Microsoft clearly still cares about Game Pass. Exclusives? Not so much

Microsoft clearly still cares about Game Pass. Exclusives? Not so much

Last week, I posited that the Xbox showcase on June 9 would be the most important in the history of Microsoft’s gaming division. If it wasn’t, that could be because this slick prerecorded show couldn’t possibly compete for historical impact with, for example, the garbage fire that was the 2013 Xbox One reveal event, or the bungled E3 show that followed it. It was confident and smooth in its orchestration, impressive in a way that was almost calming after the awkward anticlimax of Summer Game Fest two days earlier. But it was still immensely significant: for its indication of the seismic publishing power Microsoft now holds, for the questions it answered about Xbox’s future, and for the questions it didn’t.

In fact, the two most telling bits of news emerged outside the boundaries of the show itself. The first was the confirmation, more than a week before the show, that Call of Duty: Black Ops 6 will be released on Game Pass on day one. The second, which was not mentioned by Microsoft during its showcase but slipped out in a press release alongside it, is that Doom: The Dark Ages (one of the biggest first-party reveals of the event) is also coming to PlayStation 5.

Between them, these two facts spell out Microsoft’s strategy quite clearly: Game Pass is everything, and Xbox consoles aren’t. Microsoft is doubling down hard on its subscription service, and bringing its new, almost terrifying might as a game publisher to bear on the Game Pass catalog. But the company had little to say about Xbox hardware, and its attitude to console exclusivity for Microsoft-owned games remains ambivalent at best.

A dragon-type creature with translucent red wings and guns on its head in Doom: The Dark Ages
Doom: The Dark Ages’ PS5 version was quietly the most significant news of the night.
Image: id Software/Bethesda Softworks

After the shock release of four former Xbox exclusives on PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch earlier this year, many Xbox fans were looking to Sunday’s showcase for explicit reassurance that Microsoft was still investing in Xbox consoles by getting its vast army of first-party studios to make exclusive games for them. That reassurance did not come. In fact, Xbox console exclusivity was not mentioned once. The words “coming to Xbox Series X and PC” appeared as much at the end of trailers for games in storied Xbox franchises like Fable and Gears of War as they did for multiplatform releases from third-party publishers like Dragon Age: The Veilguard and Assassin’s Creed Shadows. There was no attempt at differentiation on this score.

Reports indicate that Microsoft has “no red line” internally when it comes to which of its games it will consider for release on other platforms, and the wording (or lack of it) used on Sunday shows that the company is keen to keep its options open. It’s striking that Microsoft chose to open the showcase with two heavy hitters that’ll be available on PlayStation: Black Ops 6, which was already slated for PS5 (per Microsoft’s Call of Duty deal with Sony), and Doom: The Dark Ages, which wasn’t.

The Dark Ages’ PS5 release is a clue to how Microsoft intends to handle exclusivity in the short term, at least as far as games from Bethesda, Activision, and Blizzard are concerned. Speaking to IGN after the showcase aired, Xbox boss Phil Spencer said, “Doom is definitely one of those franchises that has a history of so many platforms. It’s a franchise that I think everyone deserves to play. When I was in a meeting with Marty [Stratton, id Software studio director] a couple years ago, I asked Marty what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to sell it on all platforms. Simple as that.”

Spencer’s explanation — as well as Microsoft’s handling of Minecraft — suggests that Microsoft does not intend to make previously multiplatform game series exclusive. It’s a strong indication that Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls 6, for one, will get a PlayStation release. For everything else, it’s an open question. It might seem unthinkable that Gears of War: E-Day or Fable will come out on PS5, but nothing said (or unsaid) on Sunday indicates that that’s off the table.

Title cards for 16 games above the words “Play day one with Game Pass”
Microsoft is keen to ram home Game Pass’ value to subscribers.
Image: Xbox

As far as Game Pass goes, however, Microsoft could not have been more emphatic. “Play it day one with Game Pass,” boomed the stinger on the end of trailer after trailer after trailer. Of the 30 games, expansions, and updates featured in Sunday’s showcase, 20 will go straight to Game Pass. Of those 20 Game Pass titles, 13 come from Microsoft-owned studios; nine are scheduled to debut in 2024, eight in 2025, and three have no release windows yet.

Call of Duty, Doom, Gears of War, State of Decay, Perfect Dark, Fable, Indiana Jones, STALKER, Flight Simulator, Avowed… all coming to Game Pass as soon as they’re released. There are blockbuster shooters and role-playing games, strategy and sim games, wistful indies, and, thanks to partnerships with companies like Kepler Interactive and Rebellion, a good helping of AA Eurojank (perhaps the ideal kind of Game Pass game).

In a way, it’s more illustrative to look at what from the showcase won’t be coming to Game Pass. Those 10 titles include big third-party franchises like Metal Gear Solid and Assassin’s Creed; a handful of smaller third-party games; and expansions for Starfield, Diablo 4, The Elder Scrolls Online, and World of Warcraft. Selling DLC for Game Pass-included titles like Starfield, Diablo 4, and TES Online is a big part of the Game Pass business model, so you could still consider those titles under the Game Pass umbrella. (World of Warcraft is the outlier here as the only Microsoft-owned game featured that isn’t on Game Pass at all — and indeed, the only one not available on Xbox consoles.)

If Microsoft has doubts about the commercial viability of console-exclusive releases in the long term, it certainly doesn’t seem to have those doubts about Game Pass. With subscriber numbers seeming to have plateaued (according to Microsoft’s rarely released figures), and with the presumed considerable loss of revenue resulting from rolling a guaranteed seller like Black Ops 6 into a subscription service, many were wondering if Microsoft’s “Netflix for games” approach made economic sense. It’s possible that this debate has been ongoing in Microsoft until recently: Black Ops 6 developer Treyarch told Game File’s Stephen Totilo “it wasn’t that long ago” that the studio was informed that the game would launch on Game Pass. But taken as a whole, the showcase was a resounding vote of confidence in the service, and an indication that it will go on to provide great value to subscribers through 2025 and beyond.

An image of a white all-digital Xbox Series X, a white Series S with 1 TB of storage and a black Series X with 2 TB of storage
New Xbox console variants with more storage were announced with little fanfare.
Image: Xbox

After its acquisition of Activision Blizzard, Microsoft is now the third-biggest gaming company in the world by revenue — and arguably the biggest in terms of intellectual property and publishing might. Sunday’s showcase demonstrated quite convincingly how it intends to fill those massive boots: dozens of solid-looking games in famous, fan-favorite franchises, stretching far into the future. Quality and quantity. The surprise inclusion of a few long-gestating titles that had reportedly been stuck in development hell, like Perfect Dark and State of Decay 3, seemed like a pointed message that Microsoft can be trusted to keep all these projects on track, despite its spotty record in studio management.

But Xbox hardware only got the briefest mention, in the form of three new console configurations and a promise that “we’re hard at work on the next generation.” The rumored handheld announcement did not materialize. And exclusivity remains a glaring open question.

Regarding Microsoft’s position in the broader game industry, it seems we have our answer: It’s now a publisher first, a subscription platform second, and a console hardware platform a distant third.