Analysis: Sony’s ‘Spartacus’ Starts Game Subscription Services Battle With Xbox, Others

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Next week, Sony is reportedly planning to announce a service to compete with Microsoft’s Game Pass, which has the potential to usher the “console wars” into a new subscription-based era.

According to a Friday morning report in BloombergSony could make an official announcement regarding its new service, dubbed “Spartacus”, as early as next week.

Apparently, “Spartacus” will feature multiple tiers for members, which offer a Game Pass-esque sampling of current-gen games and an assortment of titles from PlayStation’s back catalog, potentially including titles from the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation. Portable. At the most expensive tier, users also get extensive game demos and streaming options.

Sony currently offers two different subscription services for PlayStation users. PlayStation Plus ($9.99/month) unlocks multiplayer access for PlayStation games, exclusive discounts, and gives subscribers three free games per month. playstation now ($9.99/month) is an on-demand service that allows users to stream from Sony’s library of PS2, PS3, and PS4 games.

“Spartacus,” according to the Bloomberg article, is a combination of the two. There’s currently no word on how the new service will be priced, or whether it will replace one or both of the existing services.

Eight of the games currently available on Sony’s PlayStation Now service. (PlayStation screenshot)

For comparison, Microsoft Xbox Game Pass offers a PC or console-specific $9.99/month tier that always includes first-day access to new games from Xbox Game Studios, such as Infinite Halo. The $14.99/month Ultimate tier bundles both platforms with Xbox Live Gold, which offers free games every month and online multiplayer for console users, and third-party developer Electronic Arts’ EA game service.

Head to head, the two services represent an interesting look at the relative priorities of Sony and Microsoft.

Sony, of course, is way ahead of Microsoft in terms of unit sales, with some sources believing the PlayStation 4 and 5 are comfortably sell double units like the Xbox. It runs the traditional gaming industry playbook.

Xbox Game Pass, on the other hand, is estimated by third-party analysts – Microsoft hasn’t released official figures for years – to have at least 25 million subscribersand according to Microsoft’s E3 2021 presentation, the games included in the pass are getting a substantial boost in sales.

Xbox is well behind PlayStation in overall market penetration, but is increasingly abandoning the typical game sales model in favor of a more Netflix arrangement. Whatever is happening behind the scenes, Microsoft has previously signaled that its gaming revenue is growing, and its recent moves like the acquisition of Activision Blizzard indicate that it plans to continue the process.

Due to their increasingly different approaches, it’s hard to see Sony and Microsoft as traditionally competitive, but with moves like “Spartacus” and its purchase of Bungie, Sony is clearly feeling some pressure.

EA Play titles are available on the ultimate tier of Xbox Game Pass. (Xbox picture)

The big question, in my opinion, is how far Sony is willing to go here. There are more gaming subscription services than many fans realize, many of which use an “on-demand” setup similar to Game Pass, or at least offer free games every month. This includes Amazon Luna, Google Stadia, Humble Choice, nVidia’s GeForce Now, and, on a more idiosyncratic level, Nintendo Switch Online.

What elevates Xbox Game Pass above most is that Microsoft puts its first-party games on the service, such as infinite halo, and do it at launch. It’s the kind of move that could have easily backfired on Microsoft by cannibalizing its own sales, but it seems to have translated successfully into making Game Pass a hard deal for average gamers to pass up, especially with great upcoming games like Star field.

“Because of their increasingly different approaches, it’s hard to see Sony and Microsoft as traditionally competitive, but with moves like ‘Spartacus’ and its purchase of Bungie, Sony is clearly feeling some pressure.”

There’s currently no indication that Sony will do anything similar, even remotely, but instead may use “Spartacus” to leverage its back catalog. Sony’s PlayStation project is only seven years older than Xbox, but it’s gone through a few distinct periods of industry dominance in that time, particularly in Japan, and Sony has made big investments in the development of first part from the beginning.

The result is that Sony has a massive library to draw from, in just about every genre, some of which has been dead and buried for years. It could make a lot of money in relative haste just by tapping into nostalgia, especially if it uncorks some of the out of print games for the original PlayStation, or at least reopens the PSOne Classics digital collection which is still inexplicably locked to the PlayStation 3’s version of the storefront.

The question, however, is whether Sony is willing to go as far as Microsoft and add its first-party games as day one incentives for “Spartacus.” There’s no particular global reason to run that risk, when PlayStation exclusives like God of the war are already selling comfortably in the millions. On the other hand, there are plenty of smaller, proprietary games from Sony Studios that might be more successful on a Game Pass clone than as standalone software.

As a corollary, the current glut of subscription services and, to a lesser extent, flash sales, has an interesting ripple effect on how games are created, marketed and targeted.

To some extent, you’re already seeing the revival of what 15 years ago I would have called “good rental”: games that aren’t designed as a service, or as a theoretically eternal multiplayer experience, but rather, are meant to be played and completed over the course of a single day, week, or weekend. The new supernatural open-world game Ghostwire: Tokyo is a useful example, as is the recent single-player shooter shadow warrior 3.

If Sony successfully implements its own take on the core Game Pass concept, you can expect to see that style of play return, as opposed to the current dominance of large 100-hour open-world experiences like Ring of Elden. We could be witnessing the beginning of a new, influential environment for modern video game publishing.

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