How The Windows Store is Hurting the Xbox Game Pass

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is a (relatively) cheap subscription service that offers subscribers an array of games, both new and old, for one low monthly price. Think Netflix, but for video games, because, well, that’s what they’re going for.

Despite primarily being a PC gamer I’ve long been an advocate for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate because, if you crunch the numbers, it just makes monetary sense.

When they first introduced XGPU, they offered a special deal with it. You could upgrade an Xbox Live plan to XGPU by paying a single dollar. By buying up to 3 years of Xbox Live at $10.95 a month and then spending a single extra dollar, you could get 3 years of Microsoft’s best offering of games.

And better still, when you are buying Xbox Live at yearly rates, you’re not paying the full price. So instead of costing about $400, if you did a bit of hunting you could find 36 months of Xbox Live for $290 (AUD, all these prices are in AUD). You’d then spend an extra dollar and any games that came out on this service for the next three years were already taken care of.

That’s an incredible value proposition. If a brand new game costs $80 — and they generally cost more, but if you’re savvy enough to cop a 50% discount on your Xbox Live, I presume you can find discounts for games as well — then you come out ahead as long as you find four games that you would have happily paid for in that time frame. 

Sea of Thieves, Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, The Outer Worlds, Wasteland 3, Crusader Kings III, The Medium — all of these games were available on release date to subscribers of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. More games still have made the cut. Doom Eternal, Alien Isolation, Void Bastards, Control, the Halo franchise, Yakuzas 3 Remastered through Like a Dragon all became available on XGPU post-launch. Subnautica, Dead Cells and Slay the Spire are all available — three of the best games from the last decade (though none of them were priced at $80 at any point of their lifecycle).

With the addition late last week of a large portion of the Bethesda back catalog, this idea got even better. Skyrim Special Edition is still going for $60 on Steam. There’s Dishonored, the Doom games, the new Wolfensteins, Prey — all fantastic games, and they’re all available now on XGPU.

And there’s a twist, too — every game I’ve listed is available for PC subscribers of XGPU. The X in XGPU implies a bias towards the console, but even if you don’t own the One or Series X|S machines, you get a great deal out of this program provided your PC is up to the task.

I’m an unabashed champion of the XGPU.

But something is rotten in the state of BoxX*.

You see, the PC version of XGPU is tied, inextricably, to the Windows Store. And despite years of updates and countless redesigns and feature tweaks, the Windows Store is still probably the worst game sales platform in existence.

The problem with it is deep, too. I don’t like it, but I get why it’s such a problem for the Windows Store to improve. This is an issue that is baked into the foundation of the Operating System itself. Windows 10 is too locked down. It restricts access from everyone but power users across the board. Can’t use that folder because you don’t have permission. Windows has found that the file you downloaded is potentially harmful. There are loads of ways that Windows 10 does its best to protect users from themselves — and hey, if that means it’s hard to ‘pirate’ software at the core of Windows, then isn’t that a happy coincidence.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Windows Store itself. The internet is littered with support requests from people who can’t work out how to download an “app” they just purchased from the store. Most of it is Minecraft, certainly, but the Xbox Game Pass has shown the problem too often as well.

Sometimes, downloading the game via the Xbox App is the fast path to success. The Xbox App, not the Game Pass app, which looks nearly identical but is different and will not result in a successful download. At other times, I need to download it via the Windows Store itself. I usually find out I need to do this by googling ‘failed download xbox app windows 10’ or something similar.

The filing system is a nightmare too. If they’re in the hidden WindowsApps folder, you need to spend 10 minutes changing your permissions settings before you can even look in the directory that contains them. Games like Skyrim and FTL (now removed) provide players with less locked down options — but again, it’s up to power users to know how and when they can access these features.

But these gripes, they’re all just… an amuse bouche of the real problem the XGPU is facing as a result of the barely working Windows Store. Because with enough effort, the end user can jump over these hurdles and get to whatever it is they need to get to in order to play their games.

The main course, however, is that once they are able to play the games from the XGPU, what they play is… not very good at all.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the quality of the game itself. This isn’t some broad over-reaching review of the Xbox Games Pass library — as I already said, I think some of the best games from the past decade are available on it.

But for myriad reasons, the version provided by the XGPU is often a much worse version of what people get elsewhere.

Take recent addition Wreckfest. I’d been wanting to check it out for ages. After playing Destruction All-Stars and absolutely hating it, I was hanging out for a Destruction Derby style game, and Wreckfest was perfect for that.

But I quickly found out that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. First of all — Wreckfest doesn’t feature Crossplay.

“Ahh, but so what?” You say. “Loads of games don’t have crossplay! It’s a relatively new feature, and it’s one of those things that usually only comes to the bigger games!”

That’s crossplay between platforms. Wreckfest doesn’t feature crossplay between versions of the game sold on different stores. My friend who has had the game forever on Steam — he can’t join me for a game. Another friend has it on Origin — he had to download it all over again via the Windows Store, but otherwise he couldn’t play against me or my Steam-based friend.

Once in, you need to open ports to play multiplayer — but because the game uses the Xbox backend, they’re different ports to every other version. There’s no modding available because the ‘enable mods’ feature hasn’t been included, so Wreckfest doesn’t make its way to the “ModifiableWindowsApps’ folder. People who have jumped through the hoops to make WindowsApps accessible still find themselves banging their head against the read only nature of the folder.

Or, more recently, take Cricket 19.

Cricket 19 on the Game Pass launched without any online play at all. The one time I thought I got matchmade into a game, the game itself crashed and when I reloaded it was gone. At least with Wreckfest, what you get is the base game, no frills — Big Ant didn’t even give Game Pass subscribers that.

But here’s the thing — I don’t think there’s any malice there. I don’t think Big Ant set out to give people a subpar version of a game they’re very proud of.

I think Game Pass for PC is just a neglected portion of the XGPU ecosystem. Game Pass is, as they say in board rooms, in a user acquisition phase. They’re interested in acquiring and retaining subscribers, in scaling up to the tipping point where they become too big to fail.

That means rapid library expansion. User acquisition requires content acquisition. So, just as we saw in the early days of Netflix, Game Pass is reaching out and adding whatever it can.

And in the flurry of activity that follows, we wind up with zero quality control. The call comes in to add a game to Game Pass — a deal is done, hands are shook and money exchanges hands — and a years old game comes out of retirement for another shot at the show. The publisher wraps it up as a MSIX package, a very basic port j ob, and on the scheduled date it gets uploaded, “ready” to play.

Game Pass is far from the only subscription service that has made this mistake before. You still need to jump through hoops if you want to watch The Simpsons on Disney+ in a reasonable format. It took them six months to issue a fix for the weird aspect ratio the show launched in.

But Game Pass has been around a lot longer than Disney+, and these issues continue to plague it. Game Pass games have a plethora of issues — both those unique to it, like Cricket 19, and those seemingly caused by the Windows Store’s overbearing DRM.

There’s something brewing on the horizon too, something flagged early by the release of Skyrim Special Edition on the Game Pass. While the Windows Store ostensibly allows modding (as mentioned earlier) — it doesn’t appear to allow a version of it that is as robust as is allowed elsewhere.

Instead, mods are allowed to the extent that the Windows Store/Xbox Store ecosystem allows. The Skyrim Script Extender, for example, won’t work on the Game Pass version of the game — and according to the developers it might not ever. 

There are two paths Microsoft can take here — and their choice will be important. The decision to further modify how the Windows Store impacts modding will be key for the future of Bethesda’s games. As good as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series have been (during Bethesda’s tenure), what has made these games great is the modding community.

If Microsoft decides to keep the Windows Store locked down to an extent that stifles mod creation, I worry about how The Elder Scrolls VI will fare. Will it result in a return to the attempted ‘paid for mods’ saga from six years ago? Possibly.

My hope is that, instead, Microsoft implements robust quality control efforts to make sure Game Pass games are in a state that is at least comparable to those released on the same platform via different stores. That means “mod support” as a default state of being, online systems that actually function and installation processes that are easy to follow.

Because while I’m still of the opinion that new games released on Game Pass have been worth the price of the subscription so far, it’s a moving target. It’s predictive analysis — I look at the games scheduled to hit the Game Pass, and I determine the value from there. But if a game comes out that I wouldn’t have happily paid for — something that isn’t really my speed, like The Medium — the value proposition of XGPU alters. And it’s up to the other games to pick up the slack.

If they’re releasing in a state that makes them an active waste of time to download, that lack basic features available on other stores, then the value drops again.

And, to put this in terms I think Microsoft would understand — user acquisition is nothing without retention. Once the value of the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate slips away, users will slip away as well. Those playing on the Xbox Console will probably always see some value in the XGP — it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure the PC users get that value as well, lest the word Ultimate warp from meaning ‘greatest’ to simply being ‘the end’.

*This wordplay seemed way better in my head.

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