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a three-quarters view of the top of the Xbox Series X, with a green piece of plastic visible just beneath the system vents Image: Microsoft

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Xbox’s event was uneventful — but their plan could change everything

The Netflix of video games has arrived

If things had gone as planned, we would have known about the Xbox Series X’s big exclusive games months ago. But in 2020, nothing has gone as planned.

Every opportunity Microsoft had to execute on its planned publicity and marketing campaign — one that I imagine had been polished over the past year — evaporated within a couple of months. In February, the Game Developers Conference was canceled in response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus, followed a month later by the cancellation of E3, the industry’s annual blowout in the Los Angeles Convention Center. In April, Germany’s Gamescom evolved into a “digital event.” Organizers of Paris Games Week and the Tokyo Game Show pulled the plug in May.

Microsoft would need to announce, hype, and launch its new Xbox consoles without any of the industry’s traditional marketing apparatus.

For a moment, it appeared that Microsoft and its “rival” Sony were playing a schoolyard game of chicken, waiting to see who would make their sales pitch to the public first, allowing the more patient corporation to prepare the perfect rebuttal.

Then, a twist. Without much fanfare, Sony voluntarily drew the short straw.

Sony’s PlayStation 5 vs. Microsoft’s Xbox Series X

On June 11, the video game community watched a down-the-middle reveal of the PS5, accompanied by some market-speak testimonials from famous game creators and trailers for a handful of games that (barring a Spider-Man pseudo-sequel) won’t be available until 2021 at the earliest.

The event had few surprises — arguably its biggest announcement was a remake of a PlayStation 3 game released in 2009 — but gameplay footage from new entries in the Gran Turismo, Ratchet and Clank, and Horizon Zero Dawn franchises made a fair case to fans that they should drop a bunch of cash on new hardware.

Microsoft had an extra month to prepare its own reveal, with the advantage of knowing how Sony had handled the same challenge. And honestly, I assumed that the tech goliath, which has spent the past couple of years acquiring video game studios with roughly the same indiscretion that I acquire Kansas City Royals baseball caps with, would pummel Sony with a bevy of flashy new games, only available on Xbox and Windows 10. Maybe the company would even announce a shockingly low price point. Or just something Big and New and Different.

That’s not quite what happened today when Microsoft finally pulled back the curtain on its upcoming suite of video games. Xbox leadership took to the stage (er, the video stream) like a rock band in its gray-hair years, strumming out the hits, interspersing the fan favorites with new numbers that the crowd reacted to with a mix of curiosity and impatience.

We saw a few minutes of Halo Infinite and a few seconds of Forza. The biggest surprise, the resuscitation of the Fable franchise, has been something of an open secret for at least the past two years.

The presentation featured plenty of other games, but some of the biggest titles shown (Destiny 2 and Psychonauts 2) will also appear on PlayStation consoles and every game will be available on PC. The indie games given the spotlight may prove to be masterpieces upon their release, but smaller games like these struggle to make an impact in such marketing bacchanals.

All of this would have been a colossal disappointment if not for the business plan on which it all rests. If the games are familiar, that may be OK. It’s the strategy itself that’s radical.

Game Pass is Microsoft’s unbeatable Xbox exclusive

Every game mentioned during the event, Xbox VP Phil Spencer emphasized, will be available on Game Pass on the day of its release.

Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass is a service akin to Netflix that allows customers to download as many games as they want from an enormous collection for $9.99 per month. In April, the service surpassed 10 million subscribers.

Ten million.

For context, Sony sold more than 4 million copies of The Last of Us Part 2 in its debut weekend last month, and that was the company’s second biggest video game launch ever.

In the context of Xbox Game Pass, I see Microsoft’s entire event ... more optimistically. I probably won’t buy many of the games Microsoft announced, which is fine: I don’t have to buy them. They’re interesting enough that I’ll add them to my Game Pass queue, giving each of them a test drive and potentially sticking with something I’d have otherwise skipped.

This is the new normal for millions of gamers. Many games that may not have made a splash otherwise have found an audience due to the low stakes of trying something new.

Even more compelling is the manner in which Microsoft is bringing together its biggest technological gambits into one ultra-powerful ecosystem. This fall, subscribers of the Ultimate tier of Game Pass ($14.99/month, with both Xbox and PC games) will gain access to xCloud, Microsoft’s cloud gaming solution. The service will allow folks to stream the entire Game Pass catalog — and eventually, their personal Xbox libraries — onto their smartphones and tablets.

This has always been Microsoft’s ace in the hole when it comes to competing with video game streaming services like Stadia: Google is finding it hard to create Xbox-like buzz around its hardware-agnostic streaming service, while Microsoft already knows how to add Stadia-like features to its already strong gaming ecosystem.

Sony hasn’t managed to build a similar ecosystem with its comparably anemic streaming solution, PlayStation Now. The company does, unquestionably, have the ritzier collection of AAA games. But that just may not be the advantage it was in past generations. Or, to think of it in a more diplomatic manner, the two brands aren’t rivals anymore — at least, not in the way they have been for the past two decades.

With Game Pass at the center of its business model, Microsoft is no longer trying to compete with Sony in the race to publish a couple of massive AAA blockbusters each year. It’s following the Netflix model, maintaining a steady drumbeat of new releases that keep subscribers locked in. Netflix doesn’t produce the best movies, but that doesn’t seem to matter on Friday night when we turn on our TVs and crash onto the couch. The company produces a little bit of everything, so we can count on finding something of interest.

On a recent episode of The Besties, a video game podcast I co-host on Spotify, I bemoaned the lack of variety in blockbuster games — that this generation, publishers have been obsessed with getting players locked into their one game forever. As a result, the biggest games have been almost exclusively set in hyper-expensive, ever-evolving, sprawling open worlds. These games are massive, both in scale and the literal space they consumed on our hard drives, leaving little room for players to store any other games on their consoles.

I expect Sony to continue this trend in the early years of the PlayStation 5, and I’ll eat my shoe if the company doesn’t have tremendous success. People still want big-budget blockbusters. I personally can’t wait to play as Miles Morales in the next Spider-Man game.

But with Game Pass, Microsoft has a different M.O. It needs people locked into the ecosystem, not any individual game. So the company needs to provide lots of new things, not just one mega-game. For that reason, we’re likely to see a bunch of shorter games with lots of variety of play, diversifying the subscriber base and diversifying subscribers’ interests, making it hard for them to leave. The hits will be different, and they’ll be judged differently, but there will be more of them, and you’ll pay less to access them all.

It’s a sea change for the industry, one that may not have even been immediately apparent from Thursday’s Xbox Series X showcase. Microsoft appears to be ready for a new world in which easy, affordable access to a variety of games is the centerpiece of a console maker’s strategy, not any particular game that looks good in a commercial break or in a display at your local GameStop.

I think that we got our first taste of that strategy with Microsoft’s event. I guess they’re less like aging rock gods and more like Dylan going electric. It’s not what the fans expect, but eventually, the big change becomes the status quo. Microsoft using its money and access to try some weirder, smaller, less obvious wins will be the new normal soon enough.

Because Microsoft won’t care if you love every new song, so long as you buy a ticket for the show.