Whenever a new cloud-based gaming platform is announced, the phrase 'Netflix for games' is bandied about. There seems to be an appetite in the air, or perhaps even an expectation, that gaming will go the same way as TV and movies: with a huge online alternative to the traditional experience becoming a dominant force in the marketplace.
But is that actually possible for games? And what would it even look like? Considering what makes Netflix so popular, there are a few key features that a new gaming platform would have to offer it wanted to achieve the same level of success...
Years after Netflix launched in the UK, the beloved streaming service is still pretty cheap: the 'Basic' subscription, which lets you watch in standard definition on one device at a time, is just £5.99. The 'Standard' package is currently costed at £8.99, and that one gets you HD viewing and the ability to watch on two screens at one time. And the 'Premium' package, which gets you 4 screens at a time and ultra-HD visuals, is £11.99.
This low cost, and the ease of cancelling at any time, is a big part of what makes Netflix so appealing. For a Netflix equivalent to succeed in the arena of gaming, it would need to be similarly affordable. You want people to sign up because it’s cheap, have a good time, and leave their subscription rolling month after month.
This is arguably one of the places in which Google Stadia fell down: whether you've opted for Stadia's free 'Basic' subscription or the £8.99 'Pro' subscription, there are still numerous games on Stadia that you have to pay extra for. If you want to play all the games on Stadia, that would be an expensive habit. A true ‘Netflix for games’ would have to be a cheaper proposition.
Those three tiers of Netflix pricing don’t restrict you from watching anything that you fancy on Netflix. The price hikes only refer to the levels of visual quality and how many people can access your account at one time. For a ‘Netflix for games’ to succeed, perhaps its different tiers of pricing could follow a similar structure.
If people with 8K TVs want to pay more for a higher definition of gaming experiences, they should be able to. But people with older tellies might not want to bother with that. And if groups of friends and family want to share an account, you should let them do that (within reason).
The uniqueness of gaming, compared to other areas of pop-culture, could factor into the pricing tiers as well. Some players might just want to play single-player titles on their own, while others might want to host Mario Kart parties locally, and others might want to wade into massive online Fortnite events. Rather than making people pay for individuals games, ‘Netflix for games’ should allow people to tailor their payment plans based on their style of play and what kind of experiences they want.
A huge library of games, with buzz-worthy originals
Another huge part of Netflix's appeal is its massive library of movies and TV shows. There's an impressive amount of older series on there, with classics like Friends finding a new life on the streaming platform. And there is also loads of stuff for kids, making Netflix an easy thing to pop on if your little ones need distracting. This type of casual use helped make Netflix feel like an essential part of everyday life.
Netflix also became a source for watercooler discussion points when it started creating buzz-worthy original content. The 'Netflix Originals' banner began with well-respected shows like Orange Is The New Black, before growing to include beloved sci-fi series like Stranger Things and new movies from major directors like Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. Netflix isn't just a place to watch old stuff that you may already have on DVD - it's a source for brand new content that you and your mates can talk about.
For a Netflix-like service to achieve a broad appeal in the gaming market, it would need to have a library that is similarly engaging: if there were old favourites on there (like the retro Sonic and Mario games), some kid-friendly games that are easy to jump into (Rayman Legends might be a good example), along with big watercooler-worthy original games that you can't play anywhere else.
Access on basically any modern device
Netflix has truly integrated itself into the world of modern devices. You can start watching something on your smartphone or tablet on the commute back from work, and then you can switch easily onto your smart TV or games console when you get home. You can even download things and watch them offline, meaning there really shouldn't be a time in your day when you're fully disconnected from Netflix - unless you want to be!
If a 'Netflix for games' is really going to become a reality, the people making it would have to find a way to get a similar level of integration into their customers' lives. Again, Stadia didn't quite hit the mark on this at launch - although you could access the service on a Chrome web browser, on a ChromeCast, or on select Google Pixel phones, there were so many devices that you couldn't play it on. If you're the owner of an iPhone and an iPad, you couldn't play Stadia on these devices at launch - that's two of your core devices unable to engage with the platform, which is a long way away from the realities of Netflix and what makes it so popular.
Another challenge is presented by the size of game files, which are a lot bigger than TV episodes or even movies. Unless phones start having a lot more storage and processing power, it's hard to imagine a triple-A title being playable on mobile without an internet connection. You can see why Google's Stadia and Microsoft's xCloud are both based around streaming games onto smaller devices, letting an online connection to a data centre do all the work, rather than letting players download and run games on phones and tablets.
However, the Nintendo Switch has shown that you can cram more onto handheld devices now than previously seemed possible, so perhaps one day we will be able to play the same games on our phones as we do on our consoles without the need for an internet connection. Until that day comes, a true Netflix-equivalent for the gaming world seems like a distant fantasy... but we look forward to seeing what developers and companies invent in the meantime to try and fill that gap.