Microsoft wants Xbox Game Pass to be the HBO of gaming, with heavy hitters rolling out regularly to plenty of buzz and critical fanfare. But today, Microsoft falls far short of that standard. Game Pass AAA releases, both from Xbox Game Studios and third party partnerships, are uneven in quality and too infrequent.
2022 came and went without a single notable big budget Game Pass release. Grounded, As Dusk Falls, and Pentiment got decent critical attention but were small titles primarily ignored by the larger gaming public.
2023 looks much more promising. However, Minecraft Legends scored a passable but far from great 73 on OpenCritic. I suspect the buzz following Redfall – rushing out the door at 30 FPS alongside some lukewarm previews – will lead to a similar lukewarm critical consensus. Even what will likely be a critical hit – Xbox Game Studios’ mainstay Forza Motorsport – missed its original Spring 2023 release window and settled into a vague “2023” timeline. For what’s left on the horizon, I see sci-fi RPG Starfield, with Bethesda Game Studios’ pedigree, as the only remaining possible “must play” for the remainder of the year. (I passed over Hi-Fi Rush and MLB The Show, both splashy titles that played well critically but didn’t break out into a wider audience.)
Imagine if HBO went for a year without anything new, then the next year released four seasons of content, but half the shows were merely passable, and the others were delayed six months past their original date. That sporadic, hit and miss quality would inevitably translate into cancellations, if not a serious mark against HBO’s reputation.
The same is true for Xbox and Game Pass. At some point, the brand’s skippable material and sparse release schedule establish mediocrity as the norm. “Day one AAA Game Pass release” builds trepidation and weariness, not excitement and buzz.
Granted, that’s mediocrity at only the high budget. Moving beyond AAA releases, Game Pass’s variety, and quality bar is often excellent. For a core enthusiast audience – myself included – the curation and selection of indies are impeccable, easily worth $15 a month.
That’s why Game Pass, for me, is less like HBO, and more like Mubi, a small service that showcases international art house and festival movies. I love both Mubi and Game Pass. I’m also self aware Mubi movies like Hit the Road and Aftersun won’t be for everyone. Likewise, Game Pass indies such as Citizen Sleeper and Immortality have a ceiling to their mainstream appeal.
I know Xbox leadership isn’t satisfied with a Mubi, especially considering the sheer expenditure to keep twenty plus studios afloat. Nor are casual players that rely on a handful of yearly big budget releases for their gaming needs. Game Pass Ultimate is $180 yearly, the same price as two or three AAA games. That’s pitting Game Pass against comfort food like FIFA and Spiderman 2 or Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom for the same price. That comparison leads many to happily pick up a PS5 or Switch and never look back at Xbox.
I can imagine the response to such doom and gloom: wait. Starfield will be a once in a generation level RPG. Arcane Studios made Redfall, and they rarely miss. The Activision Blizzard acquisition is a distraction that will end soon. Cloud streaming is the long term play; even if someone is “locked in” to the Sony or Nintendo ecosystems, they can supplement with Game Pass through their mobile devices.
All this could be true. But let’s get back to HBO: reputation matters. Xbox has spent years asking us to wait for great big budget games, while the competition from PlayStation and Nintendo has released many. Such headwinds demand more than a single windfall game or experimental technologies that take years to take off.
Success requires discipline, planning, and strong long term management. Middling to passable flagship Game Pass releases should be extreme rarities. Game Pass subscribers shouldn’t wait more than six months between hit titles. I’m puzzled why Xbox seems to miss these principles so broadly for their AAA releases. Stronger results should be achievable with the sheer size and pedigree of Xbox’s in-house studios.
It’s also clear the gaming audience is losing patience with the brand today. Microsoft saw a 30% drop in Xbox hardware sales compared to a year ago. Corporate leadership will inevitably handwave the decline to hardware availability and macroeconomics. But the largest factor is undeniable – few recent and noteworthy Xbox AAA titles. It’s overdue for Microsoft to shake things up; until Game Pass reboots its reputation into an HBO quality brand, I don’t see this decline reversing.