Sony’s Xbox Game Pass competitor is a major validation of subscription gaming
Riga, Latvia - November 23, 2020: Sony Playstation 5 gaming console on white backgorund

Sony’s Xbox Game Pass competitor is a major validation of subscription gaming

Protocol Gaming

This week in Protocol Gaming, your weekly guide to the business of video games: What Sony’s subscription gaming plans say about the success of Xbox Game Pass, Ubisoft admits it mishandled its misconduct scandal, and Epic’s Unreal Engine is becoming a go-to choice for Hollywood’s film marketing efforts.

If the strategy works, use it

Last week’s bombshell PlayStation news that Sony is building an Xbox Game Pass competitor felt both like an inevitability and a surprise at the same time. On one hand, it’s matter of course that the success and popularity of a Netflix-style subscription service in the gaming industry would inspire competitors to react.

But on the other hand, Game Pass has for so long felt like an anomaly, created out of necessity by Microsoft after it lost the seventh console generation to the PS4 and tried a radical new approach to funding, developing and distributing video games. But Sony’s answer to Game Pass is reportedly imminent, arriving as soon as next spring. That makes Game Pass seem like a far less radical concept now than when it launched in 2017.

Game Pass is starting to look like the future. Sony is developing its own version of Game Pass as an extension of its existing PlayStation Plus membership, codenamed Spartacus. Details are sparse, but Bloomberg reports that the service may have three tiers and include a cloud component powered by PlayStation Now, just like Game Pass.

  • A number of other major publishers have their own subscription services, including Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, though those have mainly focused on offering only first-party games and usually a more limited library of available titles.
  • Xbox Game Pass has grown to more than 18 million subscribers as of January 2021 and features nearly 500 unique games across its various tiers. It’s also home to every first-party Microsoft title from Xbox Game Studios and the recently acquired Bethesda, including this week’s Halo Infinite release.
  • Though the growth of Game Pass has slowed of late, Microsoft has started putting big hits, in turn proving to the industry that its multi-platform, subscription-first strategy is working. The recent launch of Forza Horizon 5 was the best Xbox Game Studios launch of all time, with more than 10 million players in its first week thanks to Game Pass access.

This is far from the end of traditional game distribution. As was the case with music and television, it will take many years before consumer attitudes toward subscription gaming and the actual end products create a proper paradigm shift. Even then, the economics of the game industry make it unlikely major developers and publishers will ever completely abandon traditional retail.

  • The gaming medium moves much slower than its counterparts because of a number of technical and market factors. Video games come in all different sizes and price points and some require extensive online infrastructure, making it difficult to bundle them together and even harder to stream them like you would television or music. There is also the used game market, which does not exist in the digital-only world.
  • Only last year, during the pandemic, did digital downloads of games surpass those sold at retail. Though it may come as a surprise, most consumers were still buying games burned to Blu-ray Discs up until very recently. Many players still find value in owning consoles with disc drives, too, allowing them to purchase those used or discounted discs from Amazon and GameStop.
  • Sony, like Nintendo, has no incentive to shift entirely away from its current, traditional approach of selling full-price games as one-off purchases. Though the biggest, most lucrative games in the industry right now are free-to-play, live service games like Fortnite, Sony can still collect 30% of in-game purchases inside those titles just by maintaining the status quo.

Sony’s take on Game Pass might be conservative to start. It’s easy to think of the game industry as a cutting-edge hybrid of tech and entertainment, but many of its biggest companies play it safe in their business approach. And Sony’s PlayStation division, though it does experiment in areas like cloud gaming and VR, is not known for taking major risks.

  • For one, PlayStation business model feels antithetical to subscription gaming. Sony has built its gaming brand as a place to find high-quality, exclusive games, and the company over the last decade has set a number of sales milestones as a result, including roughly 20 million units for both 2018’s Spider-Man and God of War.
  • It’s hard to imagine releases like those arriving on Sony’s Game Pass competitor until well after launch. And Bloomberg’s report suggests Sony might take a more Nintendo-inspired approach and start by bundling older PS4 games with classics from the PS1, PS2 and PS3 eras, rather than launch brand-new games on the platform as Microsoft does.
  • Eventually, Sony may see the market for its subscription platform become large enough to justify sending new releases there on launch day. Back in June, Sony said in an investor presentation that the "importance of the console business model is reducing," and its focus is now on growing PlayStation’s software and services ecosystem. But it’s going to take time.

Xbox found itself at an industry crossroads at the perfect time and place to take a bold gamble with Game Pass. The PS4 had been outselling the Xbox One two to one, and Microsoft was struggling to find compelling reasons why a consumer should buy its console over the competition. The answer, as Xbox chief Phil Spencer theorized, would be a subscription that could live on multiple devices, letting you bring your games to whatever screen you liked.

Sony’s version of Game Pass probably won’t look like that, at least not for many years. The company’s remarkable success this past decade has proved that selling full-priced games is still a lucrative business, if your games are reliably good, not over-budget and arrive on time. But video games are becoming more expensive, often now $70, and they’re increasingly competing with those given away for free. Now, Sony has apparently seen the writing on the wall and seems poised to take the subscription plunge.


Payments infrastructure provider Nium is playing a key role in the future of how we pay for items and transfer money. Nium's Chief Revenue Officer Frederick Crosby explains all.

Learn more


“I don't think we always communicated enough back to the people who had raised an issue in the first place about what we found as part of the investigations — the decisions that we made and the actions that we took. And so I think, unfortunately, people lost trust in that process.” ―Anika Grant, Ubisoft’s chief people officer, admitted the company mishandled its ongoing sexual harassment and misconduct crisis and as a result has lost the trust of employees, according to a new interview with Axios. Ubisoft has seen a number of high-profile departures and, like Activision Blizzard, is now at odds with its own employees, many of whom are demanding change.

“Could we do it today? I think we could … At the time they had big ambitions. They had sold their business for a certain amount of money. They saw what Halo turned into. And it's like, ‘OK, Microsoft benefited more than Bungie did from the success of Halo.’ There's no other story that can be written there.” ―Xbox chief Phil Spencer opened up about Microsoft’s acquisition of Bungie in an interview with Axios, saying Microsoft has learned a lot about nurturing studios in the years since. Joining Microsoft made Master Chief a household name, but Bungie eventually left the company in 2007 to create the sci-fi shooter Destiny.


On Protocol: Facebook Gaming’s newest exclusive title is Pac-Man Community, a competitive multiplayer version of the arcade classic designed to be livestreamed. The game, because it can be played instantly within the Facebook app, supports a new feature where streamers can compete against viewers in a matter of seconds using an invite link.

Call of Duty developers walk out. Members of the quality assurance staff at Activision-owned Raven Software announced a walkout on Monday to protest layoffs sprung on the staff last week, Kotaku reported. The team primarily works on the Warzone battle royale, which will see a major update on Dec. 8 and generates more than $5 million in revenue per day.

The end of Titanfall. Electronic Arts-owned studio Respawn Entertainment said goodbye last week to the first Titanfall, pulling the shooter from digital stores but giving no concrete timeline for when the servers might shut down. The game is still playable for now, and the studio said Titanfall is “core to Respawn’s DNA and this incredible universe will continue.”

100 Thieves keeps growing. The esports and gaming lifestyle company co-founded by former Call of Duty pro Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag announced a $60 million funding round last week valuing it at nearly half a billion dollars. The company runs a number of pro gaming squads across various titles, but it also operates a fast-growing clothing business and influencer platform.

FaZe Clan wants in on the NFT boom. The esports and gaming culture brand is partnering with crypto platform MoonPay to “create new original content tailored for the FaZe Clan community,” with a focus on NFTs. The partnership is notable because FaZe suspended and removed some members earlier this year for promoting crypto scams.

Bungie’s next project. The Halo and Destiny creator has been quietly working on its next big game, and former Blizzard game designer John Yang last week announced that he’s joined the team as a senior design lead. It’s not clear what Bungie is building, but its track record of paradigm-shifting shooters warrants our attention.

Battlefield’s major shakeup. Electronic Arts has added Battlefield to the long list of responsibilities for celebrated Respawn co-founder Vince Zampella in a substantial executive shuffle, GameSpot reported last week. Oskar Gabrielson, the general manager at EA studio DICE, is departing, and the publisher now wants to create a proper Battlefield universe that can span multiple games.

The Game Awards go meta. Celebrity gamer Geoff Keighley’s annual awards show now has a metaverse component thanks to a partnership with Core, a virtual game creator platform not unlike Roblox. Core creator Manticore Games helped Keighley’s team build a virtual red carpet players can explore, with a planned afterparty after the live broadcast.

Epic’s Hollywood ambitions

The Unreal Engine is known first and foremost as a game engine, forming the foundation of Fortnite and also helping developers create projects big and small as an alternative to building expensive, complex in-house tools. But Epic has long harbored ambitions to branch beyond gaming, into Hollywood, architecture and any other industry where 3D rendering is useful.

We’re seeing that happen more and more these days. The Matrix Awakens, an interactive tech demo built inside Unreal with director Lana Wachowski to promote the fourth entry in the Matrix film series, launches this Thursday during The Game Awards. It arrives on the heels of a similarly ambitious interactive art exhibit Epic helped Radiohead craft for its “Kid A Mnesia” reissue. Combined with the developer’s impressive facial animation work and its upcoming Unreal Engine 5 update, we might start seeing a whole lot more virtual worlds created using Epic’s software.

Thanks for reading. Tell your friends and colleagues to subscribe here, and send tips, feedback and ideas to See you next week.

Recent Issues