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Kids to Santa: give us V-bucks this Christmas

A new survey finds game subscriptions and in-game currency at the top of gift wishlists

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Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Kids in the United States really want video game gifts for Christmas, according to survey results published on Nov. 20 by the Electronic Software Association. Video game-related gifts top wish lists — just eking out asks for money, clothes, and non-games electronics. But of the kids surveyed, 39% of kids plan to ask for game subscriptions, followed by consoles (38%), gear and accessories (32%), in-game currency (29%), and physical video games (22%).

The ESA surveyed 501 children ages 10 to 17 from Sept. 20 to Oct. 6, as well as 500 adults ages 18 to 65 — all from the United States — to get these results. Fifty-nine percent of girls and 86% of boys are looking for video game gifts under the Christmas tree.

Digital video game sales have only continued to overtake physical sales since the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of digital-only consoles. But beyond how much easier it is to buy games directly from a console, the shift is further evidence of much of the industry’s push toward live-service games paying off — at least for the money line. Subscriptions and virtual, in-game items count for half of console spending, according to Ampere Analysis and as reported by Financial Times. You can see this reflected in the stuff kids are asking for in their stockings: game subscriptions and in-game currency, like Fortnite’s V-bucks or Roblox’s Robux, to spend on the games they’re already playing.

Games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Destiny 2 act as “forever” games for players to access for free; the companies that make these games make money by selling access to virtual rewards, like skins to customize avatars. A platform like Roblox is similarly free-to-play, but gives players access to a number of different games via the platform, most of which have aspects that players can buy into with virtual currency. These sorts of games reward players for coming back repeatedly — playing more and more. And the success of the genre means more and more companies are getting into the live-service game business.

Beyond ways to spend money on live-service games, kids also want access to game subscriptions. The ESA told Polygon via email that PlayStation Plus, Xbox Game Pass, Nintendo Online, and Apple Arcade are services that were included in the game subscriptions category, not battle passes, which were a category of their own. There’s a big difference between game subscription services and battle passes: The latter is a pervasive feature of live-service games, while a service like PlayStation Plus or Xbox Game Pass is comparable to a Netflix subscription. Game subscriptions let subscribers access tons of games as no extra cost, and huge titles are often available via these services on release day. It’s a model that’s worked incredibly well. Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer said in October that Xbox Game Pass is profitable for the companydespite the high cost of putting games on the platform — and accounts for 15% of Microsoft’s content and services revenue.

ESA’s survey results are a reflection of the way the video game industry appears to be moving, as companies focus efforts less on single-player games and more on the “everything game” that players can continually invest their time and money in. Sony Interactive Entertainment, for instance, has 12 live-service games in production as of May 2023. Still, live-service games, however, are a major risk for companies, as Axios reported in 2021, because they require massive investment from developers, too.

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