What makes a console unique? It’s a question that up until now only really had one definitive answer. Sure, one could talk about its design, controllers, UI, or even the company that made it, but there’s usually just one word that encapsulates everything that a console is—exclusives. Games that are tethered to one of these trio of plastic boxes, shaping their identity and used by fans as evidence for or against a console’s quality when wrapped up in impassioned (and, let’s be honest, juvenile) “console war” debates. This identity is so strong that these games and their protagonists can’t be imagined to exist outside of the machine their titles had historically existed on. Their names are synonymous with these systems. Kratos is PlayStation, Mario is Nintendo, and Master Chief is Xbox.
Or at least, he is for now. Because as of this writing there’s quite a lot of hubbub circulating around the inner workings at Microsoft, with rumors running rampant that some of Xbox’s biggest name exclusives—both existing ones like Hi-Fi Rush and upcoming titles like Indiana Jones and the Great Circle—will be coming to both Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Nintendo’s Switch in the near future. These rumors may not be rumors much longer, as in a response CEO Phil Spencer posted on X that the team have “…been planning a business update event for next week, where we look forward to sharing more details with you about our vision for the future of Xbox…”
My guess is that Spencer and Co. will be taking the stage to confirm many of these rumblings. That many of their current exclusives like Starfield are, indeed, coming to Sony and/or Nintendo consoles, and with many of their future exclusives to follow suit. Some of you reading may be thinking that Microsoft’s doing so would be them effectively admitting defeat, and going the route of being a third party publisher, much like Sega became in the early 2000’s. I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case, however. Yes, it’s no secret that Microsoft’s Xbox division is a shell of what it was during the 360 generation. This in no small part due to them failing to deliver quality exclusives over the past two generations, leading to lackluster console sales that led them to consistently come in third place behind Sony and Nintendo. But there is one area where Xbox hasn’t failed: Game Pass.
During the FTC v. Microsoft federal case, leaked documents outlining the future of the Xbox showed the subscriber growth and revenue for Xbox’s subscription service. Game Pass, as of January 2022, brought in a little over $9 per subscription (when accounting for all the tiers). According to the documents, the total number of Game Pass subscribers at the beginning of 2022 sat at 25 million. A little math would bring Microsoft’s monthly earnings from Game Pass alone to nearly $230 million. Considering that this was two years ago and reports suggest that the subscriber number has since surpassed 30 million, and we may very well be nearing $300 million per month. That is a number that one can’t easily ignore, especially if their name is Phil Spencer.
Which is exactly why none of these rumors of Xbox titles coming to other platforms is surprising, because this a shift in philosophy that is driven by, as are most things, money. And right now, the money is in an all-digital, subscription-based (and somewhat dystopian) future. The money is in Game Pass. A service that Xbox will continue to assert as the prime place to play games, and where fans will get access to all future Xbox titles first. Emphasis on “first,” because these rumors suggest that these same “exclusives” will make there way over to competitor consoles, albeit not via Game Pass but traditional $70 titles. But why? Would that not detract potential subscribers from Game Pass? Or will Xbox make their service available to those on PlayStation and Nintendo consoles? Well, my guess is that Microsoft had internal meetings and said, much like the meme, “why not both?” This effectively makes it so Microsoft can, with their bevy of acquired studios in tow, have a number of different ways to generate profits, from Game Pass subscriptions to standard sales of $70 games, across all three fanbases.
If this is indeed the case come next week, then it would be an even more bullish strategy than the all-digital, disc-less console future that was supposedly in the works during the time of the FTC trial. Whether Microsoft and Xbox are now seemingly doubling-down on Game Pass and moving past consoles (disc-less or otherwise) altogether is yet to be seen, though I wouldn’t be surprised if that, too, happened. Anyone who’s been following the words of Phil Spencer shouldn’t at all be surprised by any of this. The man has been consistent in saying how the goal of Xbox is to bring their games to “platforms where Game Pass exists.” This is taken from a longer quote from when Microsoft were finalizing the Bethesda buyout. When speaking about the future of Bethesda exclusivity, Spencer said, “…even in the future there might be things that have either contractual things or legacy on different platforms that we’ll go do, but if you’re an Xbox customer, the thing I want you to know is this is about delivering great exclusive games for you that ship on platforms where Game Pass exists. And that’s our goal, that’s why we’re doing this, that’s the root of this partnership that we’re building, and the creative capability we will be able to bring to market for our Xbox customers is going to be the best it’s ever been for Xbox after we’re done here.”
It’ll be an odd day when I see Marcus Fenix dawn the cover of PlayStation’s storefront. An odder one when I see some of the older Halo’s make it over to Nintendo’s eShop. But alas, this may very well be the case. The marketing jargon will make it seem like Xbox are being generous, allowing players to play their treasured IPs wherever and on whatever device. But in reality the Big Green Machine are simply following, well, the green.