The big winner at E3 2021 is... Xbox Game Pass

Commentary: Microsoft's subscription service took center stage at the annual video game show and will include new Halo, Forza and Starfield games.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
3 min read
Halo Infinite cover art superimposed over Xbox logo

At an all-virtual E3 video game show with only a handful of standout surprises, the biggest news to me was just how central Xbox Game Pass has become to the Xbox ecosystem. Microsoft's subscription service was already a must-have to many gamers, but it's now becoming the first stop for many of the biggest upcoming Xbox games. 

Originally, Xbox Game Pass, which costs $10 to $15 per month, was a bit like classic Netflix or a second-run theater. Some older games, some indie games, but not likely to be the only way you find things to play. With the launch of the Xbox Series X and Series S, plus the addition of EA's EA Play library, it's become a much more premium all-you-can-eat subscription service. 

But at E3 2021, Microsoft took it several steps further, committing most of the bigger 2021 Xbox games to the service. Almost every big preview during the Xbox E3 livestream was tagged as being available on Xbox Game Pass at launch. 

Read more: Xbox Series X review

That includes Psychonauts 2, Back 4 Blood, Forza Horizon 5, Halo Infinite and, next year, Starfield, the sci-fi sure-to-be blockbuster from Bethesda, as well as Stalker 2. Cult hits like Hades and Among Us are coming to Game Pass as well. 


Xbox Cloud Gaming on a PC. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

I've previously called the lower-cost Xbox Series S the perfect Game Pass machine, and it reinforces my belief that, much like video streaming, gaming is moving toward a subscription model -- and eventually a cloud-based model. Just before E3, Microsoft talked -- in the most vague terms -- about its plans to incorporate cloud gaming into future smart TVs and even an Xbox streaming stick

The long-term picture is that the actual hardware will become less important over time, as games become device-agnostic, cloud-streaming like a Netflix movie to almost any laptop, tablet, phone or smart TV. 

Read more: Xbox Cloud Gaming beta hands-on: How to play Xbox games on your iPad or laptop 

Many of the Game Pass games listed by Microsoft at E3 2021 are also coming to Xbox Cloud Gaming, which means they'll play in a web browser or app on your iPad, iPhone, Android device or laptop. Note that you'll need the more expensive $15-a-month Game Pass Ultimate subscription for that feature, which also includes PC game access and Xbox Live Gold. 

That cloud access is where I'd bet the future of gaming is headed. As far back as in 2013, I urged Sony and Microsoft to go all-in on cloud gaming instead of building ever more powerful consoles. I may have been about 10 years too early on that one. 

For now, however, the pitch is that instead of spending $60 to $70 each on, for example, Halo, Forza or Back 4 Blood, you've already covered the $180 annual cost of an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate membership. With the selection from Sony's PlayStation Plus feeling anemic compared to Game Pass, and Nintendo's retro-only section for Switch Online, the emergence of Game Pass as the future of Microsoft's gaming business model is the biggest news to come out of E3 2021.