Microsoft has continually tried to push its games as a service. First with the original concept of the Xbox One, later with the addition of cross-buy for Xbox One and PC games, and now with the Xbox Game Pass. The Xbox Game Pass has been around for about a year at this point, but until recently there wasn’t much to say about the service. With the recently announced addition of Xbox One exclusives being added as part of that service, Microsoft’s push to be the “Netflix of games” hasn’t been any stronger. Movies and games may share some similarities, but they are different, and trying to apply the same model to another medium is going to face some unique issues the other wouldn’t face.
One notable difference between movies and games is the concept of an ecosystem within a game. When watching a movie, the ecosystems of how that movie came to exist and delivered to the consumer are outside of the movie itself. Even when taking in the account of watching a movie at a movie theater, all the additional purchases a consumer could make is outside of the actual movie (such as popcorn or drinks) are not within the movie; just the movie watching experience. Games on the other hand often have their own ecosystems by delivering the content or experience within the game as well. Using Microsoft’s own IP as an example of this depth, let’s consider Halo 5.
For a consumer to receive Halo 5, there are developers, publishers, suppliers, distributors, competitors, and more that all work together or compete with each other to deliver that product. This is the business ecosystem that exists in the game’s industry that companies work within to create and sell their product. Once the consumer purchases Halo 5, they leave that ecosystem (until their next purchase). But unlike a movie where after that purchase the consumer leaves the ecosystem, they enter into another. In the case of Halo 5, there is the ecosystem of delivering content through microtransactions.
Combine a game that uses microtransactions with a monthly subscription model to access it and there are a few red flags that are sure to be raised. Depending on the effects of the microtransactions, players may take issue with spending time or effort in a game that offers such transactions. On the other end, developers may take a similar stance by not wishing to become a part of the pass as it may offend their potentially new player-base. These issues alone are certainly concerning, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome. Combined this concern with another aspect of the game pass system, and you have a hard sell on your hands.
Another difference between games and movies is the amount of commitment needed to consume the content fully. Some of the longest movies may last up to four hours and even the most extensive TV shows can stop at 26 hours for a season (looking at you Star Trek). Games, on the other hand, can easily reach multiple hundreds of hours in the amount of time it could take to finish or complete. This represents a unique problem that Netflix doesn’t face, providing ample time to finish consuming a show. Xbox’s Game Pass, however, needs to make sure that there is enough time provided before removing and adding games that a consumer actually has a chance to finish. Otherwise, the game pass will be seen more as a way of demoing games, not actually playing them.
Having games coming and going from the lineup has another cruel aspect that Netflix doesn’t need to face, what to do with Microtransactions? It is already an issue of trying to convey the value of playing a game through a subscription service but also having that game’s own ecosystem continually work against the subscription model. Once time is factored in, how does the proposed change when not only are you paying for a subscription model, microtransactions, but now those purchases may now disappear as well as the game because it is being removed from the service? Not good.
This again creates a situation where industry trends actively work against the system Microsoft is trying to cultivate. Netflix’s system works in part because it’s easy to understand and simple to use. Using Amazon Prime’s system as an example, it is cumbersome and complicated where you have access to some, but not all content. And to access that additional content, you need to purchase additional packages or purchase shows and movies individually. While not entirely the same, it certainly paints a similar system where there are extra purchases attached to the subscription that you have no guarantee that they will stay. It creates confusion and fear of loss which is never good when trying to sell a service.
Lack of Exclusives
Even with the addition of Microsoft’s Xbox One exclusives being added to the Xbox Gamer Pass, it’s still questionable if this is enough. Microsoft has had many issues when it has come to creating and fostering exclusive titles for its console, and we have seen little sign of this changing. While adding these games as permanent residents for this service is a great mood, it still is too few titles to sway those from either Sony or Nintendo who currently revel in a wide variety of exclusive titles. Why would you opt for an Xbox One or an Xbox One X if you could purchase a Playstation 4 Pro or a Nintendo Switch that has access to either the same games but with more exclusives, or a unique set of exclusives not found elsewhere? Again, it’s a hard sell.
It makes the prospect of the Xbox’s Gamer Pass success questionable with a large number of hurdles it faces. The industry is actively working against its potential with in-game ecosystems, the program’s design is working against itself due to time, and Microsoft is working against it with its lack of exclusives. Perhaps it’s exactly the type of thing the game industry needs to see and explore different models besides our current one, but until then, Microsoft has an uphill battle with everyone, including itself, to make this a true success rather than a fleeting promotion