Game Pass needs Call of Duty more than ever

According to The Verge, Microsoft is debating on whether to add the new Call of Duty on Game Pass. It’s a no-brainer: COD would easily be Game Pass’s most high-profile title, giving a potential injection to growth to its otherwise plateaued subscriber base.

Opting out COD from Game Pass will effectively end the service as Xbox’s final differentiator against PlayStation, Nintendo, and Steam. A case by case treatment of “our games will come to Game Pass day one” will annoy existing subscribers. Nor is there any clear criteria – budget, branding, genre – to distinguish what enters Game Pass day one in a way that’s satisfactory to both Microsoft corporate or the Xbox player base. Even with clear messaging, in losing some day and date first party titles, a weakened Game Pass no longer properly distinguishes itself from PS5’s competing PlayStation Plus service.

Admittedly, corporate accounting will provide insight that I can’t speculate on. Maybe Microsoft ran the numbers, and a game of COD’s stature on Game Pass is simply too big of a sales revenue hit to ever swallow. Perhaps Game Pass’s long-term fiscal sustainability is long past the expiration point, and this is just the first in a line of walkbacks to slow the burn rate down.

But from a consumer standpoint, a weak Game Pass is an undeniable major problem given there’s little left in the larger Xbox ecosystem (hardware, Microsoft Store digital purchases) to entice new players. I wrote about this earlier in the year: cloud gaming can be fun in a pinch but has limitations and handheld Windows PCs are expensive and buggy. The Series X and S are well built consoles, but from a feature and price standpoint, they aren’t that distinguishable from Sony’s and Nintendo’s offerings.

Taken to its logical extreme, Game Pass, with a less-than-stellar library, accelerates the Xbox ecosystem’s decline. In a few years, Xbox could become little more than a fancy third party chasing after mega hitmakers like EA.

Perhaps that’s an acceptable outcome for the C-suite. Yet Satya Nadella is keenly aware that console digital storefronts take a 30% cut of revenue while hardware manufacturers dictate what services like Game Pass exist on their platform. In giving up on their ecosystem, Microsoft writes off a lot of money.

So, later this year, I imagine Xbox will begin a last-ditch attempt to revitalize Game Pass revenue numbers. We’ll see big marketing spend to highlight that the next Call of Duty is on Game Pass, alongside other marquee titles like Indiana Jones. Maybe Microsoft will experiment with pricing by bumping up Game Pass Ultimate’s monthly cost while adding another cheaper tier to get casual players in the door.

If Game Pass in a fully actualized form isn’t enough to move subscriber revenue, I’m at a loss on Xbox’s remaining actions. One would expect a $77 billion investment in studio acquisitions to be accompanied by a level-headed, sustainable long-term approach, if not by Game Pass, than by a solid alternative option. Yet ever since the beginning of 2024, the company has publicly sounded like a brand in disarray, flailing around to pay an overdue bill. Per my last article, we may have to wait months or years for Microsoft to settle on its gaming direction fully, but the decision and public posturing around COD and Game Pass in less than a month will speak magnitudes.