I posit that it’s not but nothing ever will be
For years now, video game entrepreneurs have tried to create something that is the “Netflix for video games.” In June 2010, OnLive launched and aimed to remove the barrier of needing a high-end PC to play many PC games. In January 2014, Sony tried PlayStation Now, a Netflix-like subscription model for PlayStation titles. In August 2014, EA tried something similar to Sony in creating a library of its older games for a service called EA Access.
All of them failed to some degree, at least in their pursuits to be like Netflix. OnLive never really caught on, mostly because streaming technology wasn’t yet good enough to simulate the local experience. PlayStation Now is still around, but crucially still hasn’t added PlayStation 4 games to its offerings. This combined with the fact that it’s also a streaming service means that it’s still not ideal; Netflix streams video, but this model adapted to video games is going to need local downloads. EA Access has gotten the closest but is hamstrung because it only has games from a single publisher.
There’s a new King of the Closest. Xbox Game Pass is nearest the spirit of “Netflix for video games” but it’s still not there in a way that makes me think nothing will ever get there because of a fundamental difference between how we consume video and video games.
Xbox Game Pass is Microsoft’s newest games service that has 100+ available titles from both Xbox 360 and Xbox One. (By my count, there are 112 right now, but some games might be added or subtracted each month.) The service costs $10 per month / $120 per year to long-term rent all of these titles. You can download all of them onto your Xbox One and play them whenever as long as you’re still a subscriber. If your subscription lapses, you lose the access to the games but not your progress from playing.
I’ve been tinkering around with Xbox Game Pass thanks to a Microsoft-provided subscription. It’s neat seeing that many games populate at once; the full list can be seen here. It’s a nice combination of big first-party titles (most of which I already own), things I never got around to, others I’d never heard of, and stuff that I’d realistically never try. A lot of it has been previously a part of Games with Gold, true. But different people will find different value in this list.
For instance, I haven’t played a Sam & Max game, so I’m probably going to hopefully look at those in the semi-near future. Same with Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. Or, Max: The Curse of Brotherhood isn’t something I would’ve really recommended people buy when the Xbox One first launched; but, for those people who have access as a part of a larger subscription, sure, give it a shot.
I’ve had Netflix for eight years now and I’ve never really considered cancelling it. At night, I usually like to wind down with an episode of a favorite show — It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia now, King of the Hill years ago. It’s my comfort food of television, evergreen stuff that lulls me to sleep. Weirdly, that’s where I find a lot of value in my Netflix subscription, and a lot of people I know feel the same way.
Video games are different. A service like Xbox Game Pass encourages that you play through as much as possible and never look back. There’s value in paying a constant fixed rate for games you’re interested in but wouldn’t pay full price for. But, most people will find that value declines as you work through the library — especially if new games aren’t added at a quick enough rate.
More important than that, however, is that Netflix has an ace in the hole. Something a video game service could probably never offer: Original programming. The realities of video game development and publishing mean that it’s highly unlikely that a game will ever be made available on Xbox Game Pass and nowhere else. And if it ever does, it’s even more unlikely that it’d ever turn into a trend.
But that’s what it would take to ever have a Netflix for video games: Constant exclusive content. Stuff that’s so good that you know you’d just re-subscribe in a month or two if you ever bothered to cancel. Xbox Game Pass isn’t that and I doubt it ever will be. But, it’s a good way for Xbox players to try some stuff they were otherwise on the fence about. And when that value dries up for you personally, hey, just go back to the way you bought games before Xbox Game Pass ever existed.