Streaming services have taken entertainment industries by storm. From films to music, purchasing physical copies is a distant memory for most of us. Instead seeing us consume a diverse range of content and laughing our way to the bank because of quite how much bang streaming services give for our buck.
While watching a film at home may have become synonymous with Netflix, and listening to music nearly synonymous with Spotify, streaming services in the world of games are still in their infancy. But for gamers they are hard to ignore. Weighing in under $20 per month, gaming subscriptions provide endless hours of virtual immersion for the fraction of a cost of a new AAA title.
While they are a great deal for players, questions have floated around the industry whether the same could be said for developers. A discussion which has polarised many, especially in the indie sphere who stand to lose a lot if their, often, shorter and more niche products become absorbed into bloated subscription models.
How Do Gaming Subscriptions Work?
While each platform is likely to hold their own take on streaming payment structure, video game subscriptions generally take a unified form. For simplicity’s sake let’s look at a hypothetical example we’ll call Joystick, who offer an unlimited subscription package for a sweet $15 per month.
With this, gamers can play as long as they want on any of the titles included in the Joystick subscription. So, let’s say a gamer, Ellie, plays through three games one month, each for the same amount of time.
Here, Ellie’s subscription fee would be split into two key portions. First Joystick would take their beefy 30% cut ($4.50), then the remaining $10.50 would be split between the developers of the three games they played depending on how much time they spent playing each. Meaning each developer would get their paws on $3.50.
While this may be a matter of boring behind the scenes bureaucracy, it underlines the key issue with gaming subscriptions. Developers simply don’t get that much of a cut.
This gets exacerbated when we look at the divide between indie and AAA titles.
Reframing Ellie’s play session to be weighted differently between the three titles, with two AAA titles like Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite take up 95% of their playtime with the final 5% being taken up by a short indie. Not only will the indie’s cut be crushed into oblivion, but chances are Ellie will still get plenty of playtime out of the AAA titles.
Using the same metrics this would leave the indie with a truly meagre 53 cents. A number which is likely 10x less, or more, than its intended retail price. Ouch.
Couple this with the loss of overall sales and you can quickly imagine indie game profits, especially for shorter or more niche games, tumbling unless they receive special treatment from the streaming platform.
The Cost (and Benefit) of Exposure
While indie developers may seemingly get the short end of the stick regarding monetisation, the debate doesn’t end there.
Subscription services like Xbox Game Pass, Apple Arcade, Humble Choice and Viveport Infinity give indie games the opportunity to be played by gamers who may never pay for them outright. Going back to our example, put yourself in Ellie’s shoes. They are a skint student who’s only ever loved AAA games, meaning they are incredibly unlikely to pick up indie titles they’ve never heard of. But suddenly a short, cute indie pops up in their suggested. Instead of the usual hesitation to dish out money on an unknown product, Ellie already has access. So, she can boot it up and become exposed to a product she would never have otherwise interacted with.
Chances are we’ve all had these experiences. And they are exactly what many indie devs bank on when hopping into subscription services. By offering games as part of a service, with no extra costs required, indie devs crack open a new segment of the market exposing themselves to more players and thus more profit. Of course, this comes with the aforementioned caveat of reduced earnings per player, but by exposing your game to more users developers also enter the lucky dip of gaining a larger following for their game, studio and future projects alike.
This added exposure also frees indie devs from the nightmare of monetisation—especially those developing for mobile. Allowing them to focus on delivering the optimal gaming experience without needing to pack in nasties like ads, loot boxes and other intrusive monetisation strategies.
Back in 2020, Microsoft’s Phil Spencer admitted that the situation between indie games and Xbox Game Pass was sticky. With no fixed terms in place deals with developers appeared to be “all over the place”, with funding and financial viability varying greatly from product to product. With some basing themselves on the usage model above, which is generally unfavourable for petite titles, others being offered flat fees and some even having earnings withheld until certain caps were met.
This reopened fears that indie developers simply won’t be able to fit into bustling subscription models.
The subtle but seismic shift that this introduces for indie game developers is that their customer becomes entirely reframed. Instead of appealing directly to players, like you or me, to elbow their way into subscription services indie game developers must make their games appeal to the subscription service. Marking the corporations who helm subscription services the new customers.
Moreover, this reliance on appealing to centralised conglomerates runs the risk of devaluing the art and entertainment itself. Given that heads of subscription services need to chase profits, taking large cuts away from developers who provide them with their products. Creative director of Kitfox Games, Tanya X. Short, pinpoints this in saying that “Netflix makes me less likely to buy movies and Spotify makes me less likely to buy albums. I actually spend more on movies and albums now than ever, but all that money goes to two companies instead of being spread to different (sometimes indie) artists.” Identifying that by unifying revenue streams independents on the side-lines may suffer.
Not only this there is a clear phenomenon where individuals wait for products to come to streaming services instead of paying for them up front. This effect has been felt hardest in cinemas, resulting in a near-total restructuring of cinematic distribution.
In games, this again runs the risk of harming the little guy the most. While indie developers need to force market demand through increased exposure, something provided by such platforms, AAA titles can afford to stay away from subscription services on initial release. Due to a mix of marketing budget and industry-side hype, games from established studios and series can rest assured that they will make a pretty penny from initial sales. Allowing them to join subscription platforms later, when it becomes more financially viable. Giving AAA games the chance to take advantage of both initial sales and continued life on subscription platforms.
Support the Games You Love
Through all this, it’s clear that subscription services offer indie developers a number of opportunities when it comes to reaching new audiences. But at the same time indie developers stand to lose a lot through unfavourable payment models.
Ultimately, at this point it is almost certain that subscription platforms will be taking over gaming. We have lived through the revolution which brough streaming to music and to cinema, so there is no stopping it coming to gaming.
Although we are far off a gaming subscription as unified as Netflix or Spotify, with most major console manufacturers and studios offering their own subscription, we must stay aware of how indie gaming may be hit the hardest in this shift.
With this squarely in mind, it’s on us as much as the subscription services themselves to ensure that indie studios both young and old receive apt love and support as they weather the storm.
And despite the threat of centralisation that subscription services pose, it’s valuable to remember that we are the players. Such services wouldn’t exist without us. So, it is up to us to keep valuing the experiences which mean the most to us, as, at the end of the day, we drive market demand.