The challenges of subscription-based gaming in Europe
22. 12. 10.
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The last 15 years have witnessed major changes in the way we design and consume games made possible by better and faster internet connections, and new (mobile) technologies. Where computer games were once bought as physical copies in a retail shop, and then required the player to spend hours in front of the family computer or gaming console of the living room, games can now be played everywhere and at any time. But this has not only changed how we consume games, but also how games are designed and put to market. A range of very different new business models and monetization schemes have emerged such as games-as-service, microtransactions, cloud-gaming, in-game advertising along with collectibles and NFT´s and so forth.
These major disruptions have not come unnoticed by players. However, to get an idea of how this have impacted players it is first necessary to understand the broader cultural context in which games are played. Since games are a global phenomenon, this obviously differs between different regions of the world. In this article, I will discuss games culture from a European perspective.
Gaming culture and identity in Europe
Historically, what characterizes the European game market was the popularization of the personal computer and a thriving scene for amateur game making and bootlegging. Playing games was – and still is – not just a pastime it is a serious culture and a lifestyle. More recently this gaming lifestyle have typically involved buying very expensive gaming hardware and spending hours upon hours in front of the computer. This also meant that for a long time, gaming was considered a sub-culture for the dedicated few and being a “member” of this subculture was signified through the technical specs of one’s gaming equipment along with the achievements made. Games have been described as a meritocracy, meaning that it is a site where players´ status is dependent on how well they play. In this context, playing well means working hard, rather than being lucky. It is also important to understand that this meritocracy extends beyond the virtual environment of games but seeps through the entire gaming ecology. This is not trivial. It means that the virtue of one’s very identity as a gamer is defined through hard earned objects and achievements that becomes extensions of oneself.
This of course in part changed with the introduction of casual games on gaming platforms such as the Nintendo Wii and games developed for mobile devices. It is well-known that casual games made gaming way more accessible to a broader range of people and challenged the norms of the hardcore “sub-culture” segment of gamers. Still, the distinction between the “real”, hardcore gamers, and those casual players who will only occasionally dedicate a few hours or even minutes to play, persist. The point here is, that where casual play is an activity, hardcore gaming becomes an identity.
How cloud-gaming challenge gamer identity
Recently there have been much talk about how new business models ruins gaming. How is this so? One possible answer is that they challenge the construction of the gamer identity described above. One of the most significant recent developments that cannot be neglected is cloud-based gaming and remote play services. The failure of Google Stadia provides an illustrative example of how cloud gaming challenges the existing practices and values of gamers. Even before Google Stadia was initially launched it was received as “Netflix for games”. Stadia carried a double promise to game developers as well as players. For developers, it promised them instant access to a potentially very large audience, along with extensive economic support for the development of future titles. For players, Stadia promised an abundance of games, including new, major releases, in addition to an extensive back catalogue of older titles, which could be played at any time and on any device. All of this for a fixed monthly rate. Of course, as we know, Stadia did not deliver on these ambitious promises, and the reason is well-known: a lack of exclusive blockbuster games to attract players to the service, that developers had to port their games to get them on Stadia in the first place, and that players therefore needed to buy games they already owned in order to play them on the service. And that Google entered the gaming industry as an outsider and without credibility in the games industry as well as among players.
However, underlying these reasons might be a more substantial problem: that Stadia challenged the very construction of the gamer identity. Stadia´s promise to make games accessible at any time and on platform basically made the need for expensive dedicated gaming hardware obsolete. This all sounds good but remember that ownership of expensive gaming hardware was a defining trait of the hardcore gamer. Stadia therefore did not only offer access to an abundance of games, but also to an abundance of less dedicated players, and by doing this, it also flattened the established hierarchies within game culture. Another important aspect related to hard-earned achievements, which I earlier described as extensions of the gamer identity. Also in this regard, Stadia had problems. As players no longer owned a copy of the gaming software, but subscribed to a service that gave them aces to it, they also feared to lose their sense of ownership of the hard work they put into the games along with the successes and achievements it had earned them, Finally, the fact that Google came to disrupt and conquer the market as an outsider also made them suspect, not least to European gamers where amateur game-making has been such a significant aspect of the early days of game making. Where other stakeholders in the industry was maybe often considered as “home-grown” in gaming culture, Google was seen as this big corporation, who wanted to take over a cherished culture, just to earn money.
A threat to the virtous player
Stadia was of course only one of a range of emerging subscription services for games, and other services, most notably Xbox Game Pass. Even though Xbox Game Pass have been a bigger success worldwide, as well as in Europe, there are still plenty of gamers who remain critical of Game Pass. Again, I believe this has to do with a lack of ownership, and with the lowering of the threshold to the “subculture” of hardcore gaming. But is also part of a more general resent of the new forms of gaming and monetization that supposedly ruins proper game culture. The arrival of casual games, and particularly those played on Facebook or other social media, was often framed at best as substandard and at worse as not actual games. Likewise, the lack of up-front payment in freemium games were seen as something that polluted the game entirely, since all design decisions where now motivated by the aim to make people spend money, rather than by making great games. On the other hand, the microtransactions of these games, was – and still is to some extend – considered a mild form of cheating, where the more honorable way of getting access to good in-game resources is still often believed to be through skill and hard work, and therefore only something attractive to inferior players. In short cloud-gaming, along with other recent developments in game monetization is considered a threat to the virtuous player.
The future of cloud gaming in Europe
While Stadia failed, and Xbox Game Pass, although successful, is still, by many dedicated gamers, looked upon with mild skepticism, there is no doubt there is a future market for these kinds of services in Europe. First, because the hardcore gamer today is a minority on the market. Gaming is very widespread in Europe among all ages and all walks of life. Recent surveys suggest that close to half of the population between 6-60 plays games today. Even though many of these probably play freemium games on mobile devices, and that a subscription to a cloud-based service might therefore not seem so attractive at this point, subscription-based gaming might not be so far-fetched. On the game development side, reservations may be even fewer. The European game industry is, save from a few big players like Rockstar North, and a range of mid-sized companies such as CD Project Red, and IO Interactive, the European game industry is characterized by many Indie Studios. For them, the challenges outlined above, may be considered quite minimal. Therefore, the real challenge when it comes to the European market may come from a completely different front, namely the strict regulation of the tech industries, especially when it comes to the handling of personal data.