This week Microsoft unveiled a new idea in their quest to try and grow their console base. Dubbed “Xbox All Access”, they’ve introduced the cell phone contract model to buying consoles. For the admittedly steep price of $22/mo for an Xbox One S, or $35/mo for an Xbox One X, players will be shipped a shiny new system, complete with a subscription for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold so players can play online, and the Xbox GamePass, which grants players a library of games from all eras of the Xbox to play at their own convenience. The catch? Well, you’re locked into a two year contract and if you cancel you’re forced to pay the remaining price of the console. For now, that seems to be it.
From everything we’ve seen, there are no hidden fees; on the contrary, the math people have done actually has customers saving money over the life of your subscription. Not much, but considering contracts like this usually aim to make customers pay more since the payments are amortized over a period of several years, the fact that players aren’t technically screwing themselves over the lifespan of the deal feels almost (and sadly) game-changing. It’s not a rental, either; when you’re finished with the contract, you actually own the console you’ve been paying on.
Hilariously, this is the exact opposite direction of where I would have assumed Microsoft was going. The way they were setting up the idea of Xbox Play Anywhere, I presumed they were going to work towards not needing a console at all for the next generation and beyond. And to be fair, they still could try to go in that direction–this is a great idea if you wanted to increase the overall install base of Microsoft Xbox fans before eventually switching to a world where Xbox is only an app rather than a piece of hardware. But for now, Microsoft has emphatically stated this isn’t what they’re aiming for, going so far as to say they “don’t see a future where subscriptions are dominant”. Maybe that’s true, or maybe they really mean they don’t see an “immediate” future where subscriptions are going to be dominant, which is certainly accurate. Even if you think this is a good deal, it’s certainly not going to overtake the market in the waning years of Generation 8. But…is this a good deal?
Certainly, no one can say they’re being ripped off, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. $35 a month is a pretty steep bill in a world where people are already griping when Netflix breaks the inviolable $9.99 rule. Notably, new subscription services DC Universe and Disney Play alike are both aiming to go under $9.99 in order to lure subscribers in, and those are services offering a vast amount of classic content and new content developed just for their subscribers. And while All Access will have plenty of the former, the latter is…a little more sketchy. Outside of mishandling its messaging at the start of the generation, Xbox’s second biggest flaw has always been a lack of quality first party offerings.
This year, we congratulated Microsoft on having the best conference of E3, but it mostly consisted of them having nabbed the marketing rights to games which are all mostly multi-platform to begin with. Dying Light 2, Battlefield V, Cyberpunk 2077–no matter how many times we see an Xbox at the end of ads for these games during the remainder of their promotional cycle, when they release you’ll be able to play them on a PS4 just the same. Of course, Microsoft also announced the purchase of four studios and the creation of a fifth this past E3, ensuring the development of plenty of first party content in the future…but that’s still the future. As game development becomes more complex, the amount of time necessary to create a game has only grown. New darling studio Guerilla Games’ spent six years to bring their IP Horizon: Zero Dawn from conception to having a copy on store shelves. You can bet whatever Playground Games is doing for Microsoft will take a similar amount of time.
The truth is, this will be a great idea…in 2020, whenever they’re ready to launch “Scarlet”, the supposed “next-gen” Microsoft console. In two years time, many of the seeds planted two years ago back in 2016 will be about ready to sprout. Many of their titles will be far enough along in their development cycle to promote, providing Microsoft with tons of first party support to woo potential buyers. They’ll also have a quick way into gamers’ wallets, offering them an affordable way to purchase the next console, while simultaneously forcing anyone who buys in to also be apart of their XBL Gold and GamePass services. This will only help reinforce a positive feedback loop for GamePass: the more popular the service is, the more games they’ll be able to score from third-party publishers to add to the service and sweeten the deal, encouraging more gamers to buy in, and so on.
But what about the present, when the service is currently being launched? Well, even if some Sony fans don’t want to admit it, the Xbox One X is probably the best place to enjoy any multi-platform game. It’s a monster of a machine, offering the best graphics possible short of just switching to PC. And if for whatever reason you just can’t convince yourself its worth it to drop $500 at one time on yet another system? This is probably the best way to do it. Now that relegates the Xbox One into being a “secondary” console, but who knows? After two years of having access to everything in Xbox’s eco-system, perhaps players will be more willing to listen to Microsoft’s pitch for their next system.
One thing I will say is this is one of the most inspired decisions I’ve seen since Nintendo decided to merge their console and handheld into a single device. And like that was a major success, I hope Microsoft sees the right support for this, and it spurs Sony into doing something bold instead of being satisfied with being in first place, because nothing’s better for this industry than competition.