Microsoft is reportedly taking the nuclear option: releasing the next Call of Duty day one on Game Pass

 Captain price.
Captain price.

First reported by The Wall Street Journal, Microsoft is allegedly planning to make this year's new Call of Duty available on Game Pass from day one. According to the WSJ, Microsoft will officially announce the move during its June showcase in the industry's customary, formerly-E3-centered game announcement week.

Microsoft's game subscription service has been a tentpole initiative in recent years, and its acquisition of iconic studios like Bethesda and Obsidian has led to old favorites and new releases being made available on PC, Xbox, and mobile for a monthly payment. Call of Duty has always been The Big One though: one of the most profitable media properties ever, no doubt a big driver of the $70 billion cost of buying Activision Blizzard. CoD's inclusion would add a ton of value (and new users) to Game Pass.

It's also a bit of a make or break move, and I find it hard to look at with anything but trepidation following wave after wave of layoffs and studio closures under the Xbox umbrella, most recently the beloved studios Tango Gameworks and Arkane Austin⁠. Part of the squeeze has to come from that fresh, $70 billion, Activision Blizzard-shaped hole in the balance sheet, as well as sluggish sales of Xbox Series consoles⁠—so far matching the pace of last generation's underperforming Xbox One and moving half as many units as Sony's PS5.

But Game Pass is also in a weird place: according to The Verge, Game Pass failed to meet its subscriber growth targets in 2021 and '22, while a recent IGN report quoted 2023's subscriber growth as having slowed down even more. With Game Pass inherently cannibalizing traditional sales of games offered on the service (confirmed by a UK regulator as part of the ActiBlizz merger process and reported by GamesIndustry.biz), slowing Game Pass growth threatens to turn it into an especially costly blunder in the long run.

So Microsoft has a lot of incentives to put The Biggest Game Series Ever on Game Pass: it could prove a huge shot in the arm for the service, with many traditional sales still going through on PS5. It still strikes me as a risky bet, though. That CoD money is a guaranteed windfall that Microsoft now wants to adulterate for the sake of Game Pass' success, and as members of Digital Foundry pointed out on a recent podcast, once you've got a single CoD release on there day one, it'd be a hard sell to Game Pass subscribers to go back on that deal for future CoDs should it not work out financially.

Dave Oshry, head of FPS studio New Blood, told me earlier this year that they price their games once⁠—fairly reasonably, around $20-$25⁠—but don't do any of those huge half-off or more Steam sales so as not to "devalue" the games. You can see the same thing with how Nintendo rarely puts its games on sale⁠—I might not like how much I'll have to shell out for the Mario RPG or Paper Mario remakes, but I can't deny it's working out for the publisher, which ten years ago was solidly in last place among the big three. CoD on Game Pass will likely pay dividends on subscribers in the short term, but the service as a whole may risk devaluing the entire Xbox catalogue.

Then again, it's possible Microsoft is right to put all its eggs in the Game Pass basket. If subscriptions are indeed the future of game delivery, being the first to build the biggest one could lead to huge returns. But at this point I'm not convinced that a "Netflix for games" revolution is really imminent, or that it would be good for us if it were.