How Xbox’s ‘Netflix for games’ is expanding players’ horizons

By the numbers

In fact Matt Percy, head of planning for Game Pass at Microsoft, says players’ game time generally increases 20 per cent once they join Game Pass, and the number of different games they play goes up by 40 per cent.

Microsoft's Matt Percy, head of planning for Game Pass.

Microsoft’s Matt Percy, head of planning for Game Pass.

«People are drawn to the biggest brands and the stuff that they know. But with Game Pass we’re really giving them a wider taste and getting people to follow or look at a wide variety of franchises», Percy says. «People might come for Halo but then discover they love Ashen. That’s a really good thing for us as a platform».

It can apparently be a good thing for game-makers too, even though at face value you might wonder how getting a slice of a subscription compares financially to getting a cut of a full-price sale. For example Human Fall Flat is a game that was very successful on PC, but as a physics-based puzzle game you might expect it wouldn’t do as well on console. Percy says Game Pass members have played more than 3 million hours of it to date, and 40 per cent of those players had never played any puzzle game before.

In cases like this, the financial arrangement made between a game publisher and Microsoft for inclusion in Game Pass (details of which Microsoft does not disclose) could make more business sense than just putting the game on the store and waiting for people to buy it. But there are other potential benefits too.

New, big-name games that go into Game Pass see their active playerbase grow by a factor of two, Percy says, and older games see an average six times increase (but sometimes as high as 32 times). A bigger playerbase means a bigger audience for potential monetisation. For example in the past month Square Enix has added Tomb Raider Definitive Edition and Shadow of the Tomb Raider to Game Pass, meaning the entire rebooted trilogy is now available to members. This will potentially make new fans of the franchise and increase sales of paid add-on content, which is still being rolled out.

The lineup being added to Game Pass in February includes new release Crackdown 3, the recent Shadow of the Tomb Raider and a collection of older Batman Arkham games.

The lineup being added to Game Pass in February includes new release Crackdown 3, the recent Shadow of the Tomb Raider and a collection of older Batman Arkham games.

Percy also says that publishers could use Game Pass as «marketing that’s fun for consumers», by including their back catalogue games ahead of a new release. For example Bethesda recently made Doom and Rage available in Game Pass, ahead of the release of Doom Eternal and Rage 2 in 2019.

«On average we see a 25 per cent increase in franchise pre-orders and a 10 per cent increase in franchise sales coming from games that go into Game Pass,» Percy says. «And that’s coming from Game Pass members discovering they really love franchises and following along with them».

Dan Greenawalt is creative director at Turn 10, the Microsoft-owned studio behind the Forza racing series. He believes that, in an era of video games as live services, active playerbase is much more important for the business than an initial retail purchase.

Dan Greenawalt has been working on Forza at Turn 10 since 2002.

Dan Greenawalt has been working on Forza at Turn 10 since 2002.

«Last time we announced numbers for Forza, we were upwards of 8 million players in a given month», Greenawalt says. «That kind of tonnage of players gives you a tremendous amount of leverage to create new experiences. If you have the community … business will follow».

Last year’s Forza Horizon 4 was added to Game Pass immediately on launch, as all first party Microsoft games are, and while Greenawalt can’t say for sure how much of the games success can be attributed to the service, he says it’s clear that for certain kinds of games the subscription catalogue model can be a big benefit.

«Getting a larger community means more people are watching streams, which means more people create streams … which means more people want to play the game. It’s self-fuelling», Greenawalt says.

«If your game succeeds based on social interaction … with community feeding engagement with the game, then what you’ve got is a whole new funnel of players coming in through Game Pass, and that’s really interesting and really positive».

A much bigger pool

The idea that certain kinds of games will do better as part of a subscription service than being sold on their own is echoed by Derek Bradley, CEO of New Zealand’s A44. The studio’s first game, Ashen, is a tough, open-world and battle-focused roleplaying game. It has passive multiplayer, meaning other people drop into your game without you needing to invite them or wait in a lobby.

«There are certain games that really make a lot of sense for early access, and certain games that make a lot of sense for free-to-play, but I would say more than anything Ashen really makes a lot of sense for a Game Pass release», Bradley says.

«We want that healthy playerbase so that the pool of players that are getting collated in the background and matched into your game is as rich as possible».

A44 CEO Derek Bradley.

A44 CEO Derek Bradley.

Bradley says the decision to make a deal with Microsoft to launch Ashen day and date on Game Pass, rather than relying on gamers finding and paying full price for the game, was the easiest decision in the game’s development.

«The friction for [players] getting into Game Pass is so low», he says, pointing out that players with a limited budget might have only been able to play one or two games a month previously.

«We’re a new developer making a fairly ambitious thing, and we really need that community for the game to thrive, and Game Pass really made that happen. We’ve had a very very smooth transition into a Game Pass kind of model».

Bradley thinks that in the long term the subscription model, like early access and downloadable content before it, will lead to new kinds of games that just weren’t financially viable before. Specifically, the idea that a game needs to last players a certain number of hours to justify its cost will disappear.

But there are potential issues in a future where subscription gaming catalogues are common. Microsoft may say Game Pass is strictly «additive» to its traditional store, but in the past Netflix’s streaming catalogue was also additive to its DVD rental business. What happens if players decide they’d rather stick to only playing the games included in their subscriptions?

«It’s going to be a double-edged sword, especially for smaller indies that haven’t necessarily proved themselves», Bradley says, speculating that many new developers would have a hard time convincing a platform holder like Microsoft to pick them up, but that subscription services would make gamers less inclined to pay for a game directly.

«It’s going to be some tricky waters for the smallest indies, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how the different platforms tackle the same problems».

Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.

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