#22: The final lap of the race to zero

“I’ll wait for a sale” was a common refrain throughout the 2010s. Now we're going a step further: “I’ll wait til it’s free.”

I excitedly messaged a friend the other day with news that Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit Remastered was headed to Xbox Game Pass. He was far less happy about it than I was: he’d bought it full price at launch, and inevitably had barely played it. For all its brilliance, much has been made about the drawbacks of the Xbox subscription service, and all that Microsoft is doing to support it. But most of the concerns are around consolidation and ownership. The bigger one, I think, is exposed by my friend’s experience with Hot Pursuit. Yes, there’s no point having an Xbox these days without also having a Game Pass sub. But once you’ve got one, is there really any point in actually buying anything?

This has been coming for a while. Back in 2014, in a blog post that I think about often, indie developer Jason Rohrer sounded the alarm over the growing prevalence and frequency of Steam sales. Not only was he concerned that PC games were joining the ‘race to zero’ of the mobile app stores, with its predictable impact on developer revenue and, later on, monetisation methods; he also put forward the theory that it was bad for player communities too. If the majority are trained to wait for the inevitable deep discount when the next big Steam sale rolls round, those that do pay at launch — your biggest fans — are not just getting hit in the wallet. They’re also getting a worse experience at launch, because the community around the game is so much smaller.

“I’ll wait for a sale” was a common refrain throughout the 2010s. Now we're going a step further: “I’ll wait til it’s free.” If it’s not on Game Pass, it’ll be on PlayStation Plus, the Epic Games Store, EA Play, Ubisoft+, Twitch Prime, Humble Monthly, Stadia Pro, or one of the others I’ve probably forgotten. Sure, most of these require a monthly subscription, so aren’t technically ‘free’. But Game Pass and PS Plus in particular are such vital components of the platforms that host them that they feel more like part of the hardware cost than a game purchase. And of course the fees are so marginal that we don’t really think about them month to month. Game Pass is what, 40p a day? Sure, take it. I won’t even notice it’s gone. (It would be remiss of me to not point out here that a Hit Points subscription is even more attractively priced than that.)

The economics of these services are sufficiently opaque that we don’t know how profitable they are for developers. The fact that so many companies are signing up to put their games on them suggests there’s something in it, for now anyway. (I heard that, in the early days of Game Pass, it was pretty much an offer you couldn’t refuse, though I believe it’s not quite so spectacularly generous these days.) And there is evidence that being on Game Pass can actually boost sales, even on Xbox. But there’s a broader concern, not just about what it means for the games that appear on subscription services, but also for those that don’t — and for what it does to consumer behaviour, and player communities, as a result.


  • Speaking of the saver mentality, Valve is clamping down on Steam users who switch regions to get games on the cheap. You’ll now only be able to change your pretend country of residence once every three months. 

  • Lots of fuss yesterday about a spectacularly ill-judged press junket for Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2, which saw press and YouTubers invited to a mock military training exercise where they pretended to shoot Arabs. I feel like all the important stuff that needs to be said about this already has been, but will add this: experiential events like this (without the racism, obviously) may well work if you invite influencers looking for unique #content, as HipHopGamer’s cringingly exuberant endorsement shows. For today’s written press, however, they are a complete waste of their time and your money, and inviting them along is just asking for trouble.

  • Phil Spencer says Microsoft hasn’t put a release date on Halo: Infinite because it’s waiting to see when other big games are launching. I don’t get this at all. If true, it’s unfathomably small-time thinking from a platform holder with a $2 trillion market cap. Everyone else should be trying to get out of Halo’s way, not the other way around. 

  • Speaking of Microsoft, it unveiled Windows 11 yesterday. Some good stuff for games folk in here, with Xbox’s AutoHDR and Direct Storage features on the way, and for everyone else with a greatly improved Windows Store and a cleaner, pleasingly Apple-esque design.

  • Eidos Montreal’s Guardians Of The Galaxy tie-in features a special streamer mode that deactivates licensed music, helping Twitch bods evade the copyright censors. Smart stuff, if perhaps a little optimistic in this particular case.

  • The sun has set and risen again, meaning Bungie and the eternally implacable Destiny 2 community are once more at loggerheads about something or other. This time it’s about future surprises being spoiled, by either dataminers or perfectly legitimate API calls, depending on your perspective. The longer a live-service game survives, the more the relationship between players and developers resembles a troubled marriage. One’s always leaving the cap off the toothpaste, the other their socks on the floor, and each must repeatedly insist that the other is worse.

    That’s your lot for today. Would you say Hit Points is worth paying 14p per day for? If so, perhaps you’d consider a paid subscription. As usual, if you’ve enjoyed this, please share it far and wide. Let’s make this thing bigger than Game Pass. Have a cracking weekend!