Xbox Game Pass, The Netflix Of Gaming, Is Struggling To Find Its Big Hits

Xbox Game Pass, The Netflix Of Gaming, Is Struggling To Find Its Big Hits

Xbox’s latest splashy exclusive, Redfall, launched this week to disappointing reviews and a collective shrug from many players. Considered a departure from developer Arkane’s core strengths of worldbuilding and stealth gameplay, its most confusing flaw is perhaps its lack of identity: Many have opined that it feels like a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Xbox’s grand gaming strategy is bigger than just one underwhelming exclusive, of course, and the console manufacturer’s biggest game of the year is still to come in the form of Starfield. However, Xbox’s shaky track record when it comes to big exclusives in recent years has spurred much discussion within the gaming community, with some Game Pass subscribers wondering what the future of the service might look like. Xbox Game Pass is indeed the current Netflix of gaming, but the service has struggled to find its bonafide hits–its Stranger Things, its Wednesdays, its Dahmers. And when we look in the direction that the major streaming services are currently headed, that spells some interesting decisions for Xbox in the next two to three years.

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Now Playing: Redfall Review – Half-Staked

You don’t have to look far to find people expressing frustration or uncertainty about the future of Xbox’s system-sellers. On the Xbox Series X subreddit, players cracked wise about next year being “the year” and boss Phil Spencer unveiling “old reliable” in the form of the consistently excellent Forza franchise. And though these are just jokes and memes, there’s an undercurrent of exasperation that runs through many of the replies. Some have discussed whether or not Game Pass justifies its monthly cost at this juncture, which is obviously a personal judgment call.

Redfall did not live up to the expectations of a splashy console exclusive.

To be fair to Microsoft, Xbox Game Pass has plenty of quality exclusives. The Forza series remains arguably the best racing series in gaming, Pentiment is one of the more striking narrative titles in recent memory, Psychonauts 2 is a great platformer, and Hi-Fi Rush surprised everyone with its innovative take on the rhythm game formula. However, you can certainly argue that none of these games have the scale and mass appeal of a Spider-Man or a God of War.

The game that many expected to bridge that gap, Halo Infinite, is perhaps the most indicative example of Xbox’s blockbuster woes. Though Infinite received almost universally positive reviews on launch–with critics and players particularly praising its campaign–the lack of follow-through on its ambitious live-service aspects robbed the game of a long-term audience. The high-profile layoffs that followed, and an announcement that served as a bizarre proof of life further muddled matters. It’s unclear if Infinite will ever be able to bounce back from its rocky post-launch period. However, it shouldn’t be counted out entirely; it is Halo, after all.

What makes Xbox’s current state of affairs so galling for many players is that it has arguably one of the best things going in the industry: Game Pass. With hundreds of games available, almost any player can find several titles they’re interested in with a quick perusal of its app. Just like in the early days of streaming, Game Pass has managed to garner millions of subscribers through its impressive catalog. However, the main issue with the service is that Xbox is not involved in the production of the vast majority of those games, and players can go elsewhere to experience them. Game Pass is a unique value proposition at the moment, but that could change in the coming years.

The early years of streaming services are an interesting point of comparison here. Netflix has caught flack from long-term subscribers for pivoting away from the content-rich strategy that paid off for them in years past. In the early 2010s, Netflix was one of the only major streaming services out there, and it contained many high-profile movies and TV shows that simply aren’t there anymore. A 2020 Vox analysis concluded that US Netflix’s total amount of content shrunk nearly 50% from 2012 to 2020, from a high of 11,000 to around 6,000. Today, beloved shows like Friends and The Office spark multi-million dollar bidding wars for their streaming rights, and the amount of competition in the streaming space is ever-increasing. However, as that same analysis argues, Netflix saw this difficulty coming, and that’s why the company has doubled down on original content again and again over the past decade.

After years of failed attempts from other parties, Xbox has arguably proven out the concept of a video game subscription service, and it’s currently enjoying the massive market share that comes with that success. But if paid subscription services like Game Pass are truly the future of video games–a shift that could be powered by the continuing emergence of cloud gaming technology–then increased competition is inevitable. Those hypothetical rivals could sap support from Game Pass, which could eat into its market share over time.

It’s worth noting that Netflix has itself shed subscribers in recent years, as TV watchers have decreased the amount of services that they pay for. This same effect may come for Game Pass over time. Though the service may boast around 500 games, if subscribers have already played the ones they’re most interested in, and the splashy new ones fail to capture their imagination, this quantity- over- quality approach may come to haunt Xbox in the future.

Starfield has become Xbox's great hope in terms of exclusives, at least for 2023.
Starfield has become Xbox’s great hope in terms of exclusives, at least for 2023.

Currently, I would argue that Xbox Game Pass is the “hidden gems” service. My best experiences with Game Pass have come when I installed a game that I’ve never heard of on a whim, or some retro title that I played for 30 minutes at a friend’s house a decade ago. While that’s certainly fine for now, if a competitive service moves in, players are going to look to the top-of-the-line blockbuster experiences on offer as a major point of comparison. And on that point, I think many people would agree that Xbox is lagging behind the competition.

Perhaps I’m biased, but as a hardcore Gears fan, it strikes me as quite strange that it’s been nearly four years since the last major title in the series, and it’s not even clear if Gears 6 is in development stages yet. Microsoft is under no obligation to make another Gears game, of course, but given its absence, the murky status of many first-party Xbox games like Perfect Dark and Rare’s new project, Everwild, makes it difficult to see what will carry the service past Starfield.

Like it or not, we live in an era that is dominated by communal experiences, and the shadow of that, FOMO–the fear of missing out. The truly successful cultural products of the streaming era (especially TV shows) have become experiences that you share with your friends, family, and coworkers even away from the screen. People discuss what might happen on the next Game of Thrones or Succession or Marvel movie around the digital water cooler in the same way they used to talk about soap operas like Dallas in a previous era.

In just a few days, gamers around the world will dive into Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom for the first time, and it will be a can’t-miss cultural phenomenon. Gamers will swap recipes, strategies, and viral clips for weeks (or, based on Breath of the Wild, years) to come. Netflix has continued to capture that sort of viral internet attention with shows like Stranger Things and the recent Wednesday. The next Forza is assuredly going to be a great driving game, but it’s probably not going to set the world on fire in that way. Starfield certainly might, but Redfall’s underwhelming launch just puts all the more pressure on Bethesda to create a worthy successor to great series like Elder Scrolls and Fallout.

Microsoft’s apparent answer to these concerns is its pending acquisition of Activision Blizzard, which would be the biggest deal in gaming history. However, considering that the process has faced legal challenge after legal challenge in the past few months, it’s unclear if it will actually manage to leap those hurdles. Faced with an uncertain future, it may be time for Xbox as an organization to reconsider its “hands-off” approach to studio management. Regardless of the specific changes, something does have to give when it comes to its blockbusters. Perhaps Starfield can help quiet the waters.

The products discussed here were independently chosen by our editors.
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