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The State Of Xbox And Game Pass In 2023

On paper, Microsoft did what it needed to do in 2023 to improve on a quiet, somewhat empty 2022. But it also enacted layoffs and took some public beatings in court as it tried to become even bigger.

The Best Reveals From The Game Awards 2023

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In 2022, I said Xbox had a chance of making 2023 a big year if it could release some games, support Game Pass, and keep up the momentum throughout the whole 12 months. And, with a few exceptions, Microsoft did just that in 2023, releasing some big games for its ever-important Game Pass subscription service and officially acquiring Activision Blizzard, positioning Xbox to have a big 2024…though that might come with a cost.

After a quiet 2022, Xbox brings the games

Let’s get to the best news for folks who own an Xbox and want big new games: Microsoft’s array of brands and studios finally delivered this year. In 2023 the company was able to ship (in no particular order) Redfall, a new Forza Motorsport, Starfield, Hi-Fi Rush, Minecraft Legends, a fantastic remaster of Quake II, a big Forza Horizon 5 rally-themed expansion, large Halo Infinite updates, and a repackaged anniversary edition of its fan-favorite fighter, Killer Instinct. It was also finally able to bring Bethesda’s Ghostwire: Tokyo, previously a PS5 exclusive, to Xbox and Game Pass.

Even if you aren’t a big fan of all of these games (looking at you Redfall…) there’s no denying that compared to last year’s paltry first-party line-up, 2023 was a banner year for Xbox Games Studios and Microsoft-owned Bethesda. It feels like all those studios Xbox owns were able to, at last, deliver new games alongside ones made by partners.

This is all good for Microsoft, as one of the big selling points of Game Pass is a consistent flow of new games, both big and small. In 2022, it felt like Xbox wasn’t able to fulfill that order, relying heavily on third-party games to fill in the Game Pass cracks left behind by delaying Starfield and Redfall. Yet every few months in 2023 a big new game, often a first-party title, joined Game Pass’s large library.

Despite the improved flow of first-party exclusives, Microsoft didn’t stop cutting deals to get third-party games on Game Pass in 2023. Which leads us to…

Game Pass was (once again) the best deal in gaming

When it comes to awesome day-one releases, 2023 might be one of the best years in Game Pass’s history. Here are just some of the games Xbox was able to snag as day one launches on its popular subscription service: Sea of Stars, Lies of P, Cocoon, Jusant, Cities Skylines II, Thirsty Suitors, Persona 5 Tactics, Coral Island, Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name, Lamplighters League, Venba, and Exoprimal.

Phew, that’s a lot of games! Again, I’m not a fan of all these, but it’s impossible to say that Game Pass wasn’t constantly updated with new stuff to play, much of which was excellent! I count at least four games there that will be on a lot of people’s Game of the Year lists.

The subscription service has been such a runaway success for Xbox that in 2023 it killed the longrunning Xbox Live brand and replaced it with a new, one-dollar cheaper tier of Game Pass called Core.

However, with all these big games also came something less desirable: a price increase. In July, Microsoft increased the monthly price of Game Pass from $10 to $11 worldwide and also raised the cost of Game Pass Ultimate from $15 to $17. (Game Pass PC stayed at $10 a month.)

This is a sign that while Game Pass is popular, it’s no longer growing endlessly, with Xbox CEO Phil Spencer admitting as much earlier this year. So with the service hitting a ceiling and unable to grow its userbase, the company will seek to raise prices to squeeze more out of the folks it has. The question will be can Microsoft balance rising prices with enough great games to keep people paying?

The Xbox Series S is still popular, but might be a problem

Let’s shift gears from one successful Xbox offering, Game Pass, to another, the Xbox Series S. It’s no secret that the smaller, weaker next-gen console has been a huge seller for Microsoft. In 2023, capitalizing on this success, it released a newer version of its all-digital mini-console that came packaged with a bigger internal SSD.

And I’ll be the first to admit that the Xbox Series S is often a fantastic device. I use mine a lot when I’m chilling in my living room and don’t want to get up and go play games in my home office. But the micro machine’s popularity has also meant that Microsoft is sort of stuck with the thing and in 2023 it felt like we saw the first tangible signs that this could be a problem moving into 2024 and beyond.

Games are starting to struggle with performance on it, with devs having to cut more corners to get games to run acceptably on the weaker Xbox. A big example of that in 2023 was Baldur’s Gate 3 and the issues it was having with split-screen support. And then I look at something like GTA 6 and wonder how in the hell that game will run on the Series S without Rockstar cutting way back on visual fidelity.

To be clear: I don’t think the Series S is a massive problem at the moment or will become one soon. And for smaller and less graphically impressive games, the Series S will be more than enough. But it’s impossible to ignore that in 2023 the less capable next-gen Xbox model was starting to show the strain, holding stuff back in a way that makes me worried about the future.

Xbox, Activision, and the future of Game Pass

Without a doubt, the biggest news for Xbox in 2023 was the official acquisition of Activision Blizzard King, aka the company behind Call of Duty, Warcraft, Candy Crush, and much more. It took longer than Microsoft wanted and led to a lot of industry scuttlebutt and secrets being revealed via leaks and court docs, but in the end, Microsoft pulled it off and now controls one of the largest publishers in the games industry.

While some cheered, excited for future Call of Duty and Diablo games to be added to Game Pass, the reality is this deal is likely to lead to more layoffs and other problems in the future. As fewer and fewer companies own everything, the lack of competition leads to rising prices and more powerful corporations that can dismantle unions, customer rights, and other good-for-us-bad-for-them laws by wielding vast amounts of money in the courts.

2023 might be the worst year for the games industry in a long time, with nearly weekly layoffs making headlines. Microsoft itself slashed 10,000 workers at the start of the year, and a long list of publishers and development studios cut staff, too. Sure, Microsoft is saying all the right things, but the truth is that massive mergers like this lead to layoffs and that’s the last thing this industry needs moving forward.

But for Microsoft, Activision—and all the companies and IP it brings with it—will help it feed the ever-content-hungry monster that is Game Pass. Call of Duty games were already hugely popular on Xbox in 2023 thanks to servers being fixed and prices being cut. Tossing those games into the subscription service’s library will be a huge win for Xbox. Likewise, rolling World of Warcraft, Diablo, and mobile games into Game Pass will help the service expand beyond consoles and PCs even more, something Microsoft really wants to do.

The problem is that this will all come at a cost. Absorbing that many employees that quickly is tricky, and if you don’t think layoffs are coming at some point, well, you’re a bigger optimist than I. Ditto if you don’t expect Game Pass’s growing library to come with future price hikes, as Microsoft looks to make more money off what is clearly becoming its gaming division’s main interest.

Will there be a new Xbox generation in a few years for Call of Duty to launch on? Maybe. Maybe not. But I can guarantee you that in a few years, Game Pass will be in more places and it will be easier than ever to play the latest Call of Duty entry, regardless of your platform. That sounds nice, though what it will cost to get there—in jobs, in increased prices, and in less competition—doesn’t seem worth it.

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