The rise of game subscription services & ‘Infinite Browsing Mode’


[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

We’re going to get a little more abstract – but still relevant – to start out this free newsletter. This section is inspired by Consolevania co-creator – and new UK GamesMaster host – Rob Florence and his recent comments on Xbox Game Pass:

“I have a strange issue with Game Pass on Xbox. It’s an amazing deal. Constant games. Great games. But I only really use my Xbox to run the NBA app. Otherwise it gathers dust. Because all those games on there? It’s overload. Makes me try things for ten minutes then say “Crap. Aff.”

It’s what I call “The Emulator Effect”. When you have access to so much stuff you play nothing. You skim across the games like a stone across a pond. Ultimately, as great as Gamepass is – I’m not sure it’s actually that great for people like me. Difficult to treasure anything when it’s all just – THERE.”

We’re going to get a little more abstract – but still relevant – to start out this free newsletter. This section is inspired by Consolevania co-creator – and new UK GamesMaster host – Rob Florence and his recent comments on Xbox Game Pass:

“I have a strange issue with Game Pass on Xbox. It’s an amazing deal. Constant games. Great games. But I only really use my Xbox to run the NBA app. Otherwise it gathers dust. Because all those games on there? It’s overload. Makes me try things for ten minutes then say “Crap. Aff.”

It’s what I call “The Emulator Effect”. When you have access to so much stuff you play nothing. You skim across the games like a stone across a pond. Ultimately, as great as Gamepass is – I’m not sure it’s actually that great for people like me. Difficult to treasure anything when it’s all just – THERE.”

Now, we’re definitely not saying Game Pass is bad. It’s got over 400 games, and they’re extremely well curated. But I haven’t seen much discussion about how people’s discovery choices change when faced with a torrent of content.

As a starting point, I perused Pete Davis’ recent book Dedicated, based on a viral Harvard commencement address. Davis suggests: “With the flexibility of Infinite Browsing Mode comes the pain of “decision paralysis”. The more options you have, and the more times you jump from option to option, the less satisfied you become with any given option – and the less confidence you have in committing to anything.”

As Davis notes, psychologist Barry Schwartz popularized this idea in his 2004 book The Paradox Of Choice. Schwartz – who is very much in the ‘too much choice is bad’ camp, says: “As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

But what do real people (OK, on Twitter, but they’re still real!) think about this? For many of them, this just seems to be an extension of ‘the backlog issue’ which already exists for purchased games.

For example, when I asked if other people feel like there’s 57 channels (and nothing on), N3twork’s Ethan Levy said: “I absolutely do, and it comes not from Game Pass, but having this huge backlog of stuff built up from PS+, Epic, and Prime free monthly games and many sales purchases.”

User researcher Steve Bromley also made an interesting comment: “[It’s] similar to when I used to work for a publisher with a big games library. You could borrow anything, but because I hadn’t invested any of my own money into it, I bounced off games I would otherwise stick with.”

So, a couple of specific thoughts on how I think ‘infinite browsing mode’, subscription services and game discovery is evolving for devs:

  • With more choice in large subscription game catalogs, people have less patience for ‘slow starting’ games. If it takes your title 2 or 3 hours to really get stuck in people’s brains – maybe that’s more dangerous than it used to be?
  • With subscription services, you get paid (somewhat) whether it reaches an audience or not. Are we going to start seeing more devs and publishers pitching to specifically what they think the gatekeeper – the sub platform – wants/needs, to fill gaps in the catalog, etc?
  • If catalogs get big enough, there will be more opportunity for better discovery personalization (via algorithm or ‘people like you played’) – as Steam does now – which actually may improve things. But you need thousands of titles, not a few hundred for personalization to be incredibly meaningful, in my view.
  • We tend to talk to those who are already ‘core’ gamers and have a big purchase backlog, etc. But how does Game Pass or Apple Arcade change discovery for those who were more casual and didn’t have a big backlog of games to start with? Unsure – platforms, please share your data more openly on this.

Ultimately, I think we should have some positive feelings about the widening of the market via subscription. Phil Spencer’s recent note that Forza Horizon 5 had over 4.5 million players just after launch across PC, cloud & console – with CCUs of 3x Forza Horizon 4’s high – shows how swiftly things are changing due to Game Pass.

But I think the enormity of the changes that come with these subscription offerings are yet to be fully understood by any of us. This is particularly because games are different to movies & music in terms of how long you can spend in them, upsell, etc. And even though we can’t quantify things neatly, we’re going to keep musing.





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