Last year, it seemed like subscription gaming was going to completely change how we play. Just look at the headlines: Wired boldly proclaimed that “Subscriptions Are About to Swallow Gaming.” Variety, meanwhile, simply declared that “The Future of Gaming Is Subscription.”
Of course, those predictions were riding high on the coming wave of subscription services. The biggest name in the subscription game was Google, and it looked like their Stadia really was set to revolutionize gaming.
However, Stadia was more fizzle than sizzle as soon as it hit the scene. In the wake of Google’s failure to make subscription happen, it’s time to ask the question: is this really the wave of the future, or is this whole idea doomed to failure?
For skeptical gamers, the appeal of subscription gaming is hard to understand. One way to understand the appeal, though, is to look at the death of the video game rental industry.
Back in the day, the model was simple: players would rent games from places like Blockbuster and Movie Gallery. If they liked the game, they’d go buy their own copy. And if they didn’t like it, they would only lose a few bucks.
Now, all those video rental stores are closed, and they took the game rental industry with them. For a time, players could rent games through their local Redbox, but that is no longer an option. Unless you’re willing to pay for services like Gamefly (complete with long delivery times), there aren’t many rental options left.
In the face of this, subscription gaming starts to look like a good idea. For a fixed monthly fee, players have access to dozens (or even hundreds) of games on demand. And unlike old-school rentals, the gamer has enough time to complete entire games.
Bad for game companies
Subscription gaming isn’t great news for everyone, though. For example, it puts many game companies into a bind.
In our current system, you pay a company directly for their content in the form of a video game. Systems like your PlayStation or Xbox are just a way for you to enjoy the work of these creators. And along the way, game companies build both a brand and a loyal fanbase.
If subscription gaming ever becomes the norm, though, the shoe is on the other foot. There is less incentive to buy a game outright when you can just wait for it to become available through a service like the Microsoft Game Pass.
Pretty soon, we have fewer game companies and fewer games because those who don’t play ball with the new paradigm will fall by the wayside.. This is bad for those companies and just as bad for users.
Bad for users, too
At first, subscription gaming looks great. Who wouldn’t want access to all those games for a small monthly fee?
However, the subscription model can be pretty annoying for players. In the long run, there will be few truly innovative games because there are fewer game developers. Furthermore, games will look and feel the same because the remaining game companies will want to stick to whatever has previously worked on the subscription platform.
And what if a subscription service goes away? It’s a bit like getting a “lifetime guarantee” from a company. When the company goes under, that guarantee is meaningless. And if a game subscription service goes under, you suddenly lose access to all those games.
These are just the limitations of subscriptions where you can download the game. The alternative, cloud gaming, brings its own set of unique problems.
Cloud gaming and the limits of tech
What was the real Achilles heel of Google Stadia? Two words: “cloud gaming.”
Think of cloud gaming as streamable gaming. Instead of downloading a game and playing it on a beefy PC or console, you simply use your internet connection to play a game.
The upside of this, of course, is that you could stream games onto any device. Who wouldn’t want to play a high-end PC game in 4k quality on their cell phone or tablet, especially on the go?
However, the technology just isn’t here yet. Stadia doesn’t really work with LTE, and even for users at home, many don’t have a speedy enough connection to enjoy the experience. The final product is a blurry, high-latency mess instead of the future of gaming.
Echoes of other industries
For gamers with a long memory, the rise of subscription gaming may not seem like a big deal. After all, it has happened to other industries as well.
The music industry went through a kind of two-part revolution. Part one was the rise of both the .mp3 file format and various file-sharing applications such as Napster. This gave millions of users a taste for digital music. The second part of the revolution, of course, was the rise of music streaming services such as Spotify,
Of course, the video industry went through all of this. The popularity of Netflix streaming singlehandedly killed the brick-and-mortar rental industry. But we now live in a golden age for both TV and film, with more options to watch them than ever.
These other industries emerged from the subscription shakeup stronger than ever. It’s entirely possible that the same thing could happen to gaming… provided, of course, that the majority of gamers ever flock to the subscription model.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em
It’s easy to think of “subscription gaming” as synonymous with “outsiders.” That’s because services like Google Stadia and Apple Arcade seem like a way for non-video game companies to muscle in on the gaming industry’s turf.
However, the gaming industry has decided to get in on the game as well. With the Microsoft Game Pass, users can pay $9.99 per month and access to a ton of games for Xbox One and Windows PCs. On PlayStation, users can pay $9.99 a month for PlayStation Now to access PS2, PS3, and PS4 games.
Even Nintendo got into the subscription game. By paying for Nintendo Switch Online (currently $3.99 a month), gamers get free access to a selection of NES and SNES games. And this has seemingly replaced the Virtual Console of previous systems which let gamers pay to download their favorite old titles.
All in all, mainstream consoles supporting subscription gaming may help to normalize the practice.
The downloadable difference
While the three major consoles are all doing the subscription thing, they are not all doing the same thing. For Microsoft and Nintendo users, you download the game and then play it. With PlayStation Now, users are streaming the games.
That streaming is a bit of a mixed bag. As with any cloud gaming, you are going to be limited by your speed. Sony recommends having at least 5mbps to enjoy PlayStation Now, but your connection can still be pretty spotty at that speed. But if you can connect your system to the internet via ethernet cable, you’ll have fewer problems with speed and latency.
Ultimately, these console subscription services illustrate “the downloadable difference.” Until all of our internet connections are a hell of a lot faster, cloud gaming will always be a gamble. But letting users simply install a subscription game means they don’t have to compromise on the gaming experience.
The final verdict
So, is subscription gaming the wave of the future? At this point, our Magic 8-Ball says “ask again later.”
With the rise of fiber internet and 5G smartphone connections, it’s possible cloud gaming could take over in the next decade. Right now, though, it’s just not happening.
And while services like Game Pass are rising in popularity, they haven’t revolutionized gaming yet. Microsoft knows this, too, which is why they are launching their xCloud cloud gaming service.
Until this alleged wave of the future comes, though, we gamers will just be hanging by the shore and waiting to catch a glimpse.