Video Game Subscription Services are Confused, and it’s Frustrating
As an increasing number of consumers decide to cut their cable cords and ravish an age-old industry, another trend has been pulled up almost hand-in-hand: subscription services. Companies like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube give customers a different way to watch on-demand and original content that has the traditional cable bundle an expendable utility in 2018. And in recognition of the success of those companies, plenty of other players—including those same cable providers who’ve suffered at the hands of streaming services—to launch their own alternative services.
With the success of the subscription model in media, other industries have tried to adopt similar business principles with mixed results. In the apparel space you’ve got things like Trunk Club, Birchbox, and Rent the Runway; food services like HelloFresh, Blue Apron, and Home Chef offer quick and easy meal prep; Dollar Shave Club is another one that comes to mind. Even dogs can have their own subscription service with something like BarkBox.
What all of these services seem to have in common is that they help the subscriber accomplish something in life that is otherwise a necessity. You have to eat; you have to wear clothes; you don’t really have to own a dog, but if you do, you have to keep them happy.
Then there’s the video game industry.
Video game subscription services have been around since at least 2002 when GameFly was launched. Similar to the early days of Netflix, GameFly would send out hard copies of video games to its subscribers with the promise of no late fees and a bottomless library of content. And, also like Netflix, GameFly has evolved over time to include digital content and other added benefits. It’s the type of service that seems fairly straightforward and easy for others to try to imitate—and that’s exactly what has happened over the past decade or so. But unlike the video streaming market, the video game industry has turned subscription models into some sort of wild circus with no real strategy or consensus around things like pricing and benefits to the subscriber.
These services are really all over the place. For starters, you’ve got video so many different players trying to capitalize on the subscription craze. Individual studios have launched their own subscription programs—like EA with their Origin Access Premier service. Third party services like GameFly are still around doing their thing. Retailers like GameStop have tried (and failed) to get into the subscription model game. And then there are the hardware manufacturers themselves—Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo—who each have online subscription programs. So, if you’re keeping tabs at home, you can subscribe to video game programs through game makers, game sellers, gaming platforms, and third-party gaming companies.
It get’s more confusing though, I promise. Some of the services are specific to a certain platform. EA’s Origin Access program, for example, costs $14.99 a month or $99.99 annually and is a for computer games exclusively. They do offer other services that get the user console gaming options. And clearly the PlayStation, Nintendo, and Microsoft services are specific to the hardware and software made for those companies’ consoles. But it gets worse. Sony and Microsoft have different layers to their subscription models and even some different offerings altogether. Sony has PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now, for example—which I can’t even begin to tell you the differences between the two programs—while Microsoft has Xbox Live Gold and Xbox Game Pass. They all have different monthly prices yet they appear to give you access to mostly the same content.
If your head isn’t spinning yet, just wait until we get into the cost of these services. Here’s a quick rundown on some of the more popular video game subscription services:
- Nintendo Switch Online (launching mid-September): $3.99 for one month; $7.99 for three months; $19.99 for one year; $34.99 one-year family membership, up to seven others can join
- PlayStation Plus: $9.99 for one month; $24.99 for three months; $59.99 for a year
- PlayStation Now: $19.99 for one month; $29.99 for three months; $99.99 for a year
- GameFly: One-game-at-a-time prices: $26.95 for three months, $67.50 for six months, and $148.95 for a year; Two-game-at-a-time prices: $36.50, $95.95, and $211.95 respectively.
- Xbox Game Pass: $9.99 per month or $59.99 for six months, via The Verge
But why? Why do we need so many options, and why do they have to be all over the board? The same is sort of true with TV streaming services, but you’re talking about an audience there that is far less niche. Active TVs, smartphones, and laptops in the U.S. collectively outnumber the total population probably several times over. A little more than half of Americans (162 million) own a video game console according to the Entertainment Software Association—the group that organizes E3. Looked at a little differently, data on Statista show that just 22 percent of internet users worldwide own a gaming console. That’s a niche market if I’ve ever seen one.
Subscription fatigue is a real thing, and there’s no worse offender than the video game industry. In an effort to carve out a little extra slice of revenue, all the industry has done is confuse consumers with an overabundance of options and unclear pricing models.