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SEA OF THIEVES & XBOX GAME PASS
A mutually beneficial relationship.






EDITORIAL
By MIKE HAZLETON
01/03/18

When Microsoft announced that all their first party offerings would be coming to their £8 per month Game Pass subscription service, there were two schools of thought. On one hand (largely the point of view of existing Xbox owners), it appeared to be a great, user-first decision, that allowed for a cheap way to experience what is admittedly a thin first party offering. On the other, and with the lingering presence of an underwhelming Crackdown on the horizon, perhaps Microsoft do not believe that their IPs are actually going to sell all that well, so have decided to give them away to get more subscribers. The real story is far more nuanced than either point of view.

Undoubtedly, when Microsoft made the decision to launch Game Pass, they will have looked at Netflix, seen what makes it work, and adapted that to work for games. The comparisons may look limited considering how most games take around 8-10 hours to complete, and a film is more like two. However, Netflix's bread and butter is the long series of shows that actually probably take far more time than your average game to digest. What started out as a TV and film service largely driven by third party shows has now evolved into a platform where Netflix's own productions are the flag-bearers for the service, and are simply backed up by other studios.

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This is the model that we see Microsoft adopting now, albeit far more quickly than Netflix managed it. With Sea of Thieves garnering rave previews (based on extensive alpha and beta play testing by critics), the inclusion of that as a day 1 release on Game Pass is a real boon. You can play this triple-A game for £8 over an entire month (in fact a 14 day trial is also available). Let's face it, if you bought Sea of Thieves on the high street, it would be likely to have lost more than £8 in value over the course of a month - so what's the risk?

That's why this is mutually beneficial for Game Pass and Sea of Thieves - of course really it's just a win-win for Microsoft. You get an influx of new Game Pass subscribers or at least trialers (we would expect hundreds of thousands at least if Microsoft market it correctly i.e. a big banner on the dashboard calling out the deal), while Rare are assured of fantastically populated servers, Mixer streamers and undoubtedly record-breaking concurrent user figures come launch. Rare need players engaging with their game and paying out for premium cosmetic items for Sea of Thieves to be a true success, and this is a sure-fire way to go about it. This is similar to what we saw with Rocket League's console debut via PlayStation Plus, with premium content (and positive word of mouth) more than making up for the lack of release day income.

But there are other benefits too. Head of Xbox Phil Spencer has commented in the past on how Game Pass is more than just a neat part of Xbox's (new) user-first approach. Recently he said that he sees it as "the idea of a new model that could open up opportunities for creativity… especially for SP games". Phil has taken a lot of flack for appearing to distance Microsoft from single player games, no matter how out of context those quotes were, and it's great to believe that Game Pass will allow Microsoft to "do a Netflix", and focus on their own products. Because that's really what they need right now. Sea of Thieves has captured people's attention with its unique setting and community focus (it's been playable by the community seemingly since its inception), and this is what we want to see more of from Microsoft in the future.

What that fails to address is the elephant in the room - Crackdown (and to a lesser extent State of Decay). These are not new IP, they are not particularly innovative in the way Sea of Thieves is, and are not games that would normally convince PlayStation owners to get an Xbox. You can certainly argue that Sea of Thieves from a resurgent Rare would be. And in this case, giving Crackdown (which is not previewing well) out on the Pass is a low-risk way to mask potential disappointing sales of first party IP (something that was true of the likes of Sunset Overdrive and Quantum Break, remember). It is another win-win. The developers save face and Xbox owners get their first party games for free.

Sea of Thieves is going to do well whatever happens, but will need to be supported by premium cosmetic items if it is going to succeed through more than 12 months of content. Game Pass ensures this. Projections for Crackdown's sales are probably not great, so Game Pass helps there. Microsoft are able to get the subscriber numbers up early, fine tune the premium content model behind their games and be ready for a new Halo, Forza and Gears after Crackdown and State of Decay hit. "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush", but at Microsoft, it's a case of a bird on a clutch of eggs being worth more than anything else: subscriber numbers (i.e. repeated, regular income) is king. They would rather have 100,000 new Gold subscribers than sell 500,000 copies of their latest release, because it's still money in the bank, but it's money you are likely to get again and again, year after year.

Sea of Thieves releases on March 20th, and we would love to hear about Game Pass figures around that time. As it happens, we will probably just get Sea of Thieves player counts, but all the same, Microsoft have really gone all-in to support their main first party release of the year. But as we have seen, there is more to this relationship than Game Pass backing up Sea of Thieves. Arguably, Sea of Thieves is backing up Game Pass, which is in turn backing up Crackdown and giving Microsoft the confidence to invest in their first party production for years to come.

This one is far from a sure fire hit. Crackdown 3 has had a prolonged, oft delayed, seemingly turbulent development. Maybe the Game Pass is the best thing for it?

This game is life. Seriously. Rare are back. And now everything is right with the world again. Roll on March 20th.