Xbox’s Games With Gold has been a long-running program that lets Xbox Live Gold subscribers claim up to four free games as part of their subscription every month. Looking back through the list of games, they’ve included such hits as The Wolf Among Us, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Hitman, For Honor, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and more, but recently, it’s felt like the program has been going through the motions, to the point where perhaps Xbox should just shutter the program.
Already, this article is going to be met with the people who’ll say “they’re free games, so there’s no point complaining”, and really, it’s not so much about the quality of games, but the distribution of them. Ever since the introduction and hardcore adoption of Xbox Game Pass, it’s felt like Xbox’s Games With Gold have become nothing more than an afterthought.
Take April 2021, for instance. Games With Gold offers, as usual, four games: two Xbox One games and two Xbox 360 or original Xbox games. For this month, those games are Vikings: Wolves of Midgard, Truck Racing Championship, Dark Void and Hard Corps: Uprising. While they might be decent games, they’re not exactly console or subscription sellers. No one’s getting out of bed to play a mediocre Xbox 360 shooter that I’m pretty sure Capcom forgot they were involved with.
Compare that with the Game Pass offerings for the past few weeks. We’ve seen 20 Bethesda games added to the platform, big hitters like Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, Octopath Traveler, Undertale, Star Wars: Squadrons and others too, alongside the news that Square Enix and People Can Fly’s Outriders would be launching into Game Pass on day one. There’s a night and day difference between the games offered by Xbox Games With Gold and Xbox Game Pass, and it’s becoming a problem.
I also don’t want to feed into the whole “console war” schtick because that’s just asking for toxicity, but it’s hard to get invested in Xbox’s Games With Gold offerings when the PlayStation Plus subscription offers so much more value for money. Over the past few months alone, you’ve seen games like Bugsnax, Destruction AllStars, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Control: Ultimate Edition and Concrete Genie. They’re all fantastic games worth checking out, and grab your attention more than some forgotten shoot ‘em up from a decade ago.
On top of that, it’s worth mentioning that PlayStation Plus has now also moved on to offering PS5 optimised games, including the previously mentioned Bugsnax and Destruction AllStars. Meanwhile, the Xbox Games With Gold program is still offering games from what’s now considered to be the previous generation, the only exception being that time they offered Gears 5. It’s optimised for Xbox Series X | S, so it counts, right? You could argue that this disparity speaks to how little value Xbox holds in Games With Gold.
Again, Games With Gold is just a perk of Xbox Live Gold membership, meaning that they are free games, but Xbox seems to be pulling back the curtain on what an Xbox Live membership actually offers. Recent Insider updates have removed the restriction on needing Gold to play free-to-play games online, or to join parties with your friends, meaning that Gold is literally just for playing premium games online and claiming games that you’ll never actually get around to playing.
At this point, it feels like Xbox should just go all-in and center their entire model around Game Pass. I mean, they are anyway, let’s be honest, but holding on to Gold memberships like this just seems to be leading to a lot of cognitive dissonance. I’m not saying that playing premium online games should be free or anything when it comes to abolishing Gold memberships, as Xbox obviously needs to keep the lights on, but perhaps Xbox could just bundle online privileges with Game Pass and call it a day. Any games that would come to Games With Gold could then just be bundled into Game Pass.
It’s just so clear to the consumer that Microsoft is playing favourites. Running both concurrently, with the products and services they’re both offering, often makes it feel like Gold is an inferior product to Game Pass, particularly if you subscribe to Game Pass Ultimate. Properly absorbing Gold and its benefits into the Game Pass infrastructure, which is so much more widely recognised and celebrated these days, would allow for more consistent branding, while not presenting two products that are unintentionally competing with each other.
For me, it’s not about stopping free games, because ultimately, those comments are right. They’re free games, and free is always nice. The problem is perception, and people perceive Gold to be less than Game Pass. Really, what needs to happen is the next evolution or refinement of Xbox’s overall ecosystem, phasing out Gold and offering Game Pass wholesale. Considering the recent changes to remove the usage of Xbox Live in certain parts of the Xbox UI, this might be a reality one day.
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