Can gamers survive on subscription services alone?

2019 brought with it a particularly maudlin January, at least financially, as the realisation hit home that the Leighton family had done some classic festive overspending. Less money coming into the household didn’t help much either, so it was time to do some bank account spring-cleaning. What it immediately turned up was that we were subscribed up the hoosit to a bunch of things that weren’t really essential, but that in the previous twelve months we’d merrily clicked the ‘Subscribe’ button on.

Without too much trouble we’d found ourselves with seven different TV services, with Netflix, Amazon Prime and Now TV nestling up to the niche content provided by Crunchyroll, UFC Fight Pass, NFL Gamepass and Milkshake (for their stellar Thomas The Tank Engine coverage). The baleful money saving eye then turned towards my gaming subscriptions, all of which turned out to be due in February, and I had to make the decision to turn off all of their auto-renewals.

Now, given that I write about games it’s obvious that PlayStation Plus, Xbox Live and Switch Online are pretty integral to what I do, and so I trundled off to Game with a pile of old games, traded them in and bought fresh subs for the lot. There’s not too many hobbies where you can get away with that. Besides that sweet, sweet online access, the games that each of them give me across a year are more than enough to keep filling my digital backlog, and the whole thing got me thinking; could I now get by on subs alone?

February’s Games with Gold included Assassin’s Creed Rogue, Bloodstained, and Super Bomberman R while PlayStation Plus featured For Honor, Hitman’s entire first season and Metal Gear Solid 4. Hell, Metal Gear’s cutscenes alone would see me through a month, let alone everything else! Admittedly, these aren’t games that are brand new, there’s every chance that if you were really interested in them you’d have already beaten them long ago, but even for someone like me who plays a good chunk of new releases as they appear, the only one I’ve actually played properly is Bomberman.

March saw PlayStation Plus finally losing its legacy support for the Vita and PS3, and as such arguably stepped up its game with Modern Warfare Remastered and The Witness. Sure, one’s a remaster of a game I played a decade ago and I own, but have never played The Witness so it wasn’t really a win for me, but then that’s the way these things go. I’ve got April’s The Surge, but not Conan Exiles, and so on and so on. If I was just on subscriptions though I guess I wouldn’t be having any problem.

EA Access, Humble Bundle, and Gamepass were all also on direct debit, and here’s where the line was drawn. Humble Bundle was often doubling up on titles that Games with Gold or PS+ were firing out – I now have three copies of Destiny 2, which is probably three too many for me – and EA Access is really only any cop if you want to demo their biggest hitters before actually buying them. Admittedly that was probably a lifesaver for most people having a bash with Anthem, even if I still like it – I know, I know, I like Anthem and not Destiny 2. I’m a despicable human being.

Xbox Game Pass has stayed though, and Microsoft’s provision makes its own case. The ability to play all of their first party releases on launch day as part of the package is brilliant. In the last year I’ve been able to play Forza Horizon 4, Sea of Thieves, Crackdown 3 and State of Decay 2, and while your mileage will undoubtedly vary, I think they’ve all been well worth playing.

It’s the kind of service where I’m constantly discovering games that I wouldn’t have otherwise bought, with Mutant Year Zero one of my favourite games of the year thus far. It’s the same model as your Netflix or Amazon Prime account, mixing in old and new content, exclusives, and covers as wide a spectrum as possible seems like it’s going to be the ideal solution going forwards, and if you told me tomorrow that I couldn’t afford to buy any brand new games but could afford one of the subscription services, I’d be choosing Game Pass.

Google Stadia and PS Now are the ones of the periphery, for me at least, as I just don’t yet see streaming as being a viable replacement for playing on a machine that’s in the room with you. As it stands streaming just leaves too many variables, and the infrastructure in the UK, particularly beyond the major cities, still isn’t up to that much. That said, plenty of rural villages around us have better internet so maybe I just need to move to the countryside? While we know nothing really about what services Stadia will offer, PS Now at least gives you access to a wide spectrum of games but despite having a wider selection, and yes, it does now allow you to download PS2 and PS4 games on the service, but it feels like a step behind what Microsoft are serving up.

It’s still a big leap to make, though. Microsoft’s first party line up has been rather slow in recent times, though it will surely improve over the next few years, and so even with the way they’re tying in with new indie releases, you’ll be giving up a big part of the brand new content that we know and love/despise. Sure, there’s plenty of advantages to not jumping into something like Anthem on day one, but with online oriented games in particular it’s all too easy to feel like you’ve been left behind by not being there at the beginning.

As a hobby, that push for the next big thing is now built into the industry itself, and current subscription services on the whole won’t scratch that itch. When they still rely on the first few weeks of sales to generate so much of the money games make, we’re not likely to see anything major from Ubisoft or Activision appearing on Game Pass until well into its lifecycle. It won’t cater so well to those who demand to be on the bleeding edge, but then it’s also not aimed at the casuals who’ll buy FIFA, COD and Battlefield each year and play little else. Instead it’s perfect for those in the middle. Gamers with less free cash every month who won’t be buying brand new titles, or those who are coming late into a generation and are looking to catch up on games like Fallout 4 or Mortal Kombat X.

Microsoft have also trialled their own subscription service for their consoles themselves – in the US at least – and you can pay monthly for the entire package directly from the big M. While you’d be right in saying that’s not much different than what every catalogue/hire purchase/credit card already allows, it’s telling that Microsoft think it’s a model that’s important enough for them to operate it themselves. They’re playing catch-up this generation as well, so they’re also thinking outside the box a little more, but we can all see the way the wind is blowing.

While there’s plenty of amazing games dropping onto all of the services every month, for most serious gamers they’re still a long way from being in a place where you could rely on them for your weekly fix. Right now a subscription is a perfect way to play catch up, or as a cheap way to shore up your backlog, and realistically, when PS+, Xbox Live and Switch Online are more or less essential for their online access, the games you’re getting are just a pleasant bonus.

It makes perfect sense though that subscriptions will be the way forward for a huge number of gamers. Just as the delivery system has changed for TV, it feels like a logical step for games to head in the same direction, particularly when we’re already making a clear shift towards digital. As games as a service strengthens its hold on the industry, the lines are already being drawn for the next battle in the console wars. We’re not quite there yet, but subscription services are likely to be an integral battleground as we move towards the next generation of console and beyond.

Written by
TSA's Reviews Editor - a hoarder of headsets who regularly argues that the Sega Saturn was the best console ever released.

5 Comments

  1. Really cool, interesting take on the idea – and I agree Game Pass is definitely the one to keep in really hard up times.

    Have been an advocate of PS Now for a while too, and the downloadability issue helps make it more viable for me, but it’s still pricey and I often forget to use it during a sub period, such is my backlog and general lack of commitment to games I already own.

  2. Look at what’s happened with all the different TV services lately. It used to be either a small selection of channels, or pay Sky lots every month.

    Then Netflix happened, and it was great. Lots of stuff you might have missed originally, or want to watch again, for a decent price. And then all their own stuff started happening, some of which is excellent.

    And then Amazon start trying to get in on the action. Which is fair enough. Fairly easy choice between 1 or both services. Until stuff starts moving between the 2 when it gets saved from cancellation. Well done to Amazon for saving The Expanse (which everyone should watch), but then annoying when we have to wait 9 months for the 3rd series while it moves to Amazon from Netflix (and however much longer it is for the 4th).

    And now everyone starts their own streaming service. Want a nice selection of horror films? That’s extra money to Amazon for those, on top of the normal subscription. Some other programmes that would probably have been included before? That’s another Amazon “channel” to subscribe to. (I know of 4 things I’d have watched there if they hadn’t been part of the extra Starzplay channel). And even BT managed to grab some stuff.

    Probably worse in the US. New Star Trek stuff? That’s another subscription (luckily included on Netflix everywhere else). Same with the DC stuff. Plus there’s whatever happens with Disney (and Marvel and Star Wars)

    That’s the reason I sort of agreed with Sony’s famous claim that EA’s service wasn’t good value. What happens when it’s a success and all the big publishers start doing similar things? It gets expensive and doesn’t leave much for the other services. (Although if there’s that thing that suggests Sony might have found a way to keep everyone happy, if EA launch their service on PS4 and games are still coming to PS Now)

    And then there’s the issue of things being removed from the service, especially with more and more games getting constant updates to keep you playing for years.

    1 or 2 services per console is good (basic PS+/XBL Gold and then PS Now/Gamepass maybe?). Anything else is going to end badly. Or expensively.

  3. I currently live in South Africa, the internet infrastructure is no where near being able to handle streaming of games. Sure you can spend a small fortune per month to have the best internet in town but then what?

    You would just be spending the same amount on internet as you would for the games with the added benefit of not actually owning the game.

    This so called “future of gaming” is complete nonsense. Most hardcore gamers I know would never stand for even a millisecond of delay in a game and with casuals they don’t want to play the new assassins creed on their phones, they just want a match of fortnite or pubg on their way to work and that’s it.

    • There’s already much more than “even a millisecond of delay”. Even playing a game locally, completely offline. Press a button (which obviously takes time for the button to move until it’s registered), the controller needs to translate that into data that then takes time to send to the controller. Which then takes time to work out what you’ve pressed and what it needs to do, which may involve waiting for suitable time to do something. And then the display needs to be sent to the TV, which will take some time to process the signal and display it. A time that can very significantly across different TVs and depending on how you’ve got it set up.

      Those Digital Foundry people seem to have managed to get to play with Google’s streaming and test the latency. It was surprisingly good. AC Odyssey with a latency as good as an XBoneX, or 20 to 66% worse than on a PC (at 30 or 60fps). And a bit worse than that on a simulated 15Mbps connection.

      Not as good as a game running on local hardware, obviously. But if it does the job for a decent price? (£7 a month for PS Now and 600+ games is fairly decent)

  4. The thing that appeals to me about subscription services is that I can jump in and out as I want. I don’t think I’ll ever feel I got my monies worth out of my PS4 – I only ever got 1 game for it and I more used it as a media player for iPlayer, Prime etc before I got my smart TV.
    While I’ve invested more money into my PC, I’ve definitely got value for money – it’s my go-to option for gaming, plus it’s a PC so I can do everything else on it instead of having a console + laptop.

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