It’s been an interesting few weeks for gaming. We saw the announcement of Google’s game streaming service, Stadia, and then Apple’s subscribe-to-access game service, Apple Arcade. The services differ, but they get to the same basic place: pay a flat fee and get access to all these games.
Google and Apple are not the only players in this space. Amazon is rumored to be developing a service; Microsoft has a similar service, and so does Sony. There are other services out there, but for ease of discussion, I’m going to focus on Google and Apple. This movement isn’t all the rainbows and sunshine that these huge corporations make it out to be. There are concerns about what this means for gaming as monetization impacts gameplay. But first, let’s establish who’s paying – and who’s getting paid.
I’m basing this on speculation because there aren’t many details out there yet for Apple Arcade or Google Stadia. If we compare the streaming/access model to similar services, we can come up with a reasonable expectation of who’s paying for what, when. We know that there will be a subscription fee for consumers. Similar services start in the $10 a month range, and streaming services like Netflix edge above that. We can assume that this lands us in the ballpark of somewhere between $10 and $20 a month. Anything more than $20 a month and they’d be excluding a large demographic with no appetite for that big a recurring subscription.
It’s also reasonable to expect that developers will have to pay to join these platforms. I don’t have a measure of how much developers will have to pay to be part of either platform, other than more than $0. Apple and Google already charge fees for submission to their respective app stores, so we can expect an access fee here as well. Beyond that, Google and Apple have both made a big deal about their platforms. They will want consumers to have the best possible experience using them. That means quality control of what can and can’t get on their respective platforms. Even a small access fee is a easy way to weed out shovelware and generate some revenue to boot.
Additionally, developers will likely have a series of up-sells available for them from each platform. Both platforms are likely to offer premium placement for developers to help them get “discovered” by more people. It’s also a safe assumption that both platforms will offer in-depth player analytics for extra fees. Google promises that it’s “committed to protecting and respecting privacy” when it comes to Stadia, which isn’t as reassuring as Google thinks it is. Apple made similar reassurances, but privacy isn’t the concern for Apple as much it is for Google.
Who’s getting paid?
This is where a lot of the anxiety over this game streaming platform comes into play—who’s actually getting paid, and how. Google and Apple are expecting their platforms toprint them more money. They will get paid, even if no one else does. But several industry vets have expressed concern for how developers get paid. David Brevik of Diablo fame said on Twitter:
I'm very worried about the future of the gaming market. All of these services where developers get paid by the minute are going to have radical impacts on design motivations and predatory practices. If you thought Free-to-play was bad, you haven't seen anything yet.
— David Brevik (@davidbrevik) March 25, 2019
It’s hard to disagree. The speculation right now is that Apple Arcade is going to pay out to developers by the minute, like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which pays authors by pages read. Google will likely pay out in a similar time spent in game fashion.
Mike Rose, founder of No More Robots, says this is already happening. “In the last 6 months, I have been contact by over a dozen different services, who all want to put No More Robots games on their upcoming platforms,” he tweeted.
“But here’s the catch: None of these platforms want to pay anything upfront. Instead, they want to pay us ‘per number of hours’ that their users play our games, compared to how many hours their users are playing games overall. Which is obviously going to be *shit* for indie devs. Now here’s the real problem: If bigger studios begin adopting this style of platform — which they already kinda are with things like Xbox Game Pass, Discord Nitro etc — it forces smaller devs into a position where they may *have* to start being a part of these platforms.”
What’s the impact
It’s going to be a little hard to assess the impact on game-design as a result monetization strategy, but I also think it’s inevitable. One of the replies to Brevik’s tweet listed out broad design trends based on monetization strategy. Twitter user EvilKimau argued that games like subscription games have lots of “wasted time” (what we might call designed downtime) so that it took you longer to do things, and you kept your subscription up. Arcade pay-per-life games were brutal and you died a lot, so you paid more. Free-to-play games nickel-and-dime you to no end because… well, it makes a lot of sense. Free-to-play titles want to rush the player onto the next purchaseable moment – sometimes by cutting out downtime, other times by putting in the down time and giving a convenience item to blow by it.
What we’ll see is the predatory, psychologically manipulative techniques that we saw spring up in free-to-play games, combined with designed downtime from subscription games. The game loops will be longer.
For single player games, this could be fewer save points and difficulty spikes immediately before the save point, forcing you to replay a section two or three times to complete it. It wouldn’t be enough to make you frustrated and quit, but it would be designed to maximize as much play time as possible. I think we’ll see heavy-handed usage of FOMO – the fear of missing out – as a means to drive longer playtimes in games.
For MMOs, this could mean a lot of random events with desirable loot that incentivizes camping for hours waiting for an irregular spawn timer. I think we’ll also see a lot of time-limited events with unique rewards. We’ll also start seeing player rewards for total time in game, and some gear or events that are locked under X amount of time. We’ll see systems like that on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis which provide rewards for time in-game. “Play for at least 10 hours over the last month to get your free lockbox!” Login rewards will be useless as incentive going forward in a world that generates its revenue by the minute. Developers will reward players for logging in and then staying logged in.
But don’t get too excited: Lootboxes and lockboxes aren’t going anywhere and will continue to infest games like the roaches they are. We’ll just see lootboxes that unlock after a predetermined amount of time in-game. Instead of the convenience items that we see in free-to-play games, we’re likely to see more items that unlock after time in-game, like gear and cosmetics.
The unfortunate future of game design in a streaming gaming world. Developers will design every system in the game to keep you in the game as long as possible. They will optimize for time-in-game above every other metric because that’s how they put food on the table.