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Image: Push Square

In this job, there are clear and obvious trends that dominate the discussion, sometimes for years at a time. I’ve been running Push Square for well over a decade now, and I’m lucky enough to have reported on many of the defining moments that have engaged enthusiasts: there was the battle for motion controls, spurred by the Nintendo Wii’s success which resulted in competitors like the PS Move; there was the raging debate over crossplay, with Sony painted as the obstacle preventing publishers from adopting the now quite common feature; and, more recently, there’s been subscriptions.

Heading into this generation there were very clear lines drawn in the sand: PlayStation’s market position was under threat if it refused to offer its first-party games day one with PS Plus. Sony, to its credit, was consistent from the start, arguing that it wouldn’t adopt this strategy and didn’t see it as particularly sustainable – at least in the current climate. It argued that by transforming its business model in such a seismic way, there could be an impact on the quality of its PS Studios games, which have generally been regarded among some of the best available on any platform.

Many argued that this was a mistake, and that strong competition from rivals like Xbox Game Pass would eat its lunch. In its defence, PlayStation did respond last year by making some long overdue adjustments to PS Plus and PS Now, combining them and creating a couple of additional tiers offering perks for those willing to pay extra. The result has been somewhat successful, raising the revenue of Sony’s subscription services, without having a marked effect on the number of active members. In fact, PS Plus has been hovering around 50 million users for many years now.

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And the longer the generation runs, the more I’m beginning to believe subscriptions may not represent the seismic cultural shift for gaming consumption that has been touted. In addition to PS Plus hitting a ceiling, a recent Circana report of the US gaming market noted that subscription growth is slowing. It’s important to understand what this means: it doesn’t mean the graph has stopped going up entirely, just that it’s beginning to plateau. We’ve seen a similar thing in other mediums like movies and music, most famously with Netflix, which has also hit a ceiling of late.

But increasingly I’m becoming conscious of the fact that gaming is not like movies and music, and the prospective audience is much smaller than in those rival entertainment mediums. A lot of the conversation regarding the merits of Xbox Game Pass and PS Plus has been piloted by enthusiasts, the type of players who beat multiple games per month – but this just does not represent the mainstream at all. We know, for example, that on the PS4 the software attach rate was around 9.6 games per console – and that was accurate as of 2019, just a year before the PS5’s launch and at the tail end of the generation.

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Image: Push Square

Gaming is a much more active hobby than movies or music, where the commitment is much smaller. A film takes, on average, two hours to watch; a full-length album about 45 minutes to listen to. And, crucially, you can combine these things with other activities: l listen to music and podcasts while I’m at the gym, and I’ll sometimes watch television shows while I’m doom scrolling on my phone. Neither of these things are possible with games, where the vast majority of releases demand your entire attention — usually for tens if not hundreds of hours.

Why does this matter? Well, because I can listen to hundreds of songs with my Spotify subscription in a month, making it better value for money than owning the CDs and records outright – but I’m lucky if I finish a dozen games a year. And it should be underlined that, while I do have vanishing spare time, I still very much represent the hardcore: I am an enthusiast who spends as much of my free time as possible playing games. If even I can’t find value in a limitless library of software, then spare a thought for the more mainstream consumer.

The reality is that, in most cases, gamers have a couple of favourite franchises that they love and play all year round. In a lot of circumstances, it should be underlined that many of these titles are actually free to play: Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty: Warzone 2.0 are among the biggest games on the planet, and don’t require any kind of subscription to enjoy. (Unless you pod out for their in-game subscriptions, which is another topic entirely.) Then you consider the big games that people paid to play this year: Hogwarts Legacy, Resident Evil 4, and even today’s Star Wars Jedi: Survivor – none of which are on subscriptions anyway.

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Image: Push Square

This dynamic could potentially change as bigger releases launch into subscriptions, but again it raises the question of whether it’s worth paying monthly for a catalogue you’re unlikely to ever fully explore. I personally think PS Plus Extra is an outstanding value, and there are releases I want to play on it, but I just haven’t found the opportunity to get to them yet. There are other games taking up my time! And as I’ve reiterated multiple times in this article: I’m the enthusiast, the type that plays dozens of titles per year. The vast, vast majority of consumers aren’t doing that – and seemingly don’t see value in it either.

It’s why, now the dust’s started to settle, I don’t think the future of gaming is in subscriptions after all. It’s clear they appeal to a specific demographic, and I don’t think any of them will be going away – but the beginning of this generation was defined by discussion about how disruptive they’re likely to be. I think, as Microsoft refuses to share an update on Xbox Game Pass’ subscribers and PS Plus continues to push against a very obvious ceiling, we’re slowly beginning to see that they’re establishing themselves as a lucrative supplementary option – and not, as had been argued vehemently up until recently, the primary form of content consumption.

What do you think the future holds for subscriptions? Do you believe they will eventually overtake traditional purchasing models, or do you agree the model is better suited to more passive forms of media like movies and music? Pay your monthly fee in the comments section below.

Do you believe subscriptions are the future of gaming? (3,114 votes)

  1. Yes, we'll all consume games on a subscription one day soon9%
  2. It's possible, but there's a long way to go yet28%
  3. No, gaming is fundamentally different to movies and music56%
  4. I haven't got a clue6%