8/$10 a month. This makes it about 66% of the cost of Netflix. When it comes to content, there are over 100 games on the service. A lot of these are indie games, some of these are Xbox 360 titles, but there are also some AAA titles though. Titles like Doom, Fallout 4, Hitman, DiRT 4, and many others sit alongside Microsoft’s own AAA titles. It is these first-party titles that are the stars of the show though due to them being available on their launch dates. As great as it is to have the other AAA games in the mix, they take a while to join the service. It’s kind of like having to wait for a movie to turn up on Blu Ray rather than being able to see it at the cinema.
With first-party titles being the biggest draw to the service and Game Pass being such a money winner for Microsoft, could this affect game development? The way to financial success for Game Pass is to keep regular subscribers. There are two ways to really do this. The first is to have a regular stream of new games. The second is to have games that people will keep coming back to play. Let’s take a look at these options in a little more detail –
A regular stream of new games
Obviously, regularly adding new games to the service will keep subscribers engaged in the service. To make the most of this they really need to be games that they haven’t played before. Titles like Doom and Fallout 4 are great, but a lot of people will already have played them. I can’t see any third-party publisher putting their new AAA game on Game Pass at the same time as it launches at retail. Unless Microsoft drops truckloads of cash at their doorstep, it’s just not going to happen. This means that the onus is on Microsoft Game Studios to get games out at a much more regular and impressive rate than they are right now. The announcement of five new studios (well one new and four acquisitions) at E3 is definitely a step in the right direction. This takes the number of studios assigned to creating content specifically for Xbox to nine. In theory, this should be enough to pump out three games every year (assuming an average development time of three years per title). The studios they have though aren’t exactly the type of developers who run a tight conveyor belt of development like the Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed studios manage. Undead Labs have shipped two games in eight years. Rare has only managed to make two games for Xbox One, and they have multiple teams. I think we would all rather that these studios take their time and create really great games instead of rushing them out. This means unless Microsoft breaks out the chequebook and acquires another five studios, the likelihood of providing a regular stream of titles is pretty low.
Massively replayable games
The holy grail for most developers/publishers are games that can retain their audience long after the release of a game. Some titles manage to do this with ease, through name recognition alone. Games like Grand Theft Auto V and Halo 5 (as well as other games that don’t have a five in their name) still have really strong communities. Clearly, it helps that these are games with great multiplayer components, but they are also franchises that have a truly devoted following. Other titles have to work hard at it. Games like Rainbow Six Siege and Ghost Recon Wildlands may have name recognition, but they struggled to find an audience at launch. As time has gone on though, they have achieved dedicated player bases. These titles with ‘long tails’ are loved by publishers as they can easily monetise them to gain regular revenue with less effort than developing a new title. Microsoft’s recent attempts at these types of games haven’t been as successful as they would have hoped. The big one was of course Sea of Thieves. Rare’s pirate MMO is something of a Marmite game, you either love it or hate it. The issue with the game is that unless you are playing with a group of friends, you can quickly become bored due to a lack of content and over-repetition of tasks. If Microsoft could nail a game that relies on its multiplayer component it could become a big reason for people to maintain their Game Pass subscription.
I am concerned that because of the success of Game Pass that Microsoft could pressure their internal studios to focus their efforts in a way specific to the service. This could be by rushing games out to keep the Game Pass library ‘fresh.’ It could be by forcing a larger multiplayer component on a game so that it keeps more gamers hooked into it and therefore into the service. Of course, Microsoft will always want more first-party titles and games with ‘long tails,’ but with Game Pass they have an even bigger reason to try and push it. I really hope they grant their studios the freedom to allow their games to develop naturally rather than putting undue pressure in certain directions on them. There is still an element of game development that is creating art and to get the most out of artists you need to give them freedom.