Industry-changing changes are easier to spot in retrospect, long after hundreds of small decisions have led video games into a new era. The parallel surge in downloadable content, post-launch patches, and in-app purchases has been going on for years. Today is different. All of a sudden there is a significant amount of changes happening that you can see in real time.
On Friday morning new games from the creators of Final Fantasy, Hot Shots Golf and Nier: automatonsAlong with titles from some of the major indie game developers, it appeared not on a video game console but through Apple’s subscription game service Apple Arcade. Around the same time, Microsoft announced that Sony’s prestige sport is exclusive MLB The Show 21 will be available to Xbox Game Pass subscribers on launch day at no additional cost.
Even before we had breakfast, several games and designers associated with Sony’s legendary catalog of exclusive products, along with former close partners, had spread to Smartphones and PlayStation’s biggest competitors. But it’s not so much that games that would have lived exclusively on Sony consoles a decade ago are popping up elsewhere, which is important. It is How
Friday’s two announcements are the most important examples so far of the future of video game proliferation: subscription services for downloading video games.
Since the late 2000s, the industry has envisioned a subscription-based future similar to Netflix, suggesting that we would stream video games over high-speed connections with increasingly better cloud computing. Google Stadia started in 2019 with that promise. Sony acquired the Gaikai cloud gaming service back in 2012 and launched PlayStation Now, its official cloud gaming subscription service, in 2014. Amazon enters cloud gaming with Luna.
In theory, streaming would lower the cost of entry and allow people with a reliable internet connection to play new games on virtually any device with a screen. Anyone who has actually tried cloud gaming in the past decade knows that the reality does not yet match the potential. Cloud games look worse than console games and still suffer from intermittent responsiveness issues.
In parallel with these efforts, both Apple and Microsoft, apparently not wanting to wait for the technology to fulfill their similar ambitions, have invested in monthly subscription services that allow gamers to download games. The model requires gamers to own expensive hardware and the games will not load immediately. But here’s the crucial part: the games work. Just like if customers bought them in a store.
“It just works” is a classic Apple mantra;; Now Microsoft has sent the strategy and loaned it to great effect.
On Twitter, some of my colleagues asked why Sony hasn’t announced this yet MLB The Show 21 will also appear on PlayStation Now as it will appear on its competitor’s subscription service at launch. However, this question assumes that PlayStation Now and Xbox Game Pass are the same. You are not. As long as a game played over the cloud is indistinguishable from a game played over local storage, streaming services will not offer as positive and seamless an experience as their downloadable subscription counterparts. This is likely why Microsoft’s own cloud gaming service, Xbox Cloud Gaming, remains a complement to Game Pass, which is included in the Ultimate tier, rather than a standalone competitor.
(Sony has taken the opposite approach, gradually making larger parts of the PlayStation Now catalog both downloadable and streamable, although the service continues to focus on cloud-based streaming on all modern PlayStation consoles and PCs. PlayStation 5 games are still at all not available the service.)
Microsoft and Apple’s bets on downloadable subscription services would seemingly put them behind their streaming counterparts in the long run, but that’s not entirely the case. Their success shows that they are neither in front of nor behind the curve. They just meet the expectations of their players. Apple unveiled 30 games on Friday with a service that costs $ 4.99 per month and is often included in larger Apple product purchases for free. Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate tier costs $ 14.99 per month and includes games on Xbox consoles, Windows PCs, and Android devices. From now on, releases from Xbox Game Studios, Bethesda Softworks and even Sony, as well as a rotating collection of more than 100 catalog titles, are published regularly. They are currently offering the best deals on games.
Compare Friday’s news and strategies with other industry announcements this week. Nintendo has stopped selling a digital collection of Mario games for no greater reason than man-made scarcity, even though an online subscription service has already been offered to accommodate the games. And Sony confirmed that it will close its digital storefronts for PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable and PlayStation Vita – with no clarity on how or whether these venues or their games will be preserved, let alone available in the future.
All of these business decisions are tied to the bigger questions about the financial sustainability of the subscription model and what it means when we no longer “own” our entertainment. The answers will determine how and where we will play games in the future. What is so unusual today is that we take a look at that future as it happens.