“For Descenders, it has been immense. Sales across all platforms increased after we went into Game Pass” – What does Game Pass mean for indies?

It seems, if Microsoft has its way, that we’re about to have a very Game Pass Christmas. The company has been focusing its efforts on its subscription service for some time now – It even seems to be prioritising Game Pass over selling its own hardware. Matt Booty told us last year that Microsoft first-party titles would still play on the Xbox One for the first couple of years of the Series X and S’s lifespan. It was an unconventional, headline-grabbing promise, but it shows Microsoft’s clear commitment to keeping players in the Microsoft ecosystem via Game Pass, regardless of the hardware under their TVs.

Game Pass goes beyond the Xbox too – It has been available on PC for some time now, even featuring PC-exclusive titles such as Crusader Kings III. And Microsoft has been expanding beyond even that, recently linking its live streaming platform xCloud into the Game Pass service, expanding its reach to Android phones (though it’s having some issues with Apple’s App store rules, so don’t expect it on iOS just yet).

It isn’t enough to just make the service available if there’s nothing to play on it, of course. So Microsoft has made some major additions to its rolling 100+ game library in two bombshell announcements.

First, the announcement that EA’s own subscription service, EA Play, would be joining Xbox Game Pass, bringing mammoth franchises such as FIFA, The Sims, and Mass Effect to Microsoft’s service at no extra cost. It was, we thought at the time, the biggest deal in gaming. Our own MCV/DEVELOP editor Seth Barton remarked: “it makes us wonder, if this, then what next?”

Well, “what next” turned out to be an even bigger bombshell, with a $7.5 billion purchase of Zenimax – Bringing the The Elder Scrolls, Fallout and Doom franchises, plus many more, into Microsoft’s toybox.

It’s still unclear if Microsoft intends to share its toys with Sony or not – sure, having the next Elder Scrolls exclusive to your platform is a good way to shift consoles. But with next-gen games set to increase in price, the offer of “£70 on PS5, or ‘free’ via Game Pass” is still an incredibly tempting one.

The consumer argument for Game Pass looks pretty clear cut, then. But what about developers? Game Pass currently boasts over 15 million subscribers, which is likely to increase as EA Play and Zenimax’s library are added to the service. That’s a lot of eyeballs on your game, and it’s particularly tempting for indie developers – there’s no longer a need to produce time-consuming demos if players can try out your entire game via a subscription service.

But does appearing on Game Pass help or hurt sales of your game? And while xCloud brings more potential eyeballs to your title than ever before, does the incoming triple-A deluge of titles run the risk of drowning out smaller creators?

THE GAME PASS BUMP

Mike Rose, Founder of No More Robots

First things first, how useful is GamePass to indie developers today? How much does the service actually drive discoverability and sales?

“It’s been very dependent on the game for us,” notes Mike Rose, founder of No More Robots. “For Descenders, it has been immense. Sales across all platforms increased after we went into Game Pass – for example, Steam sales tripled since Game Pass – and Xbox sales themselves quadrupled after Game Pass.

“For Hypnospace Outlaw, Steam sales have doubled since we entered Game Pass, although it’s tricky to say that’s definitely Game Pass causing that, since we also launched on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 that day too. For Nowhere Prophet, we haven’t really seen increased sales or discoverability anywhere. So it’s definitely been a bit all over the place.”

“Unfortunately PHOGS! hasn’t released yet so we don’t have any data to share,” says Douglas Flinders, director of Bit Loom, who’s twin-headed dog simulator PHOGS! Is set to launch on Game Pass (as well as PC, Switch and PS4) later this year.

“But we can tell from personal experience, from using Game Pass, that being part of that ecosystem is a great place to be. We have found ourselves experimenting and playing more genres and games outside our comfort zone.

“With Xbox driving the Game Pass subscription service with the Xbox Series S|X, we are excited to be a part of the catalogue and reach players we otherwise might not have.

“Getting the word out is half the battle for smaller developers with interchanging roles.

Our publisher has thankfully taken away a lot of stress of getting PHOGS! in front of gamers and let us focus on making the best possible experience for anyone who plays the game”

A mixed bag then – though Descenders’ performance is certainly going to attract attention to those considering bringing their title to Game Pass. So how easy is it to get Microsoft’s attention? Can you seek out your success on Game Pass, or does your game already need to be successful to even be considered? It seems obvious that it’s in Microsoft’s best interests to pick out the already popular titles for its platform.

“It’s tricky,” agrees Rose. “Arguably, Microsoft only really wants to put titles that are successful, or they know will be successful, onto Game Pass, otherwise players will complain. That being said, I think it’s really cool that they allowed us to add Hypnospace Outlaw to Game Pass. The game was already successful on PC, but it’s pretty niche and pretty weird, so obviously they’re open to adding wacky stuff too!”

“For us at Bit Loom,” notes Flinders, “getting on Game Pass was an exciting surprise as we mainly saw larger games and more well-known indies getting selected to be part of the Game Pass service. Having Coatsink as our publisher has definitely helped us to get PHOGS! on Game Pass with their previous successes as a publisher of indie titles.

“Coatsink has built relationships with first parties over the years and I’d expect that this would help determine being offered to be included in the Game Pass service.”

Game Pass isn’t quite a free-for-all – and its uses for discoverability would suffer if it was. But it’s an encouraging sign that Microsoft is willing to entertain the potentially successful titles too – provided a reputable publisher is involved too, of course.

GAME PASS FOR ALL

Douglas Flinders Director of Bit Loom

Still, for those lucky enough to be chosen, both Rose and Flinders agree that the platform is an encouraging sign for smaller creators.

“It’s still pretty early along into the life of Game Pass,” says Rose, “but currently I would argue that it has been beneficial to the majority of smaller devs who have got titles on there. I would imagine that being on Game Pass has reduced a lot of porting risk for a lot of studios.”

Flinders shares Rose’s general optimism here, adding: “Services like Game Pass can give a new, wider audience to smaller developers and help them continue making interesting games by giving a platform for new players to discover their game and recommend it to a friend, driving sales on other platforms.

“It is easy for smaller games from less well-known developers to become lost in the sea of other games being released at any given time so Game Pass and the support of the Xbox team is priceless in helping drive maximum visibility on the Xbox platform.”

These benefits to indies will surely only increase with the addition of xCloud. Being able to stream your game to mobile platforms, at no additional cost to the user, must surely be a real boon for discoverability. What exactly is the potential for xCloud bringing indie games to a wider audience?

“We’ve already seen it,” says Rose. “We were asking to have Descenders on xCloud quite early on in the preview, and it has definitely increased our player numbers. I can’t really say by how much, I’m currently not able to see that data, but we are told by players quite regularly that they played on xCloud.”

“It is exciting to know that people will be able to play the game without owning an expensive console or computer.” says Flinders. “Not everyone will spend money on a games console but those people might have a phone they can stream the game to.

“The Streaming space is an exciting place right now, Stadia, xCloud and Amazon all believe in the streaming model and it gives the accessibility and a low entry point to consumers to get high-quality games without a hardware barrier.”

THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT?

Still, it isn’t all rosy. As we head into the next generation, Microsoft is clearly focused on bringing even more big-label titles to Game Pass than ever before.

It’s an exciting prospect for consumers, sure. But what of the indie developers? How can an unknown, low-budget title compete for attention when it’s surrounded by FIFA, Fallout and Doom?

“This was and is always the concern with any of these sorts of platforms,” says Rose. “And yeah, I imagine it will creep that way in the coming months and years. It’s in Microsoft’s hands to keep bringing as many smaller titles into the service, as they do with triple-A titles”

“Visibility is always going to be an issue for indie developers,” notes Flinders, “especially when up against triple-A games. However, we’d like to think that the extra support from Xbox for being part of Game Pass will bring more subscription users to stumble upon smaller indie games like PHOGS! and try out more indie games where they might not have otherwise if it wasn’t just included with their subscription.”

It’s always an interesting time whenever the industry is on the cusp of a new generation. But this generation in particular – with Microsoft’s subscription service offering an aggressive challenge to Sony’s dominance of the market, feels particularly interesting. It just remains to be seen if Microsoft can keep Game Pass friendly for indies.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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