There are a lot of Xbox games in the works.
Halo, Ori, Age of Empires, Flight Simulator, Bleeding Edge, Battletoads, Everwild, Tell Me Why, Gears Tactics, Grounded... and there's more to be announced. Matt Booty, head of Xbox Game Studios, tells us that they'll be further reveals before Christmas and even more in early 2020.
"You will see one of the most exciting line-ups that we've had coming from Xbox Game Studios in as long as I can remember," he says confidently. "For the first time ever, we really have way more games than we know what to do with in terms of knowing when they'll be announced."
The reason behind this flurry of game activity is due to the number of new studios the company has acquired as it looks to strengthen its Game Pass subscription offering. Some of these studios are not what you'd describe as AAA developers, and in fact many of the games we listed above are smaller, more unusual offerings. Take the survival game Grounded, which is an Obsidian title but one developed by just 14 people.
Some of the titles seem quite risky, but Microsoft says that Game Pass eliminates some of that risk. There's no longer that worry whether gamers will be willing to spend $60 on a new title, and so the commercial pressures are reduced when choosing whether to commission something or not.
"Yeah. In general [that's true]," Booty tells us. "I'd just want to use a different word than commission. Our studios are very creator-led. But honestly, especially where we are right now, we have a very unique advantage that so many of our studio heads are very senior, very experienced, and very creator-led. We're really trying to stay out of the way and let them make the games that they want to make. And so it's for them to say: 'Hey, when I look at Game Pass, this is what I see'. They might see a game that can bring a bigger audience than they had before, or they see the ability to make a game that might be more built around community, because they know that the second that it goes into Game Pass they have this ready-made community of players. But that's really up for them to figure out."
Developers are independent to tell the stories they want to tell, too. One of the notable X019 announcements was Dontnod's Tell Me Why, which will be published by Microsoft. According to the release, it is the first big game from a major publisher to feature a transgender man in the lead role. However, Booty says that the project was always one that Xbox was eager to support, Game Pass or not.
"Whether there's two people or two million people who will play it, we wanted to get behind [Tell Me Why]"
"Dontnod came to us for the story of Tell Me Why," he explains. "It's a very compelling story and we love it. It's inclusive and it's got a take on a modern storyline. We wanted them to go make that game. Whether there's two people or two million people who will play it, we wanted to get behind it. Now what I think the advantage of Game Pass is here, is that an audience that might not have ever discovered that game or might not have been interested in it now will certainly have an almost frictionless ability to go check it out. From the beginning we were very supportive of Dontnod, regardless of subject matter. We also love that there's an inclusive aspect of that game. It wasn't like, 'Hey, we need to depend on Game Pass to justify that'. We would have supported them no matter what. However, I hope that Game Pass opens up a much bigger audience that'll be able to experience the game."
One thing that Game Pass is enabling developers to do, Booty says, is ignore business models. There's no need to worry about making sure there's enough content to justify a $60 price tag, or to worry about whether the game is built to generate revenue through microtransactions.
"Game Pass itself takes care of being the service and the platform so when we go to design a game, we don't need to be thinking about what our plan is to sustain this for three or four years," Booty explains. "We don't need to think about how we come up with a set of content updates so that this thing can run as a service, or whether we're going to be doing Fortnite-style updates every three weeks. It frees us from having to think about that.
"It allows our game creators to do what they do best, which is make a game. Whether that's Outer Worlds, where it's a standalone single-player game that's about 25 hours long, or a game like Bleeding Edge, which probably structurally looks closer to a free-to-play game. It has really freed us up from having to think about designing around a service or around a business model and being able to just design the games that the team wants to make."
But there are some considerations that need to go into making games for a subscription platform. One of the advantages of Game Pass (and services like it) is it makes titles accessible to different players. Because you're a subscriber, you may be tempted to give a strategy game a try even though you've never played one before. Or you might decide to try a new game in a long-running series because it was suddenly available.
This means developers ought to consider the fact that they might have an influx of first-time users into a genre or franchise.
"It certainly is something we think about with our games right now," Booty says.
"We call it the FTUE -- the first time user experience -- which is how do you bring people in? I think you'll see that in some of the work we're doing in things like Age of Empires. Age of Empires has been around for 30 years. The people that play it know every mechanic in their sleep, but if suddenly there's a new audience for Age of Empires that's never played it before, how do you bring them on board? There are game franchises that have been around for a while where, as a player, I've just seen they keep adding features every year, controller complexity every year... it almost gets to the point where I could barely sit down to start to play this game because it is so much more complicated than what I remember. That first 30-minute experience, that onboarding and tutorial is definitely something we're spending more time on these days."
Another good example, the firm says, is with Gears 5, which recapped the campaign, offered a robust tutorial, and even renamed the difficulty levels so that newcomers would understand what they meant. "This is all in the expectation that this is a Gears game that's launching into Game Pass and there would be even more people there on Day One."
"I don't want Game Pass to become the place where half-finished or lower-quality games end up."
Building a subscription service, however, is challenging. The reason Microsoft has acquired so many studios is because it needs to have a regular cadence of content that goes into Game Pass. It needs to keep its subscribers engaged and it needs to keep signing and developing new things. It's something Netflix has done to some success, but it's fair to say that the quality is not always consistent. With a pressure to keep releasing new things, should we expect Microsoft to be less willing to delay, or even cancel, projects that are not hitting the right quality bar?
"Right now, quality and curation is so important to us," he says. "I don't want Game Pass to become the place where half-finished or lower-quality games end up. Given some of the challenges we've had with some things coming out of Xbox Game Studios that may not have been at the quality level that we'd want, I think for the time being we're going to stay very focused on improving our execution and the quality of games that we make."
Xbox's effort to build a subscription platform has also seen a marked change in how it advertises. The Game Pass ads are all about the service itself, including the number of games and the promotional price. Compare that to Netflix, which runs marketing on the shows it's releasing and barely mentions the service at all.
"When Scarlett launches, there will still be the Xbox One S and Xbox One X out there. We need to approach that family of devices in the same way that we approach PC, where the content scales to meet the device"
"What's important to understand is that we are 18 months in on Game Pass," says Booty. "Netflix is over ten years old. If you were to go back and look at some of the things that Netflix did in their first two years, it's easy for people to forget now because it's been so long, but you couldn't turn around sideways without seeing a Netflix ad for this promotional offer, or that promotional offer... It was almost as bad as the AOL disk. I'd go pick up my chicken sandwich at the restaurant and it comes with a free AOL disk. Everything was about a free month of Netflix. I think that as a subscription service emerges and grows that there are different ways of promoting it at different times. We're just in a different phase. They have challenges that are different from what we have right now. There's so much talk about Disney Plus and they've got a world of challenges there. For us, we need to do the right marketing from where we are in the lifecycle of our subscription."
Whenever we speak to Microsoft at events like X019, it becomes increasingly clear that although things like its next console (Project Scarlett) and cloud streaming service (xCloud) are significant, Game Pass is the thing that is driving its business decisions. It was notable that at X019, Xbox announced two games that are releasing before its next-gen console, because it is vital that the firm keeps its Game Pass users engaged, more so than bolstering its Scarlett launch line-up.
"We feel confident about our content pipeline so that we feel we don't need to save everything up for that beat," Booty concludes.
"But what I'll also say is that today, when you launch a new device you are not eliminating all of the devices in that family to date. If I make a game for the iPhone, when the iPhone X comes out I can't just write it for the iPhone X and pretend as if the 9, 8, 7 and 6 don't exist.
"When Scarlett launches, there will still be the Xbox One S and Xbox One X out there. We really need to approach that family of devices in the same way that we approach PC, where the content scales to meet the device. That's going to be the case for anybody. It's not like, if we roll back the clock 15 years, when a new device was out and people wanted you to take your old device and just put it in the closet.
"We will absolutely lean in on the power of Scarlett. We think it's going to be the best way to play and it'll be the best thing to put in your living room. But we also want to understand that there will be a family of Xbox devices out there that we want to make sure we support fully."