Here we are at the welcome end of 2020. For Microsoft, it’s been the year of recovery with a few sticking points along the way, finally escaping the tribulations of last generation and armed for the next with a host of new IPs and studios. What’s more, there is now cloud gaming on Android and those new Series X|S consoles, even if the software for them is as empty as a Michael Bay film.
However, one of the biggest things for Microsoft’s gaming division in 2020 has been the Xbox Game Pass service, and they’ve been keen to crow about it. With good reason too: the company disclosed that the service had grown to 15 million subscribers in September and is going into 2021 and beyond with plenty of first-party content coming to the service from Xbox Game Studios.
Whilst the future of the service with the new consoles is one that Xbox gamers can be enthused for, it’s worth taking a moment to look back on 2020 for Xbox Game Pass. After all, with it becoming a key part of Microsoft’s console ecosystem, it’s worth critiquing its value and there’s no better time to do that than the end of the year.
Of course, you can’t deny the commercial success of Xbox Game Pass over the last year. The aforementioned hard numbers are testament to that and Xbox has shown the model does have appeal with gamers. But when it comes to critically analysing how the service has performed in the last calendar year, let’s take a look at what games came to Game Pass this year, the overall library’s strength, and where it can be improved.
On the first-party front, the year was representative of Microsoft’s struggles owing to its lack of investment in first-party. With the acquisitions announced by Xbox Game Studios over the last number of years, there would be a long period of time before those new partnerships bore fruit. Thus, the service found itself slightly devoid of new exclusives to promote it. In spite of this, that isn’t to say the service was barren with exclusives in 2020. The ones that were there did provide a varied degree of first-party exclusives. Consider GOTY contender Ori and the Will of the Wisps in March, which was one of the finest platforming experiences on any system this year. That was the true high point of the first party output, but other underlooked exclusives include Dontnod’s episodic murder mystery Tell Me Why, strategic spin-off Gears Tactics, and post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland 3. The variation in here is certainly appealing and critically did well, each scoring above 75 on Metacritic (if you care about score aggregation). Still, hopefully the greater output in the next few years can remedy that issue.
Speaking of Remedy, Game Pass can be praised for its great inclusion of classic and new third-party titles, with Remedy’s Alan Wake and Control debuting on the service this year. Rockstar saw GTA V arrive in January and ultimately replaced it with Red Dead Redemption 2 in May. Space exploration game No Man’s Sky also arrived in June with its Origins update this year, which proved to be especially popular with Sean Murray touting over a million new players joining the game since its arrival. But within the raft of the third-party triple-A titles that launched on Xbox Game Pass, it was especially strong with regards to JRPGs – both old and new. The flagbearer for this was the Yakuza series with Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami & Yakuza Kiwami 2 on the service at the time of writing, and the remaster of entries 3-6 in the series launching on the service in 2021. The acclaimed franchise has drawn in plenty of new players through the Game Pass service, and with the latest entry in the franchise releasing on next-gen consoles in Yakuza: Like A Dragon, the series has plenty of momentum. On top of this, Disney fan-fiction franchise and legendary JRPG Kingdom Hearts saw the HD 1.5 and 2.5 ReMIX, HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue and Kingdom Hearts 3 all gracing the service in the biggest mouthful of entries. Speaking of legendary JRPG series, Final Fantasy also found itself prevalent on the service. Final Fantasy XV arrived in February, and along with that sat the HD remasters of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX. It’s fair to say that Microsoft’s recent interest in the Asian market has been a source for this collation of JRPGs.
However, the truly great strength that has bolstered Game Pass is its wonderful selection of indie titles. Indie titles are, by their very nature, less known quantities than their triple-A counterparts which have the marketing advantage. Hopefully as Game Pass continues, the service and teams at Microsoft don’t lose sight of how indies provide the platform with so many hidden gems for people to find. Great indie titles from the last few years have been added. Game Of The Year nominee Celeste, 2019’s woefully underlooked slash-and-dash platformer Katana ZERO, and 2017’s quietly powerful adventure Night In The Woods all are stalwart examples of this. They found themselves joining new games debuting through the service, such as the tentacle fantasy Carrion, map-bending puzzler Carto and death-based building sim Spiritfarer, each providing a different gameplay experience for Game Pass users.
That perhaps is the greatest strength of Xbox Game Pass in 2020. Across its library, the teams at Microsoft have done fantastically at curating a diverse gaming catalogue. However, if one other weakness has existed for the library in 2020 aside from the first party problems, it is the lack of backward compatible titles from previous generations. Whilst some Xbox 360 games have been added – particularly later in the year with titles like Brutal Legend – the overall lack of backwards compatible additions to the program did feel like Xbox could be moving away from the addition of Xbox 360 and original Xbox titles. Of course, there doesn’t need to be an overabundance of titles. However, given Microsoft’s desire to include backwards compatibility as a part of the latest consoles, the lack of entries does leave a bit to be desired. Hopefully this can be solved soon.
Those issues aside, the variation of titles, great indies and the large third-party additions have given Game Pass a critically strong year for those 15 million users. The potential of Xbox Game Studios with oncoming titles such as Halo: Infinite, Perfect Dark, Fable and everything Zenimax are working on does give a strong feeling that the service could reach its true potential over the next few years. That is merely potential of course; as we’ve seen with Halo: Infinite, every development cycle is full of challenges. But if Xbox Game Studios can pull this off, Game Pass could become irresistible.