Baldur’s Gate 3 Director Proves There’s No Easy Solution For Game Subscriptions
Getting comfortable with subscriptions might not be for everyone.
Subscription services have become an integral part of the gaming landscape in just a few short years. After Xbox Game Pass launched in 2017, it got a major boost when Microsoft made the streaming service a major part of its strategy for the Xbox Series X|S. In 2022, PlayStation expanded its own PS Plus to include a library of downloadable games as well. But while these services seem inevitable (and popular), the director of last year’s biggest RPG wants no part of them.
“Whatever the future of games looks like, content will always be king,” Swen Vincke, director of Baldur’s Gate 3 wrote in a tweet. “But it’s going to be a lot harder to get good content if subscription becomes the dominant model and a select group gets to decide what goes to market and what not. Direct from developer to players is the way.”
Vincke was responding to a statement Philippe Tremblay, Ubisoft’s director of subscriptions, gave to IGN, saying that players need to start “feeling comfortable with not owning your game” before subscription services for games take off the way they have for movies or music. But as Vincke and others have argued, the owners of these subscription services may have too much power in deciding which games players have access to.
In some ways, the history of Xbox Game Pass backs up Vincke’s point. Microsoft famously described Baldur’s Gate 3 as a “second-run Stadia PC RPG” in an email leaked during the company’s court case with the Federal Trade Commission. Microsoft ultimately decided not to pursue the game for its service, which Vincke argues could prevent similar games from being made at all in a hypothetical future where subscription services are dominant.
“We are already all dependent on a select group of digital distribution platforms and discoverability is brutal,” Vincke says. “Should those platforms all switch to subscription, it’ll become savage.”
Vincke is far from the only one voicing these concerns. Back in 2021, indie developers and publishers including Fellow Traveler and Finji spoke to Wired about similar issues. They argued that games need far more players to be considered successful on a subscription service than they would on sales alone, and that platform holders had too much power to cancel games that weren’t likely to retain players in the long term.
Not everyone shares those feelings about subscription services, however.
“We want to do something new and original and surprising, which means there might be a higher barrier of entry for players who don't know what this is,” Psychonauts 2 director Tim Schafer told GamesIndustry.biz. “And by lowering that barrier financially…I think that's a huge way for Double Fine games to find their audiences faster.”
Lowering that financial barrier will only become more important as game prices continue to rise, making it increasingly difficult for the average person to keep up with new releases.
It’s no surprise that opinions on subscription services are so divided. What works best for a subscription service is to have so many games to choose from that there’s essentially something for every player.
But that sheer volume also means it’s difficult for any individual game to stand out. It’s a model that ensures some developers win big, while others will be largely ignored, and it’s impossible to tell how it will work for any given game. For every indie that finds an audience on Game Pass, countless others could be lost in the avalanche of content. As Vincke points out, it’s not the existence of subscription services that’s the problem — it’s the possibility that they become the largest factor that decides which games are discovered or even made.
There’s ultimately no one-size-fits-all solution for developers, but it does seem clear that we need a future with viable ways to distribute games outside of subscription services. By their nature, those services cycle through their game libraries, removing old titles even as they add new ones. If subscription services can’t maintain reliable access to games, it’s not just bad for players now, it’s bad for the medium’s history.
Preservation is a notoriously tricky problem in games, where releases from just a few years ago can essentially be lost when they’re no longer playable on the latest hardware. If the only way to access a particular game is through a subscription service, that game is essentially lost if the servers go offline. Physical media is not simply a luxury choice for players who can afford each new release, it’s also the best option to preserve games since they won’t disappear at a platform holder’s discretion.
For now, both Vincke and Tremblay’s comments remain firmly hypothetical. Plenty of players are still holding onto their physical copies, and subscription services haven’t entirely replaced traditional retailers. But their stances both shine light on an issue that’s only going to get more pressing with time. Companies like Microsoft and Ubisoft are going all-in on digital, subscription-based distribution, and how developers and players respond to that will shape the future of how we play games.