This week was a big one for gaming in general, with the launch of the proper next generation consoles, and some titles that were developed with them more in mind, like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. I’ve talked a fair bit about those systems and the ecosystem around each, but in looking around, I’ve kind of found my new, least favorite thing that is also old.
For years (actually, more like decades now!) the gaming business has tried to find gradually harder ways to push back on piracy and then gradually expanded that in scope to anti-resale measures, continuing revenue systems, and the reviled “live services” business model. As someone stoked for Starcraft II at launch, the debate was endless over whether or not requiring Battle.net login for any gameplay was a reasonable ask. The same debate repeated for Diablo III, and then companies like EA and Activision found worse ways to manage things for games with online components and we all sort of moved on.
From intrusive DRM on PC software, to the brief window of online passes only included with new purchased copies of a game, to online login requirements for even single-player components, through to a new model we’ll discuss today – game publishers are always on the hunt for business models that will ensure they can extract as much revenue as possible.
Today’s new hotness is the subscription plan, and while I say new, it is actually fairly old. If you’re here, you probably play at least one MMO with a subscription option, if not an outright requirement. In the nineties, I had a Sega Genesis with the Sega Channel hooked up – an early-iteration cable modem that allowed you to pick a game from a list and play it for a low subscription cost (I mean, I think, I was 11 and I didn’t pay the cable bill for that!). What I want to specifically hone in on today is a newer iteration of that idea.
Entertainment as a medium has always sort of fought with consumers over the concept of ownership. In the physical media age, despite any disclaimers about home usage only or individual licensing, you could photocopy books, re-record albums to cassette formats, copy movies with videocassettes, and rip and burn CDs full of music. Warnings aside, unless you used that power to start piracy rings or something of the sort, it was generally harmless, and courts have generally sided with consumers on the right of individual copying, provided it remains for personal use. Now, of course, with physical media, you’d need to attract attention to find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit – like distributing online, in bulk to friends and family, or by having the misfortune of having an MPAA or RIAA lawyer in your circle of friends (if that applies to you, I am truly sorry).
This has, clearly, stuck in the craw of entertainment executives, and they’ve engaged in efforts to reduce ownership of media that can be copied or passed around. 4k Bluray is a format with precious few titles on it, the concept of buying physical music is dead almost worldwide, HDTV requiring HDMI connectors with HDCP protection makes recording shows in a shareable format harder (not impossible, however), and media protection and licensing added to PC formats means that it is much harder to pirate via digital media on the more flexible computer platform. Further, through buffet subscription services like Netflix, Spotify, Disney+, and the like, the world many of us grew up in, where we owned copies of our favorite media, is rapidly disappearing. Instead, the availability of our favorite shows, movies, and songs remains reliant on the good graces of the licensing departments and programming planners at these services – just look at how many people freak out when a classic show like Friends is about to fall off of Netflix, or the array of blogs and entertainment sites that track what media is available on which streaming services.
Gaming used to sort of dodge this, in a way. Games cost too much (relative to other media types) to be locked away like this, and while physical piracy of console games was possible, it is often tricky, requiring mod chips, custom firmwares, and hours of effort (often including soldering or other delicate electronics work with expensive consoles), it generally just hasn’t been worth it for most people. PC piracy remains the most common, because many games can be patched easily to remove phone-home components, auto-generate keys, or be directed to a fakeout server for offline play – not that I’d know anything about that…
But the bug that bit those other entertainment mediums has come to roost in gaming, and today, a myriad of subscription services exists to offer gamers a tradeoff – you can pay a low monthly cost for access to a reasonable library of titles (including new releases!) but you don’t own the games you play and unsubscribing means losing access to those titles. Xbox Game Pass, EA Play, Ubisoft Connect, and others all function on a similar model. They appeal for a few reasons – the monthly cost is usually low enough so as to be easily settled upon, many of these publishers will throw in extras like cloud saving or cross-platform functionality, and it removes the need to make multiple $60+ dollar purchases. Ubisoft’s version, for example, makes their newest games available day 1 and with the highest available content tier in-game, akin to buying the collector’s edition or whatever game-specific name it has.
Now, I want to draw a fine line here – I think that this, as long as it exists alongside traditional purchase methods, is fine. For me, as an example, I really want to be able to play Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Watch Dogs Legion on my new PC, but ponying up $120 for the basic versions of both is less appealing. With the subscription model, I could just spend $15 upfront, and provided I finish both games in under 8 months, it winds up costing less than buying the games outright (and provides access to any other releases along the way, like Far Cry 6, or other titles). On top of that, I get to use any premium included DLC from launch, and I can play DLC as it is released without ponying up extra for it. There is a lot of appeal to that. EA Play and Xbox Game Pass only offer DLC at a discount, but they are also cheaper (and now Xbox Game Pass includes EA Play).
If I’m being real, back in the day, I was anti-DRM but I was fine with online account requirements. I gladly played Starcraft II and Diablo III without hesitation – I liked playing the prior entries in both franchises online in the standard way anyways, and I was early on the Steam train as a primarily PC player, so I got very used to being logged in to play anyways. These new models do offer some appeal to me – Ubisoft Connect costs the same as 3 standard releases a year, but nets you all the extra bonuses from launch, DLC, and generally feels like a square bargain. EA Play and Xbox Game Pass are maybe a little less so, but I think their much-lower base subscription pricing makes up for it.
However, I can’t help but think that this model is going to some day cost us as players in other ways. Online services always have this looming specter of content removal, cancellation, price hikes, or just flat-out death hanging over them. Netflix has steadily increased prices as people grew hooked, pushing out more of their own content (which they get to reap the royalties of) while pushing off more and more of the content base that originally made it popular (also, remember mailing discs? I had the Bluray plan for a hot minute). Hulu started as a fair deal way back when – watch a couple of commercials and then you can watch whatever – but now they have tiers, and even the most expensive tier only reduces the number of ad breaks instead of removing them outright. Spotify uses annoyance to push you to pay, as do many other “free” services.
Right now, these game services feel sort of interesting and revolutionary, because they change the model away from midnight launches, deciding which launch version of a game to buy, and trying to figure out how much you can spend on games based on release calendars and how hyped you are for a given title. However, I can’t help but continue to draw the parallel to those non-gaming entertainment services – will I eventually be served ads? Will I be forced to pay gradually more and more to access the service? Will old games get cycled off the service and remove my access? None of these services has a really compelling answer to that, and a part of that is that they are all in their infancy – they’re too busy adding content and locking in new features and support. They’re Netflix at the stage where disc-shipping was still popular but streaming was overtaking it rapidly – I fully expect that they will eventually pivot in a way that many will dislike.
But mostly, I find the concept of them sort of iffy for gaming in general. Owning a movie or CD is one thing – for stuff that I find really foundational to my media diet, sure, I’ll own it. I have the full series of Yu Yu Hakusho on Bluray because it is a favorite of mine, I own over a decade of Wrestlemania events on physical media, and I still have a core music library of ripped tracks that I port between devices for music that I have a strong connection with. Games appeal to people in a similar way – you might make a yearly ritual of re-connecting with your favorite album, movie, series, or game – but think about this. In the music ecosystem, there are multiple players, and if your favorite all-time album goes away on Spotify, it might be on YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, or other services. If your favorite TV series leaves Netflix, it probably ends up landing on Hulu or the original network’s streaming site. If Ubisoft decides that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is no longer offered on Ubisoft Connect in 5 years time (which is also when your average gaming PC will be able to run it maxed out), there’s not another rightsholder that will pick up the mantle. Ubisoft solely owns the title, and if they decide it is dead on their service and you don’t own it, you suddenly can’t play it, unless you find a physical copy or they still offer a download, which they’ll likely still charge $20+ for.
So I find the prospect of gaming subscriptions nice, but also have an undercurrent of worry about what the future holds. I had to downsize my living situation a lot this year, and so I have a new appreciation for the fact that most of my library is digital on my PC (eating nearly a full 5 TB hard drive alive, however…), but I also have a nostalgic appreciation for midnight launches, buying games in person, finding a title through in-store discovery, and bulky collector’s editions loaded with prizes. Digital marketplaces are great, and they’ve allowed the indie revolution of the last decade to really reshape gaming in some fascinating directions, which is why I worry about what it means if more of us start giving the keys to major publishers instead of curating and cultivating our own libraries and owning the titles that give us joy outright.
And that’s without mentioning how significant a chunk of time investment in my life would be dead if Blizzard just, say, pulled the plug on WoW or Squeenix killed FFXIV overnight.
Maybe it makes me something of a Luddite, maybe I’m overly alarmist, but while subscriptions can offer a lot of benefit, there’s always the prospect of a loss of value just around the corner.