Over the past few years, we've often heard from industry observers that the Netflix of video games is inevitable, if not just around the corner.
Sony's recent announcement of a revamped PlayStation Plus with three different subscription tiers — each with its own level of content access — would appear to add fuel to that smoldering fire. Here is a major player further embracing the subscription model that we're constantly told is the future of video games.
However, the truth is more complicated, because the Netflix of video games already exists: Xbox Game Pass. Like Netflix, Game Pass can be a convenient way of accessing your favorite content, but it also poses a lot of annoying questions to consumers: primarily, those of loyalty. The future of video games might look a lot like television, but in many ways, it's already here. And like cutting the cord on your old cable TV subscription, a Netflix-like games service might save you a lot of money on paper, but some of us might end up paying more in the long run.
If you've been living under a rock, Sony changed up PlayStation Plus to better compete with Xbox Game Pass, which is indeed the closest thing the video game industry has to a Netflix. If you pay Microsoft $10 a month, not only do you gain access to a massive library of games on PC or console (both for $15 a month), you also get all of their big, splashy exclusives on day one, too, like Halo Infinite. Considering that most of these games will run you $70 these days, this is a really nice deal, and one of the major reasons that Xbox Game Pass has managed to notch 25 million subscribers.
It's no secret that execs love subscription services for their reliable recurring revenue, and many other commercial artforms have been moving towards this model for a long time. But when Sony decided not to include its new top-end exclusives like God of War: Ragnarok or Marvel's Wolverine in its PlayStation Plus packages, the company made it clear that those gamers who want to play everything are going to be stuck in the same mire that compulsive TV watchers have had to deal with for a while now.
Let me ask you a question: how many different TV services are you currently subscribed to? According to most sources, it's between three and four, with the top two, Netflix and Disney+, easily outpacing their competitors. Of course, while the average household spends about $50 a month on these services, that hasn't stopped media companies from rolling out as many pay channels as they can to dig in your wallet. From the UK-themed BritBox to bizarre legacy media cash grabs like Paramount+, the supply of these services vastly outstrips the demand.
Gamers who want to play everything are going to be stuck in the same mire that compulsive TV watchers have had to deal with...
Or does it? Unfortunately for consumers, these companies are wily enough to package the stuff they know you want to see (such as new and classic Disney films) with the stuff that they couldn't even pay you to watch (whatever that Boba Fett show ended up being). As someone who subscribed to Netflix more than a decade ago to take advantage of its back catalog of both classic and recent films, I haven't exactly been thrilled by the service's transition towards original content, but it's not like I can do anything about it — except vote with my wallet, of course.
The math behind these services is pretty simple. The average $50 a month is a drop in the bucket compared to an expansive cable subscription, but those on the top-end — especially those who pay extra for premium sports packages like NBA League Pass and the NFL Network — might actually end up spending more money for their piecemeal content anyway. That doesn't count the $4 that you spend every time you want to watch Die Hard on Amazon Prime Video, either. This is exactly the future that the video game industry is headed for, too — the steady drain of monthly subscription services, plus a smattering of traditional purchases for those who want a more personalized experience.
As I said in a previous piece, if you're the type of gamer who sticks to one platform and only buys two or three triple-A games per year, Xbox Game Pass is an incredible deal. Some players would much rather pay $10 a month for an eclectic selection of (mostly) good games instead of seeking out reviews or trawling forums, and that's perfectly valid.
If you look at the console's major 2021 exclusives, buying Microsoft Flight Simulator, Halo Infinite, and Forza Horizon 5 at retail would be significantly more expensive ($180 plus tax) than simply subbing to console Game Pass ($120 plus tax). 2022 looks a little more barren for Xbox exclusives — the most notable one is assuredly Bethesda's Starfield, but there's also Arkane's vampiric co-op shooter Redfall, and a few others — but even if you only pick up one of those, it's still much better than the alternative of paying $60 (perhaps $70?) at retail.
However, if you're the type of gamer who wants to play all of the biggest and best games of the year — and you know exactly the games you want — these dueling subscription services begin to look less like a boon and more like a sunk cost. The probability that the 25 or 50 awesome indie games that come out every year will all come to Xbox Game Pass within six months is vanishingly small, and they might not come to PlayStation Plus, either. Inevitably, if you're that kind of player, you'll end up paying $10 or $15 a few times a year for some weird boomer shooter or strategy game that isn't on anybody else's radar.
Still, those purchases are small potatoes compared to the real threat to the avid gamers' wallet: What if every big publisher says no to the console-makers’ subscription services, and decided to open up their own UbiPass? (Not thinking of any publisher in particular, I swear.) While that's probably not going to happen anytime soon, it's worth noting that Xbox Game Pass currently includes a subscription to EA Play, which is the publisher's own take on a subscription service ($30 a year, if you're curious).
All told, EA is an excellent example of a large stakeholder that could easily throw a monkey wrench in the whole concept of a unified video game subscription service. Right now, you can play the latest Madden in Xbox Game Pass, but it came to the service six months after its initial release — and we would bet a similar thing is going to happen to this year's entry, too.
That said, you can expect to see a whole host of Activision Blizzard games hit Game Pass the second Microsoft's blockbuster acquisition of the publisher goes through. Because of this, we wouldn't be surprised to see a big platform holder — yes, probably Sony — try to take a shot at buying EA, Ubisoft, or another large publisher to shore up their own subscription service. (They already bought Destiny 2 dev Bungie earlier this year.)
Once we have two massive platform holders willing to offer their highest-quality wares for a monthly fee alone, then things will move more in the direction of true Netflix-ization. But even then, don't expect to pay anything less than $60 for a first-party Nintendo game, even three or four years after it releases. The cycle will continue, regardless of morale.
Take it or leave it
For now, though, gamers will have to ask themselves just exactly how much value these services will provide for their costs, and the answer will vary according to your personal experience. Sony's new PlayStation Plus certainly has a lot to offer to those who missed a significant number of notable games from last generation, such as God of War, Death Stranding, and The Last of Us 2. (You won't get any PS3 games, though.)
However, for those of us who conquered those classics at launch, the only real carrot enticing us to bite on this new PlayStation Plus is the library of retro games… and PC emulation is usually a better option. While there's certainly a cross-section of gamers who would rather pay Sony a bundle for old games rather than futzing with emulator options, if PlayStation truly wants to continue Netflix-izing the industry, they're going to need to introduce a service that gives subscribers everything including the top-end exclusives for the right monthly price.
Until then, gamers are going to be stuck in the same unpleasant bog that TV customers face, pouring money into both too many subscriptions and pay-for-play content to get the experience they actually want.