Though the Nintendo Switch is my most-played system, I have a confession, dear readers. I also play a fair bit on the Xbox Series X, which I somehow pre-ordered in the distant time of 2020, and it actually arrived. Sure enough the devil is banging on the door demanding payment of my soul, but I’ll just keep playing games and ignore the noise.
Over on sister site Pure Xbox I’m welcomed with open arms for a round of Halo (or something), though when I say hello to the Push Square folk they give me the cold shoulder. I’m joking of course — we’re all one happy family — but I have ‘changed teams’ as it were, having had a PS3 and PS4 to accompany my Nintendo hardware in past generations.
There were two main reasons I switched to Microsoft’s console. One was the fact I realised I hadn’t truly enjoyed a Sony console exclusive since Death Stranding, and it had basically become an MLB The Show machine. I’m addicted to real baseball and re-enacting it in Sony San Diego’s series, so I considered the two-year-old confirmation it was going multi-platform and took a punt that ‘next-gen’ machines would be where MLB insisted it become a reality. Fortunately I was right, but was then gobsmacked when MLB — which clearly has the full contractual publishing control on Xbox — made Sony look foolish and came to a deal to put it on Game Pass. That is still a real oddity, and I can only assume Sony sleep-walked into a dodgy contract and had no control over that happening.
But that takes me neatly to reason two for swapping sides: Xbox Game Pass. If I was losing interest in PlayStation-exclusive games, it was frankly the economically sensible choice for me to switch to Xbox. I also like Phil Spencer’s general attitude to gaming, and he’s executed an extraordinary turnaround from the hubris of his predecessors. Game Pass is almost too good to be true, and eventually it will no doubt creep up a dollar every six months in price, Netflix-style. But heck, I’ll take advantage while the going’s good, and when you throw in various ways to ‘game’ the subscription service, and even use Microsoft Reward points to redeem free months, it’s an absolute no-brainer.
Game Pass currently out-strips its rivals because it consistently offers completely new games, including all major first-party titles (which will be a bigger deal in future than right now, admittedly), along with the usual mix of attractive older titles. It’s also big on Indie games, and I love playing a range of Indie games even if my bank balance makes me pick and choose in normal circumstances. You don’t ‘own’ the games, no, but there’s nothing stopping you finding a game via the service and then buying it anyway as an extra show of support. And frankly, how much we ‘own’ download purchases has been debatable since the Wii days if you actually read the terms of service — best not to dwell on that too much.
In the publishing world I also saw first-hand how valuable it is to smaller companies to get ‘picked’ for Game Pass; it’s definitely becoming a real target for publishers and developers seeking financial stability and comfort. That’s the key point; a lot of detractors of the model argue it damages Indies, but those on the service politely point out they’re pretty happy as they get paid well and it sometimes boosts sales on other platforms, while Xbox argues that Game Pass subscribers actually spend more on game purchases. I can speak from experience that visibility is hugely important for smaller games, and though Nintendo has laudable initiatives like Indie World, the eShop itself is not well designed from a UI viewpoint. Sony’s store has similar issues. Whereas the visibility of being on Game Pass can only be a positive as it is a curated service.
I’ve been reading lots of perspectives from publishers and developers on Game Pass, on these pages and in excellent recent articles like this one on Eurogamer, and can see how the economics do actually stack up. As a sample, I’ve played the likes of Narita Boy, The Gardens Between, Spiritfarer, Cyber Shadow, The Touryst and more through Game Pass, all games I would have otherwise bought, or considered buying, on Switch. Sometimes I feel guilty that I haven’t given these developers a sale — again, I have a limit on what I can spend on games — but then remember the evidence that, actually, those companies will be doing just fine.
Interestingly, I’ve probably found myself taking a portion of the money I’d otherwise spend on new download games and throwing it at older titles on my faithful old Switch. That’ll be part of the argument that some with a subscription service still spend similar amounts of money on games, but they’re just playing more games as a consequence. I’ve been enjoying grabbing various eShop titles that had been sitting on my wishlist, longingly asking for me to take the plunge.
It’s also interesting that while many people wring their hands over whether Sony will ‘retaliate’ with a similar service (beyond PS Now), I don’t see many asking that about Nintendo. Should we be? I’m not sure — for one thing, Nintendo operates in its own bubble within the gaming industry and is currently riding high and selling ridiculous numbers of systems. There’s little incentive for the company to change its approach, at least at this stage. That’s not to say this won’t alter in the coming years, but right now it’ll likely coast along with Nintendo Switch Online in its current form, albeit with occasional additions (yes, I know, everyone wants more retro system libraries included).
The eShop is also rocking along quite well in terms of revenue, even if the majority of the 30+ games released every week will struggle mightily. In its most recent quarterly earnings Nintendo stated its download revenues were “256.0 billion yen (an increase of 104.9% year-on-year)”, which is roughly $2.35 billion. Even accounting for the fact that download sales through 2020 will be artificially inflated due to world events, that’s still a big ol’ number.
So, right now, Nintendo will likely happily continue with its download business norm, though it’s no doubt closely monitoring trends and data. Microsoft, meanwhile, is ruffling feathers and — potentially — showing that a subscription service is a sensible thing for a major corporation in the gaming space to support. Time will tell but these are interesting, and indeed turbulent, times in the world of download games.
Let us know in the polls and comments what you think of Game Pass, and whether you think Nintendo will eventually adopt a similar approach.