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.