Members of the Press, analysts, gamers, innocent bystanders and whatnot seem to agree on one thing nowadays. If it’s a subscription and it gets you games, it’s trying to be the “Netflix for games”. Maybe you’re a company that’s only rumoured to be spinning up a gaming subscription. Again, surely, you’re trying to become the “Netflix for games”. Some use the term with the derogatory tinge, others in a matter-of-factly way, some quite positively, but no matter the group it’s something that’s stuck and is now brought into a conversation as a simple way of describing a company’s gaming-related ambition, all the while implying that true ambition lies in the idea of actually becoming the Netflix of gaming.
As with many other things, something about the term and they way it’s being brandished around without a care in the world felt off to me, even though I myself had no idea why at first either. My overall sense is that if it’s a subscription service that offers a bunch of content for as long the customer keeps paying, it automatically registers as the “Netflix” of something. I’ll spare you from parallels with restaurant buffets and move directly to more interesting, though not as filling, dives into the concept this article is all about.
Netflix. A Definition.
I’d wager it’s pretty easy to pinpoint what Netflix really is. For starter’s it’s not just one thing. Of course we know it as video streaming service with TV shows and movies, whether produced in-house or not, be it exclusive content or otherwise. At the same time it also functions as a movie/TV production studio that produces original content that’s destined to stay exclusive to Netflix (the service). In that regard Netflix is quite like a platform holder in the gaming space. The service is the platform, the production side is the equivalent of first-party studios. Exclusive original content can be sold elsewhere in physical form, never through a different service similar to Netflix’s though.
Similarities in structure between the video streaming and the gaming space can be fairly straightforward then. Until we take a closer look at the business model Netflix relies upon. You either pay for the service and gain access to all the content —certainly all exclusive content but also third-party content for as long relevant contracts might allow— or, well, you don’t. No content, no revenue for Netflix. Over time some content is cucles out, more exclusive productions are added and the company/services effectively relies on such additions, on new content, to keep us all paying that subscription. Subscription revenue isn’t just key. It’s the name of the game. The only way for Netflix to make money. Granted Netflix has taken immense amounts of debt in order to keep producing more and more content, shed as much reliance to third-party content as possible, while competitors are also shifting to their own similar services and, naturally, prefer keeping their own production exclusive so as to attract and retain subscribers.
In that regard a gamer can easily understand Netflix’s priorities. Exclusive content defines the service, brings people and revenue in and, hopefully, keeps them paying. As third-party content dwindles, internal productions gain significance.
At this point I feel it’s important to note that Netflix can produce dozens of movies and TV shoes each year, something that’s impossible for platform holders in the gaming space due to the vast differences in movie/TV production and game development. Even a small game production can take what would feel ages to a cinema and TV producer. No film requires multiple years of non-stop development by dozens and hundreds of people.
At the same time, one can only binge watch the same content so many times before moving on (if we’re even talking multiples at all on average), while a hit game can command a player’s attention for an inordinate amount of time, even if single-player by nature.
So. Let’s summarise.
- Is a video streaming subscription service.
- Is a production studio.
- Relies completely on subscription revenue.
- Provides video content and nothing else.
- Zero connection to other products, services or ecosystems.
- Up to 5 user profiles per subscription.
A closer look at the “Netflixes” of gaming
Assuming I didn’t leave anything too important out of the preceding bulleted list, maybe it’s time to point out ways in which such services differ from or are similar to Netflix and its ilk.
Apple’s gaming service adds roughly one a game per week since it launched, after starting with dozens of games on day one, depending on the Apple platform you want to focus one, though all games being available on macOS, iOS, iPadOS and tvOS upon release became the norm pretty quickly. It has nothing to do with streaming, all games show up individually in the App Store as the native apps they are but are only available to paying customers. Let’s make another list though.
- No streaming at all.
- Native apps only.
- Every game is a mobile exclusive, excluded from similar services and timed exclusive as far as every other platform is concerned.
- Achievements, matchmaking, cloud saves and the like are a given on the service, though they are not unique to it, they’re tools any game developer targeting these platforms can use.
- Apple doesn’t make games for the service or anyone else.
- In some cases Apple also acts as a producer.
- Up to 6 users supported per subscription through Family Sharing.
- Available (soon) at a discount through Apple One bundles.
With the exception of that last point, none of the other apply to Netflix. What’s more, Apple Arcade is another opportunity for Apple to lock users to its platforms which consequently means users are more likely to keep spending on Apple products and software that runs on Apple products.
GameClub is very interesting. It’s not connected to anything resembling a behemoth, it’s mobile only and so resembles Apple Arcade the most. What’s even more interesting is that GameClub updates older games that were no longer being supported by devs so that they can be run on newer OSes and mobile hardware. Going further yet, GameClub recently started porting PC and console games, previously unavailable for mobile, to iOS and Android.
- No streaming.
- Native apps only.
- Apps are standalone and free to subscribers.
- If someone purchased a game in GameClub’s collection way back when, the updated version is free, not locked behind the subscription.
- Mobile only (aka iOS and Android).
EA Play used to be EA Access and Origin Access until EA tried to make service branding a bit more sensible. Just a bit though. The service itself is still a strange beast and/or unique compared to propositions from other companies.
- Available on Xbox, PS4 and PC at the moment.
- Paid separately for each format.
- No game streaming.
- Native apps only.
- Different title roster on each platform, sometimes for technical reasons (like backwards compatibility being more flexible on Xbox right now).
- Mostly EA titles with few exceptions.
- Early access (up to 10 days) to new releases for up to 10 hours of play time before actual launch.
- Member-only content.
- In-game rewards.
- Access to The Play List (aka EA Vault) that includes full versions of many EA games with later titles being added after having spent some time (there’s no specific threshold it seems) on the market first.
- 10% off on EA digital purchases, including full games and DLC.
EA Play Pro
There’s also EA Play Pro which includes all EA Play features but it also differs in very specific ways.
- Only offered on PC.
- Gives unlimited access to deluxe versions up to 10 days before launch and thereafter.
- Includes a greater variety of games from developers and publishers other than EA.
Luna is Amazon’s game streaming platform. It really is the platform itself the rest of the rest of the service, the one consumers pay for, is built upon.
- Game code runs server-side, so the service relies on video streaming.
- Luna will most probably host Amazon games which are few and far between, problematic at launch even (so far).
- There is Twitch integration, a major force in the industry with its own set of perks through Prime Gaming, which is free for Prime Video subscribers and also part of Amazon Prime, where available.
It’s quite evident that Luna is another piece in a bigger puzzle for Amazon, not just a content play.
Which brings us to Luna+. Luna+ is essentially a paid channel on Luna, the only one available at this time, while the service is being tested in the US.
- All games are streamed to multiple platforms, through apps or web browsers.
- Amazon produces own controller.
- Luna has no background matchmaking, achievement systems etc.
Luna Channels are publisher-specific add-ons the first of which is going to be Ubisoft’s (you can pretty much rely on Ubisoft to jump at every chance to show up on a new platform/service). These are paid add-ons and at this point in time we don’t know how much Ubisoft will be charging for the extra channel that will obviously encompass most of the company’s content.
Interestingly channels have some leeway in terms of what they support and how. Since there are no underlying Luna platform services, Ubisoft will be free to use its own system, Uplay, to make everything work on the back end. So much so that while Luna+ allows for two users to play simultaneously through the same subscription, Ubisoft’s channels is said to allow just one. A lot can change in till the service graduates from Early Access. At the same time I feel what could seem inconsistent to the end user might as well be welcome flexibility for a big publisher. I wouldn’t bet on consistency winning out in the end if the opposite is treated as another way to lure in the big boys of the industry.
Nintendo Switch Online
I know Nintendo Switch Online is basically an outlier, I chose to include it in this write-up though since, as a subscription service, has more in common than not with other gaming services, sometimes in quite practical terms, other times conceptually.
- Allows for cloud saves.
- Gives access to online multiplayer.
- Technically provides voice chat functionality but, really, that’s just another facet of the online multiplayer feature set.
- Access to classic NES and SNES games, many times with added online functionality, on top of the emulation/porting work required to make such games run on the Switch.
- Exclusive hardware offers such as the ability to order special wireless NES and SNES controllers.
- Nintendo Switch Game Vouchers (the most “Nintendo” promo offer one could think of) that apply price reductions on Nintendo titles, even at launch.
- Exclusive original titles such as Tetris 99 and Super Mario Bros. 35.
What we have here is a gaming subscription service but certainly not related to streaming. Maybe that changes at some point, maybe it doesn’t, it’s still a paid service that provides access to content though, even if that means roughly two games per month (down from four earlier on, when PS3s and PS Vitas were still kind of active).
- Gives access to online multiplayer infrastructure.
- Doles out 2 games a month that remain in the user’s digital library but can only be accessed with an active subscription. The monthly have to be added manually by the user when they first become available or they ’re lost.
- Gives access to exclusive and/or deeper discounts on the PS Store, Sony’s digital game storefront.
- Provides cloud saving for all games.
- When on a PS5, users also gain access to the PS Plus Collection, 18 well-known PS4 games to play through backwards compatibility
PS Now started out as a pure game streaming service, much like Luna or Stadia, focusing on PS3 and some PS2 games. Later on the ability to download games to be played locally was added. The weird thing about PlayStation Now is that Sony has already shown willingness to change the service when change is needed but evolution has been so slow and Sony has been so cryptic that no one really knows where PS Now actually falls into the company’s overall plans.
- Streams PS2, PS3, PS4 games on PS4 and PC.
- PS2 and PS4 games can be downloaded on a PS4 and run on console.
- Online multiplayer is included, no separate PS Plus subscription needed.
- Game streaming only.
- There is a bespoke controller designed by Google.
- The free service tier puts a cap on image and audio quality (1080p60 HDR, stereo) and provides no games.
- Users can buy games much like they can on any other tradition platform (albeit only digitally) and then retain access and stream the game whenever they like.
- There are YouTube synergies that make Stadia sessions easy to pick up, share and show.
- Which is why there are obvious synergies with YouTube Gaming, YouTube’s Twitch competitor.
There’s also a paid tier though, called Stadia Pro. Naturally all points listed above still stand for Stadia Pro, but a subscription goes hand in hand with some extra benefits.
- Better audio visual quality (up to 4K60 HDR and 5.1 surround, depending on game and internet connection).
- Free monthly games that remain in user’s library but can only be accessed with an active subscription.
- Discounts on games sold through the platform digital store.
Uplay+ is a so far PC only service focusing on, you guessed it, Ubisoft’s titles alone.
- Gives access to over 100 Ubisoft games.
- No streaming (for now at least — a fresh deal with Parsec opens up some obvious possibilites.
- Includes new releases.
- Includes expansions and ultimate editions of games.
- Subscribers can have priority for beta testing.
- Will eventually be provided as a channel add-on through Google’s Stadia and Amazon’s Luna. You can count on Ubisoft to expand this at every chance and to every platform that allows for the “channel” approach.
Xbox Live Gold
Xbox Live Gold is basically the equivalent of PS Plus, even though it preceded Sony’s service. I’ll be living the free tier of the Xbox Live service (Silver) out as, really, nothing distinguishes it from base Xbox Live functionality which is essentially a platform feature, just like the PSN (PlayStation Network) is.
- The service provides access to multiplayer features.
- Gives out 4 games a month, 2 Xbox One games, another 2 from earlier Xbox generations, which can be added to a user’s library and from then on accessed as along there’s an active Xbox Live Gold subscription.
- Provides exclusive and/or deeper discounts on games sold through the platform’s digital storefront.
Xbox Game Pass for Console/PC
Then there’s Xbox Game Pass, in two versions, one for console, one for PC.
- Has nothing to do with streaming.
- All games are rendered locally.
- Offers access to over 100 either Xbox or PC games.
- Offers 20% discount for games in its catalog.
- Add every Xbox Game Studios title upon release.
- Many smaller titles show up on launch too.
- There’s rotation, meaning games are added each month, often in waves, while games are removed once a month.
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate surely is the star in Microsoft’s show as it combines multiple services. And then some.
- Includes Xbox Game Pass for PC.
- Includes Xbox Game Pass for Console.
- Includes Xbox Live Gold.
- Includes xCloud that allows most games to be streamed to (as of this writing) Android and Windows 10 devices.
- Starting November 2020, it will also include EA Play, EA’s subscription service, at no additional cost.
Xbox All Access
This is the more unique of the bunch as it’s basically a combo of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and console hardware, paid over 24 monthly instalments for a total cost that’s actually lower than paying for the exact same package individually. It’s a program offered through participating retailers only (to roughly a dozen countries at the tail end of 2020) and it makes more sense especially to gamers that are already determined to go for the whole thing.
Apples and not-apples
One can go through the features sets above and pretty quickly realise that there are some considerations that are unique to gaming and have no analogue to be found in the likes of Netflix. And that’s before contemplating the nature of gaming itself and whether it commands a business model that, at best, slightly harkens back a streaming video service’s initial high concept.
The game itself
It’s impossible to ignore the simple fact that a game —even at it’s most linear— is on average longer and more interactive than video of any kind but can also be specifically designed to be played time and again by gamers sharing the same space but, more importantly, the exact same gamer. The term of the hour —engagement, that is— with the content of a game is a completely different composition. Any company setting up a gaming service has to design it accordingly.
The playing of the game
With many games requiring an internet connection not just to function (in that an internet connection is must for streaming video to even be possible) but to function fully and properly, even if we leave multiplayer on the side. But multiplayer, especially, is, in a way, a game within a game (when it complements a solo campaign) or the game itself. It’s telling that Grand Theft Auto Online was added to the base game after initial release and remains quite the different beast that can stand on its own. Cyberpunk 2077’s online component won’t be there at launch and will be probably be arriving at least a year after the game’s debut.
And multiplayer isn’t just single player with more people in it, even when it looks like it. There are new issues to deal like network latency, matchmaking, community features, moderation, syncing of all sorts and more. These are added costs. Video, once produced, doesn’t need nearly the same amount of upkeep just to stay available and functional. In gaming marginal costs are different, buffering isn’t an option and local rendering isn’t just always better —performance-wise— but also a way of avoiding as much latency as possible. And, lest we forget, staying local always leaves the door open for some offline play too on those tough on your ISP days.
One more point to keep in mind is that multiplayer in all non-general computing platforms (i.e. dedicated gaming platforms) is not free and hasn’t been for years. You can have hardware, you can have access to content and still need to pay for multiplayer which, as it happens, is always part of a more… wholesome subscription product.
For all of this to gel new tech is being actively developed both by companies that hope to provide an end product themselves and by companies that hope to provide tools or be an intermediate platform for those that are not in a position or even willing to be counted in the former group of companies. Streaming video tech isn’t enough. It’s telling that we have, for the first time, controller designed to connect to a wireless router directly just to keep latency lower. These are all issues that someone has to pay for, develop for, built upon and make money on.
Content is king but also different
Not many games are as expensive as tentpole movie productions but some games can definitely be even more expensive. It can take more people to build a game all the while it’s fairly certain that game development takes more time. A small movie can be shot and ready within a few months. A small game (or, rather, a “small” game) can take multiple times the money sometimes due to the number of people involved or even in spite of it. This greatly changes the economics for a subscription service, as content has to be paid but in a way that makes it viable — not according to cinema’s or TV’s standards but by game standards. And that’s before considering what it means to port a game from one platform to another or what upkeep costs a developer has to cover after launching. By comparison video content is “fire and forget”.
Rules of engagement
While most platforms refuse to outline what determines who is getting paid how much when on a game service, streaming or not, we know customer engagement plays a role, even if a flat fee has been paid to a developer for inclusion. Microsoft monitors how many people play a game, not necessarily how much time they pour into it, which is a way to avoid longer games taking a bigger cut just for being longer. In video streaming engagement metrics might determine if an original productions will be renewed or followed up. Third-party content that shows up on Netflix and elsewhere though is provided on contract for a certain fee. The provider of said content is getting paid no matter what and it’s getting paid what’s been agreed upon, come hell or high water. As this isn’t the norm in the gaming industry, similar services just can’t function by simply emulating Netflix’s model.
Gluttony, a sin
Related to how developers are getting paid under a different plan compared to typical streaming video services, irrespectively of whether a game is downloaded first of just being streamed, is another notion inherited from the Netflix model: that the only way to improve a services value is to accumulate more and more games over time.
This idea is largely not applicable to games engagement with which has no predetermined length. What’s more, having a ton of games on a service makes surfacing it more challenging. This might not be much of an issue for the end-user, it might be for the developers though. If they’re also getting paid based by the number of people playing, people discovering their games gets quite important. Keeping rosters more manageable, clearly highlighting new additions instead of plunging gamers into a sea of tiles grouped in ways that make little rhyme or reason can mean more money for developers, more viable games in the long run. We all have spent too much time just trying to find something to watch on streaming services and not because we’re out of our minds and don’t know what kind of entertainment we’re after.
Xbox Game Pass has been quite good at this so far, with games getting off the service almost in proportion with games being added to it and very —very— clear presentation and promotion of new inclusions.
Different missions, different plays
Just a cursory examination of all services mentioned in this piece makes it quite easy to group them based on what they’re there to achieve and how they tend to function. And each group differs from the Netflix model in significant enough ways, even if to varying degrees, to make it something other than the “Netflix for games”.
Pure streaming (with channel support)
- Luna/Luna+/Luna Channels
- Stadia/Stadia Pro
One can argue that integration with YouTube and Twitch is a way to funnel customers to bigger bundles of Google and Amazon services. And while I believe this to be inevitable, we’re not there yet.
Prime Gaming (formerly Twitch Prime) is either stand-alone or bundled with Amazon Prime and Prime Video, not with Luna+. Integration strategy isn’t clear enough yet. If it’s strong and compelling, a user could be pushed to Prime Gaming and, by extension, to Amazon Prime or Prime Video, depending on the market. Until new bundling options rear their head, I feel compelled to keep Luna in this category.
Things are similar on Google’s side in terms of initial synergies. Worse still, YouTube Gaming doesn’t have a paid tier so synergies are only possible with YouTube Premium which, as a product, has zero gaming-focused benefits, other than providing respite from advertising.
In both cases it’s all about streaming. Any connection failure means a user has zero access to content. That’s arguably worse than Netflix and Prime Video given that such services allow users to download movies and episodes for offline viewing. This inability to download hurts Stadia the most as Google allows users to buy games at full price but only for streaming. How Google thought that allowing for people to pay full price while also allowing for scenarios that make it impossible to access bought content was a good message to get out is beyond me. But it’s happening.
Another difference, specific to Netflix this time, is that, as a video streaming platform, it doesn’t allow for channels as add-ons. Prime Video does, even though in a handful of markets only.
The service/channel hybrid
- EA Play/EA Play Pro
There are also services that can show up as part of other services, with their respective owners aiming for synergies and the biggest possibly visibility, even if that means customers don’t get locked into an app, UI or domain they control.
EA Play especially fits the bill as it’s offered through Steam, Xbox and PS4, but will soon also become another benefit for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers. The only thing EA Play doesn’t seem to support at the moment is some type of streaming. EA has yet to clear up their plans on any kind of streaming.
Uplay+ is a slightly different beast as it allows for game downloads on PC but will also function as a channel for streaming services such as Amazon’s Luna and Google’s Stadia.
This approach, streaming or not, more closely resembles the add-on system one has come to expect with service bundling of any sort and cable/subscription TV. Customer acquisition is the play here, no matter how it’s accomplished. All the more reason for some services to be available pretty much everywhere. I expect both EA Play and Uplay+ to keep showing their face on more and more places.
Part of a bigger play
- Apple Arcade
No one can argue, not with a straight face, that Apple aspires to become a big player in gaming in anything other than revenue. The company has been ― since its inception ― institutionally averse to gaming and whatever constitutes a gaming platform with truly multi-faceted content. Between said aversion and the belief that it’s best to be like Disney whenever possible, Apple probably has a list of things that gamers yearn for but it refuses to show interest in.
Until that changes Apple Arcade is part of a toolset, a family-friendly gaming service to promote stickiness to Apple’s platforms. It’s a service many people will end up with through Apple One, the bundle of services that has yet to launch. Maybe some care for Apple Arcade’s content in the long run, maybe some see it as nice to have and, naturally, some will genuinely appreciate it for what it offers. The important point is that, with Apple One in the mix, some will end up with an Apple Arcade subscription simply because the cost savings of a bundle make sense at a tier that includes the service, irrespectively of one’s interest in it.
Apple services are (also) here to shore up each other and, as a whole, breed platform loyalty in the long run. This is a very, very different role compared to comparable services from competitors.
GameClub is a different, more unique beast. It’s a gaming service no doubt. It has zero preoccupation with streaming as things stand. At the same time it also provides something that resembles a public service: it funds ports and updates of games that would otherwise would have been abandoned by their developers. That’s reason enough to wish the best to GameClub, even if — in the long run — it has to turn into a modern game archive to sustain itself and its different character.
For the gamers
- Nintendo Switch Online
- PlayStation Plus
- PlayStation Now
- Xbox Game Pass (PC/console/Ultimate)
- Xbox Live Gold
- Xbox All Access
These services deserve to be in a category of their own. They’re there to provide benefits and acquire platform and brand loyalty, regardless of anyone’s interest in game streaming. In these cases streaming is more of an option than raison d’être. Contrary to every other service mentioned in here, they don’t have to be profitable as streaming services in order to stand. They don’t even rely to their own value proposition in order to bring profit to their respective stakeholders. They exist to provide customers with reasons to stay within an ecosystem, as loyalty to any ecosystem brings ancillary revenue and profit. For every extra reason given to a consumer to stay within Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo probability of buying more games and services through them increases, as does their share on every transaction. Here platform stickiness is the end goal.
Said characteristics apply to Apple Arcade as well (maybe even Stadia but there are unique issues with ownership and access there that complicate things further for any consumer) but Apple Arcade is there to keep us within a constellation of general computing platforms. This group of services though are the only ones designed specifically to aim for the loyalty of the gamer-consumer, not just any consumer.
Netflix is just a metaphor. And it will stay that way.
The “Netflix for games” metaphor is an easy one to make, easier still to be comprehended by the most consumers possible. The arising fallacy, though, comes from the notion that gaming-focused subscription services are there to emulate Netflix’s paradigm, which by definition but also necessity has different goals while being based on different markets with very, very different economic realities that just can’t be ignored. Content is king but it’s also king when it’s time to design services around that content. Seeing as not all content was created equal, it stands to reason that not all services are to be created Netflix-style.
The distinction is vastly more important in a age when buzzwords used by analysts (who aren’t around to see things as consumers) seep through to the mainstream out of convenience and little else. Much like the average consumer isn’t an actual thing one can specifically target, the same goes with many other ideas we and so many others proliferate out of convenience. It’s not in the gaming industry’s advantage to lean too hard on the “Netflix for games” approach either. Imagine a day when India, the EU and other powerful markets ask of a gaming service to provide a certain minimum of locally produced content just to stay in that market. That’s just one thing the Netflixes of this world have had to deal with. Would it even be viable in the gaming space?
One can only imagine while looking at every recent game added to their subscription service of choice.