Retention was said to have been a crucial aspect of Apple’s shift in strategy in 2020, which involved canceling contracts for games in development while looking for others who “retain subscribers better.” As Bloomberg reported, an Apple Arcade representative cited Grinding wheel as a specific example of the type of game sought by the company: “an engaging action-puzzle game that has many levels.”
The developers cited in the article suggested that this was the result of poor growth and subscriber retention, a hypothesis apparently supported by Apple’s extension of its free trial from one month to three. It’s worth considering that subscription platforms could reshape video games based on this mindset of engagement. The result could be a boom for arcade-style titles that encourage high replayability or procedurally generated experiences, potentially at the expense of “one and done” narrative games such as those in which Fellow Traveler specializes.
A renaissance of patronage
However, the death of the solo adventure is not yet here. For a significant portion of subscribers, these titles will be the main draw in the first place. As Microsoft expands its slate to tempt potential subscribers, lucky studios will benefit from a growing pot of simple and risk-free funding. Totem Plate, an adventure game with a gorgeous and quirky aesthetic, is one such project, initially billed as a timed Xbox exclusive before entering into a Game Pass deal.
Ben Kerslake, its creative director, compares Game Pass to Netflix in terms of the creative freedom the video service has offered to some filmmakers. “For better or for worse,” he says. “There are not a lot of constraints.” His team, too, has artistic carte blanche thanks to a relationship with Microsoft which works “very well as a model of patronage”.
Kerslake emphasizes the benefits of forgoing an intermediary, a position typically held by an editor. “Even the nicest, most progressive editor in the world is going to step in,” he says. “It’s their job.” The Covid-19 pandemic has effectively added 12 months of production to the game. Kerslake believes navigating this situation alongside a publisher would have been difficult, likely involving creative compromises. Its agreement with Microsoft provides flexibility, however. “In terms of our contractual relationship, it’s just a matter of ‘pulling out the game when it’s ready,’” he says. “Other than that, it’s without intervention.”
Despite all the advantages of this patronage model, there are notable drawbacks. Video game subscription platforms currently offer organized service (as opposed to Spotify’s more open approach), which means that many talented developers won’t make it. For outsiders, making a living is likely to become more difficult, especially if actual sales decline. This is already what happens in the movies; in 2019 subscription revenue increased to $ 16.2 billion while transactional purchases fell to $ 9 billion. It’s not hard to imagine consumers doing the same costing with video game subscriptions as they do with videos; the value just seems too high to ignore compared to one-time purchases.
What is a video game really worth?
As Julie Muncy highlighted in a piece Written when Apple Arcade launched in 2019, the shift to subscription services requires us to re-examine what a video game is really worth. “Each game is no longer worth the price of its labor,” she wrote. “It’s now worth a fraction of the monthly subscription fee.”
Rebekah Saltsman, co-founder of Finji, the developer and publisher behind the title Apple Arcade By the road, suggests subscription platforms skew the value of games and this has a ripple effect on budgeting. A game on a subscription platform is not fair to that of a premium sale, and therefore the number of players that could traditionally be relied on to generate sufficient income is now much higher. All this while video games remain expensive to produce. Saltsman predicts that developers will cut budgets down the line precisely because of these costs. “Someone is going to watch the burn,” she suggests. “And if they don’t have enough subscribers or if they don’t make enough profit, they’re going to look at the budgets.”