Xbox Game Pass is one of my favorite things in gaming. For a reasonable monthly fee I have the Ultimate version, which not only gives me access to new Xbox Series X games on day one, but also a mass of other great games, PC games and even the option to stream games on all manner of devices via the power of the cloud. But now Microsoft could ruin it.
That’s because there’s speculation that Microsoft could introduce ads into Game Pass. This is fueled by Sarah Bond, Xbox Corporate VP for game creator experience and ecosystem telling Rolling Stone: "We’ve talked about how we’re experimenting with other models, like what does it mean for advertising in games which is more prevalent in mobile — are there models of that that work well in PC and console? Are there other models where you might have timed slices of games and stuff like that?"
Add into the mix that Microsoft put out a Spanish-language survey to gauge interest in a cheaper tier of Game pass supported by a system that includes "advertisements before the game" (hat tip to Ars Technica), and this has me thinking ads within Game Pass could become a reality sooner than later.
Logical but lamentable
On the business side, this makes sense. Game Pass is a great deal and makes Microsoft a lot of money. But it has to support a swathe of developers, and making games isn't getting any cheaper. Plus subscription growth has slowed, and ultimately will peak at some point. So finding ways to ensure Game Pass keeps generating money is smart.
And Bond noted that Microsoft is committed to “always extend access to games” - a free ad-supported tier of Game Pass could be one way to do that; we’ve seen Netflix take a similar approach.
It’s likely Game Pass Ultimate would remain ad-free, with people incentivized to pay more to avoid ads. This is all logical, so what do I think it’s a bad idea?
Well, for starters, the advertising experience in other Microsoft platforms has never been great in my experience. Ads have felt intrusive and un-targeted, pulling me out of the experience of say customizing Windows. Microsoft does a lot well, but I’m not convinced serving ads is its forte.
Ads did pop up in the Xbox One dashboard and I wasn’t a fan of those. They made the tile interface look scruffy and took me out of the experience of getting ready for a gaming session. These were just static ads, and I’d be concerned that Microsoft could pursue serving up video ads, which, going by how many YouTube forces into my eyes, could be very distracting and frustrating.
Then there's the question of what type of ads will be delivered. I don’t want to get an ad for dental floss when I’m about to play Elden Ring or be encouraged to join a trading platform when I’m about to tear around the Mexican countryside in Forza Horizon 5. Microsoft could work to make such ads targeted, but I've not seen it do a great job of that in the past.
This is a bad idea
Of course, if Microsoft does pursue advertising within Game Pass, paying for the Ultimate subscription could help bypass them. But my skeptical synapse is tingling, and I’d not be surprised if Microsoft raised the price of Ultimate as part of a move to channel impatient players onto the top subscription tier.
Then there’s the question of where will such advertising efforts stop. They could start with Game Pass but then end up on the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S interface; after all, Microsoft sells the consoles at a loss so could see advertising as a way to claw back some of that money.
Compared to the PS5’s user interface, I find that of the Series X a tad bland and a little busy. It’s functional but uninspired. So adding ads into it will likely erode that experience further.
Bond did mention that timed slices of games could be offered to players in return for watching ads, which is interesting. But then it'll make the whole trying out of a game a transactional experience, which doesn't feel ‘gamer-friendly’ and not likely aligned with Xbox boss Phil Spencer’s idea that Xbox is all about game access. When platforms like Steam offers easy refunds and likely increased options to trial games,
these Xbox machinations could leave a sour taste.
Before I condemn Xbox, it’s important to note that all the above is educated speculation. It comes from a solid pool of reports, but there’s always a chance Microsoft could scrap any ideas for ads on its console and Game Pass.
After the hammering Redfall received, and a lot of hope being pinned on Starfield, including my own, I can understand why Microsoft might want to look at other ways to keep Game Pass and Xbox overall as a money-spinning platform. But I don’t think ads are the way to go when you’re a tech behemoth like Microsoft.
The Redmond company has impressed me before with the likes of its Surface Pro machines, developer-centric cloud services, and even the never-released Surface Neo. Microsoft can be creative and inspiring.
So rather than go down the advertising route, why couldn’t Microsoft use Xbox (both as a console and services ecosystem) to offer access to, say, coding courses run by its engineers or product design workshops? Phil Spencer has already said Xbox can’t “out console” PlayStation, but it could do something different.
I’d certainly be intrigued by a presentation from an Obsidian (it’s a Microsoft-owned studio) narrative designer on how to devise and write great game stories. The same goes for a beginner's guide on coding and creating apps that tap into the power of the Microsoft Azure cloud.
I really think there’s potential for Microsoft to find a smarter way to diversify what Xbox can offer rather than going down the advertising route, which… well, feels a bit basic.
My feelings are the future is still bright for Xbox. I just hope creativity is embraced over virtual billboards.
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Roland Moore-Colyer a Managing Editor at Tom’s Guide with a focus on news, features and opinion articles. He often writes about gaming, phones, laptops and other bits of hardware; he’s also got an interest in cars. When not at his desk Roland can be found wandering around London, often with a look of curiosity on his face.