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Are subscription-based games the future?

The video game industry doesn’t sit still for long. Whether it’s the launch of a new device, the emergence of a new genre or a shift in the way consumers buy and experience games, the sector is in a period of unprecedented change.

While consoles from companies like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo once dominated the market with premium big-budget titles, the rise of smartphone gaming has led to the takeover of free to play titles.

These games, which earn most of their profits through adverts and microtransactions within the apps that house them, have turned the industry on its head. Players used to pay upfront for the latest game releases, but now most of the world’s highest grossing games are free to play. The catch is that you’ll be regularly asked to spend money on downloads and customisation features.

Fortnite, which has been the world’s highest grossing game for two years in a row, epitomises this business model. It earned $2.4 bn in 2018 and $1.8bn in 2019, making most of its profits through in-game purchases such as ‘loot boxes’ containing a random assortment of virtual items.

Yet this approach to earning revenue isn’t without controversy: excessive spending on randomised items has been labelled as a form of gambling for children, leading some players to develop unhealthy and expensive addictions to freemium games.

To play high quality games without the distracting ads and microtransactions that the free to play market depends on, players must typically pay upfront, either through a digital shopfront like the App Store or by purchasing a physical copy of the title in question.

But now there’s a new way to play: subscription-based game streaming services like Apple Arcade offer an extensive library of ad-free games in exchange for a small monthly fee. Could this be the next big disruptor for the gaming industry?

A wider audience

Paying for streaming services has become widely accepted by consumers of film, TV and music, with companies like Netflix and Spotify redefining the way that people watch and listen. With its Arcade platform, Apple appears to be banking on games as the next logical step for paid streaming subscriptions.

Some developers agree that this is a positive direction for the games industry to be headed in. Ryan Cash, founder and CEO of Toronto-based game studio Built By Snowman, is hopeful that services like Apple Arcade can make gaming a more accessible medium for players around the world.

“I’m hoping we see something similar to what we’ve seen with TV streaming and its effect on the industry,” says Ryan, whose company developed two games for Apple Arcade: Where Cards Fall and Skate City. “We’ve always wanted to reach as large of an audience as possible with the games we make, and Apple Arcade lets us do this.

“I think the most exciting thing is that more people will get into games. People who don’t consider themselves gamers will be encouraged to try things out. With a wide variety on offer, I think a lot of people will find that there’s actually something they’d be interested in, and the medium will hopefully find new appreciation through this.”

Room for experimentation

Another advantage that comes with subscription-based game services such as Apple Arcade is the opportunity for players to try out games they might otherwise have overlooked. From niche genres to experimental creations, the platform is already home to numerous imaginative titles that are being introduced to players alongside more tried-and-tested formats.

Samuel Partridge of Stave Studios, the London-based game company responsible for Apple Arcade game Over The Alps, is excited by the prospect of subscription-based game services expanding consumer tastes.

“The breadth of the audience, combined with player’s ability to dip in and try things they might not have done if a purchase was involved, made Apple Arcade a natural fit for us,” explains Samuel. “Stave makes singular, narrative, and ‘stealth weird’ games which are not always an easy sell. Apple Arcade brought us to such a wide audience. For example, we now have more players in Russia than in the UK and we know we are popular with a lot of non-gamers.”

Ryan Cash of Built By Snowman is similarly enthusiastic about Apple Arcade’s potential to shine a spotlight on new and original creations. “I think we’ll see more experimental, higher quality and more innovative games in the coming years,” he comments. “The future looks bright.”

Challenges ahead

There’s a lot to get excited about with the emergence of subscription-based gaming services, but what kinds of challenges will Apple Arcade and other streaming platforms present for independent game developers? 

“Any creative or business endeavour has many challenges, so perseverance is really one of the most important things for developers to keep in mind,” reckons Ryan. “If something doesn’t work out, examining why and trying to learn from your mistakes is the best way forward. We’re excited to see what the future of gaming brings, in terms of hardware, software and services.”

According to Stave’s Samuel Partridge, creating games that can be accessed by a global audience will be increasingly important as the industry moves into new territory.

Translations will be more important than ever,” predicts Samuel. “Chinese gamers are making their presence known but Russian, Japanese, Portuguese and Arabic ports may become standard for every game in 10 years time. Being on Apple Arcade meant we got to translate our game into 15 languages, which was a massive plus for us.” 

While Apple Arcade and similar services do look set to change the way that many consumers discover and play games, the future of the industry will likely be multi-faceted.

Free to play and premium console games continue to appeal to audiences around the world, so it’s unlikely that subscription-based services will take over completely. Instead, players will have the freedom to choose how they pay for the games they consume; in app, upfront, or via subscription. 


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