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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?

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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.

Sign Me Up - The Rise of the SubscriptionSign Me Up - The Rise of the Subscription

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.

Sign Me Up - The Rise of the Subscription

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.

In fact, you could say that the one-off price is much more appealing for a lot of games, not just older ones. Say that you wanted to play Halo 5, for instance, and you had a load of friends who you've played Halo 4's multiplayer with for months, and you know you'll get a lot of play out of it. Why would you pay each month to get access to that and a few more titles you're not that bothered about when you could pay just the one price and nothing more (apart from your Gold subscription to play online, of course, a service which let's not forget also offers up several free games every month)?

It's not just these independent services trying out the subscription model though, as EA has been trying the very same thing with Origin/EA Access too. The same absence of new games inhibits things a little here, but with EA including big titles like Dragon Age, Dead Space, and Titanfall, this is less of a problem. Although one might argue that with big names like FIFA 18 and Titanfall 2 absent from this list, it significantly downgrades the appeal when compared to Microsoft's offering.

Origin isn't just a subscription service though. Origin itself gives access to free games and demos, but with Access subscribers get trials of games before they're released - like with Mass Effect: Andromeda and more recently Star Wars Battlefront II - as well as getting to try games before buying and having 10% discounts on all Origin purchases. It's important to note that this discount applies to Ultimate Team packs on FIFA 18 too, and for players hooked on this mode (and there are a few of them about) that discount will soon add up.

Sign Me Up - The Rise of the Subscription

On the other side of the great console divide, Xbox's competitor PS4 also has its own PS Now service, featuring PlayStation exclusives like Uncharted 3, The Last of Us, and Killzone: Shadowfall, all for the rather hefty price of £12.99 a month; when you compare it to Origin Access' £3.99 and Xbox Game Pass' £7.99, it's a pretty big ask, especially when you consider it also has the same issue in missing out big titles as well as streaming issues being a common occurrence.

What's important to note with EA's service and both of the offerings on PS4 and Xbox One; they all include current-gen games alongside a wealth of titles from the previous generation. So while each may boast an impressive number of titles, if you only include the ones released in this generation, the list suddenly becomes far less impressive, and even less so when you consider the really appealing ones from this generation as well. Sure, FIFA 17 was released in this generation, but no FIFA fan will want to play that now, will they?

Even mobile gaming is dipping its toes into the waters of subscription-based gaming, as snakebyte has just launched GameStore, providing hundreds of Android games for 7.99 euros a month, including those from publishers like Bandai Namco. Again, if you check out the marketing you'll see plenty of talk about the service having over 400 titles, but this lineup is comprised of a few standout titles and then a lot of less-than-stellar options to fill out the rest. Much like Utomik, though, the partnerships with big publishers like Square Enix and Lego help keep it viable in a very competitive market.

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As you've probably gathered by now, the real issue here for the everyday gamer considering whether to subscribe to any of these or not is the offering of games, because that's what it all boils down to. All these marketing slogans boasting hundreds of games doesn't mean a thing if there are only a few really enticing titles in there - big names to draw in the punters - and even if there are those big names, there also comes the question as to whether there are enough of these to justify subscribing rather than spending a one-time price to get access to it indefinitely.

Imagine, for instance, if Square Enix released a subscription service with every single Final Fantasy game on it for, say, £7.99 a month. Those titles would draw the people in to invest in it for months, the extended period of time to justify a subscription, and the big appeal of this would be the fact that it would cost significantly more to buy all these titles individually, not to mention the fact you'd need about 10 different consoles to do it. Currently, you could argue that none of the subscription services have a definitive list of heavy-hitters that truly justify the monthly cost. However, with Microsoft very keen to buy console exclusivity (just look at the money they spent on the temporary deal for Rise of the Tomb Raider), they could potentially invest in partnerships for third-party games to simultaneously launch on Game Pass in the future, and another bold step such as this could be the ticket to ensuring people take note, as they'd not only have the first-party titles but also big new releases from other publishers as well.

If we compare gaming subscriptions - including Game Pass as it stands - to the world of TV/film streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix (all of these have been lauded as the 'Netflix of games' at one time or another after all), the remarkable differences between industries become clearer. Prime and Netflix both invest heavily not only in new content, admittedly not with every big release, but also in their own exclusive content, new and exciting things they can have as a USP to pull people into choosing their service and opening their wallets. While exclusives are there for EA, PS4, and Xbox, you can't really say that they're new and exciting.

Sign Me Up - The Rise of the Subscription

This is a big reason why Xbox's move to release all their new first-party games on Game Pass is a significant one, as Game Pass is no longer an extra service they provide where players can dive into a backlog if they want to, this is now threatening to become a real and plausible first option for players going forward, who in the future can perhaps just pay for this rather than each game as it comes out. It's no longer about the backlog but about the future, knowing that your service will include all the big names like Halo and Gears as well as others like Sea of Thieves. For online titles it should also increase player numbers as existing subscribers will get access to the games as well, rather than making a risky investment if they're not sure about it. Bear in mind though that you'll also need to pay money for Xbox Live Gold, though, so MS gets even more money if you're subscribing purely for the online games.

Sea of Thieves is actually a pretty perfect game to start off this first-party day one Game Pass launch initiative, as despite hype building around the beta it's still a relatively risky investment at full price, so if users are on Game Pass already they can try it out on a whim without this big risk, and that will drive up the player count significantly. This is a social game which needs the numbers, and what's more is that if players on Game Pass like what they see, the word of mouth will then drive sales on PC and among Xbox One owners who will either get Game Pass or buy the game full price, making it a win-win for Rare.

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"I remember when Craig first told me about Sea of Thieves coming to Game Pass and I was just like 'this is awesome'," Sea of Thieves' PC design lead Ted Timmins told us in an interview recently. "I guess as creatives we want as many people playing our game as possible and this is another way in which a player can make a decision of: 'you know what I'll play Sea of Thieves for a month and see how I get on and I'll buy that membership for a month'. But then you're also going to have the core player that has been with us for as long as maybe you have, who is a day one purchase, going out pre-ordering it, getting the extra DLC, buying the controller, you know all these extra things on the side. As a developer you just want as many ways people can play your game as possible and that ties back into the crossplay and Xbox Play Anywhere and Game Pass. I love that all of these technologies come from platform to us and then as first-party it's up to us to make a game that really embellishes that technology in return. So for us to be able to use all of them I feel very proud of us as a studio to deliver that."

You could also compare Sea of Thieves to Rocket League, as back when Psyonix's title launched as a free PS Plus game in 2015 (PS Plus being a subscription service, although not in the same vein as PS Now), it started life with a huge player base as a result, and then, when word got around that this free game was actually a hell of a lot of fun, Psyonix had the springboard to launch a successful game that grew and grew into the monster we know today.

Sign Me Up - The Rise of the Subscription

In fact, PS Plus has done a lot to help install bases, especially in the last few years with PSVR and PlayLink. Both of these new initiatives needed good software to get people buzzed, and that's where PS Plus stepped in to offer free games and let people get some exciting content to try out, which is more important for PlayLink since you didn't need to invest in hardware to get there. This just shows the power of subscription services to give people free extras and get them interested in new stuff they normally wouldn't open their wallet for, which may well be a really good thing for hidden indie gems as well, ones that won't be shelling out millions on marketing and advertisement.

Game Pass may also have bigger implications on hardware as well, as the move towards to this digital subscription model could lead to a one console future nearer down the line, or even a no console future if you consider that smart TVs aren't a huge distance away from being capable of running these games. This would leave Microsoft to profit alone from sales of the Game Pass rather than physical discs and hardware, which is exactly why Austrian retailer Gameware KG got so upset and delisted Microsoft's consoles, hitting them with the phrase: "If you want to do business alone, you should do the work alone."

With external systems doing a lot of the processing work on these streaming services too, it's not unfeasible to think that this may very well be the direction we're heading in, especially if this proves lucrative for Microsoft and encourages others like Sony to follow suit (who are having a banquet of exclusives in the next year and a bit). This leaves these big companies to fill the role of content provider solely, and no doubt dramatically change what they invest in, where they invest it, and the announcements we'll be seeing at places like E3.

Sign Me Up - The Rise of the Subscription

It's not all that simple though, as there's a big counter-argument to this future that may be on the horizon, and that's everyone's growing library of games. With Steam, PlayStation, and Xbox all having regular sales (Steam having by far the lowest and most tantalising prices), everyone has a backlog of games as long as their arm which are already bought and saved. It's not going to be in a lot of gamers' interest to pay monthly for a catalogue of games that may contain only one or two really appealing titles when they've got the choice of any of the games already available to them in a collection that they can continue to add to and curate. Put it this way: if you want Halo 6 when it eventually sees the light of day, a lot of people would probably pay full price rather than pay monthly for access to it if they had no interest in any of the other Game Pass titles.

The big roadblock right now is getting enough titles with the quality and overall appeal sufficient to bring in enough paying players. That's easier said than done, and as we've discussed we're not sure whether any of the subscription services are quite there yet with suitably impressive and lengthy lists stocked full of headline titles, titles which arguably have to be the newest releases if they're going to draw in the crowds. Xbox has grabbed everyone's attention with what they're doing, but it still won't be enough to get many of those sitting on the fence to commit to a monthly fee. For that they need more triple-A launch titles and better exclusive incentives, however, if Game Pass does become noticeably more popular on the back of this move, this might be exactly the thing we'll see in the next few years. For now though, it's an interesting step, but we're not in a digital future just yet.

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