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Of Games and Passes and the Intersection Thereof

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By Nelson Schneider - 03/19/23 at 03:31 PM CT

Microsoft has had a shockingly good few years recently with regard to positivity surrounding their gaming endeavors. Perhaps they have finally managed to shake off the stigmata of their terrible early versions of Windows and their identity as primarily an office-based software developer, as more and more people forego office PCs and just do everything on their phones. Regardless, for the first time that I can remember, Microsoft has a bona-fide legion of fanboys trolling the Internet gaming communities.

What do these fanboys do? Why, they sing the praises of Gamepass, of course! Or, as they refer to it, “The Best Deal in Gaming.”

Xbox Gamepass debuted in 2017, at the beginning of the 9th Generation of console gaming. The service is a unique take on gaming, which erodes the audience’s investment in gaming products by providing an all-you-care-to-play buffet of heavily DRM’ed, lightly-curated digital game downloads for Xbox (and/or Windows) in exchange for a $15/month subscription. In 2017, we hadn’t reached the subscription overload we have today, and Microsoft further sweetened the proposition by allowing extant Xbox Live Gold subscribers to convert their mandatory subscriptions for doing anything online via Xbox to Gamepass subscriptions for $1/month.

As of 2020, Microsoft admitted Gamepass wasn’t particularly profitable, but acknowledged that they were in a “customer acquisition phase,” perhaps indicating their belief that, once the steeply discounted introductory pricing went away, users suddenly being faced with a 15x price increase would remain subscribed to Gamepass and start bringing in the profits. As of 2021, Xbox head, Phil Spencer, went on the record stating that neither Gamepass nor Xbox in general were profitable, effectively confirming what gamers and Industry watchers already knew. However, as of last year, Gamepass has turned the corner and is officially ‘profitable,’ accounting for roughly 15% of Xbox Division revenue.

But at what cost? Earlier this year, Microsoft spokescritters, in a report on the company’s gaming business practices made ahead of the still-ongoing merger with Activision-Blizzard-King, laid out the facts in black and white, revealing that Gamepass has had an overall negative impact on discrete game sales, reducing them by a [redacted] percentage upon said games being added to the service. Who, exactly, is Gamepass supposed to be good for? Is it good for Microsoft to rake in subscription revenue that probably doesn’t balance the books with the development budgets of big first-party titles? Is it good for third-parties to accept small bags of money from Microsoft to have their games added to Gamepass, only to see regular sales drop off? Is it good for B-rate developers, whose games never sell very many units anyway, to take some MS money for Gamepass inclusion? Or perhaps it’s not good for MS to populate its all-you-care-to-play subscription service with games nobody actually cares to play? It definitely isn’t good for gamers, who are both stuck paying a perpetual fee and sabotaging games preservation efforts by virtue of not owning anything preservable.

As far as I’m concerned, Gamepass amounts to little more than a glorified demo service. You pay your entry fee, and get a month to check out the kinds of games available on Xbox… then you cancel Gamepass and sell your Xbox because it’s all crap or available on Windows, where the online features are free, and DRM-free or DRM-light license keys are inexpensive.

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