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Spending $60 on a video game doesn’t make sense anymore

The Netflix model is here

Three characters from Gears 5, known as Hivebusters, in key art from Gears 5. The Venom, a chemical weapon meant to kill the Hive and everything in it, chases them as they fire back over their shoulder into the mist.
Artwork from Gears 5.
The Coalition/Xbox Game Studios

It used to be, if you wanted a video game at launch, you’d pop into a store and set down $60. Maybe that store was brick and mortar, or maybe it was a digital boutique, but the expectation was always the same. You pay a premium, and you get to own the game.

In 2019, the calculus is entirely different.

Lately, I’ve found myself debating whether or not full-on purchasing new games was actually the wisest decision in the face of a cheaper option. When Gears 5 was released, for example, my Xbox One offered two choices: I could snag the game for $59.99 ... or I could pay $9.99 for an Xbox Game Pass subscription and play it right away. I wouldn’t truly own Gears 5, of course, but I thought to myself: How long would I actually be playing it, long-term? Do I need to have Gears 5 “forever”? Couldn’t I just save some money now and buy it later if I really wanted it?

Plus, I thought: If I did get bored of Gears 5, Game Pass gives me plenty of other games to try. Or I can just cancel the whole thing outright. Lo and behold, I am now a Game Pass subscriber. Judging from the numbers hailing from the launch, many players seem to have undergone the same thought process I did. According to Microsoft, 3 million people enjoyed Gears 5 at launch thanks to Game Pass, making it the “biggest launch week of any Xbox Game Studios title this generation.”

Paying full price for a game has always been a foolish choice, of course. Without fail, seemingly every new title gets knocked down 10-20 dollars within a couple of weeks now, if not more. It’s also increasingly common for high-profile games to have rocky launches. And depending on your console of choice, game prices may be more or less set. Even so, the considerations that a potential video game buyer needs to make are shifting more rapidly across the board now.

Thursday, for instance, marks the release of Apple Arcade, a new subscription program where players can download dozens of titles for the low price of $4.99 a month. At first, I wasn’t considering adding yet another subscription to my repertoire — it already feels like I’ve got more than I track. But then I noticed that a handful of games I did want to buy on other platforms, like Sayonara Wild Hearts and Mutazione, were all coming to Apple Arcade too.

What makes more sense? Purchasing each game piecemeal for $15 or $20, or paying five dollars and getting them all? Needless to say, I’m patiently awaiting the launch of the iOS service on iPhone now. They’ve got me.

Whether or not this turn of events actually benefits game developers in the long term is yet to be seen, but we already know that even a full $60 can’t cover the ballooning costs of making a video game. Racing to the bottom line like this may seem grim, but there are apparent upsides. One developer participating in the Apple Arcade program tells that the model seems beneficial, because players are less likely to feel like they’ve wasted money on a short game when they’ve got plenty more to peruse after they’re done.

“One of the things that’s good about subscription in general is there’s no direct one-for-one value transaction ... it unshackles the finances from the experience,” said Ustwo Games’ Dan Gray.

I can already see the ways this value proposition changes the way I look at games. On Game Pass, I’m actively considering titles I probably wouldn’t have ever actually bought under normal circumstances. And if I find out they’re bad or just OK? Well, it’s not as if I spent much money on them, right?

This approach is consistently referred to as the Netflix model, but here’s the thing about the Netflix model. At one point, Netflix was my go-to service for curing boredom. Nowadays, though, while there are occasionally standouts like American Vandal and BoJack Horseman, I still often have to sort through endlessly mediocre content that doesn’t strive to be any better than it needs to be. The content doesn’t need to be “good,” just good enough. We haven’t gotten to that point yet with video games, but taking the model to its natural conclusion paints a potentially unsettling picture. For now, though, the savings may block everything else out, as far as players are concerned.

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