20 moments that defined Xbox: #16 — Xbox Game Pass

By Sean Carey,
Microsoft has been on a crusade of offering consumer-friendly features for a while now, from Games with Gold and backwards compatibility to more recent ideas such as forward-compatible hardware and FPS Boost. But the most consumer-friendly has to be Xbox Game Pass, with its ever-evolving library of games and other features that provide extreme value for money. In today's Xbox20 defining moments article, we're looking at Xbox Game Pass and how it has earned its "best deal in gaming" moniker.

Xbox Game Pass

Xbox Game Pass was first introduced to the world in 2017, but as revealed in a recent GQ article, the service was in concept phase as early as 2013, codenamed 'Arches.' Game Pass was designed initially as a game rental service, but with the likes of Netflix and Spotify growing in popularity and proving that subscription-based business models could work for online media, Microsoft changed Game Pass to be a subscription service. Microsoft began shopping the idea out to publishers, but it was quickly met with hesitation. Microsoft CVP Sarah Bond told GQ that publishers thought it would devalue their games, so instead, Microsoft asked to use older games from their back catalogues as the risk was much lower.

On February 28th, 2017, Microsoft announced Xbox Game Pass to the world, offering players unlimited access to over 100 Xbox One and backwards-compatible Xbox 360 games — a list featuring the likes of including Halo 5: Guardians, Payday 2, NBA 2K16, and SoulCalibur II — for just $9.99 a month. The service rolled out to Xbox Insiders that day, and to Xbox Live Gold subscribers shortly before launch.

Xbox Game Pass officially launched on June 1st, 2017, and although it wasn't necessarily a new concept, it offered much more variety and value for money when compared to similar services. EA's own subscription service, EA Access, was popular, but its library was limited compared to Xbox Game Pass, and Sony's PS Now was limited to just streaming games at the time. Xbox Game Pass gave subscribers access to a massive selection of titles from various publishers that could also be downloaded straight onto the user's console, but as we all know, Game Pass would only continue to grow and offer better value for money going forward.

Sea of Thieves

Microsoft saw great engagement with Xbox Game Pass in its early days, but Xbox boss Phil Spencer decided on a potentially risky move that would include one of Xbox Game Studios' exclusive first-party titles in the service on the same day it was made available for purchase. Sea of Thieves, which would have usually cost gamers $60 to play, could be accessed with an Xbox Game Pass subscription for just $9.99. As revealed in a recent GQ article, Rare's Craig Duncan asked Spencer, "If every single person plays Sea Of Thieves on Game Pass, and we don't sell a single copy. Are you kind of cool with that?" Spencer replied with: "Absolutely." Sea of Thieves went on to have a successful launch in terms of sales, despite its inclusion into Game Pass, proving that the business model could work. As a result, Microsoft would release all of its exclusive first-party games into the service, and unlike third-party games, they'd never be removed.

A couple of years after launch, Microsoft announced a new tier of subscription, which is where Xbox Game Pass would really earn its "best deal in gaming" moniker. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate combined Xbox Live Gold and Xbox Game Pass into one subscription for $14.99 a month, saving subscribers $5 a month. Not long after the Ultimate reveal, Microsoft would expand Xbox Game Pass over to PC in a bid to capture some of the huge PC gaming market. Xbox Game Pass for PC was announced in May 2019, offering over 100 games (some without achievement lists, boo!) to subscribers, including Microsoft's first-party offerings to those on Windows machines, for just $4.99 a month — this would later increase to $9.99 a month. While Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Game Pass for PC were offered as separate subscriptions, Xbox Game Pass for PC would also be included as part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate — subscribers now had access to a vast library of games to play across both console and PC, and they had the cost of Live connectivity thrown in too. Microsoft could have stopped there, and most users probably would have been content, but those mad lads just kept going, adding even more value to the service. The Quests program was revamped into Xbox Game Pass Quests, offering subscribers a way to earn Microsoft Rewards Points that could then be exchanged for gift cards. In the future, Microsoft would add Xbox Game Pass Ultimate perks, which offered a wide range of benefits, including Spotify Premium and things like in-game cosmetics. ​Both of these programs, Microsoft could have easily just not included, and subscribers would have likely been more than happy with what the service already offered but nope — Microsoft just had to keep making Xbox Game Pass even more attractive.

Xbox Game Pass for PC

In September 2020, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate was propelled into a league of its own. Microsoft announced that its xCloud game streaming surface (now known as Xbox Cloud Gaming) would be included with an Ultimate subscription and that it had partnered with EA to include the full EA Play library into Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and Xbox Game Pass for PC. With Xbox Cloud Gaming, subscribers with an Android phone or tablet would now be able to play over 100 cloud-optimised games on their mobile devices, and they only needed a decent internet connection and a controller to do so. Later, Xbox Cloud Gaming would expand to iOS devices, Windows PCs, and Xbox consoles. EA Play rolled out with an Ultimate subscription on the day the Xbox Series X|S launched, November 10th, 2020, offering subscribers instant access to some of EA's finest titles. All of this was included in an Ultimate subscription without Microsoft raising the price, which was fantastic for Xbox players, but it did raise a few eyebrows.

With so much on offer for such a low monthly price, commentators have often asked how this sort of business model could be sustainable and if Microsoft is actually making any profit from Game Pass (especially with the $1 for Ultimate trick still being a thing). Of course, other than subscriber numbers, we don't actually know proper figures, but Xbox chief Phil Spencer has called the model "completely sustainable" at current subscription prices. GM of Xbox games marketing, Aaron Greenberg, also revealed that Xbox Game Pass isn't "a big profit play" for Microsoft in the short term and is instead focusing on more long-term goals and building a loyal customer base. And Microsoft appears to be doing well on that front. In January 2021, Microsoft reported that Xbox Game Pass had grown from 15 million subscribers in September 2020 to 18 million. However, it's not just down to raw subscriber numbers in what makes Xbox Game Pass successful. Microsoft has also noted that those with a Game Pass subscription tend to spend more money. In an interview with Forbes, Microsoft CVP Sarah Bond revealed that Game Pass subscribers spent 20% more on gaming overall than non-subscribers, which is quite surprising if you think about it.

Descenders

It's not just Xbox gamers who are seeing the benefits from Xbox Game Pass, though — developers love it too, especially indie developers and publishers. When Outer Wilds was included in the service, developer Loan Verneau had nothing but praise for Xbox Game Pass, saying it had brought new players to Outer Wilds that wouldn't have played it otherwise. Mike Rose of publisher No More Robots revealed that Xbox Game Pass "elevated" the sales of downhill biking game Descenders. According to Rose, sales of Descenders tripled after it was added into Xbox Game Pass. "If I take the month before we went into Game Pass, and compared it to sales of the game last week, we're now selling around five times as many units each week as pre-Game Pass, on a weekly basis, Rose said on Twitter. "Since we went into Game Pass, our total Xbox sales have tripled. Game Pass is good, yo." These are just two of many examples of industry folks praising the service.

As for the future of Xbox Game Pass, we know that Microsoft has plans to include Game Pass via Xbox Cloud Gaming in new standalone devices for televisions, and to integrate the service directly into smart TVs via an app that would bring the service to even more people. Microsoft has also stated that it's exploring new subscription offerings, which could see more subscription tiers introduced in the future. There have been calls for some sort of combined family subscription, and Phil Spencer himself reportedly spoke on the possibility of an Xbox Game Pass Platinum tier, which would include Xbox hardware in something akin to an Xbox All Access subscription. Where Microsoft takes Xbox Game Pass from there is unknown, but you can be sure that its carefully cultivated subscriber base who have been loving the access the service provides will follow suit.

That's it for today's 20 moments that defined Xbox article! Be sure to come back tomorrow, when we'll be taking a look at a unique controller that opened up gaming to an even wider audience. No, not Kinect. We've done that. Twice. Until then, what are your thoughts on Xbox Game Pass? Love it? Hate it? Let us know in the comments below!

Sean Carey
Written by Sean Carey
Hey, I’m Sean! I joined both TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies as a staff writer in 2019. I’m a big fan of the Metal Gear Solid series and love a good narrative adventure. Most evenings you’ll find me failing to get a win in Call of Duty: Warzone.