How Game Streaming, Passes, and Controllers are Changing The Industry
The gaming industry is introducing new business models and technologies that will deeply impact the way people approach games. Let’s do a quick overview of what is happening.
There are three events from the past few months that symbolize the trends that are rocking the gaming industry as we approach the next generation:
- Microsoft pushing its game pass subscription at E3 2019.
- Google pushing its subscription-less streaming service.
- Apple implementing XBox & PS4 controller compatibility in iOS.
These three trends coming together to form a coherent picture of how consumers will approach games in the future. Don’t worry, it will make sense by the end. So ahoy gamers and analysts, to 2020 and beyond! :)
Subscriptions are here to stay. Some are lamenting that subscription models are unsustainable (expensive, unwieldy, dangerous for the industry…), but I don’t believe this interpretation to be accurate. Indeed, subscriptions offer significant value for everyone involved.
A couple of numbers:
Subscriptions are usually priced $10~$15/month or ~$100/year (~$8/m).
A single full price game is usually $60.
Alright, let’s look at each element of this equation.
Customers: A game you want is coming out? For the same price, you have the option to get four months of access to the publisher’s full catalogue, including that game, their entire back catalogue, and often additional independent titles. If you know you’ll want two games from them that year, the yearly subscription might be cheaper than what you’d pay for these two games.
Bottom line: subscription services are a really good deal for gamers.
Publishers: Subscriptions guarantee money from a customer on a regular basis. Could they subscribe for a month and stop? Sure. Some will. But if there is enough good content, many won’t bother.
I‘m guessing a company is happier to get $5/month from a customer that has to cancel, than having to convince them buy a game every six months. And the fact that every game publisher and media company is moving in that direction supports that feeling.
Developers: Some people worry that “no one will buy games anymore”. Well, sure, “it’s all going to crap” and “back in my day”. But business models change all the time, and things tend to work themselves out. Personally, I doubt the total revenue will diminish: it will just be distributed differently.
- First, not everyone will be subscribed. Playstation Plus, a service required to play online, only has about a third of the Playstation 4 population.
- Second, subscription services need content. Publishers will create flagship titles, but they’ll often license content from independents (à la Netflix). Many small studios like Motion Twin or Matt Makes Games will be very much sought after.
- Third, while sales will diminish on some titles, they get a new revenue stream from subscribers that would never have considered a purchase.
- And fourth, even subscribers could buy games they really want piecemeal on top of their subscriptions (yes, really).
Call me crazy, but I think there will still be a lot of money to go around. Possibly more, given the ease of access streaming will provide.
A side note for those who fear these subscriptions will stack up:
I think it’s fair to estimate that core gamers (the target for these services) buy about a game per month. Well, that’s the equivalent of 4 to 6 subs per month!
For us, having one or two yearly subscriptions and a couple shifting month to month would make sense, and wouldn’t cost more. Even when buying individual games here and there.
Prove me wrong, you can’t. It’s math. Math is always right.
“What has game streaming done for us lately?” Let’s see.
This is going to seem dumb to anyone who isn’t a gamer, but installing games is a pain. When it’s the one game you just got it’s fine, but if you are faced with a dozen games from your subscription that you want to try for 10 minutes, installing each one of them is incredibly annoying.
Enter streaming. Steam to try, install to play.
That is one case where streaming makes a lot of sense. There are many more. Snooty gamers think game streaming will do nothing for them (and therefore won’t work). But they are thinking in terms of what they can do without it now, not how it will add to and change what they’ll be able to do with it.
Will streaming play as well as your local game? No.
Will everyone be able to play streaming games on their connexion? No.
Will it still make sense for a lot of people, more as time passes? Double yes.
Oh, and I’m not even mentioning the fact that streaming is immensely appealing to people who might not have taken the plunge on traditional (console) gaming before. Or who stopped. It will broaden the potential customer base and invite people to try and purchase games they might not have thought of otherwise. It’s so obvious, it barely needs to be said.
The Google in the room
Google did not announce a subscription option for their Stadia streaming service. This surprised everyone, and it didn’t make sense until Ubisoft announced their own subscription service. Uplay+ will let customers install games on their PCs… and stream them everywhere else via Stadia.
Let’s back up: until now, companies have had to rely on hardware platform holders to reach their customers. With streaming, they can reach almost everyone almost everywhere almost directly. This has immense value for them, and I suspect they all want in.
But if you’ve been paying attention, you know that running a game streaming infrastructure is impossibly expensive and complex. In fact, there are only four companies that have the server and infrastructure for it: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and arguably Facebook (which isn’t in that business and has other things to worry about).
Sony recently shocked the gaming world when they announced a partnership with their long time rival Microsoft, presumably to ensure the quality of an upcoming streaming service (likely to be a rework of their Playstation Now effort). And of course Microsoft is gearing up to launch its own service, xCloud. These are the two main existing players and incumbents.
Well, I believe Google didn’t announce a subscription service because they want to be the streaming service for everyone else. Ubisoft is the first to pull the trigger but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine EA following suit (they already have subscription services), along others like Bethesda and Take-Two Interactive. Or even smaller Japanese developers like Capcom or Bandai Namco. And, who knows, maybe Nintendo? Although they wouldn’t be on “Stadia” I’m sure; they’d repackage the service into a Nintendo branded one.
Oh, and I’m quite sure Microsoft and Amazon would be happy to have any of those companies’s businesses (Microsoft and Nintendo have been very cozy of late…). Anyway, the lesson here is that streaming is also here to stay.
Ok, I’m sorry but this one is actually a bit of a trick. This isn’t just about controllers, it’s about the ubiquity of streaming brought about by controllers, and what it means for the big incumbents like Microsoft… and Sony.
This fall Apple will enable the use of XBox and PS4 controllers on their devices. This might seem like a detail, but gamers know it is vital. Controls are essential, and when they’re lackluster nothing can work. The move is actually an acknowledgment of that fact: custom “MFi” controllers have existed for a while, but they lacked functionality and were optional (meaning the default was less-than-ideal on screen controls). Plus, everyone has an XBox or PS4 controller at home. So this new stance opens a world of possibilities for games on Apple devices (hello Apple Arcade).
Keep in mind I’m talking about console-type games here. Mobile games work fine with on screen controls, but in spite of all our hopes they haven’t quite worked out well enough for traditional games. Which is big part of why core gamers tend to dislike mobile titles -but that’s another issue.
Also, can someone please tell the PC people in the back to stop yelling about keyboards? We get it, some games need keyboards, but TVs need controllers.
And the key here is that Apple is the last bastion. Controllers were already usable on most Android devices, so Apple joining the party means streaming can truly reach everything. Literally, every single device you own is now a viable option for playing traditional console games via streaming. TVs, set top boxes, old laptops, weak PCs, Raspberry Pi projects, tablets, phones (good luck reading dialogue boxes), and anything you can think of.
If it’s connected to a screen, you can play top tier games on it.
Another note: I’m assuming Apple will allow streaming services in their App Stores here. Given the scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior they’re under and the fact they finally approved the Steam Link app, I’d say it’s more than likely.
So what were you saying about Sony again?…
Well, this is where it gets really interesting. Indeed, this changes the industry on such a fundamental level, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Microsoft’s streaming service on the next Playstation. There, I said it. Bear with me.
Sony recently relented on a policy that didn’t allow EA’s subscription service on their platform. They already had their own Playstation Plus service, and claimed it would “confuse consumers” or some such nonsense. But it made perfect business sense at the time.
My guess is that the reversal is a move for the next generation. They’ve already won this one, so the EA service won’t move the needle there. But each generation is a reset button: if the other platforms offer more, gamers might switch allegiances. And Microsoft is very accommodating to these services, so it’s not surprising to see Sony prepare the next round. From subscription to streaming, it’s a very small step.
On the other front, Microsoft has been laboring to get their games everywhere. XBox and PC of course but also on Nintendo’s Switch, and they are pushing the XBox Live social layer as a service for mobile games. So I think they wouldn’t mind being on Playstation too, specifically via the xCloud streaming service.
Still, why would Sony allow for a direct competitor’s streaming service to be available on their platform? Very simple: it’ll be available everywhere else.
Remember, with streaming platform holders won’t be the gatekeepers to customers anymore. If a Playstation customer wants to try Microsoft’s latest hot game, they won’t need to actually go out and buy an XBox: they’ll just turn on their TV and press play. These Microsoft games will already be available to every Playstation customer, whether Sony does anything about it or not. Same with EA, Ubi and the rest.
So what’s the smart move here? Pout in your corner and pretend it isn’t happening? Or be involved and at least get a cut of the action? You tell me.
Samsung is selling screens to Apple after all. And even in gaming, Microsoft seems to be readying to sell streaming infrastructure to Sony. Still, it does sound outlandish doesn’t it? A Microsoft streaming service on a Playstation seems like it would break the fabric of reality. But I maintain it could end up making business sense. And to be fair, I didn’t say it would happen; I only said I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. :)
Yes, I might be wrong on all of this. I’ll be the first to admit there is a lot of conjecture here. But that stuff hasn’t happened yet, what else can you do? Maybe it’ll longer than I think for all this to fall into place (so don’t tell me I was wrong before 2023 ok?). Maybe I’m overestimating Google’s ambitions. Maybe some services will need to take detours before getting it right. Maybe the public needs more time to adjust. Maybe the industry needs consolidation before it can work.
All of that, and a thousand other maybes. Still, in the end I do believe that the picture will look something like the one I’m painting. Time will tell…
Have a lovely day! ❤