Xbox Game Pass is the best bargain in video games.
Over the last several months, Microsoft's video game subscription service has drawn countless favorable comparisons with entertainment streaming titan Netflix. For $9.99 or $14.99 each month, players get full access to more than 100 games spanning a variety of genres — from sports and shooters to sims and RPGs. It's an idea Microsoft's been simmering since Bill Gates revealed the first Xbox back in 2001, and it's encouraging players to try games they otherwise wouldn't. It's also increasing the audience for smaller games dramatically.
"People play 30 percent more genres after they join Game Pass. They play 40 percent more games... The average game that goes into Game Pass sees its user base increased by six times," Ben Decker, Xbox head of gaming services, tells Inverse. "For some of these smaller indie developers, they'll see their user base increase by 50 or 60 times."
The service's flexibility and value have made it especially attractive in light of the economic uncertainty brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and the scarcity of new hardware like the Series X and Sony's PlayStation 5. With Game Pass engagement having doubled since November 2019, the future certainly looks bright. But that wasn't always the case.
Inverse spoke with Decker about Game Pass's long journey to becoming an industry game-changer, how games are chosen for the library, and all those Netflix comparisons.
The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Game Pass is a huge hit. Why do you think it's so popular?
The big drivers are more discovery and more games. As people get into Game Pass, they find new genres, and franchises that they've heard of, but never actually tried. When you give people the opportunity to sample a curated catalog of games that are going to be relevant to them, it really increases the value they get out of gaming and the amount they want to explore and try new things.
How did Game Pass get off the ground in the early days?
When Bill Gates announced the very first Xbox at GDC back in 2000, he said the goal of Microsoft is to empower people to play great software, anytime, anyplace, and on any device. If you've heard Phil [Spencer] talk about what the Xbox mission is, even today, it's to empower gamers to play the games they want, with the people they want, on any device. This is something gamers have been asking for more than a decade. I think Xbox specifically was able to unlock this opportunity because of the commitment we have to put gamers at the center.
The big hurdle to overcome was a belief that, by providing a service like this, you weren't just moving people from one bucket to another. People would always get caught up on the idea of buying versus subscribing — have we really created anything new? Have we really made it better for gamers or publishers?
There are two things you have to believe in. The first is discovery, that the removal of upfront friction was going to allow people to get a lot more value out of their investment into the Xbox ecosystem. The second is the desire to play with friends. If we're all members of Game Pass, the day that a game releases, we can all play together because we all own the same library.
This is gonna sound highfalutin, but it's about a belief in gaming as an art form and as a way for people to come together. We believed if we could make it easier for everybody to explore games with their friends, that's really compelling. People play 30 percent more genres after they join Game Pass. They play 40 percent more games. People are trying all kinds of things they never played before. It's not just moving people from one pile to the other, but creating something new for our members and the industry overall.
What was the tipping point? Was there a particular game or year that proved the model was viable?
There was definitely a technology element to it. Other companies had tried, like, disk by mail and other instantiations of that. Building out this world-class multiplayer network in Xbox Live, building out an enterprise-class commerce platform that could enable all the entitlements — all of that was an important part of this.
It's also part of a broader commitment to games as an industry that goes back nearly 40 years. Microsoft was making games before it ever did Xbox. For the last 20 years, it's been a big focus with the launch of Xbox and the subsequent console generations.
How do games get added to the service?
There are as many different stories there as there are games. Each one's a little bit different. That's partially a function of the diversity of the portfolio — some are made by a three- or four-person indie shop, others are from some of the biggest publishers in the world. The way it happens is super organic and unique to each individual game.
In some situations, these are publishers we've had relationships with for decades. We just announced that Game Pass Ultimate members now have access to EA Play at no additional cost. That's a result of a decades-long relationship we've had with Electronic Arts — they see the same power, that engine for discovery and for earning new fans in Game Pass that we see.
The average game that goes into Game Pass sees its user base increased by six times. For some of these smaller indie developers, they'll see their user base increase by 50 or 60 times. It's transformational for some of these games.
Game Pass has drawn a lot of comparisons to Netflix. Do you feel that's accurate?
It's always flattering to be compared to industry leaders, but we're trying to do something unique. The curation is a core part of that — we're focused on having really great games people are going to want to play.
Member feedback is core to how we iterate and plan out the product. Something we heard very early on is players care most about the quality of the games in the catalog. They want five or six games they really want to play, and then a big catalog to discover. It's not about the number, it's about the quality.
How does Game Pass help developers take a more forward-looking approach to game preservation?
This is a service and an ecosystem built by gamers who care deeply about games as an art form. It's something that we grew up with, and it's important to us. You can see in a lot of decisions we've made around backward compatibility — we want new generations of gamers to have the opportunity to play those older games.
It's about respecting the investment someone's made in this ecosystem. Maybe this is someone who's been with Xbox for 20 years — they've invested a lot of their money, a lot of their time. The idea that you get to the end of a generation and decide "we're not supporting any of that other stuff anymore" — that's just not how we think about it, and that's not the kind of ecosystem we want to build.