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What Laser League’s launch tells us about Xbox Game Pass’ future

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Microsoft’s subscription service leans hard into third parties

Roll7/505 Games

In Laser League, teams of players activate neon-colored laser barriers and use them to trap or wipe out opponents on a futuristic playing field. It has no single-player component. This is the kind of video game that depends on large numbers of players, as opposed to buyers, on the very first day if it’s going to be worth anyone’s attention. That kind of problem isn’t solved simply by throwing more marketing money at it.

Not that Tim Woodley, the senior executive for global branding at publisher 505 Games, had a lot of money to throw around in the first place. That’s where Xbox Game Pass came in, and that’s why launching on that all-you-can-eat subscription service made sense, even when the game was going on sale the same day at $15.

“When we were talking about how to generate those kinds of [concurrent users], we were looking at ‘What will we have to do if we were doing it alone?’” Woodley said. “And the brutally honest answer is that the kind of CCUs that you need to generate are kind of out of our range, to be able to pay for those users on a cost-per-acquisition basis. It just doesn’t make commercial sense to be doing that.”

505’s experience with Game Pass is a success story Microsoft is spotlighting — meant for third parties as well as potential subscribers — as the service approaches its third year. From this, one can deduce how Microsoft feels about Game Pass and what its catalog might look like down the road, particularly if it expands to Windows 10 users (as is widely expected) next year. The company’s messaging, particularly a month ago at the X018 exposition, consistently touts Game Pass as a way of connecting subscribers to games and genres they may not otherwise play, and so that’s why a multiplayer-only indie title like Laser League can fit in with a crowd like Fallout 4 or Tom Clancy’s The Division.

And that, Woodley said, will trickle down to publishing choices at 505. Having a ready-made audience, even at the expense of traditional sales, can make games like Laser League seem like less of a risk. Moreover, it can turn a niche title into a candidate for a launch-day appearance on Xbox Game Pass.

“It’s definitely a consideration, any time something like this comes along that materially changes the landscape, in terms of how consumers want to access content,” said Woodley, whose company took on Laser League after developer Roll7 successfully pitched it at Paris Games Week 2016. “We as a third-party publisher have to sit back and take notice, and understand how that’s going to impact our green lighting process moving forward.”

Since launching in mid-2017, Game Pass was first looked to for its library of AAA console offerings, usually high visibility games a subscriber didn’t get around to when they launched a year or so ago. That’s since been supplemented by Microsoft committing first-party games to Game Pass on the same day they launch elsewhere, going back to Sea of Thieves in March.

But a third-party game doing a day-and-date launch on the service is a bit of a different creature. Microsoft’s value proposition to publishers there is the exposure Game Pass can generate — particularly important for a game whose overall experience depends on a large player base, like Laser League. It’s also a way for smaller titles to stand out rather than being just another marketplace offering in a week of new launches.

When Ben Decker, the head of gaming services for Microsoft, makes that pitch to a third-party publisher, he emphasizes the curated nature of the Game Pass catalog, which is only about 100 titles long. A game listed on Game Pass does not stay there permanently. Rolling some in and shuffling others out on a monthly basis creates an ongoing discussion about what’s available to Game Pass and why. It also builds a sense in subscribers that they should try what they’re paying for now, or even buy it if they really like it, because it may not be around forever.

”We’ve been focused on always driving something new, something great in the catalog, and keeping that focus on curation across a broad variety of genres,” Decker said. And while that’s great for a publisher like Woodley to hear, there’s a benefit to subscribers, too, Decker said. “We hear a lot from customers [that] there’s a lot of value to the curation and to discoverability. Hundreds of games on Xbox every year, and people aren’t always able to figure out, ‘Hey, what’s great to play?’ and sometimes tend to stick with franchises or genres that they know and not explore the full capacity of what they can do.”

The unspoken alternative here is PlayStation Now’s approach, which dates to 2014 but was, until only recently, exclusively a streaming service. Until September, no games could be downloaded to a subscriber’s console. PlayStation Now’s library comprises some 600 titles and spans three console generations; it’s all back-catalog releases, even the games Sony has published, some of it ancient. Xbox also sells its smaller catalog a little harder, with a dedicated tab on the Xbox One’s dashboard and a companion app on mobile devices.

”Because Microsoft are curating this and keeping it nice and fresh for the consumer’s perspective, it’s a good thing to be involved with,” Woodley said. “Because I think the worst thing that could happen is that suddenly becomes uncurated, and through the sheer glut of titles that means you do become one in thousands of games that people can pore through. It helps you stand out, you can be a bigger fish in the slightly smaller pool.”

Laser League did team up with PlayStation in October as one of the offerings to PlayStation Plus subscribers. But that was, again, after it had launched in full on both consoles and Windows PC. Woodley is, of course, aware that Rocket League, a breakout multiplayer game to which Laser League favorably compares, launched on consoles as a free game offered to PlayStation Plus subscribers. But that was back in 2015, and there was no subscription service option like Xbox Game Pass at the time. Woodley and 505 saw Game Pass, where customers are paying to access games, as more preferable to a free benefit tossed in for signing up for a console’s multiplayer.

Laser League by Roll7, the creator of OlliOlli. Roll7 in August handed development of the game over to 505 Games.
Roll7/505 Games

”It was fortuitous, I suppose, that just as we were preparing for Laser League’s launch, Microsoft came to us and said, ‘You know, we’re preparing to start offering our Game Pass out for day and date [launch] both first-party and third-party titles,” Woodley added. ”So on top of all the stuff that we know about and hear about, it increases discoverability, which is certainly true.”

Microsoft leaned hard into that small to middle tier of new game releases at its X018 event earlier this month, mainly through the company’s ID@Xbox program for spotlighting independent developers. It announced seven games that will launch on Game Pass in the coming months, with Mutant Year Zero (on Dec. 4, published by Funcom) probably the biggest name among them.

That’s not to say that the third-party way forward is going to be headlined solely by indies and off-the-beaten path launches. Indeed, 505 became comfortable with Game Pass, Woodley said, because the company had earlier given it Terraria and Payday 2, both more than five years old. Matt Percy, the director of business development for Game Pass, again stresses curation as a selling point for older games from even bigger publishers — making them timely again thanks to current events, such as Doom and Rage joining the catalog during QuakeCon back in August.

Percy said that that back catalog titles that are part of a franchise, or attached to a publisher with other well known properties, can deliver benefits in preorders for upcoming games in that franchise, or buying up older works from it. Pete Hines, Bethesda Softworks’ top spokesman, said that after the QuakeCon partnership, the company saw renewed community engagement for Doom and Rage’s communities, key to his company as both are due for new games in the next year or so.

”We have been pleasantly surprised by how our participation has positively impacted existing and new customer engagement, with the franchises we choose to include in the monthly catalog,” Hines said. Percy added that Microsoft is likewise “really thrilled with how Game Pass has been additive ... how we’re strengthening gaming communities and helping drive people to discover new franchises.” That goes for Microsoft’s own games, too, but the point here is that third parties also don’t feel like they’re cannibalizing sales by joining up with Game Pass.

As concurrent users and numbers of players are increasingly terms of engagement touted in investor calls (sometimes to the exclusion of actual revenue or sales figures), it sounds like Game Pass could be speaking third parties’ language more in the coming year. Microsoft’s chief executive already said the company views Game Pass as “best-in-class in that monetization,” setting it up for an inevitable, if unannounced, introduction of the service on Windows 10. Xbox boss Phil Spencer earlier this month pegged the Game Pass subscriber base in the millions, plural. In any case, keeping them happy, plus a PC audience, will take more than just Microsoft’s own games launching on Xbox Game Pass in 2019.