Game Subscriptions Are On the Rise. Indies Could Suffer
February 10, 2021
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Retention was allegedly a crucial aspect of Apple’s strategy shift in 2020, which involved canceling contracts of games in development while seeking others that “better retain subscribers.” As Bloomberg reported, an Apple Arcade representative cited Grindstone as a specific example of the type of game the company wants: “an engaging puzzle-action game that has many levels.”

Developers quoted in the story suggested this was a result of low subscriber growth and retention, a hypothesis seemingly supported by Apple’s expansion of its one-month free trial to three. It’s worth considering that subscription platforms might reshape video games according to this engagement mindset. The result could be a boom for arcade-style titles that encourage high replayability or procedurally generated experiences, potentially at the expense of “one and done” narrative games such as those that Fellow Traveller specializes in.

A Patronage Renaissance

Still, the death of the single-player adventure isn’t here yet. For a significant portion of subscribers, these titles will be the main draw in the first place. As Microsoft expands its slate to tempt potential subscribers, fortunate studios will benefit from a growing pot of straightforward, risk-free funding. Totem Teller, an adventure game with a beautiful, glitched-out aesthetic, is one such project, initially snapped up as a timed Xbox exclusive before securing a Game Pass deal.

Ben Kerslake, its creative director, compares Game Pass to Netflix in terms of the creative freedom the video service has afforded particular filmmakers. “For better or worse,” he says. “There’s not a lot of constrainment.” His team, too, effectively has artistic carte-blanche thanks to a relationship with Microsoft which functions “very much like a patronage model.”

Kerslake stresses the benefits of foregoing a middle man, a position usually filled by a publisher. “Even the nicest, most progressive publisher in the world is going to interfere,” he says. “It’s their job.” The Covid-19 pandemic effectively added 12 months of production to the game. Kerslake believes navigating this situation alongside a publisher would have been difficult, likely involving creative compromises. His agreement with Microsoft, however, ensures flexibility. “As far as our relationship goes contractually, it’s just ‘release the game when it’s ready,’” he says. “Apart from that, it’s hands off.”

For all the positives of this patronage model, there are notable downsides. Video game subscription platforms currently offer a curated service (as opposed to Spotify’s more open approach), meaning many talented developers won’t make it onto them. For outsiders, making a living will likely get tougher, particularly if actual sales dwindle. This is already what’s happening in movies; in 2019 subscription revenue grew to $16.2 billion while transactional purchases fell to $9 billion. It’s not difficult to imagine consumers making the same cost calculation with video game subscriptions as those of video; the value appears simply too great to pass up compared to one-off purchases.

What Is a Video Game Really Worth?

As Julie Muncy stressed in a piece written at Apple Arcade’s 2019 launch, the shift to subscription services forces us to reexamine what a video game is actually worth. “Each game is no longer worth the price of its labor,” she wrote. “It’s now worth a fraction of a monthly subscription fee.”

Rebekah Saltsman, cofounder of Finji, the developer and publisher behind Apple Arcade title Overland, suggests that subscription platforms are distorting the value of games and that this is having a knock-on effect for budgeting. One play on a subscription platform isn’t equitable to that of a premium sale, and so the player numbers that could have traditionally been counted on to bring in sufficient revenue are now far greater. All this while video games remain expensive to produce. Saltsman predicts developers will curtail their budgets down the line precisely because of such costs. “Somebody’s going to look at the burn,” she suggests. “And if they don’t have enough subscribers or they’re not making enough profit, they’re going to look at budgets.”

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