Subscription Services

If you watched the Xbox and Bethesda E3 presentation, one thing you couldn’t have missed was Microsoft’s subscription gaming service, Xbox Game Pass. All but a few games during the show were advertised as coming to Xbox Game Pass on day one.

Among the more surprising announcements in the Ubisoft presentation during E3 was for Rocksmith+. This new update to the Rocksmith franchise is a subscription series. We can probably also expect Electronic Arts to promote its EA Play service during the presentation scheduled for next month. Subscription services are becoming more and more popular with publishers. Let’s talk about why that is and how it will ultimately be the future of gaming as a whole.

 

For a small monthly fee

Subscription services are nothing new. Other media formats have various subscription services and models. Television has offered an array of subscription options for decades. The business model is prominent with entertainment providers like Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, HBO Max, and many, many others. Newspapers and magazines have used subscription models for even longer.

We, as gaming fans, have been getting used to subscription services for quite a while now, too. Whether it’s paying a subscription to our internet service providers or to online gaming services, we have been making monthly payments towards our games for years. There are also individual online games that require subscriptions, such as The Elder Scrolls Online, Eve Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic.

More recently, there has been an expansion of these services such as Xbox Game Pass, EA Play, and Ubisoft+. These services offer you access to an array of games for a monthly subscription. And though not PC-related, there’s also PlayStation Now and Apple Arcade. Each of these services aims to draw you into a monthly payment and keep you there.

The Elder Scrolls Online subscription

The level of value is up to you

The value these subscription services offer really depends on what you do with them. Obviously, the subscription costs are set and there’s no way around that. However, if you play the included games for 100 hours in a month, you get a lot more for your money than someone who only plays two hours per month. It’s not quite as simple as that, because it obviously depends on if the service has the games you want to play. It is ultimately up to you whether there is enough to keep you entertained.

The biggest of these subscription gaming services is currently Xbox Game Pass. It currently has over 23 million subscribers. And it’s probably already above that number since it jumped from 18 million to 23 million subscribers between January and April of this year. We have talked on many occasions about how we think that Game Pass is a tremendous deal. One of the reasons for this is that Microsoft does a good job of rotating the library and curating an interesting mix of AAA titles and indie gems.

Xbox game pass pc games future

Benefits indie games as well as AAA

When people consider these subscription services, they tend to think of the AAA games that are available. Ubisoft+ touts that you can play the latest Assassin’s Creed. EA pushes the fact that you can enjoy its latest sports games  and Star Wars Squadrons via EA Play. One of the biggest selling points of Xbox Game Pass is that all of the first-party titles are available through the service on day one. Microsoft’s service is particularly good for indie titles as well, though.

You may think that a subscription service from a big player like Xbox would be bad for indie games, but that just isn’t the case. It turns out that adding your indie game to Xbox Game Pass doesn’t hurt sales, but in fact helps them. Mike Rose, the founder of indie publisher No More Robots, went on record saying that sales of Descenders quadrupled after appearing on Game Pass. He sees it as advertising for the games, which draws in more sales alongside the revenue received for being on the service.

This makes it an easy decision for indie developers to put games on Xbox Game Pass. Of course, this is assuming that Microsoft doesn’t change the deal as the service becomes more and more successful. It’s something that these smaller developers will need to keep an eye on, but it is good to hear at the moment that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement.

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Games are adding subscriptions through other means

We’re obviously familiar with some games requiring subscriptions to play. We’ve already mentioned games like The Elder Scrolls Online. But how about Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and Apex Legends? You may be thinking, “but those games don’t have subscriptions.” What they do have are Battle Passes. The Battle Pass is a newer addition to games, but these are quite like a subscription. You pay money for a benefit for a finite period of time. That’s pretty much what a subscription is.

While I don’t wish to like some sort of doom-bringer, it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility that these Battle Passes could become required within their respective games given enough time. Companies like Electronic Arts and Activision are infamous for trying to extract as much money as possible from players. One common practice is to make in-game purchases essential by locking better weapons and upgrades behind them. Adding a paywall to things that grant competitive advantages get a load of people to open their wallets. From there, it’s not a leap to make essential purchases necessary to play the game.

This could lead to many major AAA games becoming subscription services outright. And if the major publishers have their way, it probably will happen alongside the base costs for purchasing the game in the first place.

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Every cloud has a silver/dollar lining

One of the biggest areas of growth in video games is cloud gaming. While Google’s Stadia has its issues, other services like Nvidia’s GeForce Now and Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming are thriving. The technology to enable cloud gaming is impressive and at a level that anyone with a good internet connection can play. Of course, the main stumbling point at this stage is worldwide internet infrastructure. While some countries have great internet speeds in certain areas, nowhere has perfect connections everywhere. Until this is improved, cloud gaming can’t really achieve its full potential.

And there is a lot of potential in cloud gaming. At the moment, how good a game looks is purely down to what hardware you have in your machine. That could all change with cloud gaming. It won’t come down to how much you can afford to spend on a new graphics card (if you can even source one). Your available bandwidth will determine the resolution and framerate that you can achieve. The other bells and whistles like texture levels, shadow complexity, and ray tracing options will be supplied by a server in a center somewhere far removed from your location.

These services obviously require subscriptions and the level of gaming you can expect from them will be directly linked to how much you pay. Stadia has already given us an example of this by offering up to 4K streaming while commanding a premium price. At the moment, these services are still in development. As such, there aren’t many options in terms of graphical fidelity. As these evolve and begin to take over the industry, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more options become available for better visuals and performance at greater costs.

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All for one fixed monthly cost

Subscription gaming services have been with us for many years and aren’t going anywhere. Companies are no longer just relying on people to forget to cancel a subscription to make money — they want people to stay within their ecosystems. Microsoft obviously wants to make a profit with Xbox Game Pass. However, getting more and more people within the Xbox ecosystem means the publisher can afford to make less money from the service itself as it will make money through other avenues, such as customers purchasing more hardware or other software from its store. With cloud gaming looking like the future of the industry, subscription services are going to become even more prevalent. Whether this is a good thing or not, only time will tell. We just hope our wallets can handle the strain.

Steve Clist
Steve has been an avid gamer ever since his school friends got Goldeneye on the N64 and realised that he wanted to play as well. Nowadays you'll find him either racing cars in Forza, shooting things in an array of first-person shooters, or hunting for even more loot in Diablo III.

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