The proliferation of subscription services and the announcement of multiple cloud gaming services has produced some curiously alarmist responses. Cloud gaming is a relatively new technology, but gaming subscriptions and comparable payment models predate the internet. With a wide enough perspective, it’s hard to see either development as particularly new when applied to gaming. Steam users already licence their games from Steam with the expectation that they remain a member in good standing, and arcades didn’t even offer the illusion of ownership. What is new is the way we are playing games and the subscription model is very much an idea whose time has come.
Renting games in the past
Subscription gaming goes back to at least the 1980s with a service called GameLine which offered a subscription for Atari 2600 games via proprietary hardware. Games would work for a certain number of sessions and then need to be downloaded again. This is not unlike Steam’s verification of the titles in your library, though, admittedly the system has become more efficient and less apparent after three decades of technological progress. In the 1990s there was a service called GameStorm that provided original content that could be accessed online for $10/month and included games from franchise like Aliens, Battletech, and Starship Troopers. GameStorm was not alone either, as AOL had a premium gaming service that charged per hour. In 2019 dollars, the GameStorm subscription cost about $15-17 (US) on top of what would likely be an hourly (if not per minute) charge for internet access (though, of course, games cost more when adjusting for inflation too).
Before GameLine, players had at least a decade where they would experience them through an arcade, another non-ownership model. The arcade model is not that surprising when you consider most other entertainment options (outside of books and board games) involve buying a pass to a specific experience. As home consoles and PCs became more affordable, games became products you took home and owned. Rental was an option (including Netflix’s dalliance with the idea during the ill-fated introduction of Qwikster), but games began to reflect the new model and provided experiences more consistent with paying for everything up front rather than doled out quarter by quarter. The transition also reflects the difficulty in enforcing some kind of per-play fee on devices that are owned by the user (not that developers didn’t try through devices like hint lines).
Most of us will only have known the ownership style of gaming and so are tempted to see it as a natural state. Over the long run it’s apparent that some kind of subscription or per-play model has been tried with varying degrees of success over the entire history of video games. Furthermore, a shift to a subscription model may offer a solution to problems we face under the current model.
What problems do subscriptions solve?
The nominal price of games has been fixed for a long time and the state of modern gaming reflects attempts to reconcile this fact with rising costs and an increasingly competitive marketplace. One approach has been to have an extended period where the game is supported through DLC and other updates. Free to play with continual updates supported through a steady stream of microtransactions is a related approach taken by games that may not be able to command a premium price or are more dependent on an active player base.
Both free to play or post-release support through DLC and updates have analogies to subscription models. Some games are more up front about it, such as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege‘s yearly passes or the various seasons in games like Apex Legends. While not subscription plans themselves, these plans suggest the pendulum is swinging back to a model where developers capture some kind of return for the time spent in the game.
One problem with the current ownership model is that some subset of the player base has stated that they don’t like it. Complaints about DLC are as old as the practice and some approaches to microtransactions are seen as predatory. Electronic Arts is a common target of these complaints, but as far as DLC is concerned it is completely absent from Battlefield V and Star Wars Battlefront II (though both games still have cosmetic microtransactions). Players’ revealed preferences tell another story. The top ten games on Steam by concurrent players (at the time of this writing) are:
- Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012)
- Dota 2 (2013)
- PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (2017)
- Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege (2015)
- Grand Theft Auto V (2015)
- Rust (2013)
- Team Fortress 2 (2007)
- Football Manager 2019 (2019)
- Rocket League (2015)
- Path of Exile (2013)
The average age for a top ten game on Steam is five years old (mean and median), with the most recent entry being the latest in a franchise with annual instalments. This is also true for the top ten on Twitch (though the median is 3.5). Minecraft, a ten year old game, recently announced it has reached 112 million monthly players, and Rainbow Six Siege, a four year old game, is at 50 million players, one tenth of which were added this year. We simply cannot seem to get enough of old games that keep getting updates.
Taking both stated and revealed preferences for granted, gaming subscription services address people’s irritation and discomfort with DLC and other microtransactions, while still supporting the development of games that people continue to play for years after release. This does not mean that subscription games will not have additional content that can be purchased, but the survival of the title depends more on an experience that keeps the player returning for a monthly or annual subscription fee, rather than some sort of recoupment strategy after an initial free sample. Subscription services are returning to gaming not only because they are technologically viable, but because they are consistent with how we actually want to play games.
Gaming’s need to find sustainable ways to continue developing the kinds of games players like and to connect titles with their intended audiences are currently frustrated by consumer’s spending habits. A player on a phone my balk at paying a premium to access a game, but may not be any happier once the bill comes due for the free to play title they downloaded instead. Another player may wait over a year to get DLC for a favourite game, waiting for a discount that represents a savings equal to about an hour of minimum wage work, and then will take to the forums complaining about how the developer is greedy. A player considering a niche indie may hold out even longer to get a discount as valuable as a cheap beer. We’re all consumers so these feelings are relatable, but result is that we enjoy games less than we would and create an incentive for products to short circuit our consumption patterns.
At least some of the subscription services are positioned to change that. None of us really know before playing what game we’ll put hundreds or thousands of hours in. Some players almost certainly got EA Origin Access Premiere so they could play Anthem. It is equally certain that some of those players were unhappy with the game. Instead of hoping for a generous return policy or a quick turnaround on fixes and updates, these players have access to Battlefield V, Need for Speed, Battlefront II, The Sims 4, A Way Out, Sea of Solitude, FIFA, Titanfall 2, or anything out of the BioWare catalogue (to limit it just to some of the EA offerings). Had Anthem been a hit, the same player could instead be enjoying the best version of that game without considering the price for DLC.
EA’s approach to subscription services has a lot to commend it. EA is clearly very good at making the kind of big game that gets support through DLC and keeps people coming back, and so the subscription model makes sense for people who like those kinds of games. The cost of switching between EA titles is nonexistent, allowing players to find something they really enjoy. In addition EA supports the development of some truly wonderful independent games through the EA Originals program in order to offer games that it may not have a particular strength in delivering internally. In addition, the access vault offers 3rd party offerings like Frostpunk, Vampyr, The Escapists, Pyre, and Into the Breach. While not a full solution to discovery problems, the friction between interest and a game and playing a game is substantially reduced on EA Origin Access, making it easier for games to find their audience.
In essence, EA is saying that people aren’t very good at identifying what they’ll put hundreds of hours into in advance, and that their preferences can change. This may not apply to all players but in so far as it lowers barriers to enjoyment like guessing how much a DLC is worth or watching ads, and increases the opportunities to find enjoyable games, it is a preferable model to ownership.
EA’s approach isn’t the only one. UPlay+ does not currently have any 3rd party titles, relying instead on the strength of its back catalogue. Ubisoft games are enormous and they do not seem to have any intentions of pulling back the scope. While the subscription still lowers frictions when searching between new Ubisoft titles, the proposition seems to be that players have a better idea of what they’re interested in and they can gorge themselves on the best version of their favourite until the nest big thing comes along. The challenge with this approach is that because the price is higher than the alternatives, this service seems much more dependent on the next big thing. Where EA Origin Access offers enough to survive a release like Anthem, it is less obvious that UPlay+ offers enough to compensate for a disappointment. Between the two subscription services, EA seems to favour variety and experimentation, while Ubisoft’s focus seems to be a doubling down on what has worked in the past and is instead offering a better way to pay for that kind of experience.
Apple Arcade offers a third alternative. Apple’s insight appears to be that players like the ability to try out lots of games but don’t like the free to play monetization strategy and are willing to pay a monthly fee to get rid of it. Both Apple and EA (along with the consoles) are betting on the ability of this subscription model to remain attractive enough to keep 3rd party titles developing for them.
The success of subscription models in other forms of entertainment suggest it is one that consumers like and there is little reason to believe it will be different for gaming. Non-ownership models keep appearing throughout gaming history because they have often been a good match to the experiences players enjoy and delivered them at a price they think is fair. Owning a game today makes as much sense as owning an arcade cabinet: fine for some, but probably more expensive than it’s really worth. Ownership worked when bits were best transmitted by cartridges and CDs, but how many of those games were in the top ten most played games five years after their release? We play games differently now, and subscription models are better aligned with the types of games we play and the ways we want to play them. The most interesting story out of the store wars of 2018-???? won’t be if Epic or Steam won, but rather how much of the market is left for them to fight over.
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