Free-to-play Xbox Series X games could soon contain ads

An image of an Xbox controller and Xbox Game Pass
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Update: Sony may also be considering adding ads to free-to-play games on PS5 and PS4, according to a new report

Advertisements in games are nothing new, but according to Insider, Microsoft is looking to push the medium harder in its free-to-play games, in order to subsidize the current microtransaction funding model and make Xbox a more attractive proposition for prospective game makers.

The report claims that Microsoft is working on an in-game “advertising program” due to go live this summer, citing two people “involved in the talks.” 

The ad scheme would be exclusively targeted at free-to-play games, with Insider reporting that Microsoft is acutely aware of the bad reputation that in-game ads have, and is “worried” that such a presence “could irritate people.” As such, it’s looking to only green light select brands and only permit adverts in titles in such a way that “doesn’t disrupt the gameplay experience.” 

It sounds like the adverts will be as generic and non targeted as what you might see on a billboard while walking downtown, with the site claiming that Microsoft “has no immediate plans to let advertisers use data to target people on Xbox.” 

Curiously, it doesn’t seem to be a direct revenue raiser for Microsoft either, with the company apparently planning on splitting the money between the game developers and the adtech company that puts the ad in games. That suggests Microsoft is looking at the big picture, trying to attract more free-to-play developers to Xbox so they can tap into this extra revenue scheme.

Revenue raiser

If done in a restrained manner, I personally don’t have a big problem with this approach. If it’s limited to free-to-play titles, and doesn’t bleed into paid or even Xbox Game Pass games (you’ve still paid the subscription cost there, after all) then it seems fair enough to me.  

The key word there is “restrained,” because there’s nothing worse than something that breaks a game world’s illusion. An advertising board in a present-day racing game with a real-world product? Fine. Being advertised Nike or Coca Cola in Emperor Nero’s Rome? Not so fine.

It could even be a positive. Thanks, largely, to some pretty egregious ‘free’ games on mobile app stores, free-to-play games have earned a pretty bad reputation for constantly nagging you to buy things or, worse, giving those who pay an unfair advantage. If in-game advertising could reduce the need for developers to tap up its player base for cash, then it’s hard to think of a downside.

There are some big "ifs" there, of course. But in principle, this advertising program could make free-to-play games more appealing — and with belts tightening as the cost of living skyrockets, that couldn’t come at a better time.

Alan Martin

Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.