Subscription services are a detriment to the discoverability of art

Passive consumption vs. active participation.

14 mins read
Game Pass is bad for gaming

I don’t usually report on individual tweets, but one tweet from Xbox started off a storm of discourse today, and it got me thinking up some thought bubbles of my own. To get the lede out of the way: the assumption that many people have that subscription services are good for discovering games that a person wouldn’t have played otherwise (particularly indie titles) is vastly over-estimated.

Now, the background: Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Twitter account took umbrage at a Kotaku story about people giving up on Xbox Game Pass. “A drought of AAA games has spurred some to unsub from Microsoft’s games-on-demand service — for now,” the Kotaku article reported.

“tell (sic) me you limit yourself to only AAA games without telling me you limit yourself to only AAA games” came the Game Pass response via Tweet, complete with the deliberately terrible grammar and overused snippy catch-phrase that dominates Twitter these days. What a hellhole for intelligent thought and discussion…

I digress. The point here is that Kotaku reported on people being disappointed with the lack of blockbuster content that was appearing on Game Pass, Game Pass made an argument via meme subtext that there’s more to it than blockbuster games. Game Pass wants you to believe that it’s actually a great platform for independent and B-tier games, and just like that we had the recipe for the day’s discourse.

A lot of people came out in support of the argument that Game Pass lacks blockbusters, and a lot of other people came out in defence of it. I couldn’t care less about that argument. What I did see as well, was a lot of people using an argument that I see repeated frequently as a glowing recommendation for the value of Game Pass and other subscription services. It is, to paraphrase, this argument: “I would never have played X, Y, and Z indie art game were it not for Game Pass, and therefore Game Pass is a great service.”

As I said, I’ve seen this perspective rolled out a lot over the years, and it’s never sat well with me, though I’ve never been able to articulate why. The more I thought about it today, though, the more I think I know what it is: putting aside the concerns I have about the commodifying impact that subscription services have (I’ve argued that in the past and that’s beyond the scope of this piece), there’s the assumption that making art accessible in the specific no-effort way that subscription services do is an inherently good thing.

I don’t think it is.

When someone says “I would never have played this game were it not for Game Pass, but I did and I loved it,” it’s not so much an anecdote about how the platform helped the audience find a game they loved. Rather, it’s highlighting that the audience wasn’t motivated to find the game. Think about it: the whole value proposition of Game Pass and other subscription services is that they make content effortlessly accessible.  In doing so, you don’t need to discover the game for yourself. You don’t need to research whether you’d like it. You don’t need to read reviews, watch videos, visit publisher websites or talk about the game on social media. You see it there (perhaps because the algorithm recommends it to you), you click on it, download it, and play it.

If you loved it, then great. The algorithm got it right. But the question then becomes: why aren’t you discovering games that you love without the big corporation’s sterile algorithms throwing them at you? Why aren’t you out there actively looking for games to play, and why are you passively letting corporations decide what games you play?

Most critically, why are you not concerned that you might be missing games that you would also love that aren’t on Game Pass?

I firmly believe that art has three principal roles in society: Art educates, art encourages thought and discussion, and art creates emotion. If you’re not engaging with an artistic medium on all three levels, then it’s not really behaving like an artistic medium. If all you’re doing is passively consuming content, then all you’re really doing is participating in productised entertainment. You’re not engaging with the arts.

Engaging with the arts means actively participating in it. It means actively going and looking for things that you love and want to talk about. It means taking control of discovery yourself, and it means being truly aware of the scope of what is available out there. The more disengaged we become with an art form, the less we’re motivated to let it challenge us, and the more at risk we are of seeing it as a commodity and no more valuable to us than a Mcdonald’s burger that we eat because we’re peckish. No one researches a Mcdonald’s burger before they hit up Uber to get one delivered. But fine dining? Yes. People do research restaurants, get recommendations about the chef’s specialties and the stand-out items on the menu, and then people talk about the experience.

No one talks about the Mcdonald’s cheeseburger. People went to great lengths to try Peter Gilmore’s incredible Snow Egg masterpiece dessert – I was a tech journalist when it was really big, and companies would book out the restaurant to hold events there simply because absolutely everyone wanted to try this Snow Egg. People wrote entire articles about that dessert. Commoditisation Vs Art.

Do people still say things about games that are on Game Pass? Yes, but it has a different texture and timbre to the discussions around something like Elden Ring, as a game that people needed to “discover” for themselves. It wasn’t algorithmic recommendations that dropped Elden Ring in front of people. It was the fact that people didn’t shut up about it for months on end. It was the massive, Internet-wide discussions in reviews, videos, viral social posts and more that drove Elden Ring. People were active participants in that game before they bought it, as they were playing it, and after they were done with it. People are passive participants in any game they “discover” on Game Pass. They’ll mention it, and perhaps roll it out to prove how great Game Pass is with content. But the level of engagement is just not there and the entire platform is specifically designed around moving you on to the next game as quickly as possible.

So there’s this idea that Game Pass makes discoverability easier. That’s both true and false. It’s true that you need to do less to discover a game that you love. However, it makes discovering games that you would love that aren’t on Game Pass harder. Game Pass discourages you from diving deeply into or other similar platforms to find indie games that you love. You’ve already got Game Pass. Why should you buy games when you’ve got that? Game Pass discourages you from reading websites to look for new games to play. When you’re not paying for a game, then you don’t really need to figure out whether you’re interested in it or not until after you’ve started playing it. And you can always rely on the algorithm to give you good recommendations. Essentially, the more people get invested in Game Pass, the less exposed they get to anything that isn’t nestled safely within Microsoft’s walled garden, and that is by definition narrowing effect, rather than a broadening, especially given that Microsoft has a vested interest in keeping what you experience narrow and commercially safe.

You don’t really get led down rabbit holes with subscription services. I can give you an example from film. I discovered my favourite film of all time, Chungking Express, by diving down a deep rabbit hole. I don’t remember the precise pathway that got to that film, but vaguely: I remember that it started with me enjoying a Jackie Chan film and deciding that I wanted to learn more about his early work. That led me into the world of Hong Kong cinema (which at the time I knew little about), and being surprised that it wasn’t all action stuff (because, again, at the time I knew little about it). Then, being interested in arthouse cinema and fascinated by this “new” art cinema from Hong Kong, I discovered Wong Kar-wai and, finally, Chungking Express. I have had hundreds of discussions around Chungking Express in the years since.

Meanwhile, Netflix told me I’d like In The Name Of The Father. The algorithm was absolutely right about that. I find the IRA and The Troubles to be a fascinating part of Irish history, and the film is powerful in that regard. I loved watching it. The algorithm knows enough about my tastes to reliable recommend to me films that I will enjoy. But I didn’t work to discover that film. There was no effort there on my part, and subsequently, less engagement with the film. I watched it, enjoyed it, and that was it. It’s considered quite an artistically valuable film, but this is the first time I’ve written anything about it, anywhere.

I’m no psychologist and couldn’t begin to explain what might be the underlying reason for this phenomenon, but I would bet that there is something to it. Because it’s there and easy to observe by casually looking at how people use these subscription services. They very clearly make us passive consumers of content, rather than active participants in the audience role within the arts. This is a problem because it is part of the shift that is taking the medium from art to product, and, to get right back to the original point here, as far as game subscription services are concerned it doesn’t actually help you discover games that you love. Rather, it just limits you from discovering games that exist outside of the garden walls.

Matt S. is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of DDNet. He's been writing about games for over 20 years, including a book, but is perhaps best-known for being the high priest of the Church of Hatsune Miku.

  • Game subscription services and “games as a service” are scams and that’s the long and short of it. Too bad some people want “you will own nothing and you will be happy” to be true for everything. Gamers are the ones raising alarm because we already know what that feels like.

    • The thing that always amuses me the most is the idea that subscription services are cheaper. Because of what I do I don’t have a choice but to subscribe to a bunch, and I’m handing over like $300/month now on… nothing. At the end of the day I have literally nothing tangible in return for giving these companies money.

  • What I hear is that you wish more gamers were actively engaged and motivated to seek out the good games (especially indies & AA’s), and not just passive consumers of whatever “content” is included in their packaged subscription services. There are a couple of problems beyond the existence of subscription services:

    – 1. Most people are lazy, especially when it comes to finding entertainment (& art).

    – 2. It is incredibly time-consuming to keep up with all the new games, with updates coming from all directions, all competing for your time & attention. I feel like I’m as “in the know” as anyone can be who has a regular job outside of the games industry … and I spend something like 10-15 hours a week just keeping up with game news, announcements, conversations with like-minded friends, finding previews & preview gameplay, as well as pinpointing info about import releases from many different small vendors, etc. etc. Your average gamer just doesn’t have that commitment … and for me, the choice to continue pursuing my videogame interest in this time-consuming way definitely eats into time that I could be actually playing games, or reading a novel, or hiking a mountain, or strolling on the beach with my wife. I do those things too … but most weeks end up being pretty full, with several compromises to life’s “balance”, which is not ideal.

    The game landscape isn’t what it was during my favorite period (the 90s), where if you had a couple of magazine subscriptions and a videogame store with knowledgeable staff (especially about imports), you could know about pretty much every good game release relatively easily. The amount of time it takes to keep up today is prohibitive for most people … which is why I’m glad that Game Pass at least picks a few good indies to expose those gamers to.

    I get the sense things may be turning around … There may be fewer good games from late 2022-to-2026 than there were from 2017-to-early 2022. Corporate initiatives on the “big game” side, and cutthroat competition for limited indie audiences on the “little game” side — combined with a shrinking of the Japanese AA game market — make me feel like I’ll have a little more time for other pursuits pretty soon.

    • You’re 100% right that people are lazy and it’s time-consuming to invest in art. Believe me, I’m well aware of the underlying appeal of subscription services and their algorithms. Most of my pieces on this subject merely come from the horrible realisation on how quickly games as an art form are fading and turning into the kind of marketplace of content that belongs in a cyberpunk story. I don’t have solutions, only observations 🙁

  • I hate how sinical you are sometimes. You’ve made this argument before and the way I see it every argument you’re making can be used in the opposite direction. Why do you make the assumption one has a game pass subscription and isn’t actively looking for games at the same time? I am. Also, if you’ re actively looking instead of just coincidentally finding something you’re limiting yourself also. Because you’ll use your own algorithm. You’ll look for genres you liked in the past I didn’t discover black Swan because of some algorithm anyway. I discovered it because it was the free game

    • With PS plus that month. Before that I had never played indie games. Before that I looked down on indie games. I had no idea what they were. I didn’t particularly like black Swan but I was intrigued because I had never seen a game like art before. I never knew a game could be more than cheap entertainment. After that I played flower and that got the ball rolling.
      I feel like the more you’re thinking about this subject the more narrow your vision becomes. It’s a good thing there are multiple ways of “consuming” and discovering art. And people that aren’t open to looking for it never will, no matter what possibilities they’re handed.

      • I’m not cynical at all. I’m one of the most positive people on games out there. My opposition to subscription services is the commoditization impact that they have on games, and I care about games way, way too much to not argue against the commoditization of them.

        I’ve been doing tech and business writing for decades now. Business tech and corporate writing well before I started going DDNet. I’ve seen what subscriptions do at every level, and it’s never a good thing. It *seems* good at first. Inevitably the consequences of giving companies money for nothing tangible has an impact. Each piece I write about subscription services comes from this perspective.

        If you like Game Pass, then great. I’m not trying to dissuade people from this stuff. I’m not here for consumer advice and I’m terrible at that. I’m just pointing out why they concern me and why they disappoint me in the places that they’re taking gaming.

        • I’m gonna keep arguing the same point over and over again no matter how long it takes 🙂
          Subcription is what drew me to art in games. Without it I would not have discovered whatever’s out there and I will be forever grateful.
          So you can say whatever you want but there’s one person out there that would not have discovered art without subscription and his name is born_naughty or Wim Boeren or whatever you want to call him 😉. And he’s one of your loyal readers.

        • There’s nothing subscriptions can do that digitalisation and platforms like steam have done everything already in terms of commodization. We’re already paying for nothing tangible. Subscriptions don’t change that imo. In a way subscription actually makes it more honest because at least everyone knows they don’t own the games they play there. It’s like a comeback of renting games in a way. Something that hasn’t been allowed in my country for a long time anymore.

          • You might already not be paying for something tangible, but others very well may be. I for one buy all my games physical, on disc or cartridge. I never patch or update (*), in fact my PS4 and Switch are not even connected to the internet. So my games are mine, and I can play them as long as I have the appropriate hardware.

            (*) So some games that require patches to actually work I cannot buy (e.g. Maiden of the Black Water)

  • In your opinion what is the difference between a library (which l’m sure you’ll agree is a positive thing), and a gaming subscription?

    • Sure. Without writing another entire opinion piece, the short version is:

      Libraries are public facilities that directly support authors while also being independent of capitalistic profit-making. They are also incentivised by their nature to hold as many books and publications as possible, and, in theory, there should be no central body that determines what can and cannot be held in a library (I know that sometimes governments get censorious, but for the most part, if you want to read Marquis de Sade, the library administrator doesn’t get to tell you that you can’t).

      Subscription services are motivated purely by profit outcomes, do not have the interests of artist or consumer in mind (might seem like they do, but they’re always motivated exclusively by what profit they make and will crap on both artist and consumer as necessary for their goal), and, most critically, they’re entirely walled gardens in which artists get to exist only by the grace of the overlords in the suits.

      Libraries exist to make art accessible to the masses. Subscription services exist to commodify art for the benefit of the company with the platform.

      • I’ve never had a subscription service, but your comment makes a lot of sense: libraries serve the public while subscriptions surve the profit. Thanks for taking the time to answer me.

  • I think there is another aspect about discovering games via a Subscription Service and the regular store is that the Subscription List is a ‘smaller’ selection and if something catches your eye, there is no upfront cost to consider.

    Regardless of whether its a lower cost Independent studio game or a big Blockbuster AAA game, the only thing you need to consider is whether or not the game looked interesting enough to ‘try’. When you have a fee involved and a LOT of choice, you also have to try and decide which of those games that interest you, interest you enough to part with your money. People don’t have ‘infinite’ cash so can’t buy ‘every’ game. Do you buy 2 or 3 3-5hr Indie games or maybe its better to buy a AAA game offering hundreds of hours that will last you until you have the budget to buy another game? Instead of buying that ‘interesting’ little Indie, there is a Sale on and you buy an older AAA game and forget about that indie…

    What Game Pass does is take away the ‘cost’ aspect and asking gamers to decide whether the Game is worth buying over all the other choices they have to spend their money on. What it does is give Gamers a much simpler Choice – does it look ‘interesting’ enough to give it a ‘try’ with NO OBLIGATION to spend money. Its making it far easier to ‘discover’ games you would NEVER buy because there is always something that interests you more on the horizon (to save or pre-order), always something ‘safer’ (and by safer, I mean something you ‘know’ will be something you enjoy), always sales on etc and with rising costs, less ‘free’ money to spend on games. No way would I have played the Medium, the Great Escape, Back 4 Blood, the Ascent, the Gunk etc – partly because I don’t have the Budget to buy ALL those (as well as the Games I did and/or would buy) and partly because there was NO risk to trying. If I bought B4B, then I wouldn’t have money for FH5, Far Cry 6 or Guardians of the Galaxy for example – all of which interested me more.

    There are several reasons that Game Pass helps gamers ‘discover’ games they wouldn’t have played. The fact that you only have ‘hundreds’ of options, not thousands and EVERY game that interests you in anyway, you have NO barriers to try. You don’t have any ‘financial’ investment or an expectation (I spent AAA amount of money so I expected a LOT more than just an 8hr campaign regardless of whether it was the ‘best’ 8hrs ever) etc etc

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