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Welcome To Xbox’s Rot Economy

Everything is getting worse on purpose

The Xbox game pass logo, white on a green background, dissolving

It’s been a big week for bad ideas: Fans are pissed at both Xbox and Apex Legends developer Respawn for unveiling new, complicated pricing schemes that tapdance frantically around the fact that they want you to pay more for worse services. It’s a trend that’s come for every aspect of our lives, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised it keeps coming for video games too. 

On Tuesday, Xbox revealed changes to Game Pass, previously a pretty good deal that featured day one access to new games. I can’t walk you through what happened here without having to write embarrassing phrases like “Xbox Game Pass Standard includes the perks from Xbox Game Pass Core,” but basically: all Game Pass tiers are getting more expensive (which Xbox demurely calls “price changes”), and the service is offering less access to day one games.     

Game Pass for Console, which once gave access to day one games, is going away, seemingly to be replaced “in the coming months” with Xbox Game Pass Standard, which doesn’t include day one games. If you want day one games, you’ll have to shell out for the now-more-expensive Game Pass Ultimate, or the now-more-expensive PC Game Pass. All of these words crowd the mouth and boggle the mind, but what else would you expect when Xbox names things. 

Many people have pointed out that these changes come just before Call of Duty: Black Ops 6 comes to Game Pass on day one in October. In May, Xbox told Eurogamer that “Upon launch, Call of Duty: Black Ops 6 will be playable on Xbox and PC for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, PC Game Pass, and Xbox Game Pass for Console members.” Eurogamer writes now “that still appears to be true - albeit now with an additional cost, and not if you're a new Xbox Game Pass Standard subscriber.” 

Let’s pivot to something else that sucks: This week, Apex Legends revealed changes to its battle pass, which see the once 110-tier, season-long pass split into two 60-level, half-season passes. A lot of the changes are ticky-tacky Apex stuff, but the change that’s got players most riled up is that, where you could once buy the battle pass with in-game currency that you could earn through the pass, now you can only buy it with real money. Why? Respawn writes that “The decision to move from AC [Apex Coins] to real world currency is not one that we made lightly, but it does allow us to decrease the price of Premium+ for our community.” Or, as a Twitter community note on the announcement reads, “While Respawn claims this change is made through ‘community feedback’, it is obvious that this change is only profitable for EA Shareholders.” 

So now we come to the heart of the issue: all of this shit is worse for users, but makes numbers go up on a line somewhere. Lest you’re tempted to do these ghouls’ work for them and cite inflation and increased production costs, both Microsoft and Respawn owner EA saw their money go up in a year marked by respective mass layoffs. They don’t need to do this–or rather, they only feel they need to do this because their brains are rotting out their ears.

I use the word “rot” intentionally: Aftermath pal Ed Zitron coined the phrase “the rot economy” to describe the trend–which he places in tech but which I’d argue we can see literally everywhere–where companies and products no longer have to be good, they just have make more money. This “more” always comes at the expense of “good,” at least where users are concerned. Zitron writes

If you build a nice, sustainable fire, it’ll keep you warm, cook food and sustain life. And if the only thing you care about is how big your fire is, then it’ll set fire to everything around it, and the more you throw into it, the more it’ll burn. Eventually, you’ll have nothing left, but if you desperately desire that fire, you will constantly have to find new things to burn at any cost.

Since you are probably not a corporate executive or a shareholder, you might come at all this from a different perspective, with its own clever name: writer Cory Doctorow’s idea of “enshittification,” 2023’s “Word of the Year” that Doctorow describes as the process “in which the services that matter to us, that we rely on, are turning into giant piles of shit.” While the rot economy comes at the problem from the top, enshittification describes how it feels to be at the receiving end of the services that undergird your life growing more and more unusable while the people making them worse hurl every stupid name and meaningless explanation at you to try to distract you from the fact that this all comes down to greed.

You know this, but we’re seeing these two processes everywhere: ads and price hikes in Netflix and Amazon, the uselessness of Google search, Discord stuffed with garbage, planet-cooking AI in absolutely everything despite the fact that it doesn't work. And we’ve seen it in video games, in Paradox’s broken and cancelled offerings and Team Fortress 2’s only recently addressed unplayability and in so many games turning into mediocre live-service. Things aren’t for you anymore; they’re for shareholders, who don’t care if their product is good or useful, or if you even understand what you’re paying for; if Xbox is any indication, I’d argue they see this obfuscation as a bonus. What matters to these people is that they can keep their offerings just functional enough to keep you paying, or, failing that, keep them just essential enough to feel like there's nowhere else to go. 

These Game Pass changes don’t make it easier for you to play Xbox’s games. Apex’s new battle passes don’t make a game you like more fun. They just make things cost a little more, and suck a little more, and open the door for the goons at the top to keep seeing how much they can make things cost, and suck, so they can stuff their big sacks with cash before the whole thing collapses. 

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