Netflix-style subscriptions by two tech behemoths could open up gaming to millions who can’t afford pricey equipment. Watch out Microsoft and Sony
In the last week, two of the world’s tech giants have made a big play for the attention – and wallets – of the world’s two billion gamers. Apple, already a big player in the video game market thanks to the iPhone and App Store, announced Apple Arcade, a subscription that will offer exclusive high-end games to be played on Macs, iPhones and iPads. And Google, a newcomer to video games, announced the subscription service Stadia, which will let players stream games to any screen from the cloud.
These moves towards a Netflix-style subscription approach present slightly different visions of how video games will be made and played. Google and Apple’s services will join Microsoft’s Xbox Games Pass and Sony’s PlayStation Now. Which company will dominate? And will these subscriptions complement the gaming industry’s current business model or eventually replace it?
Apple Arcade addresses a couple of problems: the devaluing of games on the App Store, where £3 seems like a significant price to pay and low-quality, ad-festooned free games dominate; and the challenge of standing out in a very crowded app arena. It is a way for Apple to invest in and develop premium games, while ensuring that those games can only be played on its devices. And, in theory, it could mean that developers could earn good money from them.
Keza MacDonald – Video games editor at the @guardian.
Google’s Stadia, on the other hand, is a harder sell to people who own games consoles. Long download times are annoying, but the PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo experiences are good, and game prices are reasonable. (Though doubtless Google will make its subscription service attractively cheap.)
Still, a games streaming service could offer instant access, portability, and freedom from a console. Google wants to make the same game available to play anywhere, on any device. You could start playing a game on your TV, then pick it up where you left off on your phone. But streaming technology requires an internet connection, and a fast one at that, which is fine for playing at home but useless on, say, a train where service is patchy. Even a small delay between what you’re doing with the controller and what’s happening on screen would make many games unpleasant to play.
Stadia’s advantage is that it proposes making games playable on any device. The idea of liberating video games from expensive consoles has driven investment in game streaming. I suspect that, just as there are people who prefer high-end speakers and vinyl records to streamed music, there will always be gamers who want a box under an expensive TV so they can have the best possible gaming performance. But streaming would open games up to millions – if not billions – of people who don’t want or can’t afford to buy pricey equipment.
The games industry has been through many technological revolutions, from the invention of 3D graphics to the emergence of online playing, but the games themselves – rather than the technology – have always driven success. Consoles such as PlayStation 2, Xbox 360 and Nintendo DS have sold hundreds of millions of units because they had great games that you couldn’t play anywhere else. In the same way, a game subscription service will live or die by the strength of its content. And like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, they will compete by offering exclusive content.
In this respect, Apple already has a big lead over Google. So far, the latter has only announced one game – DOOM Eternal, for consoles and PCs. Apple, meanwhile, announced an exciting range of games from celebrated and innovative developers, including a surprise sequel to beloved 90s adventure game Beneath a Steel Sky. All games will be available only through Apple Arcade.
It is not clear whether Google intends to make Stadia a home for games you can’t play anywhere else, or simply an easier, more convenient – and probably much cheaper – way to play games already available on other platforms. But the fact that it has established its own game studio – headed by Jade Raymond, a veteran of game giants Ubisoft and EA – suggests that exclusive Stadia games will emerge down the line.
In the short term, the dispiriting prospect for gamers is a range of competing services, all with a few exclusive games we might want to play, all demanding a monthly subscription. Amazon appears poised to announce its own service soon, having spent years investing in games industry talent.
Play-anywhere subscription services may some day replace games consoles and physical game discs, but it is unlikely to happen for a long time. Hundreds of millions of people love their PlayStations and Xboxes and Nintendo consoles; they grew up with them. It will take more than a price advantage to convince them to jump ship.