Subscription services are changing our relationship with gaming

The rising costs of video games are leaving many players behind. In countries like Argentina, where hyperinflation hinders gaming and collecting, access to these experiences becomes a luxury. As physical copies become harder to purchase, subscription services like Xbox Game Pass become a more affordable alternative. But these services don’t just influence the way we pay for games; they also change the way we think about them.

“When a single video game equals a quarter of your salary or more,” says Reddit user uri_nrv, “you stop worrying about the sense of ownership and conform by playing it and moving on.”

I spoke to more than forty people on local subreddits and Facebook groups, and the overwhelming sentiment around preservation is one of resignation. The ongoing economic crisis makes it almost impossible to build a library that can withstand license expirations or game removals. As the country faces a reality where video games are more expensive than ever, players are forced to clamor for alternatives they haven’t considered before.

The past few months in particular have tested this predicament for Argentine players. In 2017, Steam implemented regional pricing. As of November 20, 2023, the company announced that prices would be rolled back to USD – simultaneously impacting Turkey – due to “exchange rate volatility in recent years”, making it difficult for game developers to get the right prices for their games to choose. Steam also mentions that “exchange rate fluctuations, fees, taxes and logistics issues” are crucial factors in this setback.

Shortly after the announcement, people on social media shared their dissatisfaction and mourned a positive change that would allow a large majority to build their digital libraries. This was not the first time prices in the region were affected. Following an update to Steam’s regional price recommendations in late 2022, third-party site SteamDB made a calculation that prices would be increased by almost 500 percent. This was true for most games, but it was still largely cheaper because the local currency remained in place.

The November 20 update not only converted the currency, but also increased prices sporadically. A summary from TikTok user ShuxTeam, which received nearly 800,000 views, included a few examples: Far Cry5 went from the equivalent of $2 USD to $49, Stardew Valley went from 50 cents to $15, and Civilization VI went from $1.50 to $60.

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It is important to keep in mind that these prices are all estimates and will most likely be out of date by the time you read this as the ARS to USD conversion is constantly changing due to devaluation. The prices are also before taxes, which fluctuated from more than 100 percent to 65 percent in just a few weeks when purchasing online. For a more practical example: purchasing Mortal Kombat 1 Premium Edition on Steam is equal to $151,170 ARS, which is a month’s rent for a studio (on the cheaper side) in Buenos Aires. As of December 29, the monthly minimum wage in Argentina was $156,000 ARS.

From the people I spoke to, opinions on subscription services like Game Pass varied widely. Almost half of them consider the service as a viable alternative to buying (physical) games. Others rely on Steam’s long-standing presence out of habit. Those committed to preservation continue to pursue physical copies wherever possible, despite their higher price. DRM-free options like GOG also help in that regard within the digital space. But not all games are available on every platform and prices can vary significantly.

In Argentina, the simple act of buying a game requires countless considerations. First of all, everyone approaches the hobby differently. “Game Pass allowed me to get my PC back from my son’s hands thanks to cloud gaming on the TV,” said Reddit user Background-Advice-80. “All for the equivalent of four packs of cigarettes.”

While Argentina isn’t safe from the service’s recent price hike, on paper Game Pass remains a fairly affordable option for people who want access to a large game library with different device options. At the time of publication, the Basic tier cost around $7,000 ARS after taxes, while Ultimate, the only tier that includes cloud gaming, was around $11,000. Again, due to inflation, the equivalent is already more than four packs of cigarettes (currently priced around $1,600 ARS) in a month since the interview. But it’s still a far cry from, say, paying $57,000 ARS Starfield on Steam.

“Game Pass works for me with games I don’t plan on buying because they’re so expensive.”

Some users don’t see themselves committing to a long-term subscription for the time being and opt to pay monthly, depending on which games are available. Two people I spoke to mentioned it Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Cleared His Name as a recent example. “It’s the same as Netflix,” says user FZJavier. “Some people watch a lot of movies and others only watch a few things but have no interest in owning a physical copy of them. Game Pass works for me with games that I don’t plan on buying because of how expensive they are. I was able to finish it Gaiden within a month and deregistered shortly thereafter.”

Those willing to commit to the service long-term face certain obstacles, including sporadic catalog retention. The Xbox subscription offers an ever-changing library, and the public doesn’t always know when a game they’re playing will leave the service. Person 4 Golden And Persona 3 portable are recent cases of this: the announcement that both long-form RPGs would be leaving the catalog took place eleven days before the deadline. Definitely, the remake Person 3 Reload will be available on Game Pass on day one. But if you want to play the existing version, you’re out of luck, as the remake essentially replaces it.

These concerns aren’t exactly alleviated by purchasing games digitally. If Steam were to disappear tomorrow, a user’s library of games would become unavailable due to DRM. In recent years, this has led to resignation among many, causing people to simply play what they have while they can. “Lately I’ve been feeling like the only games that are truly ‘mine’ are the PS3 copies I have on my bedside table,” says user GustavNZ.

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The problem is that this points to a future where more and more people will no longer have licenses for digital games, much less physical copies of them. Such concerns align with larger concerns about conservation. Over the years, several games have become unavailable for purchase or removed from Steam altogether; Deadpool, Alpha protocolAnd Kane and Lynch: dead men are just a few examples. Others have been replaced by remasters, such as the original versions of Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice CityAnd Grand Theft Auto San Andreasor the first two games in the Subway series.

When you combine all these elements – along with news like Best Buy removing physical media from stores in the US – you’ll eventually see more users turn to piracy. In 2020, I reported on how rising prices and the release of next-gen consoles would not be able to keep up with Argentina’s reliance on piracy to enjoy this hobby. More than three years later, everything has become more expensive – and not just from a local perspective. First-party titles now cost $69.99 USD on PlayStation and Xbox, with games like the NBA2K series and Baldur’s Gate 3 next pack. These new industrial practices are exacerbated in hyperinflationary countries.

“Green Steam” is a term coined lately by Argentinians, referring to uTorrent’s logo. There has been constant talk about it in recent months, with many of the people I spoke to suggesting that piracy will become more prominent than before. “Game Pass is a great alternative if you want to play legally,” says user Tyr9999. “Otherwise there is piracy. And I don’t just say that because of the ‘free’ factor: piracy is also a great preservation method for games. I know Starfield is not mine, but I am also aware that it has already been archived by a lot of people.

Piracy aside, those not interested in new releases have a big backlog to deal with, a sentiment shared by many during interviews, especially those who bought Steam games in bulk when prices were in ARS while the holiday sales were a offered a good opportunity to do so.

“Game Pass is a great alternative if you want to play legally. Otherwise there is piracy.”

User-made tools like Impuestito (“little tax” in Spanish) help those who are still willing to buy games. Lucas, a programmer from Buenos Aires, has been working on it since the end of 2021. It started out as a handy way to calculate taxes for services like Netflix and Spotify, with both a site and a browser plugin that automatically does the calculations for you. He recently released a new extension and Discord bot that also marks when a game on Steam is available on Game Pass. On average, a total of approximately 80,000 users visit the site every week, half of whom are unique users.

It is difficult to know how many Argentinian users are currently subscribed to Game Pass. When asked, Xbox spokesperson Ludwig Kietzmann said it is against company policy to share region-specific figures. Earlier this year, Microsoft said the service had a total of 34 million subscribers.

The crux of all this is that the way people pay (or don’t) for games affects how they feel about them. Once Steam regionalized its prices, it was easier to buy smaller games, which led to discoverability thanks to the low price alone. Now buying multiple games in bulk is becoming a rarity, even during the holidays. For Game Pass subscribers, management is dictated by Xbox, which decides what is available to play and for how long, without user input.

Of course, everyone has a backlog that needs to be addressed. But new releases will struggle in regions like Argentina. Few people are willing to buy a first-party game at full price, let alone an indie title, out of the sheer desire to support a developer. For everyone else, video games will be no different than watching Netflix: experiences meant to be consumed quickly before inevitably being shaken or lost entirely. It seems that the number of people committed to securing a physical or DRM-free copy to preserve media is decreasing day by day.

“The amount I spent in a year or more is the amount I spend on just one game I like,” concludes user BraMMa_. “Times have changed… we will have to adapt.”

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