‘It’s not an experiment’
While Microsoft provides the operating system used by the vast majority of PC gamers, it’s fair to say that its attempts to build gaming services atop Windows have often fallen flat. Initiatives like Games for Windows Live failed to take off, and for a while, Microsoft’s overt presence in the PC gaming space was almost nonexistent. These days, though, the company is putting its efforts into something that might actually work: Xbox Game Pass. The subscription service has been one of the best things about the Xbox One for years, and it’s getting better on PC by the month.
“You know, if we’re being honest, there’s been some fits and starts from the Microsoft perspective for PC gaming over the long history of the company,” says Ben Decker, general manager of Xbox marketing. “But PC gaming is really where gaming at Microsoft started. And I think there’s a deep commitment at the company to get it right and to deliver something of real value to the PC gaming community.”
This week’s launch of Gears Tactics, a turn-based strategy take on the Gears of War series, is perhaps the most significant indicator of that so far. This is a high-profile, expensive-looking game in a marquee franchise for Microsoft, but it’s in a genre traditionally associated with the PC, and it doesn’t even have a version for Xbox One consoles yet. It’s available on Game Pass for PC from day one, and Microsoft is also selling it on Steam. “We’re expecting to be successful both places,” Decker says, though he won’t say how Microsoft thinks the split will break down.
This isn’t the first time Microsoft has adapted its shooter IP to the strategy genre; the two Halo Wars games were ambitious exercises in making real-time strategy games work well with a controller. Gears Tactics, however, was designed for the PC from the start. It’ll come to Xbox consoles eventually, but for now, you’ll need a PC to play it.
“When we talk about ‘PC-first,’ I think we’re really just talking about the focus that we wanted to bring to the product and making sure that we are giving the PC gamer everything that they expect,” says Mike Crump, director of operations at The Coalition, Microsoft’s in-house studio that oversees the Gears franchise. “PC gamers are a pretty demanding group, generally. And we wanted to make sure that we had the appropriate level of focus to give them everything they expect — everything from building the game to scale where it can run well across laptops and machines without discrete graphics cards all the way up to, you know, for gamers that have invested in a very high-end gaming rig, delivering something that would be exceptional for them.”
The Coalition’s first original Gears game was 2016’s Gears of War 4, which I noted in my review as having an unusually good PC version, with great optimization and visual options that went far beyond your average console port. That continued with last year’s Gears 5, one of the best-looking games you can play on any hardware. From what I’ve played of Gears Tactics, it appears to have been developed very much in the same vein.
“Gears 4 and 5 were both games where we really put a ton of effort in not just doing a typical port, but in making sure that we deliver something that PC gamers are gonna be delighted by,” says Crump. “And Tactics really from the ground up has been built first and foremost as a PC game with the PC gamer in mind. We have over 40 different visual settings that players can tune and customize to optimize their rig. We have a benchmark mode that allows you to test all those changes before you go into gameplay. We have settings where you can enable and disable different UI elements. So we’re really just trying to give the player every opportunity to customize and tweak the game to their preference.”
With Gears Tactics launching day one on Xbox Game Pass for PC, The Coalition and Microsoft see an opportunity to grow the reach of the franchise. “Our hope is that the kind of player that maybe has never played a Gears game before will try Tactics and will find that they are kind of really drawn into the Gears universe, and they are curious to try other Gears games and they can do that through Game Pass with a very low barrier to entry,” Crump says. “I think the magic of Game Pass is that it completely lowers the barrier for people trying something.” Decker says that Gears 4 saw a 50 percent increase in players during the run-up to Gears 5’s launch last year, with 40 percent of those playing a Gears game for the first time. (Right now, Gears 4, 5, and the Ultimate Edition remaster of the original Gears of War are available on PC, though Crump wouldn’t be drawn on the possibility of further releases.)
The average Game Pass player ends up playing 40 percent more games overall, including games that aren’t part of the service, according to Decker. Games in the catalog also see their player bases increase sixfold on average. “What we find with developers is that while this is a new model for a lot of them, they’ve really been impressed by the discovery that the service can drive,” he says. “We see that after users join Game Pass, they play 30 percent more genres. So someone who is sort of stuck in the rhythm of just playing the latest first person shooter really branches out and tries puzzle games, tries more narrative-based games. So it’s really been a benefit from that perspective.”
It still feels like it’s early days for the PC version of Game Pass. The service currently costs $4.99 a month or $14.99 a month for the Ultimate plan that includes access to the Xbox console Game Pass library and Xbox Live Gold. It launched with a small selection of games, and while it’s grown considerably, many big titles from the console service aren’t available on the PC subscription. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the most recent example. On the other hand, the PC subscription includes PC-focused titles like Football Manager that you wouldn’t expect to see on Xbox consoles.
This is by design, according to Decker. “People don’t actually want the catalogs to be exactly the same,” he says. “There are genres and franchises that are incredibly beloved on the PC and are built for the PC-specific user interface and capabilities that don’t translate incredibly well on the console and vice versa. I think you’re always going to see some games that are specific to a platform within each of the catalogs.”
This makes sense to some extent. I play a lot of NBA 2K on my Xbox, for example, and I wouldn’t have much interest in doing so on my PC. Similarly, I don’t really want an Xbox version of World of Horror, which is currently on Game Pass for PC in early access. But with something like Yakuza 0 (available in both PC and Xbox libraries) or Devil May Cry 5 (only on the console Game Pass), I could go either way. Ultimately, though, the decision is up to publishers.
“With each game that we put in Game Pass, we really work with that publisher to understand their goals, understand their strategy, and come up with the right mix from a platform and an availability standpoint for them,” Decker says. “And there are some developers that are pursuing a different strategy on PC than they are on console, and so they choose to include their game in the PC catalog, but maybe not necessarily the console catalog or vice versa.”
Even in a vacuum, though, Xbox Game Pass for PC is already an appealing service that’s worth checking out. Gears Tactics is a significant signal of intent that’s likely to draw more attention to Game Pass and how Microsoft will follow through with further releases. “It’s not an experiment,” Decker says. “It’s really a commitment by Microsoft to get it right and bring something unique to the gaming space.”