By "everyone else," I'm not simply talking about console archrival Sony (SNE) , though it does offer a $100-per-year cloud gaming service (PlayStation Now) that lets PlayStation 4 and PC users stream over 450 PlayStation 3 games. Or for that matter Nvidia (NVDA) , which recently made its GeForce Now service -- it lets users play games on cloud-hosted Nvidia GPUs, with pricing starting $25 for 20 hours -- available on PCs.
Rather, I'm talking about the many, many content providers relying on subscription services to deliver forms of entertainment that in the past were generally consumed piecemeal. And to some degree, the many other subscription services popping up that aim to replace one-off consumer purchases.
This trend is no longer in its early innings, but it's also far from played out. And in its particular niche, Microsoft's content subscription offering looks well-positioned to be a leader.
Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass service, unveiled on Tuesday and due in the spring, gives Xbox One users the ability to download and play "over 100 Xbox One and backward compatible Xbox 360 games." Initial supported titles include Halo 5: Guardians, NBA 2K16 and SoulCalibur II.
Publishers providing at least some measure of support include Take-Two Interactive's (TTWO) 2K unit, Warner Bros., Capcom, Bandai and, of course, Microsoft Studios. The Verge observes Electronic Arts (EA) , which offers access to its Xbox One titles through a $30-per-year subscription service called EA Access, is a holdout.
GameStop (GME) investors weren't pleased with Microsoft's announcement. Shares of the game retailer fell 7.8% on Tuesday on heavy volume.
Microsoft insists the fact that games need to be downloaded and aren't streamed is a feature rather than a bug, since (in return for making users wait longer to initially play a game) it spares users from having to deal with bandwidth or connectivity issues. As one would expect, canceling Game Pass typically means users lose access to downloaded titles, but Microsoft is promising to sell permanent copies to subscribers at a discount.
The announcement comes just after Amazon's (AMZN) Twitch game-streaming unit said it will begin selling game downloads on its site -- publishers keep 70% of the revenue, and if a download is initiated from a Twitch stream, the streamer gets 5%. The solution more directly competes with popular online game store Steam than it does with a service such as Game Pass.
Game Pass, and to varying degrees rival subscription services, are looking to do for gaming what Netflix (NFLX) , Amazon and Hulu have done for movies and TV shows. Or what the likes of Spotify and Apple (AAPL) have done for music. Or what Microsoft's Office 365, Adobe's (ADBE) Creative Cloud and many other subscription-based app suites have done for software sales.
But taking a big-picture view, one could also compare it to how startups such as Dollar Shave Club (acquired by Unilever (UL) for $1 billion) and Blue Apron (reportedly on a $1 billion-plus revenue run rate) are creating subscription shipping services for things like razor blades and meal ingredients. Things a prior generation could only imagine buying one-by-one from a store.
Or -- looking at the corporate world -- one could also draw comparisons to how cloud infrastructure providers such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google are convincing firms to forgo buying and running their own data center hardware in favor of getting on-demand access to server and storage resources, often on a pay-as-you-go basis.
In each case, a customer is sacrificing the chance to permanently own/control an asset, and is also turning something that previously involved one-off purchases into a recurring expense that can only be eliminated at the cost of losing access to the goods it used to buy and own. In return, the customer gets a high level of service/functionality -- often much higher than what was obtained via one-off purchases -- with minimal hassle and little or no up-front cost.
Looking down the line, it's easy to see such services also upending many industries that to date haven't been affected much by them. There's already quite a bit of speculation that the arrival of autonomous cars will let consumers forgo car ownership in favor of ride-sharing services that provide a set number of miles each month for a subscription fee. Popular subscription-based services could also launch for other items that tend to be bought on a recurring basis, such as groceries and recreation/leisure services.
As far as Microsoft's gaming service foray goes, the fact that it supports both Xbox One and 360 titles gives it a major edge for the time being over PlayStation Now, which only supports games written for Sony's prior-gen console. And though it's costlier than EA Access, the fact it's backed by many game publishers instead of just a single big one should boost its appeal and help justify its higher price.
The relatively young demographics of the Xbox One base also benefit Microsoft, given the degree to which younger consumers have been willing to embrace subscription-based content services. And just as Amazon has layered all kinds of perks onto what started as just a 2-day shipping service, look for Microsoft to bundle value-added content with Game Pass in time.
With lifetime Xbox One sales estimated to be around 26 million, and likely to be above 30 million by year's end, Microsoft has a sizable (though not massive) installed base to cross-sell Game Pass to. And given the consumer trends the service plays into, its uptake within that installed base could surpass many expectations.