Ahead of Sunday’s highly anticipated Microsoft/Bethesda Games Showcase at E3, Microsoft held a virtual press briefing about the future of Xbox and the company’s approach to gaming. And, unsurprisingly, much of it came back to Xbox Game Pass.
Microsoft has been gradually building on the service, which grants users access to a library of hundreds of games for a monthly subscription, since its launch in 2017. It’s been a consistent presence at all of Xbox’s presentations at large events like E3, and Microsoft shows no sign of slowing down in what once seemed like a risky proposition.
At the briefing, the Xbox team revealed a few pieces of news, several of which tie into its commitment to Game Pass and cloud gaming. For one, Xbox is working with global TV manufacturers to embed the Xbox experience directly into internet-connected televisions with no extra hardware required, aside from a controller. It’s also working on building its own streaming devices for cloud gaming to reach gamers on TVs without the need for a console or PC at all.
Additionally, Xbox is exploring new subscription offerings for Game Pass (there are currently $10/month options for either console or PC, or Game Pass Ultimate, including both console and PC and several other features, for $15/month). Cloud gaming through Xbox Game Pass Ultimate will expand to Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Japan later this year, and in the next few weeks, cloud gaming on browsers will be open to all Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members.
They’re the latest investments in a service that Microsoft has been keen on developing throughout the past four years. Over the past few months alone, Game Pass has had impressive day-and-date releases like “Outriders”; EA Play became available for Game Pass Ultimate members on PC; and Microsoft’s $7.5 billion acquisition of gaming behemoth Bethesda unleashed a torrent of popular titles on Game Pass’ library (and set the stage for some very enticing day-and-date releases in the future). Liz Hamren, corporate vice president of gaming experiences and platforms at Microsoft, says the company is moving full-steam ahead with the model for a pretty simple reason: it works.
“It’s working for gamers, and it’s also working for publishers,” Hamren tells Variety. “We’re seeing that Game Pass drives engagement and awareness of a game both in Game Pass and outside Game Pass, so we see it as kind of a discovery and engagement engine… we think that’s one of the unique things about it and as we see more and more engagement on both sides, that makes us just want to invest more because our hypotheses about the benefits, they’re kind of coming to fruition.”
Earlier this year, Xbox announced that Game Pass had grown to 18 million users, and Hamren says Xbox is seeing “incredibly high engagement” from gamers who purchased Microsoft’s next-generation consoles, the Xbox Series X and S, since their release last November. According to Microsoft, Game Pass members play 30% more genres and play 40% more games, and more than 90% of members have said they played a game that they would not have tried without Game Pass.
Aside from the deal for the consumers, though, there were concerns when Game Pass was first announced that it would take a bite out of sales for the games that were part of its library. After all, why pay $60 for a game when you can get it for free within Game Pass?
Hamren insists, though, that they’ve seen the opposite to be true, and uses Square Enix’s “Outriders” as an example. Despite dropping for both individual purchase and within the Game Pass library simultaneously on April 1, Hamren notes that it was the No. 1 selling digital game on Xbox during its launch week and a top 10 selling digital game on Xbox in the month of April. Similarly, “MLB: The Show 21,” which also launched day-and-date on Game Pass, was the biggest sports game of the past year on Xbox and the second-biggest sports game of all time on Xbox.
“We’re seeing that yes, people are playing in Game Pass, but at the same time, a number of the games in Game Pass you’re seeing topping the charts in terms of digital sales as well,” she says. “Even for day-and-date games, we’re seeing that it just drives overall engagement with the game and drives players to the game.”
That engagement isn’t limited to titles from large developers, either, Hamren says. Microsoft reports that over the last four years, indie developers have seen their revenue almost double thanks to engagement from Game Pass.
Moving forward, Hamren sees refining the discovery process of games as a big priority for Game Pass. “How do we show people what’s available?” she says. “How do we predict what they might want to play? How do we help them see what their friends are playing and find a set of games to play together?”
Otherwise, she says the team is focusing on adding content to the service, making sure Game Pass itself is incredibly easy to use and taking it to more screens with xCloud.
“I think the mission of Xbox has been just to bring the joy and community of gaming to more people,” she says. “We’re just, I think at this juncture, really able to invest in that.”