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Sign Me Up - The Rise of the Subscription

With first-party games heading to Xbox Game Pass on day one, has Microsoft made an industry-changing move?

  • Text: Sam Bishop
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Not long ago Microsoft made a big statement in the gaming world by announcing that all first-party titles moving forwards would be coming to their subscription service, Xbox Game Pass at launch. This essentially means that all big future exclusives, games like Halo, Gears of War, and Forza, would come to subscribers at no extra cost on release. Looking more short-term, this also means Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2, and Crackdown 3 will be released on the platform as well, and what's more is that these titles will be on there permanently too.

As well as raising a few eyebrows, this also brought forward some questions regarding subscription services as a whole. Back in February of last year Microsoft first revealed Xbox Game Pass to the world, and while this was pretty big news in itself, this recent revelation is far more important, as it's not only a bold move to allow subscribers to get brand new content, but it also may have a very big impact on software sales too, especially if people are moving over to Game Pass.

What does this mean for retail though? Well for a start it may well have a negative impact on launch/day one sales, since less people will go to the stores to get a copy of the new release if it's going to be given to them automatically as a Game Pass subscriber. It also means that, if more games come to Game Pass, retailers will be effectively selling a console with less and less hope of money coming in from software sales for it afterwards, as Microsoft will be providing all the software directly if Game Pass takes off.

It wasn't the first subscription service of its kind though, as throughout the years we've seen various companies try to tentatively launch services like this. One of the big early players in this area was a service called OnLive, which promised to deliver tons of games via a subscription service that let you play both old and new games when you wanted to. The issue was that the customer base just wasn't there, the business had its own troubles, and most importantly the catalogue wasn't great. After all, the games are the reason you'd pay for this service in the first place, and that's why Xbox's own announcement is so potentially huge.

OnLive's pricing was also very strange. For $4.99 USD a month you got access to the bare essentials, including the service itself and things like free demos, but you had to pay for each game separately like unlocking Assassin's Creed II as an 'Unlimited Pass' for $39.99 or a three-day pass for Borderlands for $5.99. As Geek pointed out in 2010, to play Splinter Cell: Conviction for a year, you'd need to not only pay the $59.99 for the Unlimited Pass but also the year's worth of subscriptions, bringing your cost up to $119.87. Alright, so not everyone would play the game for a year, but the point still stands that, when you put it that way, there are a lot of added costs.

OnLive is now dead and buried, unfortunately, but in its place comes other similar offerings like Utomik, a streaming service that once again lets you play a whole host of games, in this with an average of five being added a week. Here download size is determined dynamically, and with the ability to work at low bandwidth and big publishers partnering with the service, it's a sight better than OnLive ever was, although yet again the catalogue seems to be old(ish) games that you'd only really play if you wanted to revisit them. Sure there are good titles like Saints Row IV, Dead Island: Riptide, and Borderlands, but none grab interest for the 2018 player. That said the flat rate of £4.49 a month is much more appealing that OnLive's model, and there's even a family plan to include four players for £8.49.

Humble Monthly is another big example of a similar offering, although this is slightly different in the sense that you spend $12 a month and ever few weeks you get a random selection of games as a sort of lucky dip, which you then own forever. We're not talking small games either, as recently Civilization VI was included, although the big headline titles kind of lose their marketing appeal when they only stick around for a month before being replaced by an unknown usurper that you may or may not be interested in owning.

It's also worth mentioning, while we're talking about catalogues filled with old games, that if you really did want to play old games and don't mind missing out on the newest releases, it's really cheap to do so. You could pop down to the shops each month and get yourself a Red Dead Redemption or a Mass Effect for the same price as one month of a subscription service, for example, and these would offer you hours of play for a one-off price rather than a continual subscription cost. Second-hand games are relatively inexpensive these days, there are always plenty of sales both online and on the High Street, and when retailers like Poundland are selling games for less than a fiver... if you don't mind playing two-year-old titles instead of being there on day one, there's never been a better time to play quality games on the cheap. And best of all, if you buy them, even for a pittance, you get to keep them.