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Sea of Thieves will be first title to benefit from potentially large extra audience

In a huge move for the games industry as a whole, Microsoft has announced that new first-party Xbox titles will be part of its Xbox Game Pass subscription service – day-and-date with their retail release.

That means for Sea of Thieves, launching on the 20th of March, subscribers will be able to play the game straight away, and anyone can sign up to the service for just £10 to try the game out in its full glory. State of Decay 2, Crackdown 3 and future installments of the Halo, Forza and Gears of War franchises are also promised to be included.

This is a huge Netflix-style play for the future of console gaming by Microsoft. [UPDATE] And since the initial release, the company has confirmed by Twitter that first-party exclusives will remain a permanent part of the service, in much the same way that Netflix’s home-grown content is always part of its library.

Phil Spencer commented: “We’ve only scratched the surface of the opportunity this new model brings to the industry and what we can deliver to our fans. We firmly believe Xbox Game Pass will be a catalyst to create new opportunities for game developers and publishers to innovate in the way games are developed and delivered, leading to entirely new ways to play.”

Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at IHS Markit saw the move as an way to fight back against Sony: “Microsoft is seeking ways to disrupt its main direct competitor, Sony. The PS4 sales momentum is such that Microsoft must develop new content and services that set it apart from Sony. Microsoft has the financial clout to absorb the bottom line impact of such an experiment.”

And also comments on how the move boosts the visibility of its first-party offerings: “Microsoft has been criticised for its roster of 2018 exclusives. While we’ll hear more about upcoming exclusives at E3 in June, releasing first-party titles into Game Pass enhances the value proposition of Microsoft’s exclusives without changing the release slate.”

He also notes that it’s a smart move, as there are many more games-as-a-service titles in the mix for Microsoft, “With many new AAA titles being developed as services, the increase in revenue generated post launch and in-game makes a day and date release into a subscription service less financially risky than a few years ago. Indeed engagement and player numbers are becoming as important as premium sales for delivering long term and sustainable revenue from today’s AAA games.”

In this respect, Microsoft giving immediate access to subscribers will be more effective than it would be for Sony, whose slate is packed with linear, narrative game experiences.

All of this comes just days after Matt Booty was promoted to be the new head of first-party development at Xbox.

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