By now, you’ve likely felt the subscription pinch, and readied yourself for the coming escalation. Netflix, Amazon, HBO Now, Hulu, Disney Plus—it’s a mess out there! Then again, it’s nothing compared to what’s coming for gamers.
Subscriptions aren’t anything new to the world of videogames. Microsoft and Sony have both offered them for over a decade, tying online experiences to Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus, respectively. But as ownership has given way to monthly payments—not just in streaming video but music, clothes, and everything in between—the choices facing gamers have multiplied. This trend was on full display at industry conference E3 last week, where developer Ubisoft revealed its UPlay Plus subscription, Google detailed its streaming Stadia platform, and Microsoft announced pricing for using Xbox Game Pass on a PC. They join established subscription players like PlayStation Now, EA Access, Origin Access, and Nintendo Switch Online, along with a handful of more niche services like Discord Nitro. Then this fall, add to that crowded field the launches of Apple Arcade and Microsoft’s xCloud streaming platform. Help.
Note: That list lumps together a few different kinds of gaming subscriptions. Stadia and xCloud will focus on streaming, acting as a sort of cloud-based console to serve up videogames over the internet. UPlay Plus, Xbox Game Pass, and EA/Origin Access, meanwhile, offer unlimited downloads of games from specific developer libraries. This dynamic means you can can also stack subscriptions, pairing UPlay Plus with Stadia, say, to stream The Division 2. That combination alone will cost you up to $25 per month.
“Right now it’s a rush to get products out there and services and to gain share,” says Kevin Westcott, who heads up the telecom, media, and entertainment practice at consultancy Deloitte.
They’re all competing for the same thing: your time.
That rush increasingly looks more like a stampede. The issue is price, sure, but also complexity. No two subscriptions look much alike. The $5 monthly EA and Origin Access plans offer early looks at games, but with a time limit; unlimited prerelease play requires a $15 plan instead. UPlay Plus offers over 100 Ubisoft games on PC, but the base plan costs as much as EA’s premium. The $10 a month Xbox Game Pass has titles from multiple publishers, but a rotating library with more limited options on PC. If you step up to a $15 plan, you can also pair it with Xbox Live. Charting it all out takes Carrie Mathison–level yarn-plotting skills.
“I think we’re in the early days, we’re all pioneering here. There’s a lot of experimentation happening,” says EA senior vice president Mike Blank. “We’ll see what level of fragmentation customers are willing to accept, and over time I think some will rise to the top and other subscriptions will end up not making it. The most important thing is that our players will ultimately decide if this works or if it doesn’t.”
As part of that calculus, players will have to consider not just how many games they typically buy each year—at $60 a pop for flagship titles—but from which developers. The math gets even more complex when you factor in the so-called live service games that update continually, a trend the industry has increasingly embraced. Unlike a binge on Netflix or an album on Spotify, massive multiplayer online games essentially have no ending; that makes a subscription to one much harder to cancel.
It’s a lot to process, and not all of it is bad. Cloud-based gaming should open up new cross-platform possibilities, and subscription services could save specific kinds of gamers a lot of money in the long run. It also, importantly, isn’t anywhere close to supplanting traditional forms of ownership—at least not yet.
“With the digitization of the games industry, there’s so many more players in the digital ecosystem,” says Brenda Panagrossi, Ubisoft vice president of platform and product management. “We really do listen to player feedback, and we really want this to be an option for players. Whether this is how they want to engage with us or through the regular standard editions or premium editions, we’ll wait and see.”
Loyal subscribers also provide not just a font of data, but a new means by which developers can act on it. “These games are massive. All the companies competing for the top games in the world are building really big, immersive gaming experiences that can take days, weeks, month, years to play and complete, if it’s even possible to complete them,” says Blank. “With a subscription we’re able to see the kinds of games customers like to play most regularly, and the kinds of experiences within games they might want to play more frequently. By virtue of that, we can try to tailor an offering where we can provide types of games experiences that might be more relevant.”
In the same way that Spotify can serve you up a single song you might like, rather than the whole album, developers like EA could give you a portion of a game, or more broadly focus on creating shorter game experiences, depending on how subscribers engage with its services. The subscription model’s benefit of choice potentially extends beyond how and where you play games, to what kinds of games you can play.
But to fully appreciate the impact of gaming’s Balkanization, you have to place it in proper context. Gamers don’t exist as an isolated class. A recent Deloitte survey found that 30 percent of US consumers already pay for a gaming subscription. That includes more than half of all US millennials—which is more than subscribe to a pay TV service. Which is to say, Ubisoft and EA and Microsoft and Nintendo and Discord aren’t just competing with each other for whatever pool of money gamers set aside for monthly dues. They’re going up against Netflix and Spotify and Amazon and YouTube TV. They’re all competing for the same thing: your time. And however aggressively they multiply, the number of hours in a day stays the same.
“There will be a point where there are trade-offs,” says Deloitte’s Westcott. “I do believe there’s a point where something will be squeezed out, because there’s only so much time to be entertained. As we continue to add more entertainment options—whether it be games, music, AR and VR in the near future—there will be some time constraint or cost constraint there.”
Having options is a good problem to have. But it’s still a problem, of both complexity and cost. Everyone wants a slice of your free time; it’s a shame you have to spend so much of it deciding what you can afford to live without.