This year is going to be one of the biggest in the history of gaming with the imminent release of the ninth generation home consoles. There are tons of new highly anticipated titles coming this year and my wallet has never felt quite as empty. But, unlike with previous console generations where everything was black and white, there are some extra wrinkles, some caveats to how this generation works and what that means for the future of the medium.
Whether we like it or not, the internet is far more convenient for companies pockets than it is for consumers. They can simply upload a digital copy of their games to their online shops and the player can download it straight to their console. Alternatively, they can upload a digital copy to a series of servers and players can stream the game to a myriad of devices without having to go to a store to purchase it or download it to their systems limited memory. It also means that the publishers don’t have to spend the money to make discs, similarly to how they stopped making large instruction manuals to save money(And because most people never read them anyway. An in-game tutorial or trial by fire will suffice.).
Sony kickstarted this with their PlayStation Now service in January 2014. You signed up for the service and it would stream a decent catalog of games to your console, but with compressed data which resulted in quality loss in some area’s, and that’s to say nothing of input lag. The service was not cheap at launch either. These have slowly been ironed out over the years and PlayStation Now has also been made available to PC users. With it’s collection of PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4 titles, these days it’s a decent deal even if the service is still far from perfect. That being said, more recent services aren’t perfect either.
Last year, 2019, Google launched Stadia, their own streaming service. It features a good number of AAA titles as well as upcoming exclusives to the service. However, it too has run into input lag and quality loss issues even if the general graphics are actually improved. Microsoft’s Project XCloud, their Xbox branded streaming service, is on the horizon and those who have gotten a chance to try it have said it fares better than Stadia, but still needs some work. More and more companies are moving into the streaming space, but none have perfected the technology to the extent that it needs to be for more widespread adoption. On top of that, internet speeds are not where they need to be in most of, at the very least, the United States. Streaming massive 100GB+ games takes up a lot of data, and if you’re unlucky like me and have a data cap, you’re gonna have a bad time. And that’s even if your speed is fast enough to properly stream these titles.
Streaming as a form of gaming still has a long way to go before gamers fully embrace, and that in turn requires the digital infrastructure of multiple countries to catch up with companies ambitions. If you’re afraid that physical discs will disappear in favor of streaming any time soon, don’t be, we have at least another decade of physical gaming ahead of us. Of course, all-digital services will likely land before streaming does, you should be more concerned about that.
Video games are not cheap. Sixty dollars will put a hole in most peoples wallets. So what happens if five games that you REALLY want are releasing close together? Well, you can either buy all of them and pray you didn’t need that money for food or utilities, or you can buy one or two and let the others go. But want if you didn’t need to choose? That’s the dilemma that services like Xbox Game Pass, EA/Origin Access, and UPlay+ intend to solve. Publishers release tons of games every year, and these are increasingly becoming service based titles that add more and more content over the span of months or years. A common complaint is that players feel these games are unfinished and not worth the full $60 price tag to begin with. These services offer you all of a publishers output for a low monthly fee.
I’m currently subscribed to both Xbox Game Pass, which gets me all of Microsoft’s first party titles as well as over 100 third party titles, and EA’s Origin Access Premier which gets me the deluxe editions of all EA’s titles and a few third party titles that happen to be on the Origin store. Both of these cost me around $15 a month for a total of $30 per month. Honestly, for the amount of games I get for that price, I think it’s well worth the price for the amount of games I gain access to. The downside of course is that you don’t actually own these games. If you drop your subscription, you lose access to all of them. And there is no physical disc option, this isn’t GameFly or a RedBox rental.
These kinds of services are likely to become more and more prevalent as the next generation goes on. Recurring subscriptions fee’s are ultimately a more reliable source of income than one-time purchases which are also more unpredictable as you never know how many copies you’re actually going to sell. You could have a brand new IP you developed, release it, and have it only sell 50,000 copies. Ouch, that’s not good, it probably fell far short of expectations and won’t make back its budget and therefore not even a single cent of profit. This in turn drives some publishers like Deep Silver to sign exclusivity deals with the Epic Games Store. Epic pays the publisher the base amount it would take to get the game out of the red. After that all actual sales are profit for the publisher. It takes the risk out of the release. These subscription services are just like that. Gamers sign up for your service to get access to your games and will continue to pay so long as you continue to provide them with reasons. Fifteen million subscribers, at $15 equals $225 million in profit for just one month. How does that translate over a whole year? That comes out to $2.7 billion in profit. Sony has sold 106 million PlayStation 4 consoles. What if they turned PlayStation Now into an Xbox Game Pass-esque service rather than a streaming service and all 106 million of those users signed up?
One Month: 106,000,000 x $10 = $1,060,000,000
One Year: $1,060,000,000 x 12 = $12,720,000,000
As you can see, Sony would be filthy stinkin’ rich even after just month. Now obviously that’s a best case scenario. Everyone sign ups, everyone stays signed up. Obviously subscriber numbers fluctuate based on a number of personal factors, but even just one month of subscription from all those users, would make a publisher serious bank and will last them a while. Now before anyone points it out to me, yes I am aware that PlayStation Now added the ability to download rather than stream PS2 and PS4 titles in 2018, however, not every major first party Sony title is available on the platform, and even the ones that were added within the last year, have already left the service as of January 2nd this year. Sony still hasn’t committed to a “full-time” service and it remains to be seen if they will. I personally believe they will in time, especially as budgets continue to escalate and relying on traditional sales may not be enough. That being said, they are closer to it than Nintendo. While the Nintendo Online service offers full libraries of Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo Entertainment System titles that are free with your Nintendo Online subscription($25 for a whole year), they do not offer their first party titles unlike Sony who at least offers them for a limited time. Of course, there is one more way to make more money than you might normally...
For as long as the gaming industry has existed, those who make consoles and publish their own games, have kept those games exclusive to their own console, their personal walled garden. Some of those publishers, namely Sega, abandoned the console part and went fully third party, offering their once exclusive games on every conceivable platform. Microsoft attempted to bridge the gap between Xbox and PC with their Games for Windows Live service in the late 00's, however it was a complete failure, and Microsoft retreated back inside their walled garden. Sony and Nintendo meanwhile have never attempted to leave.
Over the last few years, Microsoft has made a renewed, and far better received, push into the PC gaming space. Microsoft Games Studio titles were developed for both the Xbox One and PC at the same time and released at the same time with the PC versions being proper releases rather than barebones console ports. This has expanded Microsoft’s reach beyond the Xbox console, and in turn sales of their first party titles have increased. So why not abandon the Xbox altogether? Well because there are many, many gamers out there who don’t own a PC that’s more powerful than their Xbox and can’t afford one, but they can afford an Xbox, and Microsoft is fully in control of what happens on the Xbox and the experience they can offer gamers. They still have pride in their hardware, but they’re intend on reaching as many gamers as they can, and that also goes for their Project XCloud service, which will be available on Xbox, PC, and mobile devices. Xbox titles outside of things like MineCraft may never appear on PlayStation, retain some competition, but they will appear on almost everything else tahnks to XCloud. Even the Nintendo Switch is fair game for the XCloud service. The current device(Though not the rumored Switch Pro) is not powerful enough for current Xbox titles, but it could handle XCloud so long as you’re connected to the internet with decent download and upload speeds. Since Microsoft doesn’t see Nintendo as a direct competitor like they do Sony, and how the wider gaming community views the Switch as more of a companion device to their beefier Xbox and PlayStation, offering their titles on the Switch isn’t nearly as much of a stretch as offering them on PlayStation. And all of this feeds into Xbox as a brand. It’s a console, yes, but it’s also the name on the case, and with Microsoft Games Studios being rebranded to Xbox Game Studios, it continues to grow and be so much more. A game boots up a Microsoft title and they see “Xbox” during the startup and its a guarantee of an Xbox quality game, and they can play it wherever they want.
rumors are currently swirling that Sony may be considering diving into this territory as well. Second party titles such as Death Stranding and Detroit: Become Human are on PC, or confirmed to be coming to the platform. Sony has loosened the reins as it were, but rumors now say that Horizon: Zero Dawn, a full blown first party Sony title is headed to PC this year and that is a big move on Sony’s part if true. It paves the way for games such as God of War, The Last of Us, Uncharted, Spider-Man, and Ghost of Tsushima to also make the jump to PC, opening up the world of PlayStation to even more gamers, ones who may not have an interest in buying a PlayStation. PlayStation will become more than just a console, it will be a full brand. Of course, Sony could take a different approach. Rather than go full steam into the PC space, they could release a selection of titles on the platform while keeping others on the PlayStation 4/PlayStation 5, at least for a period of time to sell the console and release on PC later. Sony definitely needs the money more than Microsoft does.
Those are the three biggest ways that the industry as we know it today are changing. It makes for an uncertain future, one filled withe more monthly subscriptions of varying price rather than heft one time fees, one where ownership of a game becomes highly debatable even more than it is today. I’m curious if you’re a fan of any of these developments. Do you have an internet connection suited to streaming tons of games? Are you willing to subscribe to services for EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Konami, Koei Tecmo, Capcom, Sega, Deep Silver, Square Enix, THQ Nordic, and many, many more?! And would PlayStation releasing their games on PC, even just a few, convince you to NOT buy a PlayStation 5?