If you're into entertainment subscription services like Netflix, I want you to have an honest think about the quality of programming you have watched. You've more than likely picked up on some of the platform's landmark, even boundary-pushing documentaries, TV series and original movies. But you've probably binged on old episodes of Doomsday Preppers or seen through a sick day laughing at the horrific confections on display in Nailed It! In a time when a lot of us are trying to come to terms with a lot of challenging ideas and difficult realisations about the state of the world, there's still a place for giving ourselves a break and just zoning out with something straightforward. Video games have rightfully been praised for trying to approach the former, but there's still a space for the latter, and much like Netflix I think Xbox Game Pass is the perfect service to deliver both.
In case you hadn't noticed, Crackdown 3 has been catching a lot of flak for not being the ground-breaking, building-smashing cloud experience it was supposed to be. Instead we have an almost laughably simplistic collectible-hoovering open world full of one-note villains and almost zero innovation over its decade-old predecessor. It's a familiar criticism that one could level at a whole bunch of recent releases, whether that's the latest Ubisoft product or yet another regurgitation of the LEGO formula. These games tap in to a very basic compulsion to collect, to sweep up and put everything in its place so that these sometimes sterile worlds are picked clean. It’s therapeutic — not unlike Netflix’s latest comfort food, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.
The thing is, you don’t want to spend $50 on such comfort food. The idea of comfort food is really to be something familiar, accessible and cost-effective. Historically that might have been a quick trip to a fast food joint, or in the case of games a trip to a second-hand store to pick up that 6/10 rated 360 game with an easy completion. But the times are changing — we’re in the age of subscription models. You might already be getting a box of comforting snacks or pre-portioned meal ingredients in the mail once a week, with appealing new additions turning up all the time. It’s not just the thrill of a new experience, it’s the comfort of knowing it’s not going to take much effort to access that experience. Xbox Game Pass represents that same opportunity, and it’s the surprising success of games like Crackdown 3 that provide proof. With Game Pass potentially becoming available on Nintendo Switch, the possibility for picking up these easy-going experiences on the move becomes even more tantalising.
If Crackdown 3 had been only a premium release, there’s no way I would have bought it at full price. The latest retail charts on other sites will indicate that Crackdown 3 has performed pretty poorly — as perhaps it should, given the retail price in context of what the game actually offers. But that’s the whole reason we started the Xbox Gameplay Chart here on TA, to show what people are actually playing rather than just what they are purchasing at retail — which often only includes physical sales anyway. In its first weekend of release Crackdown 3’s campaign shot straight up the chart as the third most played game of the preceding week — losing out only to the preposterously popular Fortnite and Apex Legends. Compare that to Metro Exodus, a “better” game by most metrics; it couldn’t even break the top 30 in its debut week. It’s getting to the point where we shouldn’t be surprised by this anymore — after all, what chance does an inspiring new movie out at the cinema have compared to a glossy new Netflix drama, plastered all over our screens as soon as we load the app with no additional upfront cost?
It’s not a practice we should be quick to criticise, either. After all, the “filler” releases on Netflix allow its more experimental projects to get funding. Game Pass might have Crackdown 3 and the like, but the service also gives visibility to artistic marvels like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Here’s another comparison — I can’t tell you how many TV series I tried a couple of episodes of before dropping off on Netflix. Yet when the hype builds in subsequent episodes and seasons, it’s so easy for me to give these series another go — all the episodes are right there to try again, a button click away. It’s how shows like The Good Place or Bojack Horseman go from being cult curios to household names.
In a similar vein, the subscription model is also how Sea of Thieves went from a misunderstood potential embarrassment at release to suddenly spilling all over Twitch nine months later, and still sits comfortably in the top 40 even when that second wave of hype had died down. When I signed back up for Games Pass this month, it was to scratch a single itch — to relive my collectible hoovering days back with the original Crackdown for a very small monthly charge that I could cancel any time. But here I am re-downloading Sea of Thieves as well, despite publicly lambasting my first three weeks with the game on a PlayList podcast. I want to see what the fuss is about now, see what I missed, and I don’t have to re-purchase the game or really make any effort in order to take another look.
Crackdown 3 will be the last release from Microsoft Studios under their old moniker, and for many its old fashioned ideas and uninspiring gameplay are a reflection of the company’s need to reinvent themselves with their new studios — to become a sponsor of the most artistic and awards-laden games like their rivals at PlayStation. I hope that happens for some of their acquired studios, but let’s not pretend that the change will be wholesale. Crackdown’s player numbers show that there is perhaps more room than ever for easy-going comfort gaming thanks to the very low financial barrier to entry offered by Xbox Game Pass, and Xbox Game Studios will certainly use this tactic to keep the subscribers coming in. This in turn gives those in charge the revenue and shareholder satisfaction to try out something bolder with their newly acquired talents.
At some point over the weekend I will surely be in my lounge wear, snacking on something not quite healthy and hunting down orbs, all the while dreaming about the next artistic marvel from Ninja Theory or the mysterious AAAA experience from The Initiative. These two tiers of entertainment quality exist in harmony thanks to the streaming model laid out by Netflix and its rivals, and it’s a future I’m happy to embrace.
Get the biggest Xbox news delivered straight to your inbox every week.