Easing Our Way Into Subscription-Based Gaming

There's a now-classic scene that takes place in many an alien invasion flick: The protagonist has finally realised that something is amiss, that the kooky guy shouting conspiracy theories for the first quarter of the film might have been on to something. "Where are the aliens?" he wonders. And the response: "They're already among us."

It's starting to feel a bit that way with subscription-based gaming. We're not quite there yet -- we have yet to see the fabled future where a monthly fee gains us unlimited access to every video game, Rhapsody- or Spotify-style -- but subscription gaming walks among us already. It's feeling increasingly like it's only a matter of time before we hit a tipping point.

Just today, Big Fish Games announced that Apple was letting them offer a subscription model for their games on iOS. Much like the publications available in Apple's "Newsstand" interface, users will pay $US6.99 a month for unlimited access to all of Big Fish's games.

Of course, this comes with the caveat that the user must be connected to the internet at all times to play the game. Whether this is due to the fact that the game is streaming or whether it's due to always-on copy protection, it's a big caveat. Furthermore, is there a single developer on iOS whose games you would pay $US6.99 a month to play? I'm guessing your response is the same as mine: "No."

But I can certainly imagine something that would work: a monthly subscription to access all App Store game content. I know, I know. It'd be crazy -- the logistics would be a nightmare, and Apple would have to come up with a way to pay developers for their games. But in the long term, is it out of the realm of possibility? The fact that Apple has allowed one developer to do something like this means that they have the ability to do it.

I think I've finally reached that tipping point with subscription-based music. For the longest time, I didn't want Rhapsody or any of its competitors, I was happy with my ridiculously bloated library of MP3s. But then, Spotify came out, and I finally came around. I can access all of this music, in a high(ish) quality, with no ads, and take it anywhere on my mobile device? For $US9.99 a month? OK, I am into this. It's even better for trying out new music without having to buy it first. Onlive users can already try out games, and full game trials are becoming more common on the PlayStation store, as well.

I can't think of a lone developer whose catalogue I would pay a subscription fee to play-not even Blizzard!

This weekend, I was watching the latest segment of Game Trailers' always-delightful Bonus Round, and Shacknews' Garnett Lee floated an idea that I thought was interesting: What if, when Sony's handheld Vita launches, Sony makes the console's entire library available digitally for a flat subscription fee?

What if, indeed? One of the primary challenges facing the Vita (and the Nintendo 3DS) is that mobile gamers are becoming increasingly used to the $US1-$10 price point hit by most games in Apple's App Store. But if Sony announced that for, say, $US10 a month, players could have access to all of the Vita's games, I would sign up for in a heartbeat. It's not so outlandish -- given that Sony seems to be pushing their games into digital release very shortly after publishing them (for example, Sony just put Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One on the PlayStation Store as a full digital download, mere weeks after its release), it's within the realm of possibility that they could begin to offer some sort of subscription package, too.

All this prognosticating makes me think about what it would take to make me pony up for a subscription to a gaming service. I think that more than anything, the service would have to include every game possible, or at least every game on a given platform. It's not enough to have each subscription be tied to a different developer a la Big Fish Games. I can't think of a lone developer whose catalogue I would pay a subscription fee to play-not even Blizzard!

When it comes to content, half-measures aren't appealing, either. Onlive's $US9.99 subscription gets you access to a whole bunch of games, but not everything in their catalogue. Most of the highest profile games are only available for rent or purchase (new games tend to run $US49.99). The GameGadget that we reported on earlier this week sounds interesting, but we don't have enough information to know whether it's going to be viable.

A required internet connection would be also a deal-breaker for any theoretical subscription model -- one way or another, I'd have to be able to download the game to my system and play it anywhere. And maybe this goes without saying, but the service would need to work smoothly, all the time.

So:

1) Comprehensive

2) Allows for offline play

3) Isn't a pain in the arse to use

A digital game subscription service that met those criteria would be tempting. iOS devices and the Vita could both theoretically allow for this kind of thing. Will we see something like that with the Vita? Seems doubtful. Would it be nice? Absolutely.

There's an argument to be made that in many ways, Valve's phenomenally popular PC game distribution service Steam is already a rental service -- we pay to play the games, but due to Steam's copy-protection, they're never truly ours. Regardless of how you see that particular argument, Steam illustrates how close we really are to the reality of a subscription-based service that meets the criteria above. Steam is comprehensive, allows for offline play, and it works very well. What if we could just pay $US20 a month to play every Steam game?

That too may never come to pass, but sooner or later, someone's going to sell me on a service in the same way that Spotify has sold me on subscription music services. When they do, I'll give subscription gaming a shot.

But that's just me. What would it take for you to take the plunge?


Comments

    Frankly I'm far too picky for any such subscription style service, it just wouldn't be a good return on investment for me

    i tried something like what is talked about on pc a little while ago... u paid a certain amount per month and could go nuts with a wide variety of games... it was pretty cool but i can't for the life of me remember the name...

    i didn't stick with it due to already owning a large amount of games so couldn't find the value... but its something i'd consider revisting on a console or portable device if the titles on offer were good enough

    I think its a great concept for those who live in regions where this kind of system is available. However, in the mean time - since many of us are denied access - i think people will just stick with piracy.

    After all, if they wont accommodate you, why should you accommodate them (especially when the pirates will - and happily so)

    Frankly, I think Micro-transactions are more attractive than a Subscription Model, mostly due to me not wanting to pay for something while I'm not using it.

    Unfortunately, this seems like the way of the future.

    With the shit Publishers currently pull with Online Passes, pre-order DLC, day-1 DLC and DRM as well as Gamestop Corp. retaliating, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw consoles or online publisher-specific services requiring a subscription in the near future. We're already seeing EA move to have it's own service and network (Origin), and Activision move to have its own subscription-based service (Call of Duty Elite).

    The Publishers don't care about making games at all. They only care about making a big fat profit by any means possible. They also want you to use only their networks and not anyone elses (hence why EA have online passes for almost every game and have even said they want people to connect to their network). The most efficient way to do that is a subscription model (and possibly lock users out from using someone else's service.. this is where ToS comes in).

    I think this is a dangerous precedent. How do the developers get paid? Do they get paid no matter how good their game is? This could lead to developers getting paid the same no matter how good their game is. Then why would many of them strive to do better when they are paid the same amount?

    The current system on iOS has problems sure (visibility of new titles) but at least good games (once discovered) rise to the top and bad games sink.

      That is assuming though that currently devs get more money the more successful their game is. And I think in the current climate, keeping your job seems to be the reward for a good game (yet look what happened to Team Bondi)

    How are you going to push devs to put more time, money and effort into a game when they aren't rewarded with a popular game? How do they justify the cost of a AAA title when an indie game that costs 1/50 of the price is given the same amount of money?

    I understand paying royalties based on number of hours played but even that isn't going to be any good because it will encourage devs to pad the living shit out of games in order to make them take more hours to finish. The whole thing is just a bit off.

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