Five words a reporter never wants to hear during an interview: “That’s a really good question.”
It’s something I was told multiple times during a chat at E3 2019 with Liz Hamren, Corporate Vice President of Gaming Experiences and Platforms at Microsoft; and Jason Beaumont, program manager for Xbox Game Pass. I always appreciate the ego boost, but “That’s a really good question” is often code for “I need a minute to properly frame the non-answer I’m about to offer you.” Either that, or “Let’s move on.”
In this case, the question related to Xbox Game Pass. Specifically, how Xbox Live Gold subscriptions can continue to exist in their present form alongside Xbox Game Pass and its new PC-friendly counterpart.
Let’s unpack this real quick: Xbox Game Pass is a subscription service that gives you free, downloadable access to a growing library of more than 100 games for $10/month. A new, PC-only version of the service launched at E3 ($5/month while it’s in beta) alongside something called the “Game Pass Ultimate” subscription, which gives you both versions of Game Pass plus Xbox Live Gold for $14.99.
Xbox Live Gold is the subscription program that’s been in place since the Xbox 360 launched. Subscribers enjoy discounts in the Xbox Games Store and a monthly lineup of free game downloads, but — more importantly — they also get access to online gaming and various social features. So signing up for Ultimate means you get all these games and you can play them online.
With the PC version of Game Pass moving the free-to-download library into a new Xbox app for Windows, I asked if PC players will be expected to sign up for Gold to play those games online. That’s never been the case before with Xbox games on PC, and Microsoft can confirm it won’t be the case now.
“We are going to listen to customers, and hear what they want and what they care about.”
“No, absolutely not,” Beaumont said. “You can also buy standalone PC Game Pass which gives you the content of 100-plus games on PC. If they have multiplayer, they have multiplayer; we’re not asking for you to have Gold as well. In fact, the social features like having all of my Xbox Live friends, that’s built in whether or not you have Gold.”
It’s encouraging news for PC players to be sure, but there’s some dissonance here. What about the console players? They’re still paying for features that PC gamers take for granted. It’s been that way ever since Gold launched as a product, of course, but with new subscription services bringing more attention to the PC side of Xbox gaming, it’s an increasingly tough pill to swallow.
I asked about this. Cue the “good question” talk.
Hamren reminded me of what a great deal Game Pass Ultimate is at $14.99 monthly, since it ropes together two Game Pass subscriptions plus Gold. Beaumonth continued, reminding me that Gold comes with other benefits — discounts and free games, as I mentioned already.
They also quickly echoed one another as they told me what a great question that was. Nevermind the fact that none of what they said in response actually answers the question. So I pressed. I understand what makes a standalone Gold subscription appealing, and I appreciate the value of a package like Ultimate. But with the ever-blurrier line of distinction between Xbox and PC gaming, what is a console user to think when they have to pay for significant features that their PC gamer friends don’t?
“It’s a great question,” Beaumont replied, chuckling but adding only that Microsoft isn’t “talking about anything more” on that front at E3 2019. Which we knew! I wasn’t expecting either of them to confirm product changes in an E3 interview after Microsoft’s news-packed press conference. But this is still something the Xbox team will have to grapple with sooner or later.
Hamren followed up with a fuller response, cutting past the specific issue to talk more generally about Microsoft’s strategy for receiving and disseminating user feedback.
“What I will say is that we are listening to [customers], and we will continue to hear what customers want. That was the driving force for what we did around Game Pass, it’s the driving force for what we did around [the quick-access PC interface] Game Bar,” she said, launching into a fuller explanation of how feedback shaped specific pieces of the latter.
“It’s not going to be a super-satisfying answer,” she later admitted. “But what I will say is that we are going to listen to customers, and hear what they want and what they care about. And then go do right by them.”