Game Developers Wary of Subscriptions, Cloud Streaming

Game developers remain overwhelmingly interested in building games for the PC, despite a new generation of consoles and streaming services competing for gamers’ attention. There’s also some potential bad news for Google Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud on the horizon.

Those tasty morsels of information come from the Game Developers Conference’s annual State of the Game Industry survey, a comprehensive look at the game-development field. Some 56 percent of responding developers reported that their next game would arrive for PC, well ahead of pretty much other category (mobile placed second with 39 percent, for example, followed by Sony’s PlayStation 4/Pro with 25 percent).

By comparison, some 11 percent were developing for the next-generation PlayStation 5, and 9 percent were crafting something for the upcoming Xbox Series X. Both Microsoft and Sony are betting their gaming fortunes on the success of these platforms, and they’ll need substantial third-party developer buy-in if they want that to actually happen. But developers seem to be holding off until they see how the platforms shape up, which makes sense; developing a game is a huge investment of time and resources, and nobody wants to build for a platform without an audience.

Speaking of platforms with tiny audiences, even fewer developers seemed to be interested in the nascent cloud-gaming portals that currently hold the industry’s attention: Only 8 percent reported developing a game for Google Stadia, while a mere 3 percent exhibited any interest in Microsoft’s Project xCloud. The industry is closely watching these platforms, which allow players to stream a game to a phone or television without the need for a console; if they succeed, they could change how developers and game studios build, target, and market games.

When Google announced Stadia in 2019, it claimed that it had the technology to stream games with 4K HDR graphics at 60fps. However, the initial release failed to live up to that hype, with many reviews citing bumpiness and lagging. Gamers also complained about a lack of available games.

Google has subsequently rushed to make things right. “Looking at our upcoming lineup, we are tracking more than 120 games coming to Stadia in 2020, and are targeting more than ten games in the first half of this year alone that will be only available on Stadia when they launch,” the company wrote in a recent posting on the Stadia Community Blog. “We’re working with our partners to share more on those games soon.”

But if developers aren’t onboard with streaming, that could complicate a big rollout. Developers are also divided about the subscription model that undergirds not only Stadia, but also Apple Arcade, which offers a variety of iOS games for a set monthly fee; nearly a third (27 percent) of surveyed developers said they were outright concerned that such subscription models would devalue individual games, while 28 percent said “maybe” and 18 percent weren’t sure.

“The payback rates for most content creators in subscription-based models cannot justify the cost to make the products subscribers use,” wrote an anonymous game-maker. “This is true in every medium that has taken this approach in the last decade. Music artists do not make enough from Spotify, et al, to finance the production of future music… even the top tier artists. Why would games be different?”

If developers aren’t onboard with streaming and subscriptions—two things that the tech giants consider exciting—then efforts such as Stadia and Apple Arcade may face a rough fight for acceptance and adoption. Time will tell.