Hi-Fi Rush Reveals How Xbox Game Pass Can Save a Dying Breed of Game
Blast from the past.
The last few years have been dry in terms of Xbox exclusives. Halo Infinite failed to make a huge splash, while big-ticket upcoming projects like Avowed, Fable, and Hellblade 2 continue to receive only the briefest of updates.
Development costs and timelines for AAA games continue to balloon to ridiculous heights. There’s a widening gulf between big-budget blockbusters and small-team indie darlings that go viral out of nowhere. That’s why Xbox’s two most recent exclusives, Hi-Fi Rush and Pentiment, both feel like a tremendous breath of fresh air.
The directors of both Hi-Fi Rush and Pentiment have called these games “passion projects.” Hi-Fi Rush is drastically different from what Tango Gameworks usually does, while Pentiment is laser-focused on a very specific niche, in terms of its time period and slow-paced gameplay.
“What we were trying to do is go back in time to when projects were a little bit smaller, where we were able to execute on a very specific vision, instead of being these sort of mega games that need to have everyone enjoy them,” creative director John Johanas tells Inverse. “There’s something to be said about seasoned developers being able to have a budget behind a passion project. It feels like a niche that people are looking for.”
Johanas says Hi-Fi Rush is the kind of game “he wanted to play,” and that directly contributed to the overall vision. That idea feels directly juxtaposed against the majority of game development these days, with so many games feeling like they’ve been market researched to appeal to as broad a demographic as possible. But not every game studio is Nintendo, and often broader you get, the more of that unique artistic vision you lose along the way.
Take God of Wår: Ragnarok as an example, a sequel that’s bigger and better than the original gameplay-wise, but feels like a step back narratively. Ragnarok loses some of that unique edge the 2018 God of Wår had, with its almost arthouse stylings for story and narrative. The same can be said about another PlayStation sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, which again adds more gameplay mechanics and features, but starts to feel more homogenized than the original.
In contrast, Hi-Fi Rush and Pentiment hone in on unique mechanics and ideas that are supported by *both* the gameplay and narrative. Those two aspects of the game don’t need to feel like they’re separate, because both are a core part of understanding the experiences that are on offer.
“To see something that is really focused and has a strong vision fits this kind of empty hole that’s in the industry right now. That’s an area gamers are looking for. I don’t know if it’s going to be a mammoth profitable success, like some of these mega triple-A or quadruple-A games can be,” Johanes tells Inverse. “But from a creative position, it’s something that I hope we see more of. It’s tough because people are like ‘Oh this was cheap and easy to make,” and no, Hi-Fi Rush took five years and was very time-consuming and difficult.”
Even smaller projects like Hi-Fi Rush still require a lot of time and money, two things that are often given by publishers to projects with more guaranteed success. There’s not a clear-cut answer on how developers and studios can make smaller, riskier games, but it really does come down to publishers being willing to take the risk. And Xbox Game Pass is starting to prove that the risk really can be worth it.
Pentiment director Josh Sawyer has said that the game likely wouldn’t have happened without the subscription service. Sawyer apparently pitched a Pentiment-like game years ago, but it was never approved because of how “niche” it seemed.
“Before being acquired by Microsoft, I don't think I would have pitched this game, because I don't think we could have found a publisher. Maybe we could have crowdfunded it. Maybe. But a publisher wouldn't have touched it, because it's very niche,” Sawyer tells Wired in an interview. “But it can exist on a platform like Game Pass, where you're already subscribed, so why not play the game with an artist with a flaming head?”
We’ve still yet to see the long-term sustainability of Game Pass, but as subscription services become more prevalent, that might be the answer to bringing back more artistic and riskier projects. It’s undeniable, however, that Game Pass has Xbox more appealing to users, and in turn boosted Microsoft’s overall position in the industry.
At the end of February industry analyst Piers Harding-Rolls tweeted out a set of data, showing that since 2021 Sony had lost 1.3 percent of market share in the industry, which has since been picked up by Microsoft to become a close third just behind Nintendo. At the same time,in November 2022 Harding-Rolls tweeted data showing Game Pass controls a tremendous 60 percent of the subscription service market. While we don’t have official numbers from Microsoft, all of this translates to millions of Game Pass users, all of which could potentially play an enticing new release like Hi-Fi Rush.
Having smaller games that release in between big releases makes a service like Game Pass more attractive, and a constant stream of releases provides more incentive for Microsoft to greenlight these smaller more artistic passion projects.
Pentiment is one of the highest-rated games of 2022 with an 88 on Metacritic, and looking at the Steam page shows an Overwhelmingly Positive rating with nearly 2500 reviews. Hi-Fi Rush is in a similar situation, with Overwhelmingly Positive reviews over a whopping 10,000 Steam reviews.
Both of these games are wins, the kind Microsoft has desperately needed while Xbox fans wait for tentpole releases like Starfield. Xbox Game Pass makes these games immediately accessible to a wider selection of players, and both PlayStation and Nintendo have started following suit with their own subscription services.
Sony has slowly started to emulate Game Pass with a selection of library titles immediately available on PlayStation Plus, as well as day-one releases like Stray and Tchia. Meanwhile, Nintendo has used its own subscription service to leverage retro titles and expansions to popular games. All of these options are ways to get more eyeballs on content that might not do as well otherwise, which again means the risk of making ambitious new projects is lessened when you have a built-in user base.
If more devs had the chance to make smaller projects like Hi-Fi Rush, it might provide the chance for some truly innovative gameplay and storytelling ideas, not bound by the need to appeal to anyone and everyone.