With Activision, Microsoft is one giant step closer to game subscription dominance
This weekend I noticed that my PS5 and Switch were literally gathering dust – and realized that’s because I play my games almost exclusively on Xbox Game Pass. The service has an incredible wealth of titles; in just the past few weeks i’m done Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, unpacked boxes in unpackingtried and not invested in it Legendary Mass Effect Edition, saw my wife deliver mail in Lake, and currently living out my Jedi dreams in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. I can watch new games almost as easily as I can play a Netflix show, thanks to the recently added ability to stream titles from the cloud.
But with Microsoft paying $68.7 billion to acquire Activision Blizzard — the company’s largest purchase in history — it’s going to be even harder for other gaming companies to pull me away from Game Pass as power and influence grows.
Microsoft has been in charge of a Netflix-like gaming service for years. The company first launched Xbox Game Pass in 2017, and it feels like it’s been busy shopping ever since. It acquired Skyrimcreator Bethesda Softworks, Tim Schafer’s Double Fine, and the studio behind the Forza Horizon series to bolster its roster of developers and, most importantly, the number of games it can offer exclusively on Game Pass. With its most expensive subscription of $15 per month, Microsoft also lets you play many Game Pass games on many non-Xbox devices via the cloud — a handy option at a time when new Xbox consoles are hard to come by.
With Activision, Microsoft would get a huge lineup of popular games that could make the already great Game Pass almost unbeatable, especially if Microsoft kept them from other platforms like Sony’s PlayStation. Perhaps the most obvious potential addition is the hugely popular Duty series — Activision CEO Bobby Kotick has already indicated that a streaming Duty could be in the cards. But it doesn’t stop there: Blizzard’s Overwatch 2 an Xbox console could become an exclusive on Game Pass. Microsoft could decide to bring back Guitar Hero. And of course Blizzard can easily bring early popular PC games like warcraft and starcraft also on the PC side of Game Pass. These are just some of the possibilities on the table and I’m sure Microsoft is thinking of many more.
Game Pass is such a big part of Microsoft’s gaming strategy that my colleague Tom Warren argued in July 2020 that Game Pass is the company’s true next-gen Xbox. And that was before Microsoft’s big deals for Bethesda and Activision. The company’s massive investment and focus puts Microsoft leagues ahead of all competition, and it seems increasingly difficult for anyone to catch up.
Sony’s subscription efforts for PlayStation, for example, don’t offer daily access to the company’s biggest exclusive games, which is arguably Microsoft’s biggest advantage with Game Pass. While Sony is reportedly planning to merge its PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now services into a Game Pass competitor, Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier, who tipped off the existence of Sony’s plans, tells you still don’t expect it to have Sony’s biggest games the day they come out. That means you might have to pay full price to play God of War: Ragnarok when it comes out, while Game Pass subscribers won’t have to pay a cent extra to play starfield.
This new service, expected in the spring, is likely to retain the “PlayStation Plus” branding. Don’t expect Sony to include its big new games day one like Game Pass, but expect a stronger offering than PlayStation Now
— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) Dec 3, 2021
Sony also has ground to gain in cloud gaming. The company had a big head start by buying cloud gaming startup Gaikai in 2012 and launching cloud gaming with PlayStation Now in 2015, but Sony has largely squandered its lead. Sure, with PlayStation Now you can stream back-catalog PS4, PS3 and PS2 games, but with Game Pass you can stream new Microsoft games like Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5. And in a weird twist of business collaboration, Sony trusts on Microsoft for the future of its cloud gaming after the two tech giants announced a partnership in 2019.
Nintendo is even further behind. Nintendo Switch Online (NSO) lets you play some of the company’s very best older games, but only on a Nintendo Switch console – unlike Game Pass, you can’t play those games on your PC or your phone. To relive the glory days of Nintendo 64 games, you have to pay an additional $30 annually for the premium tier. NSO doesn’t offer cloud gaming at all, though Nintendo does sell cloud versions of some third-party games, such as the main three Kingdom Hearts titles and Check. And while it’s possible, it seems extremely unlikely that Nintendo will offer day-and-date releases for its upcoming titles on NSO in the near future; you will almost certainly have to buy the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild automatically when it suits you.
Other gaming subscription services aren’t much of a competition to Microsoft either. One of the best is arguably EA Play, but that’s already included with an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription. Ubisoft has its own version, Ubisoft Plus, and while it won’t be bundled with Game Pass, Ubisoft plans to bring the service to Xbox in the future. Apple and Google also offer game subscriptions, and even Netflix is starting to play games, but they all have a limited selection at the moment and all are focused on gaming on phones.
At one point, cloud gaming seemed like a way for other companies to offer potentially great subscription plans, but it just didn’t happen. Google had promising plans for Stadia, but decided that investing in original content wasn’t worth it and closed its in-house game development studios. Amazon’s Luna — which is still in early access more than a year after its initial launch — relies on other publishers for content, and the only publisher contributing major games is Ubisoft (which has its own Ubisoft Plus channel that pays a separate subscription fee). costs). Nvidia’s GeForce Now is technically impressive, especially the new RTX 3080 tier, but the company struggled with publishers over content rights. Cloud gaming services from companies like Walmart, Verizon, EA and Comcast have fallen by the wayside. Microsoft, on the other hand, has found success by offering cloud gaming as a perk rather than relying on the technology as the core of its subscription.
Microsoft’s massive investment in Game Pass and studios like Activision could help turn the traditional console business, largely dominated by Sony and Nintendo, on its head. All three companies have competed for players’ attention for years with exclusive games from first-party studios available only on their respective consoles. You need to buy the right hardware to experience the exciting new games that everyone is talking about. But with Game Pass you could play Halo Infinite, one of Microsoft’s biggest games of 2021, on day one with just your laptop, an Xbox controller and a good internet connection – no expensive console required.
That scenario is consistent with what Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer has said before. “I don’t need to sell a specific version of the console to achieve our business goals,” he told The edge in 2019, when the Xbox Series X was codenamed Project Scarlett and Xbox’s cloud gaming wasn’t out yet. “Ultimately, how many subscribers you have for something like Game Pass, how many games people buy, those are much better metrics for the health of the company.”
Right now, Microsoft is battling for more exclusive games for Xbox on an unprecedented scale — the nearly $69 billion Activision deal will be more than double Microsoft’s previous biggest — and making those games easier than ever to play by getting them to them. to add widely accessible Game Pass subscription.
Microsoft is betting that Game Pass is the future of the gaming industry. Even if it’s wrong, the company will have an impressive number of new Xbox games. But if it’s right, the Activision deal could give it a huge head start.