Just days before their big E3 press conference, Microsoft seemed to be removing themselves from the “console wars” by announcing they were moving beyond consoles while focusing on cloud gaming. It’s a move from Microsoft that may have seemed shortsighted to outsiders. But the truth is the company has been going down this road for a while, and E3 served as the nail in the coffin for the idea of what Xbox used to be while ushering in a brighter future.
The PS5 is the better-selling system, building on the exclusive-fueled successes of the past generation. In response, Xbox opted to purchase developers big and small in order to form the next generation of Xbox exclusives. This decision is finally bearing fruit, making this E3 a potential turning point for them. Microsoft clearly realized they were fighting the wrong battle, and so they took a big swing marrying these software gains with what might be their most powerful tool: Xbox Game Pass.
A subscription service often likened to the “Netflix for games,” Game Pass been the ace-in-the-hole Xbox needed while it struggled through the last generation. An extremely affordable subscription service (coming in between $10-$15 a month), it gives members every Xbox exclusive title and a rotating selection of third-party games ranging from the tiniest indie to GTA V. And it was the healthy beating heart of a 2021 E3 showcase that blew the virtual doors off, generating the buzz Microsoft has been building to for some years now.
Kicked off by the reveal of Bethesda’s long-in-development Starfield, the conference (which I’m just dubbing the “Xbox Game Pass Showcase”) offered looks at about 30 games all coming to Xbox and PC right at launch. Fans got a little bit of everything, from platformers like Psychonauts 2, coming this August, to hardcore survival games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2: Heart of Chernobyl, which is apparently coming next year in April. And these are just some of the exclusives from which they offered previews. The diverse lineup of heavy-hitters coming through the end of this year alone includes Microsoft Flight Simulator coming to console, Forza Horizon 5, and of course, Halo Infinite.
This is all before touching on third-party and indie titles that are going to be dropping left and right on Game Pass over the next few months. Back 4 Blood, a highly anticipated successor to Left 4 Dead, is coming to Game Pass at launch in October. Next summer, Game Pass is set to receive Redfall, the exciting co-op game from Arkane Austin. Starting this summer and stretching into the fall (and likely beyond even this), Game Pass has gone ahead and secured indie darlings Twelve Minutes, Sable, and last year’s award-winning Hades, which is finally coming to both Xbox and PlayStation.
While PlayStation may have the leg up in player base, anyone with Game Pass can get access to that and virtually everything else that appeared at the show. That’s a hell of a deal and focusing on that is a sound strategy that made for a show less and less about trying to sell any one game (such as Halo Infinite, which was there, but not the headline). Maybe Microsoft realizes it doesn’t need to follow the old blueprint or be coy anymore. It doesn’t have a console generation to lose anymore, it’s blazing its own path. It can afford to be brazen and take shots at PlayStation’s approach to PC games while making it look absolutely effortless to do the same.
Game Pass has existed for years and been a relative success, but this cavalcade of imminent launches looks to be kicking off a reinvention around the long-teased evolution of how we should be playing games with a focus on instant or near-instant availability and most everything you could possibly want at your fingertips.
To be sure, this also opens up questions about whether the curatorial effort that’s made Game Pass so attractive will give way to a kind of bloat or algorithmic curation that can make this kind of thing feel less special and make it less likely for players to explore the more interesting choices that get lost in the shuffle. Right now, though, we’re in that exciting early phase, like Netflix a few years ago when they were giving us all the content. Xbox finally has the games to prove it has a greater range than Halo and Gears of War, which became their very stale bread and butter over the last two decades.
Alongside that, Xbox now has the platform and reach to get their games to tons of people and they’re actively building the tech to increase that even further. After 20 years, the brand is finally getting diverse and smart, and I think it’s not only exactly what they needed, but clearly what’s really working for them.
Game Pass may have been a gambit, but it’s now one that’s powering the future of Xbox. Here’s hoping it can cash the big checks it is writing.