What is Games as a Service? The concept, also commonly abbreviated in business circles as GaaS (although GAS would be a more elegant solution in my completely-not-humble view) follows what the film and television industries have been doing by switching focus on how games are distributed. The understanding for many years is that you would go to a shop, choose a game, exchange money for the title, and then Barbie Horse Adventures would be in your possession. In actuality, from about 2006 onwards, when you purchased a game, you didn’t actually own your game, just an exclusive licence from Sony or Microsoft to play said title. GAS will be an extension of that thinking. One flavour of it involves getting players to pay a set fee every month for access to games, rather than the games themselves. However, established titles such as Fortnite and Destiny 2 also fall under the GAS cloud by dint of offering services within their games such as skins or emotes, albeit for one-time fees. GAS seeks to further this logic by either letting you access games on cloud servers, more than likely for a flat fee every month; the next logical step on from digital distribution models that the like of Steam currently provides, or by itemising the living crap out of the entirety of their game through loot-boxes and microtransactions, which is already throttling the life out of AAA gaming as it is.
Warner Bros. is the latest company to throw their hat into the GAS ring after expressing interest to do so earlier in the year, following Ubisoft as the second AAA publisher to announce their intentions to use the business model. EA also flirted with the idea at its E3 conference this year but was also keen to stress that they were not married to the concept, as plans could change and Electronic Arts are notorious for following the money. One variety of GAS would not be completely dissimilar to Netflix or Amazon Prime, but only time will tell if any future services will be as comprehensive as the aforementioned media giants. (Spoiler alert, they won’t)
What are the implications of GAS? With cloud gaming becoming much more viable, so too will the opportunities to make money. If developers are in a position to provide streamed video games, it all ultimately comes down to how far they’d like to take the concept and if their customers will bite. Initially, the idealistic version of GAS smells pretty good. A single service in which you pay a reasonable set fee every month to play games that have been out for a year, and maybe original made-for-the-service titles. It could make playing older titles a lot more attractive and may mean a more relaxed attitude towards backwards compatibility, because streamed games mean that publishers can finally see income for old games that simply evaporated on the second-hand market. This would be a more equitable solution for them to make aftermarket profit, but also for players who want to play those old titles, no questions asked,
However, the reason being that a “Netflix for games” won’t truly work, at least for the time being is that developers and publishers, at least as far as the AAAs are concerned, are far too territorial about their products to even consider sharing oxygen with their competitors, which makes the idealised version exactly that. Currently, Utomik is giving it a go, and God bless them, they’re nice lads, but they’ll never be able to offer anything comparable to games like what Netflix can provide for film and TV. Certain devs are notoriously precious about their IPs, such as Nintendo, which is partially sensible and partially infuriating, but it ultimately means that we’ll never get the unifying service that gamers are crying out for.
This is a dangerous time for Utomik, and an absolute case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. It’s a service I wish every bit of luck to, but if they fail, they’ll get lost in the history books between E3 2018 and the Waluigi renaissance. If they succeed, every big developer with an impressive library will come sniffing around. There are two choices: they’ll agree to help, which is to the benefit of games, as having a centralised service that promotes easy access to the very best that the industry can do not only puts our best face forward to the rest of the world, but will also make it much easy for everyone to discover classics, which demonstrates the absolute best that GAS can be in concept. From there, though, they may lose the cut that they have earned on what was their idea, or worse, their identity. There’s also the worse path, the bad ending, in which ne’er-do-wells of the industry get their dirty paws all over the concept with the intent of making as much money as possible.
Think about any titan in this business. Nintendo. EA. Ubisoft. Square Enix. Activision Blizzard. Take Two. Absolutely none of them are interested in playing nicely with each other if GAS money is at stake. If GAS is viable, they’ll start their own service for at least 10 bones a month, and none of them will show even a passing interest in the idea of cross-promotion. If you’re an absolute devotee to this business, you’ll more than likely pay up to every single one of them, and that could easily equate to over $50 a month. It’s utter insanity that very few will take to, which makes the whole endeavour of games as a service doomed from the get-go. The whole exercise could be made more enticing by either the larger groups agreeing to work with Utomik in exchange for a heftier monthly fee – although that would decrease the cut that the developers take, which they would be cautious to accept. Even more unlikely would be a coalition between groups, such as a handshake deal between EA, Ubisoft, and Take Two in order to market their games together on a unified platform for about $20 a month; which would satisfy shareholders but also justify such a high price. That’s an outlandish solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, but as the old saying goes; would you rather have 20% of a medium-sized pie or 100% of nothing?
That said, there are too many headaches and hurdles standing in the way to make widespread GAS viable; it’s working right now through Utomik, and Utomik is the way to let it succeed organically, but corporate greed will likely not let it proliferate, unless developers choose to view Utomik as a platform like Steam, versus an investment. As maligned as GAS could possibly be, it might be a solution to a growing problem within games; that they’re simply growing expensive to obscene levels. £70 is starting to look entirely normal for a new release — eventually, the dam will burst if prices keep inflating like this. Not to use the slippery slope fallacy here, but it really is; how long before we’re paying £80/$100 for Grand Theft Auto VI? That’s frighteningly not outside the realm of possibility but will only continue to not be problematic if gamers are happy to pay those prices. And if not now, when? Really, that question is only answered when two factors are in play: when gamers are no longer happy to pay those prices, and the possible revenue that publishers stand to make falls below their desired threshold.
Then there’s the very real possibility that this concept could be taken to its logically evil conclusion, that absolutely EVERYTHING in a game becomes a service, the mirror shadow image of what GAS can rightfully do. Imagine a painfully loud nightclub that you don’t want to be in, but somebody attractive that you’re into has pulled you in by the arm. Cover charge, $60. Drinks, $10 each. Sitting down, $5. Standing up, $5. Dancefloor space, $20. Such a club sounds inconceivable and nightmarish, and yet, if a proprietor could get away with that pricing, they would. Game developers would do much the same, from a fee to playing the game, using its online servers, getting to play in priority servers (marked as child-free for a less irritating experience), new weapons, new areas, the ability to change your name to xXsexhaver420Xx. If they can have your money, they’ll take it, and anything that’s free right now, I would recommend that you treasure the limited time you have for it to stay that way.
GAS, as it stands, has potential, and I don’t just mean in the realm of quality. GAS would benefit the players as long as there aren’t too many platforms and it stays eminently affordable. Again, Utomik is providing proof towards this now, although their line-up isn’t as attractive as it could be — this discussion will become a lot more valuable once a service becomes apparent when it comes loaded with games we really want to play. However, everything said here all hinges on “if”. Personally, I don’t know if I trust the industry to put players first on this issue. That’s the key here: potentially. All humans have potential to do good or evil. Potentially, they could do the right thing for this industry, or they could potentially charge us a fiver to give Luigi a lush bush of chest hair. Lugubriously, I tend towards the latter.