Why today feels like a quiet turning point for video games

Industry-changing shifts are much easier to identify in hindsight, long after numerous little choices guided computer game into a brand-new date. The parallel increase of downloadable material, post-launch spots, and in-app purchases took place over years. Today is various. A considerable quantity of modification is occurring simultaneously, and you can see it in genuine time.

On Friday early morning, brand-new video games from the developers of Last Dream, Hot Shots Golf, and Nier: Automata, along with titles from a few of the most crucial indie video game developers, appeared not on a computer game console, however through Apple’s membership video gaming service, Apple Game. Around the very same time, Microsoft revealed that Sony’s eminence sports unique MLB The Program 21 will be readily available for no included expense to Xbox Video game Pass customers on launch day.

Prior to we’d even had breakfast, several video games and designers connected to Sony’s renowned brochure of exclusives, along with previous close partners, had actually distributed themselves onto mobile phones and PlayStation’s greatest rival. However it’s not a lot that video games that would have lived solely on Sony consoles a years back are appearing in other places that matters. It’s how they’re making the move.

Friday’s pair of announcements are the most significant examples yet of the future of video game distribution: video game download subscription services.

Since the late 2000s, the industry has broadly presented a subscription-based future similar to Netflix, suggesting we’d be streaming video video games through high-speed connections with ever-improving cloud computing. Google Stadia launched in 2019 on this promise. Sony acquired cloud gaming service Gaikai way back in 2012 and launched PlayStation Now, its official cloud gaming subscription service, in 2014. Amazon is dipping into cloud gaming with Luna.

In theory, streaming would lower the cost of entry, allowing people with a reliable internet connection to play new games on practically any device with a screen. Anyone who’s actually tried cloud gaming in the past decade, though, knows that reality has not yet aligned with the potential. Cloud gaming looks worse than console gaming and still suffers from sporadic responsiveness issues.

Parallel to these efforts, both Apple and Microsoft, apparently unwilling to wait for technology to catch up to their similar ambitions, have invested in monthly subscription services that allow players to download games. The model requires players to own expensive hardware, and the games don’t load instantly. But here’s the crucial part: The games work. Just like they would if customers had bought them from a store.

“It just works” is a classic Apple mantra; now Microsoft has shrewdly borrowed the strategy to great effect.

On Twitter, some of my peers have asked why Sony has yet to announce that MLB The Show 21 will also appear on PlayStation Now, since it will appear, at launch, on its competitor’s subscription service. But that question assumes that PlayStation Now and Xbox Game Pass are the same. They aren’t. Until a game played via the cloud is indistinguishable from a game played via local storage, streaming services will fail to offer as positive and seamless an experience as their downloadable subscription counterparts. That’s likely why Microsoft’s own cloud gaming service, Xbox Cloud Gaming, remains a supplement to Game Pass that’s included in its Ultimate tier, rather than a stand-alone competitor.

(Sony has taken the opposite approach, gradually making larger chunks of the PlayStation Now catalog downloadable as well as streamable, although the service remains focused on cloud-based streaming across all modern PlayStation consoles and PC. And PlayStation 5 games remain unavailable at all on the service. )

Microsoft’s and Apple’s bets on downloadable subscription services would seemingly place them behind their streaming counterparts in the long run, but that’s not quite the case. Their success shows that they’re neither ahead of the curve nor behind it; they’re simply meeting the expectations of their players. Apple debuted 30 games on Friday on a service that costs $4.99 a month and is often included in larger Apple product purchases for free. Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate tier costs $14.99 a month and includes games on Xbox console, Windows PC, and Android devices — and will now regularly feature launch-day releases from Xbox Game Studios, Bethesda Softworks, and even Sony, along with a rotating collection of more than 100 catalog titles. They’re providing the best deals in gaming at this moment.

Compare Friday’s news and these strategies with other industry statements from this week. Nintendo ceased selling a digital collection of Mario games for no greater reason than artificial scarcity, despite already hosting an online membership service that could house the games. And Sony confirmed that it will be closing its digital storefronts for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, and PlayStation Vita — with no clarity on how or if those venues or their games will be preserved, let alone be made available in the future.

All of these business decisions connect to the bigger questions about the financial sustainability of the membership model and what it means when we cease to “own” our entertainment. The answers will shape how and where we will play video games in the future. What’s so uncommon about today is that we’re getting a peek of that future as it occurs.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.