Wednesday 31 July 2019

AAA Rental

When I was young, we used to go to the local video rental store in the nearest town and rent games. Initially this was computer games, including manuals etc in a plastic sleeve that allowed you to enter the correct code to start the game (back when code wheels or typing in a word on a page of the manual confirmed you weren't a pirate). A few years later it was mainly consoles, renting both hardware and a video game for the weekend. The store purchased games and then more than made the money back renting them out - all thanks to the concept of the first sale doctrine (which lobbying from software developers means isn't actually part of the legal framework in many places when it comes to games (?) but still guides what many think of as legal interactions with copyrighted material). Years later, when economic realities made collecting a proper library of games impossible for some years, I used to rent AAA console games via post (many of which I finally got into my library via used sales on last-gen titles no longer sold new).

One of the things that the recent transition to digital has done is really slow down those rental markets. Along with eroding used sales, the game rental services have also found it hard to operate in a world where publishers looked to things like Project $10 (EA making it so a one-time key unlocked content in a new game) and now look to digital as the primary platform to sell games (where there is no physical token to rent out which enables play). But never fear, publishers are stepping into the gap with their own rental offerings.

The biggest player right now is probably Microsoft with GamePass. Some might consider this "the Netflix model", with a mix of their own brand new content and content they're buying in from 3rd party publishers. Others have pointed to Spotify. I've previously said that Spotify (+ Apple Music + Google Music) could actually pay for the music industry as it is (artists are being ripped off by bad contracts, not a lack of consumer cash pumping into the system) but I'm somewhat concerned that gaming (an industry roughly an order of magnitude bigger) may not actually be able to be sustained by subscriptions in the short to medium term.

What makes me doubly concerned on that front is that some publishers have extremely deep pockets right now and so could lose money for a long time on subscriptions before pumping up the price to consumers once many other avenues for playing games had become eroded by artificially cheap subscriptions. That is the model of "disruption" used by plenty in tech with VC backing. As of right now, it's hard to ague with the value on offer (especially as something you subscribe to for a specific game & then dive into the archives and then unsubscribe - not really analogous to TV or music you like to have playing in the background so always want to be subscribed to at least one service with all the classics you enjoy).

As a player of games right now, it seems great to be able to jump through a large archive of games for about $10 per month. With that including the latest releases from the publisher offering the subscription, I don't see why I'd pay $60-100 for a AAA release on launch. With EA even offering a cheaper option if you're not interested in their latest releases and Ubisoft saying their upcoming service will also include all DLC and premium editions - it's starting to look like quite a poor option to give $60 for a brand new game and miss out on DLC when you could rent it once at launch and again when the DLC has all come out while still having more than enough cash in your pocket left to buy it on sale eventually if you want a permanent copy for your library.

This year I've been playing a lot of older games in between trying out subscription services. Sometimes I'm even doing so based on wanting to see credits roll in a game I've owned for a while but never completed before jumping into a sequel I never got round to buying (but is now available on these rental platforms). I've also noticed that once a game appears on a subscription list, I'm probably taking it off a store wishlist - I'll get round to it next time I subscribe rather than watching for an attractive sale price to buy it now. Another thing I've watched myself doing is treating everything like it's on a clock when you're subscribed and that ends up helping to keep me going (rather than getting distracted by reading or something else and not playing anything for a few weeks) - very Battle Pass energy but for games that aren't so multiplayer focussed or reliant on F2P hooks.

It's probably too early to predict how everything shakes out but I certainly think we're in for some turbulent times as everyone figures out how gaming adapts to publisher-driven rentals vs ownership. Ubisoft seem to be doing extremely well with maintaining extended support for their online games and providing several seasons (Year 4 Pass for Siege? Sounds a lot like a slow-mode Battle Pass) of updates for premium games - that likely maps well to pushing a subscription service, although I'm not sure their price point is ideal (lacking the cheap tier that EA has for people who only want older content). Will EA finally resurrect their proposed TV model of narrative? Games as a Service (as they currently do it) has maybe not been working out ideally at EA (without the huge revenue from gambling-like experiences in FIFA etc, disappointments like Anthem would probably be a lot harder for EA to work through) so it might be time for another strategy (as their subscription service finally arrives on the biggest console after Sony have agreed to let it onto their platform).

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