Call of Duty Black Ops 6 Will Decide the Fate of Xbox Game Pass

By putting Game Pass' future in the hands of Black Ops 6, Xbox is at risk of compromising the true value of the subscription service.

Call of Duty Black Ops 6
Photo: Activision Blizzard

Xbox confirmed the worst-kept secret in gaming by announcing that Call of Duty: Black Ops 6 will be a day-one Xbox Game Pass release. While Black Ops 6‘s release date hasn’t been revealed at this time, you will be able to play it via Game Pass as soon as it launches in October 2024.

It’s a monumental moment. This will be the first Call of Duty game released since Microsoft completed their acquisition of Activision Blizzard; a nearly $70 billion deal driven by the opportunity to acquire the Call of Duty franchise. In terms of expected sales, Black Ops 6 will likely be the biggest day-one title in Game Pass history. That means it will also likely be the game that will determine the future of the Xbox Game Pass service.

While Xbox Game Pass crossed 34 million subscribers earlier this year, the company is still quite a ways off from its rumored goal of 100 million Game Pass subscribers by 2030. Is that goal realistic? Perhaps not, but we’re pretty far removed from “realistic” mattering much.

The biggest hurdle Game Pass faces at the moment is the widely perceived value of the service among non-subscribers and former subscribers. Game Pass continues to grow but critics of the service (or those on the fence) cite a lack of consistently compelling day-one releases as Game Pass’ biggest issue. It’s an issue that is ultimately an extension of Xbox’s failure to consistently produce the kinds of major exclusives that are traditionally seen as “system selling new releases. While it’s not a platform exclusive (thanks, in part, to a series of legal challenges), Black Ops 6 figures to be the exact kind of major new release that some feel Game Pass usually lacks.

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The best-case scenario is easy enough to imagine. Black Ops 6 is released on Game Pass, it’s a massive hit, millions of more people subscribe to the service because of it, and many backs are patted across the Xbox offices. Oh, Xbox will almost certainly raise the price of Game Pass either after, or right before, Black Ops 6‘s release, but welcome to the wonderful world of subscription-based entertainment in the time of inflation and infinite growth expectations. In any case, it’s the simplest path to success. Black Ops 6 attracts a widespread audience who continue subscribing to Game Pass after Black Ops 6‘s release and enjoy all the other games suddenly available to them.

The worst-case scenario is also easy enough to imagine. Black Ops 6 is released on Game Pass and fails to fuel the kind of growth that Xbox is looking for. It’s difficult to say exactly what Xbox would do next in that situation. Perhaps Game Pass wouldn’t change overnight, but Xbox would have to face some hard realities about how far away they are from their goals. There could be further layoffs, significant resource shifts, or even serious discussions about expanding Game Pass’ availability to other platforms to immediately boost its subscriber count. Xbox has invested a lot (more than just money) in Game Pass. If Black Ops 6 fails relative to Game Pass’ growth, Xbox will be forced to reexamine the nature of the service or face the even more drastic consequences of doing nothing.

There are many other scenarios between those two extremes that could play out. However, many of them bring us back to the increasingly likely possibility that Xbox Game Pass simply won’t be the same after the launch of Black Ops 6.

I’ve previously argued that the real value of Game Pass is in the way it allows its subscribers to try out smaller, older, or simply different games that they otherwise wouldn’t experience. I still believe that’s true. There’s a rather exciting world where the success of Black Ops 6 rises all tides and boosts not just the popularity of Game Pass but the popularity of those “other” games that often rely on the service for exposure and success. Improvements would still have to be made to the service before it becomes the “Netflix for gaming” Microsoft has long dreamed of, but that would be a big step in the right direction.

Realistically, though, I worry that’s just a lovely dream. Those who have not subscribed to Game Pass, or have often been critical of it, have made it clear that they largely measure the value of the service in terms of the major $70 new releases it allows them to access as part of the service’s price. While I can’t imagine Microsoft is thrilled to see that their industry-disrupting subscription service is being measured by the value of the three or four new games many people purchase in a year through more traditional retail means, the situation is what it is. The 66 million people Xbox still hopes to attract to Game Pass certainly seem to value such releases more than the offerings that 34 million people have signed up for so far. If Microsoft is serious about courting them, they are going to have to build Game Pass around those games more than they have done so in the past.

While many major companies love talking about using the success of the biggest blockbusters to support investments in smaller projects, recent history tells a different story: major companies love to use the success of blockbusters to invest in more blockbusters. What works right now and is widely popular right now has become so much more important than what could grow to become something bigger, offer something of cultural merit, or is simply the perfect thing for a smaller number of people. It’s what’s led to the homogenization of entertainment and the growth of “good enough” releases that quietly make a profit and accomplish little else. You know…like the Call of Duty franchise.

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It’s lovely to imagine a world where incredible smaller games like Hi-Fi Rush are elevated by the success Black Ops 6 could bring to Game Pass or studios like Arkane Austin are saved by the service reaching its full potential. Yet, at a time when those games and studios are being sacrificed at the altar of big-budget name value, it’s becoming tragically clear that Game Pass is still at risk of succumbing to the infuriating industry trends it once sought to subvert. Hey, maybe Xbox will end up with the Netflix of gaming after all.