As of today, if you sign up for Microsoft’s $10-per-month Game Pass service, you’ll not only gain access to a rotating library of on-demand video games, but in the future, every single exclusive published by Microsoft. It’s a shrewd move on Microsoft’s part, but one whose real dividends won’t pay off until Microsoft makes good on its promise to deliver more interesting games for the platform. It’s been one Microsoft's biggest weaknesses this generation, and one of Sony's biggest strengths. (See: today's God of War news.)
It’s also a marked differentiation from Sony’s similar offering, PlayStation Now. (Do you use Now? Hit me up.) With Now, however, you’re streaming games, not downloading them. With Game Pass, though the library of games might change, if you’ve downloaded the game, it doesn’t go anywhere. You always have access. And while Now has some Sony exclusives in its lineup, it doesn’t have every Sony exclusive. (Yet.)
The launch of Xbox One X last year, ditching Kinect and embracing a box focused on resolution and frame rate, was the culmination of a years long pivot, as Microsoft tried to dig out of a hole of their own making. While the hardware has come a long way, the software hasn’t caught up. Microsoft has struggled to establish new worlds for Xbox One, relying on fine-but-familiar sequels in franchises in need of shaking up.
A little over a year ago, here’s how I characterized Xbox’s troubled software lineup:
More than anything, though, Microsoft fumbled the games. The biggest independent developers shifted their allegiance to Sony, and Microsoft Studios oversaw an agonizing creative rut, where the company largely doubled down on what had worked in the past—Halo, Gears of War, Forza Motorsport—and figured that'd be enough. 'Gears of War 4' was fine. 'Halo 5' was fine. Forza Motorsport continued to be great. But while Gears of War was a genuine revelation in 2006, that was 2006. Halo was exhausting itself by the time 'Halo: Reach' showed up, and despite Halo and Gears of War being handed to new studios, it largely felt like going through the motions. Microsoft wasn't taking internal risks, nor was it locking up the kinds of partnerships that helped it the last time around, like Realtime Worlds with Crackdown.
The most pleasant surprise on Xbox last year was Cuphead. Microsoft needs more Cupheads! That’s easy to say, of course—”Make more good games!”—but it remains an essential truth, if Microsoft is going to complete the turnaround pitch. What Cuphead represented was something most of Microsoft’s software lineup isn’t: a risk. It was bold and weird. A huge reason Cuphead made a splash was because it was wholly unique. (It was also a game with some notable issues but the point remains.)
One hopes the reason for doubling down on a Netflix-style model is confidence there’s enough to justify the fee. That path might not be clear now, but as we scratch our heads at what Microsoft could show at E3, maybe the calculation changes. (And we try to forget about Scalebound.) But let’s say Microsoft launched Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2, and Crackdown 3 before E3, a nice mix of old and new. Then, at E3, showcased a coherent vision of where Xbox is going? Well, that’d be mighty interesting.
Microsoft talked a big game the last year. At E3, Xbox head Phil Spencer told me the company has huge, unannounced investments in games that’ll pay off in the years to come. At some point, the talk will have to translate into games—more Cupheads.
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