Interview: How ID@Xbox is preparing indies for a Game Pass subscription future

Interesting times.

The games industry has grown and evolved a huge amount over the last decade, first with the rise of online play, then digital distribution, the boom of mobile gaming, DLC and microtransactions, the rise of indie developers. At every step we’ve wondered what the real impact of this is going to be, and despite gaming revenues continuing to grow, we see developers being shut down, companies going to the wall, games struggling to get noticed. That makes the next apparent evolutions of video games, the rise of subscription services and the spread of game streaming services curious, exciting, mystifying, and down right scary.

One of the companies best placed to take advantage of these shifts is Microsoft, and they already are. They have their console business, they have Xbox Game Pass subscriptions, a growing network of first party studios, and they have the in development Project xCloud that is set to take advantage of their global Azure cloud server network. Game Pass in particular has flourished since its 2017 debut, and as ably demonstrated by an ID@Xbox stream last week focussed entirely on indie games coming to the service’s catalogue on their release, they’re looking to bring as many indie developers as possible into the fold.

Speaking to ID@Xbox Lead Agostino Simonetta, we asked about this changing landscape and if it’s an active push by Microsoft or more open. “It’s both,” he said. “The ecosystem has changed, and I was talking to somebody earlier about how we’ve kept developing the programme over the years, to maximise the visibility for our partners. One thing was when we had 50 titles on the store, now we have over 1000 titles that launched, so if you start following us closely you start seeing we do events like this, we had a show [last week], if you were at GDC, we had over 35 titles showcased on the show floor and the usual loft event, and [this week] at EGX Rezzed, we’ve got about 29-30 games that we’re showcasing.

“Every month, if you follow what we do on the store, there are promotions dedicated to ID@Xbox titles. We have a mature programme with a lot of content, but we want to make sure that the older content can be resurfaced. Every year in May we do a big ID@Xbox takeover of the store and every week in that month showcase a different category of games – it could be Game Preview, free to play, “gems you haven’t played”. This is not something that we used to do years ago, so we have evolved.”

There has been an undeniable leaning toward Game Pass over the past year, with 125 ID@Xbox game that have launched directly into Game Pass, and the catalyst was Microsoft themselves.

“Last year Phil Spencer wrote a blog post that all the first party titles are going to be a part of Game Pass subscription day and date. The ID team saw that as an opportunity for developers and for us. The first title was Robocraft Infinity, and that went in day and date, and today here we have quite a few titles [doing the same].”

He continued, “We think it’s a great opportunity for titles to go into the programme and immediately getting a very large audience. One of the things that drives developers, aside from making money and being successful, is actually people playing their games. Game Pass is a great tool to allow people to get their hands on your game and remove a lot of the barriers.”

But for me, it is that commercial aspect that is a worry, both on a small and a large scale. Most games will make the vast majority of their revenues within the first month of launch. That’s true of big budget AAA blockbusters, and that’s true of solo indie projects, and so that’s the key moment for developers and publishers to try and turn a profit. Apple Arcade subscriptions are rumoured to compensate developers for time played, Google Stadia is expected to be a subscription service, and then there’s Game Pass and PlayStation Now which have been running for years.

What end users don’t know is how much of their money goes to developers, let alone what happens is that initial flourish of day one, week one, month one sales is turned into a trickle of subscription payouts – we’ve all seen and heard about the dramatically lower payments that musicians get from Spotify compared to digital sales. Game Pass has by far the most hustle and bustle for new games on the day of release, but how, as the platform holders, have Microsoft helped developers adapt and feel comfortable stepping into this relative unknown?

“I think any time you have any change in any industry, people want to understand it,” Ago explained. “We work very closely with our partners to explain our vision, and that’s why we think it’s really helping them. So far, the response that we’ve seen for the titles launching – and more and more are launching every day – the response from the developer community has been very, very positive.”

He also said, “There’s the commercial relationship between us and the developer, where they get a license fee to get into the programme, but I think there’s so much more beyond the license fee. Look at the show we had [last week], the visibility that all the titles that go into the programme get at launch, all the visibility they get when they go out of the programme. If you’re an Xbox Game Pass customer today, you get a 20% discount on any game, and if the game has DLC, you get 10% discount on the DLC. So there’s a lot of components.”

The biggest advantage, however, is simply the potential reach that these games can have. There’s a Netflix effect, where they can buy or publish films that would have tanked it at the box office, like Bright and The Cloverfield Effect, and then purely from the fact that they’re a click away, they get watched by millions. The same is true on Game Pass.

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“Game Pass is a great way for people to get out of their comfort zone,” Ago stated. “One of the statistics that I mention is that 40% of people that played Human Fall Flat via Game Pass had never played a puzzle game on Xbox before. Effectively, Human Fall Flat reached nearly double the audience on Game Pass. That 40% was very unlikely to go out and buy the game, and a lot of those people now are more prone to go out and play puzzle games.

“Another thing is word of mouth. If I have Game Pass and you don’t, and I try Void Bastards or Supermarket Shriek, you’ve seen me playing it on Xbox Live without me talking to you about it, you start seeing it in the activity feed with achievements, and there’s no better validation than seeing one of your friends playing. Or maybe they come to you and say they tried this game, and then you suddenly become curious and interested.

“It’s a great way to increase your engagement and really build a fanbase for the game and the studio.”

Of course, I’m still wary of the impact that streaming and subscriptions can and will inevitably have on video games and their developers, but it’s undeniable that the convenience will get more people to both subscribe to these services and try out more of what they offer. The most important point in all of this is that Microsoft, Sony, Apple, Google and all the other major players also act as good stewards for the games on their services.

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