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What the success of Game Pass means for developers

The larger development studios

Since the introduction of Game Pass in 2017, there has been a steady climb in subscriber numbers as gamers are coming round to the idea of giving the service a try. In part, this could be due to the very cheap offers Microsoft advertises (such as £1 for a month). Perhaps even more so is the fact that all future first-party Xbox titles will launch day and date on the service. While this is fantastic value for us as gamers it brings to light a question that you might have thought about. How does Xbox Game Pass benefit developers?

If big developers such as The Coalition (with Gears 5) are releasing their games on Xbox Game Pass then how could they be making similar amounts of profit compared to a regular release? Since Microsoft no longer shares direct sales data openly for physical or digital sales it’s hard to gauge exactly how well any given Microsoft title is doing. Gears of War 4 reportedly sold four times more physical copies at launch than Gears 5 in the UK during launch week. Yet Microsoft has since stated that the first-week player count of Gears 5 was double that of its predecessor. 

Impact on sales figures

Using traditional sales figures to understand the impact of Xbox Game Pass might not work anymore then. Despite this, the reports of bigger player counts from Microsoft is encouraging for developers, to the extent that some might develop their games with Game Pass in mind. In fact, in the case of Gears 5, it appears the studio did just this. The game includes a ‘previously on Gears’ video to catch new players up on the long story, and of course, due to the cheap price, there could be many gamers on the service that might not be as familiar with the series.

In an interview with Polygon, studio head Rod Fergusson stated “We had to go in with this idea of, like, ‘How do we make this — even though it’s got a 5 on the end of the title — how do we make this the most approachable Gears of War ever?’”.

While you could worry that developers putting their games out day 1 on Game Pass may be losing a lot of potential sales money, the increased player count (such as with Gears 5) could actually help to alleviate this. Simply having a larger player base to potentially experience a game means that more players could spend money on in-game purchases. As the subscribers of Game Pass spend very little to play a game they might be more willing to spend real money on additional content compared to players that bought the game full price. 

In cases where a game doesn’t have micro-transactions, the players instead work as free advertisements. Spreading the game to people through ‘word of mouth’ and steaming it on Twitch increases the number of people paying attention to a game and a prime example of this was Sea of Thieves. We may never know how the game would have fared as a traditional release but as a result of being on Game Pass, it topped the most viewed games list on Twitch a long time after its release.

In January of this year, Sea of Thieves was regularly in the top 10 most viewed games on Twitch and even beating out Fortnite on the rare occasion. From this, it created an influx of new players interested to try it out. Rare’s Joe Neate thought the increase in new players was “incredible”. Despite the sudden rise in Twitch viewers happening long after launch, the accessibility of Game Pass could have only contributed to the increased player numbers Rare was witnessing. 

Perhaps the biggest boon to developers would be the money paid directly to them by Microsoft, in return for having their game on the service. While this information isn’t public we can safely assume developers are being paid a fair compensation due to the sheer amount of developers Microsoft already has on-board. Dino Patti (co-founder of Playdead) mentioned to Eurogamer that ‘with Game Pass they’re doing it correctly for the developers’. Additionally, Microsoft always promotes new games on Game Pass through its social media channels. Therefore giving the developer a good chunk of new marketing to advertise their game with. 

What this means for developers is an extra way to earn a profit after the initial sales for their game have died down and I’m willing to bet many developers would take this chance to increase the sales and relevance of their games long after their initial releases. In turn, this gives almost every developer a reason to consider eventually putting their game onto Game Pass and by extension a reason for almost any developer to consider putting their game out on the Xbox platform sooner or later. Most recently we can see this with some AAA games released earlier this year making their appearance on Game Pass, such as Metro Exodus and Devil May Cry 5..

The independent developers

For smaller developers, Game Pass is a less assured thing yet still worth considering. In an interview with Eurogamer Q.U.B.E. creator Dan da Rocha mentioned: “it would mainly be for back catalogue stuff – to test the waters”. While Dan was understandably less confident than Gears head Rod Fergusson, he still wanted to test the service with some of the studio’s older work.

Independent studios such as Bloober Team (the recently released Blair witch) and Night School Studio (with Afterparty, coming October 29) may have weighed up their potential sales from a conventional launch against the money they received for launching on Game Pass.

 

Much like with Netflix, people that are already subscribed may be willing to take a chance on something they aren’t familiar with. This is simply because it’s part of what they already have access to. Similarly, Game Pass subscribers might be willing to take a chance on games they would never have bought on their own. In a rare exception, there is data to back this up.

In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Microsoft’s Matt Mercy stated that “players’ game-time generally increases 20 per cent once they join Game Pass, and the number of different games they play goes up by 40 per cent”. So while being part of a subscription service was a risky proposition for developers at first, we can see that studios contributing to the success of Game Pass are reaping the benefits now.

Chirag Pattni
Psychologist and long time gamer. Has a love-hate relationship with technology and loves all things Japanese.

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