With the rise of the digital subscription services, the question of importance to own your media has been rising. The lack of ability to really own the digital content has lead people to speculate, and to show with actual examples, the issues the digital media is causing. The biggest one is the ability of the digital content provider to alter the digital content, thus altering experience of it; this can include removal of certain content or substitution of the content. The second issue is the loss of access, since digital service can pull access at any time. And I have a story about this issue and GameStop for another time. However, the digital subscription service brought its advantages, which I will discuss as it related to video games.
To understand the advantages of the subscription service, I think a review of video game industry developments and the video game market is required. When the video game appeared, they went first through arcades that showed off the gameplay to the person through short visual segment of the game. When they moved into homes, they were often the remakes of the arcade versions so people knew what to expect. As video game industry continued to develop, an issue appeared of how to tell one game from the other, in terms of gameplay it offers. Since the games started to appear straight on the console or PC there was no arcade to show of the gameplay. The art on the game packages hardly was indicative of actual gameplay experience, and the screenshots on the back could be also problematic, the graphic quality of the early video games could hardly portray the ideas behind the games series such as Wizardry or Zork.
The solution appeared to the issue of how to tell what the game is about, video game press. It spawned magazines, tv shows (Electric Playground) and later websites that all tried to tell the consumers what the games were about and how gameplay worked. The issue with early video game press was that they tried to convey the information about video games, a medium based on visuals, sounds, movements, and dynamism, through the static images. They tried their best, but it was very hard to provide that information.
The information was needed, because when the consumer bought the game they spent a significant amount, and if they did not like the game, they were stuck with it. Economic principle of sunk costs was hard to apply; video gamer could not just go buy another and another and another game as each purchase drained available funds. Therefore, in the end, gamers often had to play what they got, despite their disappointment. This contributed to the video game crush in the early 1980s, as people decided to drop out of the hobby, due to difficulty of finding a quality product. So a way to deliver the required information about the gameplay was needed and it needed to be cheap.
The solution emerged on PC, it was the demo. Consoles had examples of this too, but they relied more on the fact that they certified the quality of the product released on their consoles. However, it was demoes that provided the information that really people needed. They gave gamers a small chunk of gameplay that they could experience. I personally remember downloading demos from GameSpot for games such as Age of Empires, Need for Speed and Quake II. The multiplayer demo of the last was extremely popular and for years had active servers with people just playing the demo. Demos were great, but they also had a cost to developers in terms of time and effort.
As the video game industry progressed further ahead the developers abandoned the expense of the demo. Fewer and fewer large developers released them, and demos were often only released by small development studios, and even they did so rarely. The number of video games released grew, all screaming for attention through the video game media coverage. So in the end the issue of what to buy returned.
Appearance of Steam Sales kind of solved this issue on PC, consoles had sales much less often and had to rely on used games market. The ability to buy a game at a discounted price, and with Steam Sales it was possible to buy it at heavily discounted price, made the purchase of the game less risky. This also contributed to growth of shame piles, collections of unplayed games. As the shame piles grew, and game publishers tried to find a way to sabotage the used games market, a new solution was needed.
That is where the game subscription services came in. Electronic Arts was first to introduce its subscription service, but it sat quietly in a corner for a while. It was Xbox Game Pass that really made idea mainstream. Other services such as Uplay+ and Playstation Now developed slightly before it or alongside. These services had one thing in common, they allowed trying games without a risk, and if person did not like what they played they could always go and find something else, all for a single monthly payment. Full games now act as demos, and generally finishing one game a month, will overall pay off the fee paid to the subscription service.