Opinion: Gamers Don’t Want A “Netflix of Video Games”
Earlier this week, Xbox Director of Programming Larry Hryb (aka Major Nelson) announced that the Xbox Game Pass was coming this Spring. For a fee of $10 per month, Xbox One owners (at first) will gain access to 100 games that they can download and play. Much like the Netflix model, the games are a rotating selection that can change each month, and they will vary from Xbox One titles and backward compatible Xbox 360 titles. Those in the preview program have alpha access to about 20 games ranging from titles like Halo 5: Guardians, Mad Max, and Payday 2 on the Xbox One as well as 360 titles like Fable III, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, and Lego Batman. This is the next step towards video games being much more like movies in that you can pay a flat rate and have access to a selection of titles and it takes those efforts one step further by allowing downloading to avoid the many troubles that streaming games currently has. There’s just one big problem: I don’t think gamers really want it.
It’s not just the Xbox Play Pass that gamers don’t want. We also don’t want Playstation Now, which is getting downsized at this moment to only support PC and PS4, but before that gamers didn’t really want Gaikai, OnLive, GameTap, or even the illustrious Sega Channel. I think this is more because it not only goes against the culture of what video games have always been, but it completely ignores the fact that a large portion of gamers play online with specific games. Personally I think this is a great idea for the non-hardcore gamer or even a house with gamer kids because it provides a steady stream of titles, some new for the month and some returning, that you can enjoy without the fear of returning a game, trading it in, or even your parents having to budget for it. If you play console or PC video games in 2017 you do not have a budgetary constraint for $10/mo, period. As a child my mother made me a deal to get the Sega Channel – I was of the lucky markets in the Chicago suburbs to gain access to the service – and for $15/mo I had 50 Genesis games in steady rotation that I could always play in return for the fact that I wouldn’t be buying new games. Maybe I would have grown tired of this model, but for the year or so I had the Sega Channel this totally worked for my 12-year-old self. As adult gamers, I don’t see this being popular at all because all adults like the freedom to choose what they do and gamers in particular are a finicky bunch dead set on keeping up with the zeitgeist. I assure you that the current month’s, or even year’s, best releases will never be a part of the selection.
Looking back at the history of video games, it’s always been this odd hybrid of experiences (like movies) and collecting (like figures). There’s something wonderful about tangibly holding the item you purchased, like somehow the world of the video game can be owned and coveted. In the 80s the way games were purchased and collected was simple: buy it, play it, keep it. This was even more the case when in the late 80s/early 90s Nintendo basically eliminated the concept of returning video games once they were opened. Trading with friends was probably a semi-common event, but otherwise you were stuck with your game. Then came FuncoLand. This little shop allowed you to get store credit by bringing in your used games, allowed you to demo these used games in the store to make your purchasing selection, and basically create the secondhand market of CDs and VHS tapes with video games. From that point on, this concept ends at what is basically the massive infrastructure of GameStop today and several other retailers that want in on a model that almost can’t lose money. Since the mid 90s the alternative gaming trend became purchase the game, play it, and trade it in to get other games. It really hasn’t changed much, only now it’s gotten a bit more dynamic with retailers wanting your brand new games back within 30 days and in return offer to give you at least half of what you paid for them. To me is a ridiculous model I would never get into but I know many of you readers like this setup. Finally there are the digital people, who purchase the rights to the game for life with no ability to trade in and nothing on the shelf, just pure experiences. This has taken a much longer time period to catch on and I suspect is still very far away from being the norm, which stems from the concept that you own nothing tangible and have no proof of the game world you bought. If you go digital, gone are the trade-in options, gone are the tangible collections, and gone is the past time that has basically been the last 30 years of owning video games.
I think with that much counter-culture you can’t expect gamers to get in on the Netflix model. Netflix subscribers view the $8-$12/mo they spend as almost not being there and often don’t use the service for much more than exclusive programming. Before it was the original content factory it is today, Netflix streaming was a great alternative to buying/renting movies provided you accepted that you cannot go into Netflix looking for a specific movie but rather to browse the selection and pick from what’s there. I don’t know that gamers are looking for that. For families, I think kids tend to want to play the same game over and over again (I know my daughter does), so the idea that your kids would get hooked to a game and then it gets rotated out will actually push you to leave the service and just buy the single game. Same is true of gamers who don’t want to buy games because it’s only a matter of time before they get hooked to some massive RPG or online shooter and then leave the program to just play that game. Even the gamer that wants access to everything will run into the fatigue that any emulation junkie will tell you about: in presence of too many games you simply can’t make a selection. If you’ve ever said that you have too many games available in an emulator to play only one, delete all but say 5-10 of those games and suddenly you’ll find yourself appreciating each title. This also leaves the picky gamer that will always say there’s “nothing on the service,” or “nothing on the service for me.”
Whether it’s the collector mentality, the trade-in mentality, or the picky mentality, I don’t think games were meant to be provided in the Netflix model. Once you get past all of the other obstacles and find a streaming-free inexpensive service with a slew of worthwhile games, the audience still will not buy into a service like the Xbox Play Pass. I think the simple answer is that video games are not like any other medium so a stipend feed of random games just doesn’t work. Games take interaction, dedication, and appreciation to play and complete, which is something I don’t feel many TV and movie viewers give to a lot of content they watch. If you watch a bad movie, so what, you’re out 90-120 minutes and you didn’t have to put in any effort. If you play a bad game, it could be tens of hours with countless frustration all to finish off something you hated. Xbox Play Pass, I fear, is doomed to fail not because it lacks true value – because it’s probably the best bundle that has ever been available – but rather because of the very nature of what it is. We don’t actually want a “Netflix of gaming.”
The views expressed in this piece are that of the author, Fred Rojas, and don’t necessarily match the views of Gaming History 101 or its other contributors.