William Goldman wrote some brilliant books and some brilliant movies, and some brilliant books about movies. And in his first book about movies, he casually defined a central rule of Hollywood. Three maddening words: nobody knows anything.
These three words will probably outlast all of us. Because really, nobody knows anything. In Hollywood you might have the right star, the right script, the right everything, and the film bombs. But equally – this is why it’s maddening – you might have the wrong everything, and yet, to memory-quote The Producers, “The wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast… Where did I go right?!”
This is bigger than Hollywood, of course. To rephrase Goldman’s thought, you might say: all art is a gamble. And if you love art, if you really love it, the gamble is a big part of the appeal. Art galleries are filled with gambles that really paid off. And not just that: even the disasters are oddly bracing – the right kind of honest disaster makes you feel alive. The gamble of art is the best gamble of all, I reckon. But if you’re trying to make money out of this thing, the gamble of art is probably something you are not in love with.
I thought about this yesterday when the news came out that two Bethesda games, Starfield and Redfall, had been delayed. I would like to get this out of the way first: this is a shame. If you are looking forward to these games – and I am super looking forward to Redfall in particular – it absolutely sucks that you have to wait longer. If you’re making these games, it’s probably infuriating that you have to wait for 2023 until people can enjoy what you’ve been doing all this time.
Because it’s our job to write about games, at the office we were all trying to work out what it meant – what it meant for Microsoft and Bethesda games and the people who worked there, and perhaps what it meant for Game Pass, where these games are headed. Any delay is hopefully good for the work lives of the people making the game – that’s one angle I heard, and I hope it’s true: I hope this delay ensures a good working environment. (Someone also pointed out that delaying a game is sometimes just delaying crunch, obv.) Bethesda’s delay is bad for Game Pass, which needs big games to entice people to sign up, and now Microsoft’s 2022 line-up is looking rather empty in general. That’s another angle I heard. And I am sure it’s right – but I also suspect this kind of argument won’t always be right.
Anyway: Goldman. If you’re making big budget video games – actually if you’re making any scale of game that you care about – “nobody knows anything” must be a constant worry. These wonderful big event games are fabulously expensive and employ hundreds of people, and the small games also require so much from the people who make them.
Because of this, a decade ago, I heard a lot of publishers saying, “Okay: let’s try fewer, bigger bets.” A hedge against “nobody knows anything” that brought us persistent mega-games and tentpoles and empty summer schedules and a million open-world map markers and pre-planned DLC campaigns. I like a lot of this stuff! But look at the language from the publisher’s perspective. Still bets. Still gambling. Games cost a lot and have a lot riding on them. Even if they’re relatively sure things – the language of gambling again – they can have catastrophic bugs. They can alienate people with micro-transactions. They can miss crucial financial quarters. They can get delayed.
Game Pass – I have only just realised this, so I agree with you if you’re now saying that I am slow – is a lot of things, but one of these I now understand is a potential answer to the “nobody knows anything” problem. To put it differently: what does Starfield’s – and Redfall’s – delay mean for Game Pass? I don’t know, honestly. But I suspect that things like these delays are part of the reason that Game Pass exists in the first place. Delays are part of the cost of doing business – so many huge games are delayed for a range of reasons. Game Pass exists in part to make that a little less painful.
(Speaking of all this, another thing Goldman said is that reshoots can be a sign of strength for a film rather than weakness – a sign that something is worth getting right; I feel that’s the case for both Starfield and Redfall too.)
As a service, Game Pass contains blockbusters, but it doesn’t rely on them, and blockbusters is where so much of the gamble of art that must terrify huge companies like platform holders takes place, I suspect. Big teams. Huge budgets. The chance – even minimised – that you release the game and find out that people have moved on.
That’s a gamble. But what about a service that smooshes a lot of games together, and maybe you like some and maybe you don’t like some, but you pay a bit to get them all? Less of a gamble, I think. More of a sure thing. And with it, not just the promise of what you have already got on your Xbox, but what you might have in a few months, a few years. What’s coming to Game Pass next?
(I would like to clarify here that I don’t think Game Pass means the end of blockbusters – I certainly hope not! It just feels like a way of having something safer and steadier in the background while you hopefully continue to take on big exciting projects.)
I have always felt that Game Pass didn’t come from the part of Microsoft that bought Bethesda, but rather the part of Microsoft that bought Mojang. I am sure that distinction is fanciful, but the reason is that, no matter how much of a live service game Starfield or Redfall turns out to be, it will never be as much of a live service game as Minecraft: digital Lego, endless procedural exploration and tinkering, a game that every new generation discovers afresh and clings to.
And this all makes me think – not about Starfield or Redfall, but about Game Pass, and what it truly is, how it truly works. In a way, I’m tempted to say that the key to understanding Game Pass isn’t a similar subs platform like Netflix, but something like Twitter. And I mean this in one way only: a lot of people have realised it’s quite hard to leave Twitter, because it would be, well, annoying.
Over the last few years, loads of people have discovered they want to leave Twitter, but…gah. It would involve finding a new way of keeping in contact with these people I like, keeping updated on this thing, hate-scrolling that thing over there.
I don’t think Game Pass has the same issues as Twitter at all, the two things are in most ways nothing alike. But I suspect Game Pass wants to be similarly hard to break up with. The future, perhaps, looks a lot like this: services that are easy to get into and hard to get out of. And a big budget game like Starfield or Redfall would help with that, certainly – big budget games are brilliant – but so would a bunch of smaller, open-ended games that you just don’t want to suddenly be without.