The emergence of Game Pass on the Xbox One reminds us of PlayStation Plus’ rise last generation. With the PlayStation 3 scrambling for marketshare against the Xbox 360, a very shrewd Sony transformed its subscription service into a secret weapon, giving away big name games to its small pool of subscribers. It was buttering up consumers ahead of making the service mandatory on the PlayStation 4, and it worked like a charm.
Microsoft is, perhaps, looking a little deeper than goodwill gestures. Its aforementioned initiative – which includes "free" copies of every new first-party title day-and-date, as well as select third-party releases – is unquestionably in loss-leader mode, as it blows cash with $1 discounts hoping to establish a big enough base to make a Netflix-esque model viable in the future. But is it something that PlayStation could realistically copy?
Well, it’s worth mentioning that the mechanics of the model aren’t all that difficult to implement. As you’ll already know, the PlayStation Store is more than capable of serving up subscriptions these days, and Sony has a compelling enough catalogue of content to make its own iteration of Game Pass enticing. In fact, with PlayStation Now offering downloads, it’s already dipping its toe into the ocean – although obviously you won’t be playing Death Stranding day one via the service.
And this is the big difference that currently sets Microsoft’s efforts apart: it’s been willing to tank the sales of Gears 5 – which are just a quarter of its underperforming predecessor at retail in the UK – in order to try and entice subscribers. But is this something that Sony, with its primarily single player-driven catalogue, could replicate? And with PlayStation exclusives performing better than they ever have in the past, does it even make sense to change tact?
It’s clearly too early to say either way. There was a lot of talk in the early days of Xbox Game Pass about the model actually increasing full-price sales, and it’s a sound suggestion in some instances; a game like Rocket League, for example, would not have obtained half of the success it ultimately achieved without reaching critical mass through PlayStation Plus. But when it comes to a blockbuster like Halo: Infinite, it’s hard to imagine the same scenario reoccurring.
The same is true of Sony’s catalogue: would Marvel’s Spider-Man really have set the kind of sales records it attained if it was part of some cut-price subscription service? The Japanese giant must be looking at the way its titles are performing full-price at both retail and on the PlayStation Store, and balking at the idea of practically giving them away. But while it may limit revenue on big hits, it’s perhaps worth remembering that subscription models can shield flops as well.
Our biggest concern is that if PlayStation were to adopt the Game Pass model and offer exclusives day-and-date, would it have an impact on the kind of software the company makes? The manufacturer has established itself as the master of cinematic single player campaigns, but subscription models tend to favour high retention titles, like multiplayer games or maybe even episodic releases. Our guess is that Microsoft will leverage its new teams to make smaller titles which release often.
But we’re going to need to see how things settle down over the coming years. Microsoft will sell its next Xbox with the pitch that a monthly subscription will get you access to all the content you need; theoretically, you won’t even need to buy a single game. That’s compelling, and a threat to the status quo. Realistically, there’s nothing stopping Sony from matching the proposition, but at what cost? This is what the platform holder’s going to have to weigh up as the PlayStation 5 approaches.
Do you think a PlayStation Game Pass is viable? What sacrifices in Sony's output would you be willing to accept in order to make this a success? Don't forget to subscribe in the comments section below.