Each year, E3 ends up being a proving ground for what could be the next big trend in gaming. Last year, for example, reflected the rise of the battle royale format as Nintendo and Sony fought over Fortnite cross-play, Battlefield 5 teased its own battle royale mode, and half a dozen indie battle royales vied for attention on the show floor. But E3 2019 was all about streaming and subscription services
Google finally revealed details about Stadia, Microsoft announced its Xbox Game Pass was available on PC, Ubisoft revealed its own subscription launching in September, and Square Enix suggested it has one in the works. And don't forget EA and Sony, who already have their own with Origin Access and PS Now. That seemingly distant idea of a Netflix for games, whether they're streamed or downloaded, is already here—and it's only a little bit terrifying.
Begun, the subscription wars have
With cross-play becoming a big thing over the past year, what platform you choose to game on is becoming less important. And, as Jeff Gerstman astutely pointed out in his interview with Microsoft's Phil Spencer, it feels like the next videogame battleground is going to be over services like Microsoft's XCloud streaming, Stadia, and all the subscriptions that popped up at E3. It's conceivable that, in the near future, it might not matter whether you play on PC, Xbox, or Playstation—but it could matter which services and their related ecosystems you pay to use.
It's an exciting and subversive proposition. For $10 to $20 a month, you can now access hundreds of games, including upcoming releases like Watch Dogs Legion or The Outer Worlds. It's cool that gaming is becoming more accessible than ever, with cheaper options available for those who either don't own powerful hardware or can't afford to constantly shell out cash for every big release. As Spencer points out in the above interview, it's also cool that two friends who both own Xbox Game Pass can more reliably play games together since they both have access to the same library.
But videogame subscription services aren't Netflix For Games. Though the business model might be similar, there's some fundamental differences—and opportunities to exploit players are everywhere.
With manufacturers and publishers each turning their gaming catalogs into a subscription service, the competition will extend well beyond who can release the most alluring game. Price will obviously be a point of contention, but it's also feasible that companies will find more inventive ways to sweeten the deal for their customers—probably to the detriment of everyone who isn't a subscriber.
Consider Origin Access Premier, which gives all subscribers a five-day head start on any of EA's newest releases. Not only did this create needless bullshit with Anthem, where EA pushed a clearly unfinished game out early and then encouraged players to wait for a "day one" patch (as if Anthem wasn't actually out), it also treats non-subscribers as an afterthought. To hell with everyone who was willing to preorder Anthem for $60, was the implied message, you should have subscribed to Origin Access Premier instead. So far Origin is the only service that offers that kind of incentive, but it's easy to imagine a world where Ubisoft carves out in-game collectibles that are only available to Uplay+ subscribers, or, even worse, a subscription with exclusive games not available elsewhere.
And with live-service games like The Division 2, Destiny 2, and Anthem becoming so popular, subscriptions aren't always going to be cheaper than the alternative. These games are intended to be played continuously for months and years, but if you're paying monthly to play The Division 2 through Uplay+, and you play for a long enough time, you're going to end up giving Ubisoft far more of your money than if you had paid the upfront cost—especially if, like Netflix, the cost of that subscription gradually rises over time. There's no guarantee that it won't, and at that point all your progress and time spent is held hostage—locked unless you continue paying or pay the original retail price you were trying to avoid in the first place. So much for being a great value.
It'd be cool to see some subscription services adopt a rent-to-own system so you're not forever beholden to the monthly fee and can gradually own a few of your favorite games that you're paying to play.
That isn't to say there isn't some good that can come from subscription services, though. They can offer great value for certain types of players: specifically, anyone who consistently spends more than the yearly fee on new games, and isn't too worried about going back to replay them. Someone who buys every yearly FIFA, NBA, Madden, and NHL game, for instance, if that person exists.
There's something to get out of them for the rest of us, too. As Wes wrote, Square Enix has the opportunity to turn its legendary catalog of old games into a playable museum if it wanted to, and I think it's cool that I can dip into any of the classic Star Wars PC games using Origin Access for a quick shot of nostalgia when the whole bundle costs well over $200 on Steam.
During the week or so that I've had Xbox Game Pass, I've enjoyed sampling games that I otherwise wouldn't have bought but was curious about. And after I'm done sampling, I can cancel my subscription and just buy the games I want to own, or keep it going just long enough to play my fill for a lot less than I would have normally paid.
That's where I think subscription services should stay: An alternative, and decidedly secondary method of playing games. Subscription services are a great way to encourage companies to preserve their catalogs and make them available long after individual games lost their retail value. But the idea of a future where my games library is wholly tangled up in a patchwork web of different subscriptions, where I have even less control over how I play, is a scary one.