With the Xbox Games Pass announcement, which is Microsoft’s new game download subscription service, we’re seeing the advent of something that is the most brainless of no-brainers in our current game industry. How this has taken so long, several years into this generation, is… well I’d love to say it’s confusing, but it probably boils down to profit margins, IP rights, and retail deals. But still, this service is literally the thing we’ve all been asking for in lieu of “free games,” and especially in lieu of streaming.
Downloading games on demand can be traced back as early as the Sega Channel, a device for the Sega Genesis that, for a monthly fee, beamed games to your console through a cable line. This didn’t last long because of the whole “Sega being brilliant but unsustainably early” thing, but it set the stage for things that are commonplace and expected now. Since then, the Xbox Live Arcade launched on the original Xbox in 2004. Netflix streaming launched in 2007.
In the ten years since, companies have been struggling to figure out how to build that bridge from individual games on demand to that Netflix-like subscription service. Services have come and gone, such as GameFly’s failed download service and subsequent streaming venture. OnLive was another attempt. PlayStation Now has worked in a functional sense, but recently captured headlines when Sony ceased support for multiple platforms. Nintendo, on the other hand hasn’t even bothered, more content to reboot the Virtual Console with each new piece of hardware.
The Xbox Games Pass seems to address the issue in a manner that may end up as flawed as anything else, but sounds like the best case scenario on paper. There’s no denying that dropping streaming is the most important difference here. Streaming has proven to be unstable and exclusionary. These services are only even usable on high-speed Internet connections, and that still doesn’t eliminate input latency issues. Want to play a fighting game on PlayStation Now? Good luck.
The price point is perfect, at about ten bucks. Worrisome here is what sort of third-party support to expect. Many publishers are probably balking at the idea of giving games away for such a low price, as business people are wont to do when it comes to new models. The list of games being rolled out to Xbox Game Pass alpha testers is not super impressive. They’re good games, although nothing you can’t currently find in a bargain bin. That said, ten dollars for the whole lot is still a steal.
I feel like games cycling in and out, paired with subscriber discounts and all of it tied to download licensing, is great compromise. This will allow companies to test the waters without frustrating players in the process. This should prove to everyone involved that this kind of business model works, since pointing at Netflix and its ilk with giant, blinking lights for ten years apparently wasn’t enough. It might be a rocky start, very reliant on the quality and range of content available, but the inclusion of backwards-compatible Xbox 360 games should help drive interest in a roundabout sort of way.
Hopefully, the Xbox Games Pass is a success and sets a precedent for the rest of the industry. If Sony and Nintendo figure this out and join in with similar offerings, video games can finally be Actually Good. I’m exaggerating, but how great would it be to meet the erosion of physical media with comparable content services across everyone’s media of choice? Sounds like an impossible utopia, but we could be staring right at the foundation.