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Head Of Xbox Downplays Fears Of Game Pass Price Hike

Phil Spencer talks Game Pass plans and Xbox exclusivity in recent interview

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Game Pass is marketed on stage at the Xbox showcase during E3 2019.
Screenshot: Microsoft / Kotaku

Game Pass has never been more popular, and after Microsoft revealed its plan to buy Activision Blizzard and add some of that company’s biggest games to the service, an increase in the Game Pass subscription price has never felt more inevitable. Newly minted Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer recently tried to downplay those fears, however, while discussing the future of Xbox, exclusivity, and the goal of bringing games like Starfield and Candy Crush to more people than ever before.

Spencer’s comments came as part of a wide-ranging interview with Axios’ gaming newsletter in which he was asked about the positive reputation he’s garnered among gamers in recent years, and the skeptics who think the idea of a benevolent Microsoft is too good to be true. Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s Netflix-like all-you-can-play-buffet, has been a focal point in those debates. As Microsoft loads up the service with more and more popular franchises from its massive acquisitions, it seems all but inevitable that it will put the squeeze on subscribers just as Netflix, Amazon, and others have.


“I feel like I can’t prove this negative,” Spencer told Axios’ Stephen Totilo. “[People ask] when is the Game Pass price going to go up? ‘They’re buying all these studios. You know, it’s inevitable.’ Even though it’s been what, now, four years we haven’t raised it. But it’s like, ‘You know, it’s coming’ ‘When they are number one, they’re going to start doing all those exclusive deals that, like, you know, Xbox has history’ and all I can do is is make the decisions that are in front of us and try to be explicit about what our goals are.”


Those goals include making Starfield, directed by Skyrim and Fallout 4’s Todd Howard, “the most-played Todd Howard game ever.” That’s a tall order—Skyrim sold 30 million copies—and also seems to clash with the fact that Microsoft is making Starfield an Xbox console-exclusive, a move which Bethesda’s own Pete Hines apologized for.

It remains to be seen if soon-to-be acquired series like Diablo, Overwatch, and Call of Duty will also become exclusive at some point. Microsoft reiterated today that it would honor “all existing agreements” with other platforms, but continues to use confusing language that doesn’t take future exclusivity completely off the table.

On the topic of platform exclusivity, Spencer told Axios, “Well, that specific question of, ‘Hey, there’s only one place that I want to play games. And if that game doesn’t end up on the one place that I want to play that has its own business requirements for me as a creator…those people can go play those games...They’re just going to say, ‘I’m choosing not to, because it’s not on the one device that [they care to own]…’ so I get that.”


Spencer has said a lot of things on game exclusivity in recent years, and most of them seem to boil down to a version of “business is business.” There’s a clear friction between the Microsoft Gaming CEO’s dual identities of longtime gamer and longtime gaming executive, and it doesn’t seem lost on Spencer. In recent months he’s retreated into his fiduciary duties to dodge tough questions.

“It’s not obviously our position to judge who the CEOs [of other game companies] are,” Spencer said last month when asked if Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick should be punished in some way for years of alleged workplace misconduct under his watch. “CEOs are chosen by shareholders and boards.”


Spencer uses a similar line with Axios. “There are shareholders, there’s a board and an executive team,” he said when asked about whether Microsoft’s $68.7b acquisition deal is rewarding Kotick’s bad behavior. “And I have no role in that...I’m not trying to duck responsibility. It’s another company.”

The record-breaking acquisition is supposed to be finalized by June 2023, but there are still a lot of potential hurdles it has to clear before that happens. One of those is antitrust review by the Federal Trade Commission. Microsoft kicked off its lobbying effort today by announcing principles for a more open app store in an attempt to start winning over regulators. The future of console game exclusivity and how Microsoft manages its growing Game Pass empire will end up playing a huge part in how those negotiations play out.