Starfield Is the Ultimate Test of Microsoft’s Game Pass Gamble

We’re about to find out if the Xbox on-demand service should be the home of big ideas or big budgets.

It’s been a rough few weeks for Microsoft. The big Activision deal got blocked in the UK. Then their first AAA first-party launch since Halo: Infinite, Arkane Studio’s looter shooter Redfall, released to mediocre scores and disappointed everyone. That means all eyes are now on Starfield, the new IP from the legendary Bethesda Game Studios since 2008. Starfield will be THE console exclusive that Xbox sorely needs. It also shouldn’t be on Game Pass.

I know, I know. It’s going to be on Game Pass as promised — it’d be catastrophic for Xbox to backtrack on that now. But in the grand scheme of things, Xbox is making a mistake to view Game Pass as a one-stop shop for all its games.

This mentality is part of the reason why Redfall is such a mess. The retail price for Redfall is $70! And anyone who has played it knows it’s just not worth that premium price. The caveat is it's also on Game Pass, and it certainly feels like the mentality heading in to launch was, “Hey, it’s not ready, but it’s also available cheap, so you can’t complain too much.”

Game Pass is the reason why my Xbox gets so much playtime in spite of all the amazing first-party titles on PS5. Sure, God of Wår: Ragnarok is fantastic, but it's a single game that costs as much as six months of Game Pass. It won’t fill six months of your time. In the time since Ragnarok was released, games like High On Life, Atomic Hearts, Hi-Fi Rush, and Wo Long saw huge engagement on Game Pass despite not being “AAA.”

Microsoft may not be winning gaming’s console battle, but it's dominating gaming trends.

Then there’s Pentiment. It typifies what Microsoft ought to lean into when it comes to the exclusives on its subscription service. Very few people would’ve gone out of their way to spend money on a point-and-click mystery steeped in Reformation history. But because it was there, and the word got out, players flocked to it.

Microsoft needs to unleash the talent its acquired, not pour it into more AAA longshots.


Pentiment Director Josh Sawyer told Waypoint Radio (RIP) it simply wouldn’t have been possible without Game Pass, and that the service is changing the ecosystem for game releases. This sends a positive message to the many studios Microsoft has acquired recently — projects which would’ve been laughed out of boardroom meetings elsewhere can now find an audience. It’s encouraging to think of all the great ideas percolating in the minds of all that talent. High on Life and Hi-Fi Rush are exclusives, too, and managed to outperform engagement juggernauts like Minecraft thanks mostly to pure hype.

Hype won’t pay the bills, of course, but Game Pass offers studios a huge opportunity even if it’s not driving direct sales. The stats are impressive. When games come to the service, typically after months or years on the market, they average an 830 percent increase in players. Those players spend 50 percent more on in-game purchases too, as a game is essentially “free,” players don’t feel as put out by dropping a few bucks to support it directly. Game Pass currently has around 25 million subscribers (which includes PC), proof that players already love the service despite the fact there aren’t many big AAA first-party titles on it.

Hi-Fi Rush is a potential GOTY and didn’t require half a decade and the GDP of Toronto to produce.

Bethesda Softworks

Asking players for $10 a month to access dozens of games is a sweet deal, and doesn’t need the added sugar of Day One access to first-party titles. It also cheapens those games. If you imagine Game Pass as a physical bin at a game shop, it’d be odd to see day-one Starfield lumped in with Goat Simulator. You don’t see Sony putting Spider-Man 2 on PS Plus alongside Balan Wonderworld.

Assuming it would retail for $70, Starfield will need to drive seven times more people to subscribe to Game Pass than would’ve bought the game outright. With about 20 million Xbox Series X units sold to date, the math just doesn’t add up. Is it really going to be easier for Microsoft to get 35 million new Game Pass subscribers, more than double its current audience, than it would be to get one-quarter of its user base to buy the hottest exclusive in a generation?

Leaving the AAA side off Game Pass lets Microsoft focus only on the positives and differentiate itself from its competitor. Do you want a PS5 that only gives you a reason to play it once or twice a year? Or do you want Game Pass to give you the new stuff every few weeks that everyone is talking about? Let Sony have the mainstream audience. There are plenty of people who want to play outside the box.

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