Game passes: unexpected item in the bagging area

At an IT industry event last month, there was a presentation called Shaping Self-Service for the Future. This described one company’s journey towards implementing an online portal where their customers could go to make support requests and all the factors that had to be considered at the start of the project.

The desire for these self-service channels, along with artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots has been taking the IT world by storm for the past year or so. The speaker compared this current trend to the self-checkouts frequently found in supermarkets nowadays and explained that the just-in-time stock management followed by such companies inspired the creation of the Lean principles in the 1990s. (It might be for IT but it’s also pretty good at keeping your video game backlog in check.)

self-checkouts, Tesco, tills, store, supermarket, cashier

The part of the presentation I found most interesting was the section comparing the benefits shouted about by businesses to how self-checkouts are viewed by customers. We may be told they give us more choice, convenience and speed, and have been put into stores to ‘improve our shopping experience’, but is that really what we believe? Not at all: a 2014 poll found that 93% of us dislike the machines and see them as a cost-cutting method used by supermarkets to boost their profits.

It struck me after the event just how similar self-service channels and game passes are. You log into an online portal, select the product or service you require, receive it and are asked for your feedback. Everything you need is contained within a standard monthly fee which can be increased depending on the level of service you’d like. And right now consumers view these subscriptions with a large amount of cynicism: do the supermarkets and publishers have our best interests at heart or are they looking to make a quick buck?

During their briefing at E3 last month, Microsoft employees took every opportunity to tell us about Project XCloud and the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. They’re apparently going to revolutionise the way we purchase video games. They’re going to give us unlimited access to over 100 high-quality titles from well-known developers. They’ll bring us together to create a shared community regardless of where we play. All great benefits for gamers, certainly – but by the end of the show I was sick of hearing about the products.

Although I could see the truth in what was being said when thinking rationally, I was curious to realise it was a totally different matter emotionally. The high number of mentions about XCloud and the Game Pass somehow made it seem suspicious; surely it was all about the company and not the consumer? Microsoft can look forward to a regular and reliable source of income, instead of hoping we’ll shell out £50 to £60 for a new game several times a year and having to get sequels out as quickly as possible to keep the cash coming in.

There’s also the fact that cost-savings can be achieved through the potential to focus on a single marketing effort. Rather than having to constantly promote individual titles, stick them together in a single game pass, throw all your marketing weight behind one product and occasionally offer a free month of service to draw in new customers! It’s an attractive proposal for shareholders: a guaranteed monthly income for the business through subscriptions plus a few extra consolidation tricks on the side to increase those profits even further.

The rational side of my brain then kicked in and wanted to argue for those benefits the Microsoft representatives had put forward during their E3 briefing. How could paying for unlimited access to a library of video games not be a good thing? You’re betting a chunk of money that you’re actually going to enjoy the title you’re buying if you do so at full price, and a game pass removes this risk as you can try as many as you like for a much lower monthly fee. There’s also no more having to wait for payday to get your hands on that new release.

But what if you don’t have a lot of free time to play, or if the games you want aren’t available in the library? Is it still good value then? And what if one you’re halfway through is dropped from the service? So many questions, all of them leading back to the ultimate: are game passes just a way for corporations to make money? It’s no wonder customers are suspicious. It appears every company we encounter through our hobby wants to push at least one subscription, whether it be a game pass, access to their network, or season pass for new content.

When do all of these become too much? Let’s turn to television for an example. Now that companies have seen just how successful Netflix has been, they all want a slice of the subscription pie and are removing their content from the platform so it can be placed behind their own paywalls. Viewers will therefore be locked out of certain shows if they can’t afford yet another monthly fee, and it could mean we have to make some difficult choices about which platforms we pay for in the future.

E3, Xbox briefing, stage, lights

Is this where the video game world is heading too? Not according to Microsoft. Head of Gaming Services Ben Decker said in an interview in August 2018: “We don’t have a goal of being the subscription where you get all your content. This is meant to be additive to the ecosystem. We don’t see a future where subscriptions are dominant. We see a future where customers have choice between a subscription and purchase-to-own, where there’s a mixed ecosystem because that’s what customers want, and that’s what developers want.”

So maybe that’s what it all boils down to: choice, and perhaps too much of it. Research has shown this isn’t a good thing as it can make us miserable. When there are fewer options available, it’s easier to make a decision (although we’ll feel cheated if there are too few) and around 12 seems to be the sweet-spot for decision-making. Perhaps our current cynicism and suspicion towards game passes are because we’re starting to feel overwhelmed at all that choice.

Microsoft and other companies are jumping into the future of cloud-based services and are quick to point out the benefits. But we as consumers are far more cautious and want to take the journey one step at a time. Whether it’s a self-service channel in an IT setting, self-checkouts in supermarkets or game passes from publishers, they’ll need to lead us gently and avoid any unexpected items in the bagging area.

E3, Microsoft and Fable 4: totally bogus

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), takes place in Los Angeles Convention Center every June. Developers, publishers and manufacturers attend to advertise their upcoming projects to over 15,000 attendees over three days – and many more thousands of people view their presentations from the comfort of their own homes through the magic of the internet.

E3, Xbox briefing, stage, lights

I must confess that I don’t watch the event regularly myself, and the last time I did so was before the release of the current generation of consoles. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that the hype before and after tends to kill any excitement I could have; similar to the overkill surrounding Fallout 76 and Red Dead Redemption in late 2018, the month of rumours leading up to E3 along with the number of news articles about the ‘shocking announcements’ for weeks afterwards really grinds my gears.

The second is that I find most of the presentations by the big names don’t cater for where I fall in their audience. I’m not what they’d call a ‘hardcore’ gamer before I don’t care about the specifications of upcoming hardware – I just want my consoles to run the games I’d like to play. But I don’t necessarily come under their ‘casual’ classification either, because I play video games four or five times a week and they’re my main form of entertainment. As I’ve written previously, I actually prefer them to movies.

But this year was different. This year even I’d not been able to avoid all E3 news and I’d seen a couple of articles about those recent Fable 4 leaks. On 04 June 2019, Twitter user Nibel spotted a Reddit post which allegedly detailed information on the unconfirmed game including the demise of Albion and time-travel. Although such things should always be taken with a pinch of salt, if any of the details contained are true then we’re looking at an instalment which is going to be a lot different from what we’ve come to know from the fantasy series.

Fable has held a special place in my heart since its original release in 2004. It was the title that managed to get me back into gaming after the point in my teenage years where I suddenly realised that others didn’t view my hobby in the same way I did. After trying to change to fit in and becoming very unhappy as a result, getting the chance to play it made me see I still wanted to go on adventures, believe in fairy-tales and become the hero – and there was absolutely nothing wrong with me because of that.

I booked time off of work when Fable II was released in 2008 so I could buy it as soon as possible and spend the entire day playing it. It turned out to be everything the first game was and way more: here was sequel which surpassed the original and remains on my list of favourites even today. But sadly, the same couldn’t be said of Fable III in 2010. It went downhill not too long after the opening credits and I came away from the experience disappointed, wondering whether my beloved series would ever get back on track.

That’s why I found myself putting down the controller and firing up Twitch last Sunday evening, ready for Microsoft’s E3 presentation stream. Surely there had to be some details about Fable 4 after those leaks and last year’s news that Playground Games were working on something? I settled on the sofa full of anticipation as the clock slowly counted down towards the start time, before the screen filled with a cheering audience in front of a huge stage and far too many spotlights.

There were some highlights during the next 90 minutes. Although the majority of games revealed seemed to be standard Microsoft fare of shooter sequels and remakes, there were a couple of titles that caught my eye. 12 Minutes, an interactive thriller about a man caught in a time loop by Luis Antonio, has an interesting top-down style and looks as though it would be right up my street. And although I won’t be brave enough to play it myself, I can see me making my other-half play Blair Witch by Bloober Team so I can watch from behind my hands.

But there were also some lowlights too. Double Fine Productions is the latest Xbox Game Studios acquisition (which may turn out well for them because they’ve struggled to secure funding in the past, but we’ve seen bad things happen to small teams who get bought out). Microsoft are pushing the Xbox Game Pass at every opportunity to the point where I’m sick of hearing about it. Few details about Project Scarlett were shared. And everybody forgot about the games when Keanu Reeves made an unexpected appearance on stage (a ‘totally bogus’ publicity stunt).

And the biggest frustration: no news about Fable 4 at all in that hour-and-a-half. Not even a hint. Maybe the news of a series resurrection was a little premature; or perhaps there were so many other games to unveil during the presentation, that Microsoft decided to hold onto the next Fable instalment until there’s more progress to show off. I’m guessing that we’re going to have to wait until this time next year for any real information, when the company might reveal it as a Project Scarlett launch title at the next expo.

My disappointment is my own fault for listening to hype leading up to the event. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of hearing about a title you’ve been waiting for, then only to be let down. Next year I think I’ll go back to my previous tactic of staying away from all news, and play video games on those E3 days while other people watch presentations about them.