A new Minecraft game out last week, something that doesn’t happen all that often. Minecraft Dungeons has all the blocky, voxel-based graphics that you’d expect from the series, but it has none of the crafting, exploration-based gameplay of the main title. I spent some time with it, and it’s a fun little stripped-down dungeon crawler in the vein of the Diablo. It’s not quite as deep as it competitors, though it’s not designed to be: it’s not reviewing great, but it’s not reviewing terribly either. It’s a light little clickfest, and a great way to spend an hour or two. It’s an odd release, in some ways, but it makes the most sense when you view it from a certain angle.
That’s because Minecraft Dungeons makes the most sense when you think of it as a Game Pass game first and foremost. Like all Microsoft first-party titles, it’s available on the subscription service from day one, now and forever. While big third-party titles tend to snag the big headlines when they come to Game Pass—games like No Man’s Sky or Red Dead Redemption 2, for some recent examples—the first-party games are quietly building up an instant library of high-quality games that run the gamut from racing to shooter to whatever the hell Sea of Thieves is (what it is is awesome).
Minecraft Dungeons fits this mold perfectly. As a $30 game, it’s sort of on the edge— addictive and fun, but a little light, overall. But as a Game Pass game it’s perfect, something for a kid to discover as they browse through an available library, something for anyone to kill a few mindless hours whacking zombies and creepers. We’ve seen this before with games like Crackdown 3. On its own, it’s a little lackluster. But it’s still fun, in a basic way, and it fills a certain role as part of a subscription: download it, create some mayhem for a little while, enjoy.
A little light is a problem for a premium game: it’s hard to convince people to pay full freight. A little light is also a problem for a free-to-play game: it’s hard to keep people engaged for long enough to shell out for extras. But a little light is actually perfect for a subscription service. It gives a little entree and that perhaps encourages you to see what else is on offer.
There are bigger first-party titles in Game Pass too: Gears 5 is a full-fledged AAA shooter experience, Forza Horizon 4 is a top-reviewed racing title, and Halo: Infinite will be one of the more anticipated games in the industry when it lands in the fall. Gears Tactics is a well-reviewed squad-based tactics game, the Age of Empires series brings some RTS action to the table, the Ori series has some of the most critically-acclaimed Metroidvanias that aren’t Hollow Knight (also on Game Pass right now). The real key, here in what are still the early days of Game Pass, seems to have been to build out breadth. Subscription services thrive on casting a wide net, and Microsoft is using first-party development to do just that.
Microsoft is already liberal with its Xbox Game Pass trial periods, handing them out with console bundles and selling them for $1 on the regular. I wouldn’t be surprised to start seeing a 3-month trial period included with new copies of Windows 10, too. It would have been a solid offering when Game Pass first launched, but it’s better now. Something like Minecraft Dungeons—simple, approachable, fun— is a great way to pique interest even for people that might not imagine they would play games otherwise, and from there, why not try out some other games?
Third-party games will always be a huge part of what Games Pass offers, and as I browse through the available titles, those are a lot of the ones that catch my eye. But the first-party games constitute what you could consider Game Pass’ permanent collection. At this point, they already form a strong bedrock for attracting and retaining new players. When the Microsoft starts getting more games from its recent studio acquisition spree, that side of things is only going to expand.