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It is now becoming a running joke that massive games-industry news keeps dropping in the hours after this newsletter gets sent out on a Tuesday. A few months back it was Microsoft buying Activision Blizzard; then the New York Times bought Wordle. Last week it was Sony’s rumoured revamp of the PlayStation Plus subscription service, and then the not entirely unexpected news that E3 – the annual games industry showcase in LA – has been completely cancelled, having previously shifted to a digital-only event.
I am not going to spend long mourning the loss of E3, whose relevance to anyone other than games industry marketers, developers and journalists has long been waning. I hope it returns next year; if it doesn’t, I will miss the annual gathering in LA, and the buzz of covering live news and interviewing people as it happens. You don’t get to do that much on my beat. Like much of the entertainment industry, games news tends to be very tightly scheduled and controlled by publishers and marketers, so you are very rarely in a situation where you’re having to report reactively on the ground. But where else could you be playing some random VR horror game financed by Elijah Wood, freak out and take off the headset, only to discover you were being watched by Hideo Kojima and his entourage?
Sony’s revamp of PlayStation Plus, however, is something that has implications for all of us. For many years now, if you paid your £40 a year to play games online on a PlayStation 4 or 5, you’d get a couple of free games every month. It’s been a popular and generous offer for players, and the free games were often a mix of expensive hits like Uncharted and great indie games that people might not otherwise have played. Now, PlayStation Plus is becoming something a bit more like Microsoft’s Netflix-of-games Game Pass subscription: for £83.99 a year, you get access to a vast catalogue of about 400 games, dating back to the original PlayStation and running right up to last year’s PlayStation 5 sci-fi masterpiece Returnal. For £100 a year, you can stream them all rather than downloading them.
There’s one big difference here from Xbox’s Game Pass: Microsoft offers every single new game it launches as part of that subscription, for £10.99 a month – from Forza Horizon to the forthcoming Bethesda role-playing epic Starfield. Sony will continue to launch new games as standalone purchases, for £60 to £70. And presumably it will be a while before those games find their way into the Plus catalogue. This is a bit like movies screening in cinemas and coming out on Blu-ray first before appearing on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Explaining that decision, Sony’s Jim Ryan said, “The level of investment that we need to make in our studios would not be possible [if we included every new game in the subscription], and we think the knock-on effect on the quality of the games that we make would not be something that gamers want.”
This speaks to something significant about Microsoft’s approach: one strongly suspects that Game Pass is loss-making, at least for now. That company has impossibly deep pockets; it just spent $70bn on an embattled publisher, after all. Sony and Nintendo cannot compete on those terms. Offering all its new games as part of a subscription would destroy Sony’s profitability – which should come as no surprise, when we see how streaming services have already affected the music, TV and film industries. For now, PlayStation Plus is supplementing – rather than replacing – game sales.
If you have a PlayStation and you’re not fussed about playing the latest games as soon as they come out, it looks like you could save significant money by paying for a Plus subscription instead of three or four full-price new games a year. That’s if your bank account can sustain yet another direct debit: between Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, Nintendo Switch Online, Spotify, Netflix, Disney+, Apple Music and whatever other entertainment subscriptions you’re paying for, it’s terrifyingly easy to be spending upwards of £50 a month on this stuff.
This is one reason I’m not immensely keen on the idea of an all-streaming future. In that scenario, either one company wins out, eats all the other ones and we’re left with one subscription … or we’ve all got so many subscriptions going, it’s an unsustainable drain on our finances. Neither of those looks like the path to a healthy video-games industry to me.
What to play
I’m handing over to our games correspondent and all-round legend Keith Stuart for this week’s recommendation, Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga:
“When my sons were very young, the first games they really got to grips with were the Lego titles. We started on Lego Indiana Jones then worked through them all, from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings to Marvel Super Heroes. I loved watching them begin to understand how puzzles and stories worked in games. Fast-forward (oh how fast it’s been) to 2022 and Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is a lovely reminder of why these games are so beloved. A genuinely funny script, intriguing quests and a solid grasp of the source material combine with excellent visuals to create a warm, nostalgic experience that will feel genuinely therapeutic to regulars. I love how each of the nine movies is dealt with in bite-size chunks, so you can whiz through, say, The Phantom Menace in an hour or so. The characters are great – even Jar Jar is bearable – and the locations filled with life and detail. It’s made us all feel like little kids again.”
Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PS4, PS5
Approximate playtime: 15-20 hours
What to read
As Elden Ring has millions of players seeking out, er, creative ways to overcome its challenges, Keith honours the long and inglorious history of cheesing: the act of winning in a game by any undignified means possible – not quite cheating but not quite … not cheating either. Are any of us above spamming a sweeping kick in a fighting game or hiding behind an indestructible wall to kill a boss? A win’s a win, right?
Wargaming, the company that operates the enduringly popular World of Tanks online game, has pulled out of Russia and Belarus, where many of its operations were previously based. This is a huge deal: Wargaming was originally a Belarussian company and has now cut all ties with its country of origin, closing its studio in Minsk. It also has a large studio in Kyiv.
In news that will delight everyone over the age of 35, there’s going to be a new Monkey Island game! From the original creators, Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman! It even involves the voice actor who played unlikely pirate hero Guybrush Threepwood in the original point-and-click comedy classics. It’s called Return to Monkey Island and it will be out in 2022.
The sequel to Nintendo Switch masterpiece The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been delayed into next year. Honestly, I am slightly relieved. I still haven’t even started Elden Ring.
What to click
In this game, vampires aren’t feral beasts – they’re the global elite
Glitchhikers: The Spaces Between review – existential ponderings on the road to nowhere
Why aren’t video games scary any more – am I just middle-aged and jaded?
I’m going to indulge my inner agony aunt here for a minute, because reader Daniel has written in with a proper social conundrum. I’ll let him explain:
“I’m in my late 30s and a senior(ish) member of staff working for an organisation that likes to take itself very seriously. I was sat in my office during my lunch hour playing a couple of rounds of Mario Kart 8 to relax after a long morning of meetings and calls when my CEO (in his late 50s) comes in to randomly tell me something and suddenly starts berating me for doing something that looks unprofessional and unsophisticated. He wouldn’t have said this if I were reading a book … In the moment, I was flabbergasted – I didn’t know what to say. Any tips and advice on how I could have handled myself better?”
Oh Daniel! I have been in your position and I really feel for you! It is horrible to be ambushed by people’s baffling hostility towards video games, and it can feel very personally wounding, like a commentary on your character or maturity. Once I was being interviewed about Grand Theft Auto 5 on the radio, and the presenter interrupted me with “When I talk to people like you I always think, why don’t you just read a book?” (I told him I have a degree in comparative literature. That shut him up.)
Unfortunately, in your situation you could hardly have just told your CEO to shove off and leave you in peace. But next time you could gently challenge the idea that video games are either unprofessional or unsophisticated with some facts that always seem to matter far more to people who don’t actually play them: games are the UK’s biggest entertainment sector, we have our own Baftas, the average age of a gamer in the UK is now 31, and 50% of all players are over 35 (23% are over 45). Failing that, one of the great benefits of the Nintendo Switch is that you can play it while eating lunch in the park. Or while hiding in the bog.