The rise of game subscription services & 'Infinite Browsing Mode'

Plus: what Netflix does now & lots more.

[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.]

Itshappening dot gif! We’re back again with some more condensed newsletter factual goodness, for those wanting to know about game platforms and discoverability*. (*And the giant tech and game companies currently swallowing the world as we know it.)

Before we kick off, just a shout-out for our GameDiscoverCo Plus subscription. You get an exclusive weekly Friday newsletter looking at which games ACTUALLY hit big and why, a Discord to chat in, a voluminous data back-end, and you help support the free editions of this newsletter - what’s not to like?

Sub to GameDiscoverCo Plus (it's good)

Choice & discovery in a game sub-heavy world?

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.

PlayStation & Xbox UIs: a user experience critique

[Time for a guest newsletter section! Peter Ramsey is the creator of Built For Mars, an analysis-heavy UX website, newsletter and consultancy. He’s written something detailed and quite interesting about UX for game consoles - and gave us permission to print an extract.]

There's a bias that I've been silently pondering for a few years: the user experience of video game consoles is so much worse than general consumer apps, but it's rarely mentioned.

Both Microsoft and Sony released 'next gen' consoles in 2020, which objectively have interfaces that are considerably worse than most of the software you'll use daily. My initial rationale was that the complexity of having a controller—with buttons and joysticks, instead of a cursor—made it more challenging.

I've spent a few months with both the Xbox Series X and the Playstation 5, agonising over the small details. And whilst I still think that the controller is a limiting factor, it's not the reason for this bias.

And importantly, you don't need to be passionate about either console to (hopefully) enjoy this—it's designed in a way to have clear UX takeaways that are relevant to general software design. Let’s jump right in:

Benchmarking

Firstly, let me show you a good exercise to benchmark one product against another (useful for competitive research). On the surface it looks too simple to be valuable, but having used this methodology for years - and over many industries - I can vouch for its effectiveness.

I've created a basket of 30 'common' tasks, split over 3 categories, and then recorded a series of datapoints during the completion of those tasks. You can view them all here, but here are three examples:

Albeit a crude instrument, it allows us to simulate and benchmark usage. To start with, let's look at how many actions (button presses) it takes to complete our basket of tasks:

On average, the PS5 required 29.8% more input than the Xbox to complete a comparative task. There's a data-mine here, but it's important to also know the distribution of clicks and tasks.

As you can see below, the Playstation wasn't just slightly more awkward at some tasks, but required more effort for most tasks:

A notable example of this is the Control Centre, which defaults your focus onto the activity cards—forcing the user to hop down, then along until they reach the menu item that they want.

But before we prematurely conclude that that Xbox has a better interface, there's another metric to lean on: number of significant screens. As an example, when purchasing a game through the Xbox store, you'll see the following 3 consecutive pages:

Experienced users will fly through these screens because of muscle memory. But new users will need to digest each screen and all of the content in it.

This mostly happens at a sub-conscious level, but it adds to their cognitive load - i.e., the more options you can see, the more you need to understand, and the more effort that requires. If you look again at the Xbox example above, it's not just the buttons that have changed, but the layout, the colours, the fonts and even the context.

Understanding what you're looking at requires processing, and so you also need to consider the number of significant screens for each task. Interestingly, it's the inverse of the 'actions' benchmark.

Whilst most tasks do require more actions on the Playstation, the interface is actually more consistent and has fewer significant changes. This means that on average, completing tasks on the Xbox require 19% more 'significant screen changes'.

[This is only an extract, so read the full piece if you want more. For me, the PS5 UI’s lack of specific filtering & personalization has been as big an issue as some of these granular usability concerns. But actually, both are pretty darn important! Food for thought?]

The game discovery news round-up..

OK, time to round up the game discovery news since Monday. And we’ll start out with a mini section on Netflix Games. Firstly, the service has also rolled out on iOS, and this TechCrunch article has some interesting details on how it’s organized differently on iOS to Android:

“Netflix users on Android have their own dedicated “Games” tab in the [Netflix] app’s navigation, but iOS users will not. Instead, iPhone members will only see a dedicated games row in the app where they can select any game to download. Meanwhile, iPad members will see the row (pinned to position 6) and will be able to access games from the Categories drop-down menu.

The company told TechCrunch that while Apple has been a great partner on Netflix games, it wasn’t entirely clear to Netflix if a gaming tab would bump up against another App Store policy, which bans apps that offer their own “app stores.” Since Netflix believes the tab is not critical to being able to offer the gaming experience to iOS users, it made the decision to launch without it. However, if the company is able to get more clarity around this rule in the future, it may be able to add a Games tab to its iOS app like the one available now on Android.”

It’s all about the semantics, baby! (Remember, on both iOS and Android, these games are separate apps you download from mobile stores and activate/play by entering your Netflix login when you boot them up. Not the best user experience.)

Secondly, it was super interesting to see Riot Forge and Choice Provisions’ new musical platformer Hextech Mayhem: A League Of Legends Story launch with the following platforms listed on its trailer end splash screen: Switch, Steam, Epic Games Store, GOG, Netflix Games.

(Perhaps this is part of a larger Riot/Netflix collaboration that includes the animated series Arcane. But Netflix Games as a platform on a third-party announcement is a milestone worth commemorating - even if this ‘separate apps for each game’ thing is pretty clunky.)

OK, rounding up the rest of the game discovery goodness:

  • Sony has released top downloads for the PlayStation Store on PS4 & PS5 for October. PS5 standouts include Kena: Bridge Of Spirits charting, continued success for Far Cry 6, and an impressive showing for Demon Slayer - Kimetsu no Yaiba (which Plus readers have been hearing about for a while!)

  • Apple vs. Epic made a slight return, in the form of the judge denying Apple’s request to delay App Store changes. “Calling Apple’s request for a delay ‘fundamentally flawed,’ Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California warned in her ruling that the company’s strict App Store rules were building toward ‘antitrust conduct.’”

  • A friend of the newsletter pointed out that the Twitter for Professionals accounts now include “the Newsletter module, built in partnership with Twitter’s recently acquired newsletter service, Revue.” Getting a ‘subscribe to newsletter’ embedded in your Twitter profile is cool, even if the provider is limited?

  • Microlinks: Unity buying Weta Digital’s tools & tech for $1.6 billion is certainly a ‘we see your Mandalorian pipeline, & raise you’ response to Unreal; Geoff Keighley says that The Game Awards will have lots of announcements - and no NFTs - in it; Deep Rock Galactic has sold 3 million copies across Steam and Xbox - which is great news if you’re an interstellar dwarf.

  • A little SteamDB tip that I’m not sure everyone knows? If you go to the ‘Packages’ page for a particular game, it’ll show the price of the game in multiple currencies compared with Valve’s suggested pricing. Here, for example, is Back 4 Blood’s package page. Cool, huh?

  • Axios used EA’s recent earnings to show how ‘live services’ games continue to dominate: “Over a decade ago, EA's then-CEO John Riccitiello made it an interview cliche to proclaim that EA sold services, not "packaged goods." Back then, though, most games from most publishers sold for $60 and didn’t add much content after release. Today, it's hard to find a big-budget game from any publisher that doesn’t have months or years of additional content, some that’s free to players and some that isn't.”

  • Haven’t seen it remarked on much, but Microsoft’s PC-specific Game Pass spending is on the increase, with Total War: Warhammer III a Day 1 PC Game Pass title, and titles like Humankind and Football Manager 22 also making PC-centric Game Pass debuts. Should Steam be worried yet? Or eventually, at least?

  • Microlinks, Pt.2: in ‘yet more cloud gaming’ news, RemoteMyApp has been acquired by Intel; October’s GameRefinery updates taught me that F2P games looove Halloween; via Niko’s Daniel Ahmad, here’s the launch-adjusted Nintendo Switch shipments (scroll down slightly) vs. other consoles.

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]