There had been rumblings over the past weeks and months that Sony was going to unveil a revamp to its subscription service to compete with Microsoft’s Game Pass; it had a codename of ‘Spartacus’ for added effect. It did just that in the end, unveiling three new tiers of PS Plus — the lowest tier broadly represents the current standard PlayStation Plus, a middle tier also includes much of the soon-to-be-defunct PlayStation Now content (adding hundreds of games), and a premium option adds access to a substantial range of retro titles across PS1, PS2, PS3, PS4 (streaming) and PSP. It’ll go live in June, and it’ll be fascinating to see what PlayStation owners choose.
Of course, it’s yet another evolution in the subscription wars. It used to be the console wars, and we have wistful memories of terms like BLAST processing and Mode 7 in the ’90s, while in the more recent generations the battle was over exclusive games. Exclusives are still key for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, but we’re also sliding into that battle of subscriptions, largely because Game Pass took the established model of selling major first-party games and chucked it in the bin. It’s a conflict of ideologies and wealth, with a collision between the prioritisation of profits from game sales and user acquisition.
First of all, if you want a variety of nice tables and breakdowns of each service, our chums at Push Square have done a marvellous guide with just that, below.
As we’re Nintendo Life, let’s talk over where Switch Online and its Expansion Pack currently sit. In terms of the base service it remains quite a bit less expensive than equivalents from Sony and Microsoft; that’s if you’re looking for the cheapest option to enable online play and cloud saves. Microsoft likes to claim brownie points for making cloud saves free, but you need to subscribe to at least Xbox Gold to play online (apart from free-to-play games). Whatever system you’re using you’ll mostly have to pay to play online. Nintendo’s base membership is comfortably the cheapest of these options, typically about half the price of alternatives (at full price).
|Package||1 month subscription||3 month subscription||Annual (12 month) subscription||Annual Family membership (up to 8 users)|
|Nintendo Switch Online||$3.99
|Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack||N/A||N/A||$49.99
Time is perhaps gradually getting kinder for this default subscription, as it includes offers and bonuses (like the eShop ‘vouchers’), some exclusive online games and a bunch of SNES and NES titles. Unlike the base PlayStation Plus, though, at present you’re not going to get any notable modern games included beyond the ’99’ range.
The Expansion Pack more than doubles the annual price unless you get a Family membership, meanwhile, and that’s where Nintendo’s approach is more interesting (and controversial to some). Debates around the value of it are still raging; at present it adds Nintendo 64 and SEGA Mega Drive / Genesis retro games, which plenty feel does not suffice. Yet Nintendo is also testing the waters by including desirable add-ons in the deal; so far that’s been Animal Crossing: New Horizons – Happy Home Paradise and the Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Booster Course Pass. Suddenly, for those of us eager to play that DLC without necessarily worrying about ‘owning’ it, the Expansion Pack is offering meaty savings.
By Nintendo’s standards, and considering its history of baby steps in changes to any aspect of its business model, it’s rather bold to be ‘giving away’ premium DLC in a subscription.
By Nintendo’s standards, and considering its history of baby steps in changes to any aspect of its business model, it’s rather bold to be ‘giving away’ premium DLC in a subscription. It’s small fry compared to what Sony and Microsoft are doing, but it’s still significant and shows us that Nintendo Switch Online is not going anywhere; Nintendo online subscriptions are here to stay.
What’s fascinating about Sony’s latest move is how awkward it seems. Sony runs its gaming business similarly to Nintendo in some key ways. As far as both companies are concerned the approach is simple; make a small or non-existent profit from the hardware, but generate significant revenues through game sales. Sony has a far bigger slice of its business from digital sales than Nintendo, not just games but huge revenues from microtransactions, season passes and so on (the likes of Call of Duty and FIFA are vital for this). In fact those revenues point to the big difference between the companies — Sony is seemingly now all-in on live-service gaming and its potential revenues. It recently acquired Bungie with that market in mind, and PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan has reemphasized (in this interview with GamesIndustry.biz) that it’s an important focus for the company.
What the two do have in common, though, is applying value to major game releases; Nintendo first-party games rarely have discounts beyond 33% even years after release. From a Sony perspective, its new PS Plus offerings are adding some older PS5 games — with Returnal being a headline — but have stated that new first-party games will not be available to subscribers on day one. Sony is seeking that magical balance of attracting subscriptions while still encouraging day one purchases of major releases.
That’s the key area where the new PS Plus will still not draw direct comparison, in terms of value, to Game Pass. While Switch owners will be buying The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2 on day one, and PS5 owners will be doing the same with God of War Ragnarok, Game Pass subscribers will be able to simply download Starfield as part of their subscription without spending $60. That remains the key differentiator, even though Sony and Nintendo (particularly the former) is happy to throw a whole lot of older games to subscribers. For Game Pass converts, part of the attraction is the saved money on major new games, giving up owning the game for the cheaper option and ease of access.
|Premium Gaming Subscription Services||Content Included||Price – single user 12 months (Xbox Game Pass is renewed monthly)|
|Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack||Online play and cloud saves, 100+ games (NES, SNES, N64, SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive), select DLC expansions, promotions and in-game items||$49.99
|PlayStation Plus Premium||Online Play and Cloud Saves, 700+ games (PS1 / PSP through to PS5), monthly game downloads, promotions and game streaming||$119.99
|Microsoft Game Pass Ultimate||Online Play (cloud saves are free on Xbox), 100+ games (PC, Xbox through to Xbox Series), day one exclusives, monthly game downloads, promotions and game streaming||$179.88
As has been written a million times before, Microsoft’s approach is made possible by deep pockets. The company highlights trends and data showing Game Pass players trying more games and actually spending more on the Microsoft store, though naturally a number of players will skip a $60 purchase if they can play the game as part of their subscription. Like services such as Netflix, Disney+ and so on in the TV streaming space, financial losses in the short term may be swallowed in the pursuit of the biggest userbase. It was the model also followed by social media networks in earlier years – get the users, and the profits will follow down the line.
Sony, evidently, isn’t ready to go all-in that way, in terms of overhauling the value of major new releases and abandoning the ‘buy on day one’ model. Nintendo, meanwhile, still seems to have a sizeable audience that expects to pay $60 for a new game, and it is in no position as a business to jeopardise that market.
In the current Subscription Wars, then, Microsoft and Sony are in a rather new and strange battle, pitching not only subscription libraries but the intrinsic ‘value’ of their exclusives against each other. Nintendo, in a very Nintendo way, continues to move in its own bubble.
What Nintendo Switch Online and the Expansion Pack show, though, is that the company knows the shape of gaming and subscriptions is changing; it’ll have to find its own space amidst all the upheaval.