Indie Retailers Decry Xbox Game Pass, But What Did They Expect?

By Mark Delaney, 10 months ago
When Microsoft announced Xbox Game Pass would soon be adding exclusives like Sea of Thieves and Crackdown 3 on the same day and date as their retail releases, consumers were elated. On TA and across the gaming industry, the headline made waves and received nearly universal praise. From a particular perspective, however, the move isn't quite so popular. According to, independent and small business video game retailers have come down hard on the tactic and in some cases have begun to take drastic measures in reaction to Xbox Game Pass' forthcoming additions.

The UK based outlet, which looks at gaming from the business side (hence the URL), spoke with many local retailers who have voiced their concerns as sellers of Xbox games in a market where you can now treat your Xbox One somewhat like a Netflix-for-gaming device. "For the consumer, Xbox Game Pass is fantastic. For retail, it just kills us outright," said Stuart Benson of Extreme Gamez in Leicestershire. "Why should we support them and sell their consoles and accessories if we're going to get very little out of it? We don't make anything off their digital selection. It's pretty pointless. We might as well go where we're supported, which is Sony." Other store owners agree the writing has been on the wall since the Xbox One's original reveal which suggested the second hand game market would be coming to an end, before consumer outcry made the manufacturer reverse their decision.

Sea of Thieves is the first of several high profile exclusives launching on Xbox Game Pass this year.Sea of Thieves is the first of several high profile exclusives launching on Xbox Game Pass this year.

Microsoft has since responded to the backlash, telling
The response to the news thus far has been positive. As we noted in our announcement, our plan is to offer ways for select retailers to assort and promote Game Pass. In fact, we've been pleasantly surprised with the breadth of demand from retailers so far, and we're considering if and how we broaden our distribution plans. We welcome feedback on our plans, and will continue to evolve our plans as appropriate.
It's a pretty canned reply considering many store owners are feeling personally slighted by the company. Still, I can't help but side with Microsoft, as harsh as that sounds. The world is on track to an all-digital future, and there's no getting off the train. Companies greatly prefer the predictability of subscriptions as opposed to one-and-done transactions. How many people sign up for a free trial and forget to cancel? How many people willingly keep a subscription for a service they hardly use? These sorts of consumers are essentially donating to companies, and why would a for-profit company want it any other way? Even those who pay for a service they use frequently allow their usage data to be mined and turned into marketing tools that are later spun back onto them and other potential users.

Crackdown 3 will be found in Game Pass, but not found in every store as a result.Crackdown 3 will be found in Game Pass, but not found in every store as a result.

The modern world isn't about ownership, it's about access. It's an arrangement we as consumers decided was ideal for us long ago, as Kevin wrote about last weekend. As content creators and platforms like Netflix, HBO, and now Xbox have made it work for them, it's really a win-win for most everyone. Most people are willing to pay a little bit on a schedule to get a whole lot of options rather than buy things in piecemeal. Some would even call having a lot of physical media 'clutter.' I know I do. DVDs, music, and books, for the most part I own all of these only digitally, taking up hard drive space is much more to my liking than taking up shelf space. The gaming world is really the last to assimilate because our consoles weren't previously capable of storing hundreds of games the way our iPods could store hundreds of songs over a decade ago. That's no longer true, however. Consoles are now at the point where they can handle the workload.

Xbox Game Pass is a smart play for the here and now because it doesn't require streaming like the premature PlayStation Now. In years to come however, Game Pass or something like it will be streamed on Xbox. Phil Spencer has hinted at that future himself recently, as it's no secret which way the world is moving to someone in his position. When internet infrastructure is reliable enough for the vast majority of users that streaming games is no longer an obstacle, services like PS Now and the future streaming version of Xbox Game Pass will be held in the same regard as Netflix. All the chatter we hear in the meantime is resistance to change, which is expected but not permanent.

For a long time, there will remain people for whom buying things physically is just the best option. Even in music where society first adopted the digital future well over a decade ago, there are still vinyl enthusiasts today. But vinyl does not dominate the market, and neither do CDs of course. For the most part, these options exist for the pockets of collectors or those cut off from reliable internet in their cities and towns. In gaming, companies like Limited Run Games help satisfy collectors with physical media, but as it is with other media, these services cater only to niche audiences. They're actually more likely to survive as they're a speciality store, selling very limited physical copies of otherwise digital-only games. But anyone selling games en masse like GameStop and their indie counterparts will need to evolve with the industry or risk extinction. Most of you reading this will transition into a digital gaming future whether you know it right now or not. Few of you will hold out, no doubt, but the industry will almost entirely move on without you.

On the road to the fabled land of Digitalia.On the road to the fabled land of Digitalia.

It may not seem like it, but when I read the stories this week, I truly did sympathize for these small businesses. These store owners have such little control over their market, and it's always going to be an uphill battle for the little guy to compete with big stores. Now as the console manufacturers look to cut out stores of any size and sell directly to their users, it's surely a terrifying time for anyone whose livelihood depends on physical game sales. It's probably the best move these retailers can make to cut Xbox from their stores entirely, not as some revenge play but because it may be true that stocking those games won't be viable anymore. That's adaptation, and it's what's required to stay alive.

If it's not enough to save them, we can at least see things from their point of view. I too would be at a loss deciding my next move selling physical merchandise in a digital world, but that sympathy still doesn't stop the train. The salesperson who said he'll have to stick with Sony because they support him needs to understand that Sony will one day break his heart too, and that day is coming soon.

It's well documented how music retailers felt about a once burgeoning iTunes. Movie rental stores were struck down by Redbox and Netflix for the same reasons. Crying foul at gaming's digital future is like trying to save the lantern industry in a post-lightbulb world, or horse-and-buggy carriages after the automobile. It's like trying to save coal when renewable energy is not just more efficient but at this point a matter of public safety. Certainly the stakes aren't nearly as high for anyone fighting against the digital future of games, but their resistance is equally futile.

Thanks to for their initial reporting on this matter.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.