Streaming Video Games - The Dream of a Netflix Service for Games

Gamefly has partnered with LG Smart TVs to launch a streaming service in April for games that will make playing at least last generation games playable without a console.  This isn't the first attempt to make the popular Netflix model happen for games and I have my doubts it will be the last.  In fact, I bet few in the audience knew that Gamefly announced a similar deal with Samsung and that the service went up advertising the same few games in August of last year.

Some of you remember Sega Channel, where you paid a subscription and had a bunch of Sega games available to play on your Genesis.  When I was young this seemed excellent as I could only mow so many lawns and buy 2-3 games a year at retail.  And back then renting games meant heavy amounts of money with late fees and cheap photo copies of manuals so Sega Channel was the only monthly option.  This service didn’t last because Sega had to move on to the next console, which brings us to the first hurdle in getting buy in on a Netflix-like service for games – 3 console companies plus PC dividing the audience. 

For Gamefly, you have to have a certain branded TV that was produced in the last 2 years and I have doubts about how the TV performance would compare to a console or gaming PC.  Each time the industry hardware is updated whether it be a new class of consoles or new minimum CPU requirements it would possibly invalidate the service, and if you don’t have compatibility with all or most of the consoles you can’t touch the market share required to have strong enough negotiating power to get new or popular games or maybe original content as Netflix does. 

The second reason this idea is set to fail is that Playstation Plus and Xbox Gold already think they are doing this and are charging a monthly fee that isn’t likely to go away so gamers will have to eat a second monthly charge.  Obviously, neither system provides access to hot new releases for free but gives out indie titles and dated discounted titles which are stripped away when you stop paying.  And I think very few game companies are keen to kill off the consoles to make a generic streaming service really viable.

Which leads to the 3rd reason Netflix for gaming is going to be trouble, which is the limited price window and the quick churn audience for games.  New games drop for 60 bucks and need to sell as much as possible at that price point to be considered a success and consider making sequels.  Once that initial audience devours the game the price plummets over a few months and the game may even become obsolete if it requires online multiplayer love and relevance to work.  A Netflix style service won’t be able to compensate big releases quite like retail sales can, and if you don’t have hot new releases then people won’t subscribe to the service.  If you just have dated discounted games customers would be better served to hit up the bargain bins, or just buy the Humble Bundle each month to load up on older games to play.  Gamefly streaming is promoting games like Batman:Arkham Origins, Tomb Raider, Lego Batman 3, and Red Faction.  All games that retail for less than 20 bucks and have been for quite some time. 

Another reason this is hard to bring about is that games themselves are trying to set up their own subscription service by selling “Season Passes” to their add-on content.  Too many people are trying to slow play gamers into a money exchanging monthly ritual and I doubt there is a single company that could come in and take it over or compete with the a la carte offerings that currently exist that cater to a specific customers taste.  It is entirely plausible that a gamer could already be committed to a Minecraft monthly Realms subscription, a World of Warcraft like MMO, a Playstation Plus plan, and a season pass to Fallout 4 on top of their Cable and possibly Netflix entertainment costs.  That customer is already in pretty deep on subscriptions, and a new service would have to be better than is reasonably possible to bump one of those games out or to get another 10 dollars a month out of them.  I can’t envision a Netflix for games with content comparable to the Gamefly disc service, or a monthly deal on Humble Bundle games unless the console wars end and a single entity arises victorious from the chaos.  This may happen in my lifetime, but it isn’t forthcoming.  

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