There’s an inevitability, looming on the horizon. Can you see it? Are you terrified of it, yet? You should be.
It’s streaming! Everyone loves streaming! Or cloud gaming if you want to call it that! The convenience of it! No need to pop to the shops for a DVD, just stream your #content at the press of the button!
Remember how we laughed when Netflix came along, and all the Blockbuster video shops closed down? Remember laughing? Remember laughing so hard your bumhole fell out your nostrils? Good times, watching Blockbuster die off horribly and barely being able to contain our riotous laughter, wasn’t it? All their own fault, of course - they failed to change with the times, you see. Kept on with their quaint ol’ bricks-and-mortar while me, and all the other cool kids like me, were hopping on The Internet and doing some brilliant streaming.
HERE COMES THE GANG
Google, Microsoft, and Sony are already poking around at the edges of working out how to do a subscription-based approach to video games, and it’s only a matter of time before Steam has a little look as well. That’s a lot of money getting interested, and when a lot of money gets interested is when things traditionally start to get a little bit awful.
“Game Pass is brilliant”, you’ll say. And you’re right, it is! Game Pass currently works amazingly - Microsoft gives devs a lump sum to pop their game on Game Pass, and it’s normally more than the cost of development, so the developer’s already free of the squeaky-bum problem of having potentially sunk their life savings into something that doesn’t sell. On top of that, the dev’s still making money off the PC versions (and when they’re allowed, the other console versions), by which point the game has enough of a good reputation thanks to Game Pass that converting the free word-of-mouth to future sales on Switch or PlayStation is a doddle. As a system, it works brilliantly, and it’s in everyone’s favour. Win-win-win.
But let’s be honest: it’s all going a certain way, isn’t it? Currently Game Pass is a closed book - you only get in if they want you in, like a special little nerds-only party in which the less popular nerds are forced to wait outside in the cold, hoping to be noticed. It’s only a matter of time until one of these services takes a lump monthly fee off their user, and pays developers based on how popular their game is.
Because here’s the thing: most games aren’t popular. They can be amazing and life-changing and inspirational and clever, but only a very select few are ever actually popular. Ask anyone off the street to name their favourite indie games from the last year, and they’ll pull out the likes of Tunic and Stray, and very few will mention the thousands upon thousands of other great games released in that same timespan.
So finally, we come to the point. Sit down, this bit’s in bold italics for emphasis: the most-likely payment scenario for a subscription-based service like Netflix or Spotify, will be to pay developers based on playtime. Simple as that. A reasonable and equitable, fair system that rewards developers based quantifiably on how popular their game has been on the service.
A dozen games will rise to the surface on a subscription-based model, and will be lauded as examples of how well everything is going, and how fair and equitable the service is, because those developers will be rolling in money. The rest? The thousands upon thousands of other games that barely get a look in? They’ll receive cheques for $0.12, and simply close down.
“That’s just an example of it working brilliantly”, they’ll say. “If a game’s good, everyone will play it and it’ll rise to the top!” and as someone who’s been successfully making video games for over 15 years without a massive hit, I can confirm that that’s absolute bollocks. Not every game has to be a zeitgeist, not every game needs to be mass-market popular, but those non-hit games do find a niche audience, and sustain developers like me for decades.
What about games that don’t benefit from being timesinks? The games that know the value in burning bright and getting out before they’ve outstayed their welcome?
No one will make them, that’s what. Video game development will become singularly-focussed towards prioritising Hours Played over everything else. No niche Visual Novels, and will anyone really make another Portal when it’s 6 hours and you never play it again? What’s that, another $0.12 in the bank? Good luck paying rent.
Development instead will focus instead on procedurally-generated titles that can entertain for thousands of hours.
“But you’ll always be able to buy games, just on different services.” Sure. Show me your vast library of PC games you’ve bought that weren’t from Steam. People want everything in one place, and that’s completely reasonable. Besides, those games will also be on the streaming services, desperate to float to the top but in practicality just making $0.12 a week, and be honest: that’s how you’ll play those games.
Terrifying, isn’t it? I get a horrible hollow feeling in my tummy just thinking about it.
So here’s what you’re going to do.
WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO DO
Look at Spotify. Look at how little the artists make on Spotify. I’d say “ask yourself if that’s the future you want for game developers,” but I’m afraid it’s probably too late. Streaming video games is an inevitability, and the only thing you can do about it is to make sure that the games you’re making for the next 5-10 years are games that will thrive in that environment. I have a list in my head of the games I want to make - every developer does - it’s time to reprioritise those designs that fit the box you’ll be putting them in.
The crux of it is that Narrative games are super niche - eight-hour narratives games don’t get replayed much, so your revenue will be low unless it’s something a startlingly huge number of people will want to play. Given how unlikely that is, it’s increasingly critical that devs do some serious research into trends, and finding out what kind of things people are vibing with right now. Look at Stray, a fairly simple game in and of itself that’s doing crazy numbers because of an intricately-modelled cat. People like cats! Could you put a cat in your game? Could everyone in your game be a cat? I’m only half-joking - The Internet loves nothing more than flogging a joke to death, there’s plenty of legs left in the sort of things the sweeping majority of people love, it’s down to you to find them and exploit them.
While we’re there, it’s worth checking your game’s tone - will your game’s hazy, lovely wholesome sunset indie vibe sell as well on a streaming platform as dark, ruthless blood-splattered ultraviolence? What sort of games are people likely to be playing on these services, and can you pivot accordingly? It’s not one-or-the-other, of course, but it’s worth feeling around your game, and adapting core tenets to be more appealing to the mass market. If this made you shudder: congratulations! You’re a decent human being. This is something I’ve never bothered with - I’ve always just told the stories I want to tell, with the characters I want. Going forward, am I going to have to start considering what’s “more appealing to the majority of players?” You bet I am. Sucks, doesn’t it?
If you can, design your next game specifically for time in front of the computer - I know what you’re thinking, but this doesn’t mean it has to be shit and manipulative. Look at Spelunky, or Minecraft: both great games that would do huge numbers on a streaming service, and neither of which was designed to be awful in that boring way execs talk about games as whale-scalping 'revenue streams'. It’s perfectly possible to make endlessly-playable games that are fun and cool and don’t leave the player with the lingering doubt that Satan himself designed the inner workings. As we move ever closer to ubiquitous subscription-based services ruling supreme, it might be an idea to start thinking about your next game maybe being something that could, in theory, be played forever and ever until the end of time.
However: don’t stop making Narrative games, please? This article, I am fully aware, is all doom and gloom. It’s practical advice, moving forwards into terrifying and unknown times. But what I love about video games is that the variety is consistently charming and elating. There’s something for every mood, and it’s beyond critical that the people who make games that last two-to-six hours are treated with the same level of fairness and respect as those making games with 100, 200, 500 and 1000 hours+ playtime.
If you’ve got a Narrative game in you, get it out quick before all this comes crashing down around us. If that’s not feasible, put it to one side until the situation stabilises a bit. I certainly plan on making more narrative games, and I’m sorry to sound like a boring businessman all of a sudden, but I have scaled the game’s design back accordingly, and set more reasonable development budget and revenue expectations. You should too.
The way we win is by standing proud. Provide quality goods, and unforgettable experiences. It’s unlikely that they’re going to reel in the revenue that the streaming services offer to the Big Boys, but we’ll have to find a way for it to work. Because those types of games need to survive, for all our sakes.
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