When you've been playing games for over 30 years, you aren't surprised often. Delays, disappointments, unexpected treasures - we've seen 'em all more times than we can count. We're the ones that saw gaming move from arcades into the home, onto mobile platforms (I'm talking Nintendo Gameboy, Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx here) and finally online, with each generation piling on more and more power. It's not often though that something comes along that really changes how I consume and access games. I'm pretty accustomed to buying games digitally; with how our home is set up it's often cheaper for me to cough up for one more expensive digital copy of a game that can be played on 2 Xboxes simultaneously than it is to buy 2 slightly cheaper physical copies - but Gamepass has pushed that to a different level.
When Gamepass was first announced, the main thing that caught my attention was the fact that it allowed a game to be downloaded and played locally - streaming of games was something that PS4 was already trying, but watching people play games in that way had left me entirely unconvinced. That's now changing (I'm lucky enough to be in the pilot for Microsoft's Project xCloud streaming app - which I'll talk about more another day), but at the time it... just didn't work. The input lag was horrible, the display lag and hiccups even worse. It looked a lot like people are saying Stadia looks now - and it didn't appeal to me in the slightest. The idea of a game library though, available on demand, all for a monthly subscription fee just made a lot of sense to me. I play a lot of games, I spend a lot of money on them - so signing up for something like this was a no-brainer. And my thoughts were that I could get it, play Sea of Thieves until I was bored and then just bin it off if it wasn't working. If that game didn't grab me, there were plenty of others on there that I hadn't played, and the commitment to bring first-party studio games to it on day one left me thinking that I'd be able to find something, even if it wasn't necessarily something I was really excited about.
Here I am, well over 18 months later - still subscribed, still playing, and more deeply entrenched in Gamepass than I ever thought I'd become. When I first signed up, I wondered what impact it would have on what I played and how... and as the year's gone on it's become more and more central to my gaming mindset. Here's an idea of where I am with it:
I actually considered only playing Gamepass games this year. I bottled it at the time, mainly because I didn't want to set myself a limitation that would preclude me from playing Anthem - which in retrospect is kinda funny given how little time I actually ended up spending playing that one. In the end though, a lot of what I have played has ended up being from there. At last count, out of the 20 games I've finished this year, 10 have come from Gamepass. Of the ones I finished that weren't on Gamepass at the time, 2 of them have now made their way there (World War Z and Metro Exodus - both of which were a lot of fun). I've spent more time playing Sea of Thieves this year than probably anything else... so that subscription feels like money well spent.
I used to know the release dates of all the big games. This year, that's changed. I've played a lot of games that I've found by browsing this service, including some smaller gems like Old Man's Journey and What Remains of Edith Finch. I've replaced a lot of huge AAA experiences with a handful of smaller indie titles, pretty much all of which I've found just by surfing Gamepass. At this point, when I'm looking for the next game to play I head there instead of to Amazon; which is fine - as anything that leads Amazon to ultimately getting less business is fine by me. My main concern is that one day, picking a game on Gamepass will be as time consuming as picking a movie on Netflix - with many an evening spent mindlessly scrolling a vast ocean of content looking for that perfect thing that doesn't exist.
The weirdest thing though, being the old fart I am, is watching how my kids interact with it. They'll both login to an Xbox and surf it, and download stuff just to try it out. If they enjoy it, it stays - and if they don't it goes. It's completely de-risked trying out new games for them in a way that was all but impossible when I was a kid. Back then, buying a game was a risky business - a balancing act of optimism, advertising, and meticulous newsagent based research. A NES game cost £40 here in the UK; you'd be lucky if you could get your grubby mitts on more than a couple of new carts every year. Birthdays were a good bet, as was Christmas. I remember a grandparent getting a copy of Metroid for my brother and I to share, and us feeling like we'd lucked out in an enormous way. Getting the right game was fine... but if you read the wrong review, listened to the wrong school friend, or fell in love with the wrong cover, it was an expensive mistake to make. And one you'd be stuck with for a while, and leave you with a game that you'd a) have to play and b) pretend to love (because if there's one thing you couldn't do as a ten year old budding video game player in the late 80's and early 90's, it was confess to having bought a shit game.)
It's a rite of passage that doesn't exist anymore - and to be honest, that's not a bad thing. My kids get to try as many things out as they want, looking for the game that'll stick. Microsoft keep referring to Gamepass as the place to go to find "your next favourite game" - and my experience of it is that they aren't kidding. As that fistful of studio acquisitions from last year begin pumping content through, I've a feeling that Gamepass is going to have set the standard for a subscription based gaming platform for consoles by the time the next generation rolls around. It's certainly the most compelling offer that the Xbox ecosystem has to offer for the moment - and it seems to be pulling more and more people in. Will it be a deciding factor in the next campaign of the Console Wars? I think it might be. Anything that ties consumers into an ecosystem with a solid offering makes it less likely that they'll want to compromise their experience - and at the moment there's nothing else out there that compares to it. That doesn't look likely to change either, at least for the short to medium term. Right now, for less than the price of one game a month you can choose from a selection of over 200. Makes perfect sense to me. And Project xCloud will only go to make it even more interesting.