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Games With Gold and PlayStation Plus free games: Change is inevitably coming

They started on consoles whose time is running out

God of War: Ascension - sad Kratos 1280 Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

We may be seeing the last days of the free games — Games With Gold, PlayStation Plus — as we’ve known them over the past eight years.

Not immediately or imminently, but the seeming exhaustion of the PlayStation 3’s pool of worthy free games candidates this year is both understandable and a foreshadowing of what’s to come for Xbox, which got into this free games racket three full years after Sony.

There is no question that Xbox One customers were better served this year. Of 74 games on PS Plus in 2017, six came from what I would consider major publishers other than Sony itself (Atlus, Capcom, Konami, Square Enix and Ubisoft — and Ubisoft’s contribution was a carved out DLC expansion to Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag). Xbox got 18 out of 48 (2K Games, Electronic Arts, Square Enix and Ubisoft). Leaving aside their MSRP or the Metacritic score, that is what players are thinking when they hear, “You get free games each month.”

I don’t mean to be a brute who only recognizes what’s on sale at the Walmart, and these services are a worthy means of introducing players to some stuff they may never have considered. Sony in particular has shown strong support for indies, particularly through the PS Vita and cross-buy support to the consoles.

But I doubt anyone in PlayStation’s installation base is rubbing their hands together for Not a Hero or Disc Jam or Kung Fu Panda: Showdown of Legendary Legends — all of which are PS4-only titles, mind you. On the PS3 level, it’s even more anonymous. Blood Knights, Monster Jam Battlegrounds, Xblaze Lost: Memories. And even if there were some under-appreciated indie gems sprinkled into each month, the Metacritic averages for PlayStation Plus are decisively bad. Twenty-four PS3 titles combined for a 66.1 Metacritic average in 2017’s PS Plus lineup. Xbox 360’s 24 games averaged 75.8, and on average were twice as old.

For whatever reasons, Sony doesn’t have the means of getting third-party publishers to contribute their back catalog to PlayStation Plus the way they do to Games With Gold — leaving Sony to pick up the slack. It published the most games available on its own service by far — 13 titles. And yet Sony seems unwilling to open up the thing that distinguishes the PlayStation platform the most — those first-party exclusives like The Last of Us (now four years old on PS3), God of War 3 or the God of War Collection, or Uncharted and Uncharted 2.

Microsoft’s other advantage is backward compatibility, which gives a golden oldie like Dragon Age: Origins new relevance now that people can put it on the newest console. I can’t, even argumentatively, obligate Sony to make a technological breakthrough when I have no idea what that really requires, but the company has shown repeatedly over the years it can accommodate previous-generation titles for play on the current console. It just prefers to then sell them individually as a new product through the PlayStation Store.

Yet the two-year decline of PlayStation Plus free games, and especially an anemic showing that cannot be blamed on the Vita (72.4 Metacritic average for 24 titles in 2017), points the program’s future in one of two directions: An increasingly scattered, unexciting sop to an audience now captive (as multiplayer on PS4 requires PS Plus); or encouragement to move over to its PlayStation Now streaming games service, with limited access, trials and other inducements.

It’s not hard to imagine PlayStation saying, “You can play Uncharted 4 for free on PlayStation Now — and you can keep playing it forever if you sign up for this special rate offered to PS Plus subscribers.” PlayStation Now offers all-you-can eat subscriptions at $19.99, but also a-la-carte rental options, so plainly it has the agility to work in some kind of limited access. It still obviates the premise of the free games under PlayStation Plus, which are kept forever as long as the subscription is active. So Sony would have to figure out how players would maintain access to those if PS Plus free games are done away with.

But I think that day is coming. Sony is visibly placing priority on its recurring revenue services — PlayStation Vue, PlayStation Video, PlayStation Music and the like — and just installed the former boss of these services, John Kodera, as the chief executive for Sony Interactive Entertainment. And unlike the PlayStation 3 with online multiplayer, Sony beat Microsoft to the punch with PlayStation Now, launching that almost two years before Xbox Game Pass.

Microsoft’s position is a lot more tenable in the meantime, even if it will eventually face the same kind of problem Sony does: running out of nameplate Xbox 360 games to serve up for free. Still, the backward compatibility with Xbox 360 (and original Xbox, introduced in October) doesn’t just avail Games With Gold of some platinum hits to keep things looking spiffy. It helps a lot when it comes time to stop supporting that console.

Sure, Microsoft will say, you can still play the Gears of War 3 you downloaded (in July 2015) — if you have an Xbox One. But when PlayStation 3 finally goes, Mass Effect 2 (free in November 2015) goes with it, and people are gonna be mad about that. The longer the PS3 is a part of PS Plus, the more Sony is going to be scrounging to find new games for it while it looks for a way to give subscribers what they’ve already paid for. And Sony plainly does not have the help of Electronic Arts, Ubisoft or 2K Games if this year is any indication.

That said, Microsoft also has Xbox Game Pass ($9.99 a month) and a deep desire to get people onto that recurring revenue plan, too. Games With Gold closed out 2017 with two weak months of its own and there’s little incentive to open the year, after the orgy of holiday buying, with name-brand stuff, meaning a third snoozer is on deck. I could likewise see Xbox Live moving in a similar direction to its streaming games service, to quit while it’s ahead to avoid what’s fallen upon PlayStation — uninteresting titles, a sense that free means little value or interest, and a never-ending headache to find more free games.

Sony started this concept in 2010 as a way to get people to sign up for a premium subscription service, which it had neglected to establish for the PS3 because online multiplayer was offered for free since that console’s launch. PlayStation Plus was a tremendous idea. It was, for a solid five years, one of the best values in video gaming, if not the best value in video gaming. I literally have a three-ring binder on my shelf to tell me what I’ve downloaded, because for sure it won’t all fit on my PS3 — or PS4, even with an external hard drive. Sony’s innovation forced Microsoft into offering similar value for its mandatory online service, and was a big part of the PlayStation 3’s turnaround to toe-to-toe competitiveness with, even superiority to, the Xbox 360 following a notoriously slow beginning. Maybe it even saved the console. It sure as hell didn’t hurt.

By the time the PlayStation 4 launched in 2013 with a mandatory PS Plus subscription to access online multiplayer, players might have complained but they quickly acquiesced, and not simply because there was no alternative. The past four years, they had seen what they were getting in return for PS Plus, and liked it. That is now running out. Microsoft still has at least two years if it stands pat with its Games With Gold approach, maybe longer given major third-party publishers’ apparent willingness to help it more than Sony.

Either way, this is a concept that began on the last console generation, and when they finally go, so will it.

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