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“Netflix For Games” Services Creating A Gold Rush Too

As a spate of announcements around last week’s E3 conference made clear, there’s as much a rush to subscription online services for video games these days as there is for video.

Yes, plenty of companies – from Apple to Disney to Walmart – are making a play in the online video-streaming business largely pioneered by Netflix. But now, many of those same companies as well as other tech and game giants are trying to build what’s called in shorthand “Netflix for games.”

Though I doubt the acronym SGOD (for Subscription Games On Demand) will ever catch on, these companies are praying their significant investments in such services will pay off. In the meantime, they’re all scrambling to get stuff launched, and customers pulled in.

They’re depending on the cloud and new high-speed connection technologies such as 5G mobile and the cable TV industry’s 10G wired alternative to make games easy to access and play on just about any connected device, anywhere.

There’s plenty of incentive to make it work. Market analyst NewZoo estimates that games on all platforms last year grossed $134 billion worldwide, more than half of all money spent on entertainment. Mobile gaming garnered about half that total, but really, people are playing games in many ways. The most ambitious of these services, like Apple’s, hope to serve gamers wherever they like to play, and socialize, and watch others play.

Winning the race for a gaming subscription service amid all this competition won’t be easy, but it’s clearly where a lot of companies think they to go.

As Deloitte Digital detailed in a recent report, for the first time, more Millennials now pay for a video game service (53 percent) than a Pay TV subscription (51 percent). That shift is happening rapidly too. The latest stats reflect a net shift of 10 points between the two in just a year.

This land rush, like the one for video, will surely lead to some big winners and some big busts. As both video and game services emerge, I would expect to see them bundled together, in a strategy to reduce churn and keep customers happily ensconced inside a particular ecosystem.

The obvious example is Apple, which earlier this spring announced its cross-platform Arcade subscription service. Like Apple’s TV+ SVOD service, Arcade is now supposed to debut this fall for $9.99 a month. It promises more than 100 purpose-built new games that will run across Mac, iPad and iPhone. The bundle of News+, TV+ and Arcade may not be far behind.

Valve’s Steam service is the real Netflix of gaming so far, a long-time incumbent with ardent fans. But Steam has never broken out from the confines of hardcore PC gaming. Now, game publishers are, um, getting into the game. 

Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and maybe Activision Blizzard are working on SGOD services. Riot Games is building out a service that sits atop its hugely popular League of Legends. 

The biggest recent announcement from a newcomer was probably Google’s Stadia, though the announcement itself was poorly received by many among the notoriously exacting gamer cognoscenti.

The most surprising announcement was the agreement between arch rivals Microsoft and Sony to partner on streaming services built on Microsoft’s Azure. Those same (though somewhat puzzled) cognoscenti received this news in much more positive fashion.

Sony and Microsoft also announced coming successors to their PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles  that will surely revolve around the new game- and video-streaming services (Microsoft has already released a digital-only variant of its current Xbox with no internal disc drive).

Verizon is hoping to avoid a Go90-style fiasco while building a cloud-based game service that would leverage the tens of billions of dollars it’s investing in 5G.

And given Verizon’s initiative, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a me-too from its arch rival, AT&T, which is also investing heavily in 5G. Given that new AT&T subsidiary WarnerMedia is launching a streaming-video service next year, can a game service through WB Games be far behind? AT&T surely is going to want more ways to get people to use its 5G service, and more reasons to pay for products from its many content units.

Amazon, too, has plenty of pieces in place that could be used in the space. It already has Prime Video, Channels, Twitch, and AWS, the immense cloud operation that also provides game developers with several key programming services.

Separately, Amazon is developing several ambitious games, though just as E3 ended, word came that it had killed some titles and is laying off dozens of people. Despite that setback, all those pieces feel like some further enhancement of Prime’s existing gamer premiums is inevitable.

Comcast already has both a streaming-video service coming from its NBCUniversal and is a heavy investor in esports. It recently announced a $50 million stadium for its Overwatch franchise in hometown Philadelphia. You don’t make that kind of investment in a still relatively small sport unless you expect to find lots of ways to amortize the content you’ll create there.

And if that isn’t complicating enough, the company that inspired the idea of creating a “Netflix for games” is, of course, getting into games. Netflix needs to expand its revenue base beyond video subscriptions, and is already working with developers on its third title inspired by its hit Stranger Things. Can a full-fledged game service built around I.P. such as Stranger Things, Bird Box and Altered Carbon be that far behind?

And Snap, reviving from last year’s awful funk, already has launched multiplayer games wired into its main service. Given Snap’s creative (if not financial) track record, the potential here for clever augmented-reality games with friends is huge.

The big player not popping up in any of these conversations is Disney, which already has a video bundle in the making with ESPN+, Disney+ and Hulu.

Disney has a lengthy, not always positive, history with gaming. But creating a cloud-based service seems inevitable, especially given Disney’s existing interactive unit and game assets like its Kingdom Hearts collaborations with Square Enix, its Star Wars and Marvel universes that already have spawned dozens of games, and half a hundred other storied franchises that it could mine.

This land rush likely won’t be any cheaper, and probably every bit as bloody, as the one happening in video. But for companies trying to use content to capture attention and cash flow, this game is on.