Microsoft and Sony set sights on the Netflix model
A subscription service providing ongoing revenue could be a win-win for creators and platform holders; can MS or Sony make this model work?
Of all the various innovations we've seen in this console generation, it may be the business model changes that have the most lasting impact on the games industry. Though originally introduced in the back half of the previous generation, the notion of giving consumers "free" games on a monthly basis for continuing their subscription to console online services has become a standard part of the model in this hardware generation.
The degree to which this is expected, and to which the perceived quality of each month's offerings is hotly debated, is a clear signal of how the value relationship between consumers and game software is changing. Now, within the next few months, both Microsoft and Sony will evolve that relationship even further, with services which aim to give consumers access to current-gen game software through a very different transaction model.
"Many people will be worried... but the reality is that there's plenty of precedent to suggest that a subscription service won't harm sales of new games"
Microsoft was first out of the blocks with its announcement, revealing at the end of last month that a large library of software for the Xbox One will be made available for a $9.99 recurring monthly subscription. Sony's version of the concept is similar in business terms, if dramatically different technologically; it's going to start adding PS4 titles to PS Now, a game-streaming service which currently offers a huge library of PS3 games for a $20 recurring subscription (or $45 for three months, which gets it a little closer to Microsoft's pricing).
The goal being pursued by both firms is fairly obvious; paying monthly rather than buying titles outright is the model which has become dominant for both music and video, so it stands to reason that games will follow down the same path, at least to some extent. There's certainly some appeal to the idea of a "Netflix / Spotify For Games". From a business perspective, getting $120 (or $180) from consumers in flat monthly fees for games is probably actually a revenue boost if the service is primarily picked up by the kind of consumers who don't buy a lot of new games - either predominantly buying pre-owned, waiting for titles to hit bargain basement prices, or borrowing games from friends, for example.
On the other hand, there's an abundance of consumers out there who buy far, far more than the two new games a year that you'd get for that $120 fee - so any of those who stop buying new games in favour of a subscription service will represent a major revenue loss to the industry. Many people will be worried about that possibility, no doubt, but the reality is that there's plenty of precedent to suggest that a subscription service won't harm sales of new games.
"If the business case for these services is very clear, however, the question of which technical approach will succeed is rather less so"
New titles won't go directly onto a subscription service; there'll undoubtedly be a lengthy exclusivity period for people who pay for a physical or digital copy of the game, with titles only appearing for subscribers once their revenue potential in direct sales is already all-but exhausted. Subscription revenue therefore becomes a second bite at the cherry - a way of boosting the industry's often rather ratty-looking "long tail".
From a consumer perspective, that's actually not all that different from the way things are now. If you're not bothered about playing a game in its first few months on the market, then you're probably going to end up buying a second-hand copy - or getting it from the bargain bin, or borrowing it from a friend, or perhaps even just waiting for it to pop up on PlayStation Plus at some point.
Game software generally loses value dramatically after the first few months on the market; lots of options exist for picking it up cheap, but decades of experience shows that this doesn't dissuade fans from buying new games they really care about. Games are a "zeitgeisty" medium; people want to be playing the game everyone else is playing right now (as anyone who's had to put up with their social media feeds being filled to the brim with Zelda chat while every electronics store in the city remains out of stock of Switch can tell you - not that I'm bitter, of course).
For the industry, however, most of these options aren't very appealing. Second-hand software sales enrich GameStop, and just about nobody else; there's an argument that second-hand sales boost new software sales by providing trade-in value, but it's hard to balance the effects of that against the simple revenue loss game creators suffer from the repeated recycling of second-hand stock through stores that often deliberately push consumers towards used games instead of new ones. Borrowing the game from a friend is arguably preferable to the industry; no money is changing hands at all, so at least potential revenue hasn't been sucked out by a third party.
"Given the limitations of PS Now, Microsoft's native software approach seems far more likely to be a hit with its consumers"
Given, then, that we're already talking about consumers who have a range of options for accessing software which provide no revenue to game creators, something like a Netflix-esque subscription service starts to make a lot of sense. How the revenue works in the back-end will, no doubt, be subject to endless negotiation and dispute, but the point is that at least the revenue exists; games on the service will continue to generate cash for their creators as long as they're being played, and every cent they receive is a cent they'd never have seen in the currently dominant second-hand models. Moreover, the existence of subscription services could be a net boost for the games industry as a whole; the ability to access a large library of software for an affordable monthly subscription fee is something that will appeal to a lot of consumers, potentially bringing them into the console ecosystem.
If the business case for these services is very clear, however, the question of which technical approach will succeed is rather less so. For now, I think that Microsoft's model - allowing consumers to download and play locally the software on its subscription service - is comfortably superior to the PS Now streaming system.
Game streaming over the Internet remains a technology that's arguably ahead of its time; there are question marks over the business case (since the provider needs to pay for racks and racks of hardware which every consumer using the service already possesses in their own home, a duplication of functionality that makes little sense, especially since PS Now recently dropped support for "thin client" platforms like Bravia TVs), but more importantly, a huge number of consumers simply won't be able to make use of the service because their broadband connections are not up to the standard required for high-quality, real-time gameplay. The demands of real-time game streaming are very different from the demands of watching live streams of video, because you can't buffer a real-time game stream; when it works, it's impressive, but the reality is that for a great many consumers it either doesn't work at all or only works at time when the network isn't congested.
Given the limitations of PS Now (and I think the dropping of support on Bravia TVs, mobile phones and so on is an ominous sign for the future of the service), Microsoft's native software approach seems far more likely to be a hit with its consumers - indeed, the company may be hoping to recapture some of the magic of the Xbox 360 era, when its enormous advantage over Sony in online services helped it to maintain a lead over the PS3 for several years.
For Sony's part, the desire to try to boost PS Now may be its undoing, at least in the short term; but an enhanced version of PS Plus (PS Plus... Plus?) with a library subscription built-in seems like a no-brainer in the medium term. It's a win-win situation for platform holders and game creators alike. The only really big loser in all of this will be heavily pre-owned reliant retailers like GameStop; if game subscription services truly take off this year, they'll have to scramble to find a new model before it's too late.