I've written a lot about PlayStation Now the past few weeks, whether because I think it's in desperate need of an overhaul or because I think it could become a serious xCloud competitor. The common denominator that you'll constantly see me compare it to is Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft's all-encompassing game subscription service. This time around, I'll be discussing how PS Now should take a page from Game Pass's playbook and become the perfect place for indies to thrive on PS5.
Indie games can be tough to market and even harder to sell. They don't have the same type of money behind them as AAA titles do, and many depend on word of mouth to make sales. The fewer people that play your game, the fewer people you have talking about it. But with a subscription service, it's easier to take a chance on games you otherwise normally wouldn't have given the time of day. This is something that Xbox Game Pass does so well.
Back in 2019, Xbox head Phil Spencer discussed the benefits of Xbox Game Pass and how it allowed developers to stay true to their vision (via GamesRadar). With less risk involved and a guaranteed built-in audience (Xbox Game Pass subscribers numbered 18 million in January 2021), developers didn't feel the need to chase service-based models like many AAA games do with recurring microtransactions and seasons of content.
"We see Game Pass as a really critical way to bring new games to new players, with a business model that just has more approachability for many players," he said. "We see players willing to take risks on new games and new genres because when you're already in the subscription, it's as easy as clicking on something, downloading the game, and starting to play. The diversity of content in Game Pass, the genres in Game Pass, the things that people play… I think it's a really healthy part of our industry.
"The nice thing about Game Pass is that it actually wraps the game inside of a service itself," Spencer continued. "So a game can just be a game. And it's nice to be playing games that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that, as a subscription, we completely support those types of games."
Speaking on the Gamertag Radio podcast last year (via Gamasutra), Phil Spencer addressed that idea again, saying that developers were finding audiences that would have never been playing their games had they just released at retail.
"The thing that we're seeing in the service is that people inside of Game Pass play significantly more games, they buy more games than they were before they were Game Pass subscribers, and the subscriber numbers are continuing to grow," Spencer said. "The third parties are finding players that would never be playing their games if they were solely relying on retail as the only way for people to find their games."
This is a huge boon for indie developers, and it's more important than ever with AAA veterans going solo in the industry at increasing rates. Xbox Game Pass already supports these developers wonderfully, something that PS Now lacks.
Indie developers themselves have praised Game Pass (via GamesIndustry at GDC, describing it as a simple path to profit. No More Robots founder Mike Rose even took to Twitter to discuss the impact Xbox Game Pass had had on Descenders sales.
"I cannot stress how incredible Xbox Game Pass has ended up being for Descenders," he said. "It's elevated the game to heights we couldn't have imagined.
"If I take the month before we went into Game Pass and compared it to sales of the game last week, we're now selling around 5 times as many units each week as pre-Game Pass, on a weekly basis. Since we went into Game Pass, our total Xbox sales have tripled."
I've hardly spoken about PS Now yet in this article, but that's because I wanted to lay out how good Game Pass is for indies. It isn't just speculation. There's hard evidence to prove it. If Sony wants to take PlayStation Now seriously as a subscription service, I think it should court more indies and AA titles. Become the place on PS4 and PS5 where these games can live and find an audience.
We've seen games like Bugsnax, Rocket League, Fall Guys, and Oddworld: Soulstorm release into PlayStation Plus, but the downside here is that they're only free for a month. In particular, Fall Guys and Rocket League became massively popular and successful after their launches. PlayStation Now needs a bit of work before it could provide the same level of success — its subscriber numbers are nowhere near that of PS Plus or Game Pass — but the idea is that it could become that service for indies and AA games with the right support from Sony.
There's no denying that PlayStation Now is an all-around weaker service than Game Pass. It lacks new games, it lacks exclusives, and it lacks a diverse indie offering. Sony needs to improve all of those categories to succeed and perhaps even surpass Game Pass.
Microsoft and Sony seem to be going in opposite directions with their subscription strategies. Where PlayStation is bolstering PS Plus and letting PS Now slowly drown, Xbox's approach is to bolster Game Pass as much as possible, lumping Xbox Live Gold in with it. That is a successful strategy when you're thinking about long-term plans. It strengthens indie and first-party offerings. PlayStation Now should follow suit.
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Jennifer Locke has been playing video games nearly her entire life. You can find her posting pictures of her dog and obsessing over PlayStation and Xbox, Star Wars, and other geeky things.