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E3 2019 quietly became the stealth-launch for the game industry’s big push into subscription services. While PlayStation Now has hovered in the background for a few years, 2019 marks the first year that multiple companies will attempt to offer players a full library of games all at the low low price of $15/month (ish).
It’s a pricing plan meant for the people currently subscribing to Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, HBO, the Criterion Collection, etc., but what does it mean for game developers and the industry as a whole? After dropping onto an island with 95 other games journalists, the editorial team at Gamasutra has survived to suss out their opinions of about the coming subscription storm.
There’s a lot to unpack from service to service, but so far the most good-faith effort for developers and players alike seems to be Microsoft’s Xbox GamePass. The service can be conveniently packaged with an Xbox Live subscription, used on Xbox and PC, and anecdotally, seems to afford some games a boost in marketing that supports them on Steam. Tim Schafer, whose company was purchased for the PURPOSE of making games that will debut on GamePass, told me in an interview at E3 that he sees GamePass as a way to eliminate barriers to entry and put games like Psychonauts 2 in the hands of players who might have been nervous about committing $45-$60 on a more oddball game.
Those are a lot of great points to be excited about, but we have also heard a lot of developers worrying that if GamePass does well, it will hurt willingness to spend money on games that don’t make it into the service, or that developers won’t see as much money for their games if they explode on GamePass itself. We do know that elsewhere, Spotify and music streaming have shaken the royalties market so strong that musicians now sort of have to build a business of making music to sell merch and tour tickets, as opposed to the latter supporting the former. If your game isn’t Fortnite-level merchable, and does better on GamePass than with individual sales, will you be able to keep your doors open as a dev?
The conversation about funding does bring us to Apple’s subscription service, where we know a little bit more about the financial details making it possible. Apple has apparently spent $500 Million to secure exclusives for the service and reportedly plans to pay developers based on how much time users spend in-game. What strikes me as a big difference between Apple Arcade and GamePass is that they seem to be solving very different problems for Apple and Microsoft.
Apple Arcade feels like an effort to bolster the Apple Store’s premium game presence, and carve out more market space for games that got absolutely trampled by the free-to-play market. I wouldn’t put that entirely on some artificial love on beautifully handcrafted games though. Apple probably benefits from having a store that makes the iPhone look like a prestigious device supporting good content, and figures they can make more money off of premium games on a subscription service than they could off of individual game sales themselves.
Microsoft (and Stadia, while I’m at it), seem to be developing their subscription services with an eye on the future of the boxes they have to physically sell. It seems the future of profiting off of the games business for these companies isn’t just selling individual boxes and taking a cut of sales, it’s building the financial reliability of subscribers into their portfolios. I have a lot less faith in Google’s approach to Stadia, however, because the company hasn’t made a strong argument to people who already own capable game devices as to why they should drop money on a new box, and then a library full of games many people already own.
If Google has any leverage it’s that they may have an alternative argument to buying into Project Scarlett or the PlayStation Five. If you can play the next generation of games without upgrading your PC or getting a new box for your living room, maybe that’s a solid deal after all. But the constant reminder that these games will NEVER be downloaded on a device you own still worries me and feels like a bad deal for developers whose games aren’t service-driven.
I’ll wrap up with some quick thoughts about Uplay Plus and EA Access—both Ubisoft and EA are so large, and have such huge portfolios, it sort of makes sense why they’d want to build out a subscription service for them. Ubisoft creating a service may help soft-convince players to try out its expanding portfolio of live games (Ghost Recon Wildlands, The Division 2, etc), so it can convert subscription users into microtransaction-spending users, but EA seems the least poised to benefit from its service right now. Its library isn’t as strong, its most financially successful games are spread out across multiple platforms for different kinds of users, and it seems to be gunning so hard for in-game spending on free-to-play games that it’s a little head-scratching to see how it could draw subscription customers into something like FIFA Ultimate Play or something.
Even though PlayStation technically got a head start, Microsoft’s Game Pass does seem like most robust offering out there, doubly so now that the service is headed to PC. Bryant already pointed it out, but the Rise of Subscription Services really does raise concerns about standalone games being devalued as a side effect too. It seems like “I’ll wait for it to show up on Game Pass” could easily replace “I’ll buy it on Steam Sale” as the new launch day phrase of choice. Even then, how long until discoverability issues of a crowded library start to plague the smaller devs launching games on pay-for-access libraries like Game Pass?
I brought up PlayStation Now before we all put pen to paper here, mostly because it’s just weird how that service has done basically the opposite of what the current major players are up to. It started streaming-only and has since built support for downloadable games into its model, and now has somewhere in the ballpark of 700k subscribers.
And while Xbox and Google and individual publishers are dipping their toes into the streaming game service pool, Sony’s been comparatively quiet on that front so far despite calling out game streaming as a major part of its strategy for the next console generation.
Comments from CEO Jim Ryan on ongoing work on both Remote Play and PlayStation Now, alongside that sudden Sony/Microsoft cloud-based tech team up last month, mean that something is developing on that front, and I’m very curious to see how that plays out in this suddenly competitive field.
As I write this, I realize I’m starting to veer a little off course and cross from subscriptions to streaming services, and that’s not hard to do considering how married those two offerings are becoming. It seems like subscription services are the foundation on which cloud-based streaming services will be built, which is why it was so jarring when Google unveiled more Stadia details without announcing their own robust subscription-based game library.
Stadia as a subscription service lacks a lot of oomph. I think I’d expected Google to come out swinging with exclusives or a few big names under its belt, like Apple did with Apple Arcade. Destiny 2 is the only game they’re really announced as part of that Stadia Pro library and, while I personally love the idea of a play-anywhere Destiny, the game won’t feature cross-play with the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or PC versions of the game and that completely standalone multiplayer world lessens the impact of Stadia’s play anywhere promise.
With Ubisoft getting into the ring and Square Enix casually mulling over its own subscription, publisher-based subscription libraries seem like a specific corner of our new Netflix For Games future that’ll start to expand more and more. Ubisoft and EA have a decent chunk of big name franchises to their names and firing up a subscription service seems like a way for companies with that level of Content to reinvigorate its back catalog and make a pretty penny off of it in the process.
Not to entirely circle back to the cloud-based game streaming conversation, but partnerships like the one Uplay+ has with Stadia make both services a more attractive buy, and honestly the way subscription services stand to mingle with the cloud-based ambitions of both Stadia and the next console generation is what I’m most interested in at this point. The execs leading the charge have been the first ones to point out that won’t be possible for the industry to sustain 100 successful subscription services, so as more and more launch it’s interesting to see what concepts and features stand to make each stand out from the pack.
Yeah! It's exciting to see competition heat up around game streaming and subscription services. It feels like whole new ways of making and operating games are opening up; if developers really can count on a large audience of players who are comfortable streaming their games from remote servers, who knows what wild multiplayer experiences you could build? It's a veritable one-console future, except your console is (like everyone else's) on a rack in a server farm somewhere streaming games to your phone or your TV or your laptop.
I can't wait to see how creative devs capitalize on this trend, though I think they'll be hampered by the inconsistent availability of broadband internet access (at least here in the U.S.) and the rising tide of data caps. As far as the subscriptions stuff goes, it's hard to see how a bunch of new "Netflix, but for games" services is great news for devs if they do what they seem designed to: keep people playing games inside walled gardens.
I do really hope that game subscription services wind up working a bit like magazines are meant to: you pay your monthly fee and you gets your monthly content drop, and there's probably some stuff in there you're really excited about, but also some stuff you'd never have thought to check out if it hadn't been sandwiched between things you like.
But I'm worried that mostly, these services are built to generate a steady stream of revenue while selling customers on value ("All these great games for one low monthly fee!") and, ideally, pulling them into some microtransaction-driven live games where they'll convert into paying players. And once someone's invested in a game like Rainbow Six Siege and paying for a monthly Uplay+ subscription (or Destiny 2 and a Stadia subscription, or Sea of Thieves and Xbox Game Pass, or or or) they have that much less time, money, and inclination to go and try new games on other platforms.
I'm just gonna dive right in with some pretty sweeping predictions, starting with this: subscriptions services (and by extension game streaming) are the future. Now, I'm not particularity happy about that. I love those lumbering machines we call consoles as much as the next millennial, but I'd be incredibly surprised if they don't go the way of the dodo after the next generation winds down.
I mean, just look at Xbox Game Pass. Microsoft's subscription service is relatively young, but it's already amazing value for money. You can get instant access to every single first-party title for a monthly fee, including massive franchises like Forza, Halo, and Gears, and that roster is only going to get more impressive as the console maker continues to expand its Microsoft Studios lineup.
Sure, we know the company is committed to making another console - which I think Microsoft will simply call 'Xbox' to reset and unify the brand - but its real ambitions lie in the world of software and subscriptions/streaming. Case in point, Microsoft has already expanded Game Pass to Windows PC, and with Project xCloud in the works, a tech partnership with Sony in the bag, and a fair bit of collaboration with Nintendo already underway, I'd be amazed if we don't see Game Pass arrive on tablets, smartphones, and perhaps even the Switch (color me blindly optimistic) all within the next five years.
All of the above makes me think Microsoft will lead the way when it comes to subscriptions, and will probably become the first of the 'big three' to establish a true Netflix for games.
I'm more skeptical about the viability of competitors like Google Stadia, largely because the pricing model seems like a hot mess right now, although I'm also dubious as to how well the tech will work for people who don't have access to a preposterously good internet connection (i.e. most of the human race.)
Apple, on the other hand, could be on to something with Apple Arcade. The iPhone maker has some pretty big names onboard already (ustwo, Annapurna Interactive, Bossa Studios, Sega) and is backing them with plenty of cash. I can also see there being plenty of appetite for a collection of top-notch premium games on iOS, so the biggest question right now is whether Apple will manage to get pricing right. Until we know how much it'll cost, it's hard to say whether consumers will bite, so for now let's file that one in the 'has potential but could go awol' category.
At the risk of waffling on for an eternity, I'll bring this home by saying that I think EA, Ubisoft, and other big publishers make steady if unspectacular progress with Uplay Plus and EA Access for a couple of years, before ultimately linking up with whoever is at the top of the pile (probably Microsoft) in a more meaningful way.
I also have absolutely no idea where Sony and Nintendo will end up. I genuinely think the latter could make use of Game Pass further down the line, and perhaps even supplement it with some sort of Nintendoflix subscription featuring a bundle of beloved first-party morsels. That said, Ninety rarely follows the pack, so it'll probably end up doing something completely wild like creating a Switch you can fold away and tuck in your sock.
As for Sony, I wouldn't be surprised to see the PlayStation overlord launch an expanded or rebranded PlayStation Now service alongside the PlayStation 5. It seems likely the console will arrive next year, so I expect there to be some sort of announcement within 12 months (maybe at E3 2020). The big question here is whether Sony has left it too late. Microsoft really is ahead of the game right now thanks to Game Pass, so it'll take something big to really turn heads and convince people to keep splashing the cash in what's going to be an increasingly competitive market.
I think it’s kind of easy these days to conflate business models with distribution models. i.e., a subscription model doesn’t automatically imply a streaming service, and a streaming service doesn’t mean consoles will totally go away. We also have the tendency to lump all subscription models into one basket, when they may have unique goals within their respective businesses and wildly different means of reaching those goals.
So how about we look at the common, fundamental advantage of subscription models for businesses, whether you’re in games or not: subscriptions enable recurring revenue via a concrete financial commitment between a business and clientele which enables funding of future business endeavors. That is the driest thing I’ve written all year. But I think that gets to the heart of why subscriptions are so appealing when your business relies on the repeated success of selling $60 games en masse.
I can only answer the question of “are subscriptions good or bad for game developers?” by answering “yes and no.” Some game developers will benefit from the funds that subscription models generate (namely studios owned by big platform holders), many will see their games devalued by the most prevalent subscription-based services, and others will fall somewhere in between, all depending on which subscription service you’re talking about.
We can’t necessarily look at Spotify and the way it actively screws over creators, and say ‘this is what it’s definitely going to be like.’ We also can’t look at Netflix and assume that subscription models will definitely fund new and exciting games. We can look at existing examples, however, and approach these new models with caution, and evaluate each of them on their own individual pros and cons.
I know it looks like I’m on the fence here, but it’s the truth – Nintendo Online is different from Google Stadia, right? These services are unique from each other because they don’t want to overlap with another competitor. As for publishers like EA and Ubisoft getting in on the subscription game, they know that they’re not going head to head with platform holders. But it just makes sense – and is smart – as owners of these game franchises to have baseline means of direct distribution of their large libraries so they can see that revenue, as opposed to other companies via external subscription business.
Subscriptions are just another option for players, a lower bar of entry. Whether or not this continuing trend (it’s really not that new but we are seeing more models pop up) is good for game developers is, scarily, largely up to the biggest corporate entities in this industry.
Last thing: I will say that I’m at the point in my subscription life that I’m actively looking to cancel some of them, not add more. I’ve got way too many, and I think that a lot of people are in the same boat.