One of the main trends driving last week’s E3 convention in Los Angeles was the advent of video game streaming services, such as Microsoft’s Project xCloud and Google’s Stadia, both set to launch this fall. The promise of such platforms is the ability to play “any game, anywhere on any device” by streaming titles through a cloud-driven 5G network.
In a live stream video the week ahead of E3, Google vp and general manager Phil Harrison revealed that the company’s foray into the gaming space, Stadia, would offer just over 30 games at launch this November, available in 14 countries for a $9.99 per month subscription fee. Microsoft, meanwhile, did not provide pricing details for its xCloud service, though the company does already offer a subscription service, Xbox Games Pass, that grants players access to a variety of titles for a $9.99 monthly fee.
Xbox and Google are far from the only video game companies to utilize a subscription model, and as more of the industry trends toward game streaming, additional publishers and studios are launching their own subscription services. At its own E3 press conference, french studio Ubisoft unveiled its upcoming Uplay+, a subscription service offering access to the company’s full slate of games, which will launch this September on Windows PC for $14.99 per month before expanding to other platforms, such as Stadia, in 2020.
“The new trend of subscription offerings in games is an innovation,” Mike Blank, senior vp of player network at EA, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It might not seem like one because subscriptions have been around for a long time in other forms of media, but there’s something unique about games because they are highly immersive, have long life experiences and they’re highly social.”
EA’s own subscription service, EA Access, first launched in 2014 on the Xbox One (a PC offering, EA Origin Access, followed in 2016) and, five years after initially being denied by Sony, the Access will be available on the PlayStation 4 in July. The service costs $4.99 per month and provides access to over 200 titles.
“I’m not sure Sony was really ready to enable another partner like us to bring this offering to their platform. We were educating ourselves and, in turn, them on what the benefits of the service was to both their platform and our respective players,” Blank says.
Blank says the revenue split with Sony and Microsoft on EA Access subscriptions is similar to that of games sold a la carte and being on multiple platforms provided by the bigger gaming powers is beneficial to EA. “We need to be where the players are and not every player is going to be on every service or device, just like not every viewer is on Netflix,” he says.
Still, as streaming tech becomes more viable and accessible to publishers (Maryland-based games studio Bethesda Softworks unveiled its own streaming technology, Orion, at this year’s E3), the prospect of launching a direct-to-consumer cloud-based streaming service is one that companies like EA are considering.
“We can, and we may still, offer our own,” Blank says. “That said, I think there is space in the market for multiple complementary and competing services that offer different kinds of experiences to different players.”
While EA does not disclose the number of Access subscribers, Blank says the company has “hundreds of millions of people” connected across all of EA’s services. He says it remains “to be determined, ultimately” if Google or Xbox are able to offer a wider user base than EA can reach on its own but remains cautious of branching out completely. “Clearly we can reach millions upon millions of players directly, but there’s always folks out there who want to participate on their favorite gaming platform,” he says. “If that’s the case, we’ll go where they are.”
Offering a subscription service or digital storefront is still a far cry from a full-blown streaming service. “Having the tech to deliver an attractive streaming experience is not trivial,” says Doug Creutz, senior analyst at Cowen and Company. “I think Microsoft is in the A-spot because they have a significant install base and technology.”
The competition between platforms may also be quite different in the near future as cross-platform play (which allows gamers to compete with one another in the same online match regardless of the gaming platform they are using) becomes the norm.
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney was instrumental in getting cross-platform play up and running for his company’s blockbuster free-to-play shooter Fortnite, though Sony did initially drag its feet, as it had with EA Access. Sweeney, speaking with The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, likened his efforts on cross-play to “an effort in international diplomacy.”
“It’s not just the future, it’s today,” Blank says of cross-play. His company’s own Fortnite competitor, Apex Legends, is currently working on cross-platform play, though a date has not yet been set (Blank remains mum on the subject when asked).
The challenge for Blank and his team is to stay on the forefront of a rapidly changing industry, one that has seen significant growth over the past decade with a peak of over $43 billion in total revenue last year. “We’re excited about what’s happening in the market,” Blank says. “We’re evolving from a publisher of games to a connector.”