Microsoft's duo of announcements caused quite the ripple across the gaming industry. That's because it looked like the company was once again presenting a conflicting message. On the one hand, Halo Infinite was delayed into 2021, and yet, in the same breath, the Xbox Series X release date was confirmed for November. It seems an odd move to delay the big launch title for the Xbox Series X the moment you announce a narrower release window, but that's only if you view the next-generation of consoles in the most traditional way imaginable.
For decades now, console generations have been defined by a very specific cycle. After six or seven years, you expect a new wave of consoles to arrive. With them comes a selection of launch titles and features that are designed to define the earliest years of the console's lifecycle. And yet, we're now just three months out from the Xbox Series X launch and it just lost its supposed system-seller.
However, from all the messaging we've had since the Xbox Series X was announced, it's becoming increasingly clear that Microsoft isn't viewing this as a new console generation. Instead, it is shifting its focus to a more malleable model, one that has far more in common with the annual release cycles so commonly associated with graphics cards and smartphones. And Xbox Game Pass is at the centre of it all.
Software vs hardware
Xbox Game Pass is the next-generation of Xbox gaming for Microsoft – it just started a bit early. Microsoft's monthly gaming subscription service is as close to the industry's coveted "Netflix of Gaming" moniker we've seen so far. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is $14.99/£10.99 and offers over a hundred games, including day-one access to Microsoft's own exclusives – including the likes of Gears 5, Sea of Thieves, and the upcoming Halo Infinite. But, for that price, you can play those games on current-gen Xbox consoles, on PC, and Android tablets and phones too. Heck, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate even throws in Xbox Live Gold and, from September, it'll also include the Project xCloud game streaming service too. The value is honestly astonishing.
Suddenly Microsoft's proposition is not to get you to buy the Xbox Series X on day one, but rather entice you to subscribe to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. This is an affordable way to get access to games on mass, including those touted as Xbox Series X titles. Games such as Avowed, the new Fable (aka Fable 4), Forza Motorsport, Everwild, and the rest of the first- and third-party games shown off during the latest Xbox event have already been confirmed as Xbox Game Pass titles, meaning you can play them regardless of whether you make the jump to the Series X console.
Plus, it's convenience is unparalleled. The eventual partnership between Game Pass and xCloud also means you can play your library of games anywhere. Download them at home with Game Pass, and stream on the go via xCloud – all without having to think about the cost of adding more titles to that library.
Thus, Xbox Series X is merely an option within that broader Xbox ecosystem. It's not the dawn of a new generation for Microsoft, it's simply the highest-end SKU. It's a way to make sure you're playing the Game Pass collection looking and running its best. The biggest problem Microsoft has right now is perception.
A new console cycle
While we could all tout the benefits of Game Pass until we're Xbox green in the face, the idea of a new console generation will always come with certain expectations: the shiny new features, a completely new design, gamepad tweaks, and the oh so important launch game line-up. It's exactly what Sony is continuing to do with the PS5, and because of that, the perception is that it looks better set to win the so-called console wars this generation – at least right out of the gate.
We are not yet conditioned to buy a new console every couple of years that offers little more than iterative upgrades. Unlike a new smartphone, investing in console hardware is usually an expensive one-off purchase, rather than something tied into a monthly payment scheme. With phone contracts, getting a new bit of tech is usually the reward for eventually paying off the last one, and entering into the cycle once again – ad nauseam.
For now, Microsoft would be smart to really dial in on the benefits of joining the Xbox family via Game Pass, presenting the Xbox Series X as the top tier of what Xbox gaming has to offer – faster loading times, ray-tracing, support for 8K resolutions, an improved gamepad and so on. It's a risk, of course, because it would subvert the usual expectations, but by delaying its core upcoming Xbox Series X game it risks doing that regardless.