Subscriptions

Ah, the wonderful joys of one of those times in videogames where a bunch of big, moneyed, companies are trying to make something happen. This time, subscriptions.

Clearly buoyed by just about everything else that can have a subscription fee sellotaped to it going for broke at the mo, games have decided it’s definitely our turn now.

Not that we haven’t had subscriptions for a while, of course. It’s been a fairly standard thing in the casual market for quite a while now (I have a pet theory that you can generally look to the casual market to see what’s going to be pushed through into the wider world in a few years and it’s held up pretty well so far), obviously the console giants have had subscription services in place for over a decade now. It’s not that subscriptions are new here, it’s the concerted push for all the big players to have their own that’s the big difference this time.

EA have one, Ubisoft have one. Sony have PS Now, Microsoft have Game Pass, Humble have one, Apple has one, Android is about to get one. Where in the past this sort of thing has floundered because generally folks tried tying the subscriptions to streaming only services, the industry has by and large learned that’s a dead end for now.

Streaming has an uphill battle because far too many people have flakey internet connections and speeds and congestion varies. It makes the lack of ownership and control explicit when streaming degrades the experience to the point of leaving people entirely unable to use the thing they’re paying money for.

However! Couple a subscription with the ability to download something and well, it’s not quite so clear how rough the downsides may be because, well, you can actually play the videogame you’re trying to play and it’s there on your hard drive and stuff. It’s an approximation of ownership, right? Close enough and all that. It turns out the illusion of ownership is sort of enough, as long as nobody feels like they’re losing out (your own amount of losing out feelings may vary, natch).

To be honest, I’m surprised it took this long for companies to push ahead with this given none of this is exactly news. You know, with the past fifteen or so years of Steam, a decade of mobile libraries and however long PS Plus has been going now and and and.

It probably helps that we seem to be well out of the phase where companies feel the need to put on a front that they’re doing this for you and are well into “fuck it, what exactly is anyone going to do to stop us?” territory.

The past decade has largely shown these huge companies that there is no blowback substantial enough to be able to stop them carrying on and not nearly enough political will from the people who can do something about it to do something about it. It being whatever landgrab or overreach we’re having to contend with today.

I doubt if anyone making the decisions to nudge everyone into subscriptions feels like they have much to lose at the moment. If things go really bad, well, they can shrug and go back to just selling you stuff. Admittedly, it’s difficult for me to see us reaching the point where it has gone that badly as far as the companies are concerned but still, in theory, yeah?

All of this makes any pushback a wee bit more difficult and for me, it makes this particular period of change happening in the games industry all the more concerning.

There is an unfathomably large amount of money being spent right now on making subscriptions happen and no easily discernible out for when, not if, things get worse for people in videogames. Which they will because videogames is every bit as broken as the rest of the world right now and there’s depressingly few signs of this easing any time soon. As ever, I live in hope though.

Part of the reason all these companies are throwing unimaginably large amounts of money around is because it sort of but not entirely masks a lot of what’s really happening. Like when Epic throw down some of their Fortnite money buying an exclusivity period for their store, it’s enough that developers who take the money don’t have to worry if Epic’s plan goes arse about tit. It’s not immediately concerning if the store only sells four copies of a videogame because someone’s already been paid as though a ridiculous amount of people have bought it.

The same principle applies if a developer is handed the kind of money it’d be ruinous to refuse in order to pop their game into a subscription service for a bit.

This is a thing that happens a fair bit. Every now and then companies throw money at indies to make something happen.Just this time round the amount being spent is frankly obscene. When you consider how precarious making games as a business can be, it’s not hard to see why people often need to take these deals also. I too would like an obscene amount of money, yeah?

At some point soon though, the companies will stop ‘buying’ deals and they’ll expect developers or publishers to just keep supplying them with content whilst they pay out according to whatever ridiculous calculation they’ve concocted in order to pay out as little as possible to as many people as possible. You only need to look to books, films, TV and music to see the same thing playing out to ever so slightly different degrees. There’s been hundreds of thousands of words written about this elsewhere so I’m going to move swiftly on.

Moving swiftly on because an equally pressing concern for me is that every subscription service is hailed as somewhere people with not much money can get access to lots and lots of things. It sounds nice in theory but the big problem here is that people who don’t have much money, well, they don’t have much money. If someone doesn’t have much money, they can’t go subscribing to every single subscription service they might need.

I know that sounds obvious but it’s one of those easily forgotten things. At least when we’re just talking buying something outright, if someone has a bit of extra money one day, they can buy something outright. With a subscription service, people need to be able to commit to an amount of money being docked regularly.

Or to put it another way, Universal Credit is about 250 quid a month which isn’t enough to live on as it is. Given media subscriptions run from about a fiver upwards, they soon add up to a hefty chunk of that money gone. When you’re struggling, finding any money is hard, much less finding a few wedges to pay out monthly.

Though access to forty gazillion games for eight pounds and sixty nine pence or whatever sounds great, to a huge portion of the population that’s just another monthly bill they can’t afford. The amount of videogames in a service doesn’t matter a jot if someone can only afford one subscription and their only break from the kids is being able to throw Netflix on for them and that’s all they can spare monthly.

The more we push into subscription services and away from just being able to throw some money down here and there to buy something, the more we’re pushing people with less money out of being able to engage with our culture. We’re forcing them to choose between being able to have films, music, books or games when we lock the bulk of stuff behind subs. Pick one, if that, right?

Paying subscription fees also means we leave people with less money to spend on something else. Maybe that’s one new game on discount or one that’s affordable. That could be the difference between a creator getting a bunch of quids minus the store cut and instead getting 0.0000000008 of a penny at the end of the month.

This is hugely messy and largely awful stuff. Rather than decoupling games from finances, as someone recently took to the internet to suggest, it makes the finances absolutely at the forefront of someone’s mind. It’s now money that has to be found from somewhere each and every month in order to retain access to the thing someone liked. This isn’t decoupling by any stretch of the imagination. It’s the other one.

Having spent most of my time on this Earth largely being skint, I know intimately how much even the smallest extra cost being asked for monthly can make existing more difficult. At a time when there’s an abundance of absolutely wonderful videogames being made and sold, it would be a sad loss to place them further out of reach just as we’re hitting our stride.

It’s early days yet and I’m hopeful that we can find a balance here. Can’t say I’m not worried though because I very much am.