Amazon has announced Luna, yet another stab at game streaming and subscriptions. It seems like the failures of Apple Arcade, Stadia, Gamefly and our oft forgotten OnLive have not been effective deterrents. Not to be outdone, Rovio’s Hatch continues to drain money every quarter. Perhaps this is what Bezos warned shareholders about when discussing new “multibillion-dollar failures”.
And despite overwhelming failures, media pundits like Matthew Ball prop-up skin-deep arguments in favor game streaming and subscriptions. Instead of discussing about why game streaming and subs might work, let’s talk about why they haven’t worked.
It’s important to understand the brother/sister relationship of streaming and subs. Subscriptions unlock zero-marginal cost content consumption. Once you’ve paid Netflix or Spotify $10, there’s $0 additional explicit cost to consume another movie or song. However, there are transactions cost. In the “before times”, customers had to mail DVDs back to Netflix to receive the next DVD in their queue. This effectively limited how much content customers could consume in a given month. If mailing took 3 days in transit, on a 1 DVD at-a-time plan, a customer could only consume 10 DVDs in a 30 day month. This assumes the customer turned around DVDs instantly. Furthermore, the “queue” forced customers to plan consumption habits in advance rather then at the point of consumption. If you wanted Love Actually on Friday, but by Monday you were in more of a Pretty Woman mood then you’re shit out of luck. Let’s not forget that new releases were in strong demand, meaning it could be weeks before Transformers 3 lands in your mailbox. Steaming solved all this.
Non-steaming subs like Game Pass and EA Play exist in a weird middle, solving some, but not all of these issues. Games are distributed digitally, but not instantly. A game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare can take 3-4 hours to download on a 135 Mbps connection. SSD’s aren’t cheering at the prospect of 200GB games either. But once streaming takes-off for games these problems are solved, right? No storage needed!
The incredible rise of free-to-play and GaaS (Games as a Service) render subs and streaming largely valueless to the player. Players do not consume games like TV or music, a fact that should have been made obvious in the last decade. Players are playing fewer titles in a given year, but are playing the fewer titles for longer periods of time. Games solve the content problem in a way that other mediums simply can’t.
The content consumed in a game like Overwatch or Clash Royale is the pursuit of strategy equilibrium and/or mastery of mechanics. A new unit in Clash Royale, for instance, can change how players organize their decks, even if they don’t use the unit directly (they must counter it). This can provide hundreds of new hours of content to consume relative to the near 1 man-week of labor to produce a new unit. Therefore, the content output of a given member of the 16 person (!) Clash Royale team is astronomical. Compare this to the thousands of crew members and weeks necessary to produce even a single one hour episode of Game of Thrones. It’s impossible for supply to keep pace with demand in the world of TV and movies. Netflix makes sense in this view because after binging 9 seasons of The Office, customers can immediately rip into 7 seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s another reason why back catalogs are so much more important to Netflix then they are to something like Game Pass. If players are only investing in 3-4 new games a year, then the transactions cost reduction streaming provides is extremely small compared to the benefit it provides in high unit consumption TV and music.
It’s a similar story for the failure of gaming subs. If players are only consuming 3-4 titles a year, subscriptions don’t make economic sense to players. Not to mention these 3-4 new titles are increasingly becoming free. In the West alone, League of Legends, Fortnite, Apex, Warzone, and now Rocket League are dominating playtime. And let’s not forget the entirely F2P ecosystem of mobile. The march to F2P in the West will continue as long as MTX revenues grow and box revenues shrink. There isn’t a whole lot to save by signing up for $100 a year sub and streaming service when Fortnite doesn’t cost a dime.
Game streaming and subs don’t solve billion dollar problems for the player. In the absence of doing so, subs and steaming will continue to flounder.