Last week, first Google then Apple announced new subscription gaming services. With both services, players can pay a monthly subscription to access a library of games and play them on a variety of devices. This model isn’t a new idea; just look at EA’s Origin All Access pass, Discord Nitro, or any of the three major consoles’ online plans. What’s different here is that many of those games are exclusive to their respective subscriptions; there is no way to buy them outright. On the one hand, as an MMO player, sub-only games that may cease to exist the moment the whims of a corporate overlord change is old hat. On the other hand, as a consumer of games who likes going back and playing old things, this is somewhat disturbing.
I, like many others, have become increasingly frustrated with the state of streaming services. Netflix sounded like a great deal when it first came on the scene — all of the shows and movies you like on demand for a reasonable subscription fee — but the longer time goes on, the more streaming services pop up, and the more the owners of the content bounce things around from service to service. Recently, I started rewatching Star Wars: The Clone Wars (wow, I forgot how bad the first season was), and half way through the first season I found out that Disney will soon be removing the series from Netflix in favor of its own upcoming service. I’m not really excited about the same happening to my game library. It’s mildly annoying that we’ve seen fracturing of digital PC stores, with games getting pulled from Steam at the last minute in favor of the Epic Store. It will be much worse if those stores become Netflix-style walled gardens.
I also have some issues with the delivery methods. Apple Arcade’s issues are more personal preference based. Given that they’ve promised that you can download and play these games offline on iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV, we are clearly talking about mobile games here. I don’t really like most mobile games as it is, so it’s going to be really hard to sell me on a subscription to play mobile games, even with the promise of better mobile games. Google Stadia, however, just doesn’t seem to me like it’s going to work at all. It works by rendering the game on a powerful server somewhere, then streaming the video to your PC or smart device, then takes your inputs and passes them back to the server. I’ve streamed games over my own network from my PC to my Steam Link, and it’s certainly playable, but it’s not a great experience. There is noticable latency, and from time to time, the picture drops out or the sound freezes. Games keep getting more and more twitchy, and there’s no way you’re going to play Fortnite on this service and do as well as you would playing locally. This is only going to get worse over the public Internet. Supposedly Google has invented some kind of magic to fix this, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Plus, many people don’t have access to blazing fast fiber optic Internet, or worse, have a strict bandwidth cap that this will chew through in a matter of hours.
It’s also a little disturbing that developers for both of these services are being paid based on the amount of time players play. Maybe it’s because I’m primarily an MMO player, but it seems obvious to me that this is only going to encourage developers to make games with huge time sinks and/or to be exploitative of those with addictive tendencies. It’s the whole sub MMO vs F2P MMO debate all over again, except this time it’s broken out of our niche and into the wider gaming market. It’s not good for gamers, and it’s not good for the creative freedom of developers. Additionally, this is suspiciously similar to the Spotify model, where artists now make a fraction of what they did on the sales of CDs and MP3s, even if it’s getting their songs in the earbuds of a much wider audience.
Finally, I’m wondering who these services are even for. Maybe there’s a big sector of the population that’s outside of my circles that’s excited by this, but I don’t know anyone who is. At best they’ve begrudgingly accepted that megacorps like Apple and Google are going to get their way once again and this is what our future is going to hold for a while. If gamers aren’t really on board for these things, I don’t see how they’re going to succeed. At best they’re going to be dominated by casual gamers, especially Apple’s mobile-focused sub, but that’s a notoriously fickle audience that hates paying money.
Some will, and do, argue that this really isn’t that different from digital download games. If, in some bizarre future, Valve decides that Steam is no longer worth keeping online, the hundreds of dollars’ worth of games I’ve bought from them over the years is suddenly gone, and most of the millions of games they host will blink completely out of existence. Even if they were nice and decided to disable the DRM on their way out, there’s no way I could even download every game in my embarrassingly large Steam library to my hard drive at once. This argument is not completely wrong, to be honest, but if Steam makes me mad and I vow to never pay them another dime, I can still play all of my old games. Also, I don’t see Steam just disappearing in my lifetime. At worst, they would get absorbed by another company, and your library would get ported over into that service. They’ve got too many customers invested too heavily in their service to just throw away.
Ultimately, I think both of these services will fail. They just don’t have enough going for them. But, hey, I didn’t think tablets would have a market in the long run either. The only thing predicable about technology is its unpredictability.