We have a good grasp of what the next console generation looks like now, at least when it comes to hardware. We even know what most of the companies will focus on to beat the competition: Sony is leaning towards highly coveted third-party exclusives for the PS5, while Nintendo is hoping for wide appeal and many Indians will keep the Switch appealing.
But surprisingly, it is Microsoft that is driving the innovation. Not with amazing hardware or with a huge stable of exclusive games. Xbox Series X and cheaper Series S do not have them, at least not in the abundance that Sony and Nintendo do. It does not even compete so hard on the price, because the Series S has the same price as the more mature Switch.
No, Microsoft is investing heavily in changing the way people pay for their entertainment. And they can just win everything.
“Netflix for games”; has arrived
A few years ago it happened of rigueur to label a new service as “Netflix by ____.” It’s out of fashion now, if not just to replicate Netflix’s success of paying once and getting everything has proven to be much harder than it seems. But the Xbox Game Pass has done that.
Game Pass is Microsoft’s bid for a subscription game service. It is not unique: Sony has one, Nintendo has one, mega-publishers like EA and Ubisoft have one. Apple and Google also have each. But Game Pass is upside down throughout the competition, thanks to an emphasis on adding brand new highly desirable games to the library immediately after release and appealing to both Xbox and PC gamers.
Game Pass started with Xbox One, but with Xbox Series X and Series S, Microsoft aims to make the service and hardware almost inseparable. If you have a new Xbox, you want Game Pass Ultimate, just because it has a phenomenal value. For a few dollars more than Xbox Live (the online multiplayer component that has been in place since the original Xbox), you get access to a library of more than 100 full games to download and play at your leisure. Oh, and you get the multiplayer component too.
You also get access to some of these games on a computer (provided yours is powerful enough to play them), and starting this month, you’ll have access to everyone streaming on Android phones and tablets. It’s an incredible sale, especially now that you do not even need an Xbox to play the games at all. There are other levels of Game Pass ($ 15 for everything, $ 10 for Xbox only with a few perks removed, $ 10 for PC only), but Ultimate is the clear winner.
Microsoft doubles Game Pass. The passport currently contains AAA titles such as Halo, Resident Evil, Forza, Gears of War, Minecraft, Sea of Thieves, and Minecraft, and much loved indie games like Ori and the blind forest, do not starve, Hollow Knight, Subnautica, and Dead cells. But Pass also gets at least some brand new high-profile games: I played The outer worlds the day it came out on an almost free Game Pass trial.
During Microsoft’s major Xbox Series X show (and by extension, Series S) in July, it showcased 20 new titles, including Halo Infinite, Forza Motorsport, Psychonauts 2, a new Fableand expanded content for The Outer Worlds, Destiny 2, and Phantasy Star Online 2. And everyone will be on Game Pass on day one, available to subscribers without paying a penny extra.
It is something of serious value. The fact that all games in the EA Play subscription (formerly known as EA Access and Origin Access) come to Game Pass, at no extra cost, is just cream.
The right price at the right time
But strengthening Game Pass is only half of Microsoft’s strategy. Despite mobile streaming (especially because it is limited to Android), you need to get people’s hardware to actually play all of these games. And depending on them to have powerful gaming computers is not an equal approach.
Microsoft’s one or two strokes are to link the Xbox hardware and the Xbox Game Pass subscription. Starting with the launch of the Xbox Series X and Series S, you can pay a monthly fee for your console and your gaming subscription together. It has the same two-year period and interest-free pricing that consumers have become accustomed to now that advanced phones are cracking four figures.
For Game Pass Ultimate and the Xbox Series X flagship, you pay $ 35 a month for two years. For the cheaper disc-free Xbox Series S (which can play all the same games with lower visual fidelity), it’s only $ 25 a month. It has admittedly been possible to buy a game console on credit or layaway, but to offer a combination subscription and zero interest financing like this is unsurpassed.
And that’s a lot too. Xbox Series X is $ 500, Xbox Series S is $ 300, and Game Pass Ultimate costs $ 360 for two years. So for $ 35 or $ 25 a month, players who go with this combination actually save $ 20 and $ 60, respectively. there is no reason not to select the combination subscription option.
With a few years of experience in selling Surfaces through the Microsoft Store (which includes financing options), Microsoft was ideally positioned to expand some of the same offerings to its gaming customers. So I’m inclined to think that this subscription model for both games and the hardware for playing them has been in the plans for a long time.
And while there is nothing nice about the Coronavirus pandemic, the fact is that humans have more time and less money than they would otherwise. That makes the appeal of a $ 25 per month subscription for more games than you can play in ten years, incredibly appealing right now. This is temporary for Microsoft: They have exactly the right plan at the right time.
A game for the future
Sony is still at the top of the world from dominating the console landscape with the PS4, and the Switch is still the most popular console for more regular gamers and children. To say that Microsoft’s subscription strategy for the new Xboxes has already “won the console war” would be incredibly short-sighted.
But make no mistake: the Xbox is in a great position when the new generation starts. We still need to see the rumored 4K upgrade for the Switch, and the future of streaming games is still very much in flux. But if I were a wader, I would bet on Xbox to get a very strong lead in 2021.