2022 was somehow both a very big, successful year for Xbox and Game Pass and also one that it felt as if the gaming giant was starting to lose some steam.
Sure, the Xbox Series S has quietly become one of the biggest success stories of the next generation—easy to find and cheaper than the PS5 or Series X—but Microsoft also struggled to release anything big in 2022. As a result, while Game Pass got some hot new titles, it felt less valuable than in 2021. And all of this happened while Microsoft fought off regulators and governments in its continued attempt to consume Activision Blizzard. It was definitely an odd year for Xbox and Game Pass.
Overall, 2022 had fewer big, AAA blockbusters than years prior. This is likely down to a few different reasons, including how hard these games are to make, how risky they are to invest in, and the ongoing pandemic and its lingering effects on the world. But even through all this, we got some exclusive games from Sony and Nintendo like God of War Ragnarök, Kirby And The Forgotten Land, Horizon: Forbidden West, and two different Pokémon titles.
Meanwhile, Microsoft seemed unable to ship their own similarly big exclusives in 2022. Starfield and Redfall were delayed until 2023, so it was basically just Obsidian’s Pentiment, Ghostwire Tokyo via Microsoft-owned Bethesda, and a few third-party games published via Xbox Games Studios. One of those games—Ghostwire Tokyo—is a PS5 console exclusive that isn’t on Game Pass or Xbox. And calling Pentiment a “big exclusive” is being generous, even if it’s a really cool game.
Some console warriors will argue that Xbox doesn’t need big games, but Microsoft seems to disagree with that assessment. It’s spent the last few years buying up numerous big and small studios around the world so that now Microsoft and Xbox own over 20 different game developers. And let’s not forget that Xbox is trying to buy up Activision Blizzard, too. They ain’t buying all these companies for their nice bathrooms. It’s clear that Microsoft and Phil Spencer want (and need) more games to feed to the ever-hungry Game Pass machine.
And this year, that service, which lets users pay a monthly fee to access a ton of games, felt a bit less valuable without a couple of big Xbox-only tentpole releases like a new Gears or Forza title. That’s not to say Game Pass sucked in 2022, it just felt a bit less valuable when compared to 2021 and its plethora of big Xbox exclusives and first-party releases. I mean, High On Life is currently one of the most popular games on the service. This is nice for developer Squanch Games, but a sign Microsoft and its studios were mostly absent in 2022. Hopefully, all these various game studios under the Xbox umbrella can start releasing more games in 2023 and beyond.
Even without its own big games, Game Pass had a solid 2022. And it’s proof that Xbox’s Netflix-like service can continue to thrive even when Microsoft isn’t able to feed Game Pass itself. In 2022, a ton of games launched day one on the service including Sniper Elite 5, The Anacrusis, Tunic, Total War: Warhammer 3, Loot River, TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, Nobody Saves The World, Power Wash Simulator, Slime Rancher 2, High On Life, Two Point Campus and MLB The Show 22. And that’s only part of the list.
On top of all that, Game Pass continued to add back catalog titles from Bethesda and other publishers to its massive library. There were entire periods of 2022 where, outside of mobile games like Marvel Snap, all I was playing was Game Pass stuff on my PC or Xbox. That’s impressive and truly shows how much the service has expanded and improved in the last few years.
It’s clear, more so than ever this year, that the future of Xbox is one built on top of Game Pass and its success. This is a service that people adore and Microsoft isn’t slowing down on ensuring it has content. The new Xbox dashboard redesign appears to be heavily dedicated to Game Pass, and Microsoft continues to make it easier to play Game Pass via the cloud on non-Xbox devices, like TVs and phones. But if you still want an Xbox, Microsoft has a product for you…
Of all the next-gen consoles, the Xbox Series S is the weakest in terms of raw power. It can’t push out 4K/120hz visuals and struggles with ray-tracing effects. But it is cheaper than a Series X and usually far easier to find. Just a few months ago I walked into a Target and bought one without planning ahead for weeks. And as inflation continues to be a thing, the $300 Series S will only look more and more attractive to people gaming on a budget or parents looking to buy their kids a new console this holiday season without breaking the bank.
Unsurprisingly, the Series S has sold very, very well since its launch. Last year it outsold the PS5, Switch and Xbox Series X. And with its current temporary holiday price drop to $250, it will likely top the charts again. If you combine the Series S with a subscription to Game Pass you end up with one of the best deals in gaming right now.
But the Series S could also be a problem for devs as it adds yet one more console to worry about and optimize for. If the smaller, weaker Xbox does continue to explode in popularity, it could make it harder for some studios to create next-gen games that can also play properly on it. Still, for now, it’s a wonderful little machine that comes around at the perfect time.
2022 started off with a bang, as it was announced in January that Microsoft was planning to buy up Activision Blizzard King for nearly $70 billion. This of course followed a very no-good, terrible year for Activision after it became public just how much of a toxic hellhole it was and how people, mostly women, were treated like shit and harrassed while at the company. It seems that Microsoft swooped in and took advantage of all this bad press and began the process of buying up the beleaguered company behind Call of Duty, Candy Crush, and World of Warcraft.
But it’s not been a smooth ride since the deal was announced. Instead, multiple countries, regulatory bodies, governments, and others have pushed back against the deal with lawsuits, investigations, and reports. Microsoft says this deal will lead to more competition and will expand the game industry. Sony and others don’t seem to agree. I personally can’t imagine how one company owning more and more of the video game industry is a good thing, considering it gives one corp more power and dominance over the marketplace.
Regardless of how you feel about the buyout, it’s yet another example of Microsoft looking to both bolster its back catalog and secure the rights to future big games in an effort to continue growing Game Pass. I wouldn’t be surprised if King’s lucrative mobile games start getting big Game Pass deals, too, as Microsoft pushes into that part of the industry.
As we approach 2023, Xbox is in a good but weird place. Game Pass continues to be a big win for the company, the Xbox Series S is selling like hotcakes, and it has a lineup of 2023-2024 games that (if they actually ship on time and don’t get delayed) could lead to some bangers in Xbox’s future.
But Microsoft also finds itself fighting the FTC, Sony, and others as it attempts to consume more of the industry. And its work towards creating an easy-to-access Netflix of games has led to a future where people may just skip buying an Xbox and instead play the next Halo or Forza on their TV or phone via streaming. This ultimately makes the company money, sure, but also means its namesake—the Xbox—becomes less and less relevant moving forward.
One day, will we see a future where you ask a kid what an Xbox is and they go “That service that lets you play all the games on your TV for $20 a month?” Maybe. And while that might be a weird future, it won’t be a bad one for Xbox or Microsoft if it can pull it off, regulators, and game preservation be damned.