Simply taking the game on its own merits, the launch of Crackdown 3 isn't anything especially interesting. The greatly delayed arrival of a one-time system-seller, transformed into a merely competent bit of fun by years of development turmoil is a tale told over and over again in this industry. Crackdown 3 at least transpires to be competent and entertaining; other hugely anticipated titles have met far worse fates when they finally slouched onto retail shelves.
What makes Crackdown 3 genuinely interesting, however, is the role Microsoft's Game Pass service plays in its launch and in how it's being received. A large proportion of the consumers playing Crackdown 3 at launch haven't paid for the game; it's simply been made available to them, with some accompanying fanfare, on a service they already pay a small monthly fee for.
After years of industry discussions about what the possibility of Netflix-style subscription services could mean for games, Microsoft has gone ahead and taken the logical leap -- not just treating a subscription service as a long-tail opportunity to build a secondary revenue stream for games that have already had their day at retail, but as an entirely alternative delivery mechanism for games that would ordinarily have cost $60 up front.
"A large proportion of those playing Crackdown 3 haven't paid for the game; it's simply been made available to them"
In an age when streaming services routinely snap up entire slates of winners from film festivals, sign Hollywood A-listers to multi-picture deals, and produce episodic TV with budgets and quality levels formerly reserved for the likes of HBO, this will seem like a perfectly natural and normal development to many consumers. Of course, this is how things should be; new music, movies, TV shows and even books are simply added to subscription services you already pay for, so why should games be any different?
Cinema is an outlier; there you're paying for an experience that's qualitatively different (albeit not always necessarily better -- I'm looking at you, multiplex chains that leave the damned 3D filter on your projection gear when showing 2D movies) to the experience of watching at home. The notion of paying a big, fat up-front premium for a piece of content has become the sole preserve of video games, and that dam was always unlikely to hold forever.
Yet even if consumers accept this shift in a totally blasé manner, we shouldn't underestimate what a fundamental change this is to the relationship between consumer, creator -- and critic. Many of the reviews of Crackdown 3 have alluded to this latter corner of the triangle in a rather worried tone. For decades, many game critics have seen their role as a kind of champion of the consumer, a line of defence between the wallets of gamers and the marketing engines of publishers, which all too often serve up a heady mixture of misleading pre-release information and enticing pre-order bonuses.
Critics have mythologised their role as being a canary in the coalmine, saving consumers (and their wallets) from being misled into making expensive, bad decisions -- an image that many have clung to even more tightly as the profession came under attack in recent years. This self-image has helped to fuel the oddly defensive "stick to the facts" approach to game reviewing and commentary, wherein critics actually eschew anything truly resembling criticism in favour of instead obsessing over bugs, frame-rate issues and other technical wrinkles.
What meaning does that role have, then, in a world where major AAA titles simply unlock themselves on people's dashboards on release day? "Try it yourself and see, don't trust some reviewer" is a dully predictable staple of game review comment threads, but until now it's been a somewhat daft statement. If we all had the kind of money that allowed us to frivolously drop multiples of $60 every week to see if there are any good games out, well, we'd have solved a bunch of social problems a damned sight more pressing than game criticism.
"The actual question of whether Crackdown 3 has been a commercial success is going to be pretty much unanswerable"
Now, though, it's one step closer to being a sensible recommendation. Who needs to read a review of something you can just try for yourself? What purpose does the consumer's guardian serve when there's no longer any need for protection?
Yet here's an odd thing -- criticism of film, TV and music has not just survived into an era of Netflix and Spotify, it has thrived. As consumers have found themselves able to access more and more content through subscriptions, the variety and quality of writing about that content has soared, and the importance attached to it has grown as well. Reviews, critiques and analyses have developed a cultural role that far exceeds that of a simple buyers' guide. Thoughtful, intelligent critical feedback and commentary has become a key part of how creators, studios and networks evaluate and improve their output and make decisions for the future.
This has happened in part because of the accessibility of content; because streaming has opened up vast libraries for consumers to peruse even as platforms like YouTube have given opportunities for new critical voices to come to the fore. More importantly, though, it's happened because old benchmarks have lost their meaning. Look at Crackdown 3; what do the sales figures for that game mean? Pretty much nothing. The core Xbox audience can mostly play it for free, after all. What do the Game Pass statistics mean? Well, there's some meaning in there, but not in the kind of headline numbers Microsoft will reveal; there's no equation to translate a certain number of people buying a game for free back into the old currency of actual sales.
The actual question of whether Crackdown 3 has been a commercial success is going to be pretty much unanswerable, which is an odd position for an industry that's historically been very reliant on sales data to find itself in. Microsoft will have internal benchmarks it hopes to hit, of course, but even those are going to be broad guesses and hopeful assumptions.
The other "hard data" benchmark that looked promising for some time -- not just for games but for other media too -- was the crowd-sourcing of opinion data using online ratings and review systems, but this approach has turned out to be an almost complete dud. User ratings are vastly too easy for "culture war" campaigners to game and twist, and, as yet, no user rating service has found an effective way to combat that problem.
"Is the industry ready for a future where most firms act as production studios for platform holder operated 'networks'?"
Theatrical releases of movies get pretty good data (from the USA at least) in the form of CinemaScores, which are old-fashioned pen-and-paper surveys of audiences who have just seen recently released movies (indeed, the gap between the CinemaScore and the online audience rating of "controversial" films like The Last Jedi is a pretty great indicator of how completely rubbish the online ratings actually are). Games, TV, music and other media don't have any equivalent and it's reasonably unlikely that they ever will.
In that void of data, intelligent, high-quality critical voices become a really important gauge of the quality and appeal of a piece of media. The importance of good quality criticism doesn't just apply to games, of course. In fact, it can be far more clearly seen in the streaming video market, which is much more mature than the subscription game market. Companies like Netflix and Hulu can see reams of internal data, but their hunger for critical acclaim to justify their green-lighting decisions and inform their future plans knows no bounds. Look at the incredible lengths those companies go to in an attempt to acquire statuettes at the Oscars, the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes; this has in fact been a major boon for consumers, with the desire for strong critical responses driving a fairly remarkable push for quality in their output across the board.
It may be some time before games follow that pattern, but there's a certain inevitability about them doing so. As distribution diversity makes sales numbers damned-near irrelevant, critical acclaim for output (especially from platform holders) will be enormously important. We can already see that happening to some extent; Sony's first-party output on PlayStation 4 has on occasion come very close to being a play for critical acclaim, though it hasn't lost sight of good commercial sense along the way (neither, of course, did Netflix, Amazon or Hulu).
Once the time comes -- and it will come within the next few years -- when games on the scale of Spider-Man, Horizon: Zero Dawn or The Last Of Us are being launched on a subscription services rather than at retail, we will see a transition in that consumer-creator-critic relationship that will arguably dwarf any of the changes that have happened in the industry in recent decades. That future is closer than many may think; consumers are ready right now, and platform holders are gearing up.
The question, of course, is where it leaves publishers and major developers. Is the industry ready for a future where most firms act as production studios for platform holder operated "networks"? And if not, what exactly is their realistic alternative plan?