Easing Our Way Into Subscription-Based Gaming

There's a now-classic scene that takes place in many an alien invasion flick: The protagonist has finally realized that something is amiss, that the kooky guy shouting conspiracy theories for the first quarter of the film might have been on to something. "Where are the aliens?" he wonders. And the response: "They're already among us."

It's starting to feel a bit that way with subscription-based gaming. We're not quite there yet—we have yet to see the fabled future where a monthly fee gains us unlimited access to every video game, Rhapsody- or Spotify-style—but subscription gaming walks among us already. It's feeling increasingly like it's only a matter of time before we hit a tipping point.

Just today, Big Fish Games announced that Apple was letting them offer a subscription model for their games on iOS. Much like the publications available in Apple's "Newsstand" interface, users will pay $6.99 a month for unlimited access to all of Big Fish's games. (Update: It looks as though Apple has pulled the plug on Big Fish Games' program just after green-lighting it.)

Of course, this comes with the caveat that the user must be connected to the internet at all times to play the game. Whether this is due to the fact that the game is streaming or whether it's due to always-on copy protection, it's a big caveat. Furthermore, is there a single developer on iOS whose games you would pay $6.99 a month to play? I'm guessing your response is the same as mine: "No."

But I can certainly imagine something that would work: a monthly subscription to access all App Store game content. I know, I know. It'd be crazy—the logistics would be a nightmare, and Apple would have to come up with a way to pay developers for their games. But in the long term, is it out of the realm of possibility? The fact that Apple has allowed one developer to do something like this (even if they did pull the plug later) means that they have the ability to do it.

I think I've finally reached that tipping point with subscription-based music. For the longest time, I didn't want Rhapsody or any of its competitors, I was happy with my ridiculously bloated library of MP3s. But then, Spotify came out, and I finally came around. I can access all of this music, in a high(ish) quality, with no ads, and take it anywhere on my mobile device? For $9.99 a month? Okay, I am into this. It's even better for trying out new music without having to buy it first. Onlive users can already try out games, and full game trials are becoming more common on the PlayStation store, as well.

I can't think of a lone developer whose catalog I would pay a subscription fee to play-not even Blizzard!

This weekend, I was watching the latest segment of Game Trailers' always-delightful Bonus Round, and Shacknews' Garnett Lee floated an idea that I thought was interesting: What if, when Sony's handheld Vita launches, Sony makes the console's entire library available digitally for a flat subscription fee?

What if, indeed? One of the primary challenges facing the Vita (and the Nintendo 3DS) is that mobile gamers are becoming increasingly used to the $1-$10 price point hit by most games in Apple's App Store. But if Sony announced that for, say, $10 or $20 a month, players could have access to all of the Vita's games, I would sign up for in a heartbeat. It's not so outlandish—given that Sony seems to be pushing their games into digital release very shortly after publishing them (for example, Sony just put Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One on the PlayStation Store as a full digital download, mere weeks after its release), it's within the realm of possibility that they could begin to offer some sort of subscription package, too.

All this prognosticating makes me think about what it would take to make me pony up for a subscription to a gaming service. I think that more than anything, the service would have to include every game possible, or at least every game on a given platform. It's not enough to have each subscription be tied to a different developer a la Big Fish Games. I can't think of a lone developer whose catalog I would pay a subscription fee to play-not even Blizzard!

When it comes to content, half-measures aren't appealing, either. Onlive's $9.99 subscription gets you access to a whole bunch of games, but not everything in their catalog. Most of the highest profile games are only available for rent or purchase (new games tend to run $49.99). The GameGadget that we reported on earlier this week sounds interesting, but we don't have enough information to know whether it's going to be viable.

A required internet connection would be also a deal-breaker for any theoretical subscription model—one way or another, I'd have to be able to download the game to my system and play it anywhere. And maybe this goes without saying, but the service would need to work smoothly, all the time.

So:

1) Comprehensive

2) Allows for offline play

3) Isn't a pain in the ass to use

A digital game subscription service that met those criteria would be tempting. iOS devices and the Vita could both theoretically allow for this kind of thing. Will we see something like that with the Vita? Seems doubtful. Would it be nice? Absolutely.

There's an argument to be made that in many ways, Valve's phenomenally popular PC game distribution service Steam is already a rental service—we pay to play the games, but due to Steam's copy-protection, they're never truly ours. Regardless of how you see that particular argument, Steam illustrates how close we really are to the reality of a subscription-based service that meets the criteria above. Steam is comprehensive, allows for offline play, and it works very well. What if we could just pay $20 a month to play every Steam game?

That too may never come to pass, but sooner or later, someone's going to sell me on a service in the same way that Spotify has sold me on subscription music services. When they do, I'll give subscription gaming a shot.

But that's just me. What would it take for you to take the plunge?


You can contact Kirk Hamilton, the author of this post, at kirk@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.