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Tale of Two Industries – What Streamers Need to Learn

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The “console wars,” while rightfully criticized as juvenile and antithetical to the inclusive spirit of gaming, inadvertently unveils an intriguing aspect of gaming culture: a boisterous, public, and unabashed affiliation to one’s console of choice. Whether hoisted under the banners of PlayStation or Xbox, this allegiance transcends hardware preference and morphs into a symbolic totem of one’s gaming identity. It’s loyalty so fierce, so seemingly personal, that it spawns heated online debates, skewed polls, and hurt defenses of one’s chosen videogame box. Gamers proudly align with a product they paid hundreds of dollars to own, reflecting a product preference and an intrinsic and emotive tie to a specific gaming community. So I ask you… when was the last time you saw two people impassionately arguing about Netflix vs. Hulu?

Looking at dominant digital mediums in 2023, honing in on Gaming and Streaming seems inevitable, and comparing the two is becoming essential. Notably, gamers entwine themselves within the fabric of the studios and creations they adore. They gladly spend money on experiences from studios they love, even if the product releases to mediocre reviews. On the contrary, streaming platforms, hubs of passive entertainment consumption, navigate through a maze of precarious consumer loyalties, where even titans like Disney+ can witness millions of subscribers being snapped away due to alterations in content offerings.

How does the bond between player and studio forge so unbreakably, even amidst storms of discontent? Why do streaming platforms, even those adorned with heralded content and behemoth brands, struggle to anchor their subscribers in a sea of ever-evolving offerings? Is there a hidden force within the gaming industry that can be distilled and translated to bolster the fragility of loyalty within the streaming universe?

The Choppy Seas of Streaming Loyalties

A few weeks ago, we discussed how streamer fatigue is beginning to impact the media industry, with recurring bills piling higher and higher and consumers ready to cut costs. Broaching the concept of consumer loyalty seems admittedly tricky in a market like today’s, yet $70-$100 games still sell millions of copies in a single weekend. It’s not the consumers; it’s the streamers. Let’s look at Disney+, a late launch for the streaming world, yet still, an enormous platform owned by a company that not only has preexisting fan loyalty, but accounted for 1/4th of box office revenue in America in 2022. They own a significant portion of ESPN, Star Wars, Marvel, ABC, and more. If anyone can find and maintain viewership loyalty, it’s Disney…

Triggered by the loss of rights to India’s cricket league, Disney+ lost 12.5 million Indian subscribers in one sweeping blow, showcasing how content-centric viewers can precipitously dissolve amidst a change in offerings. Now, instead of seemingly replacing the content or announcing any significant changes in how they’re engaging audiences, Disney is hiking the price of their platforms for the second time this year. In the pursuit of short-term revenue gain, these streamers are losing vast amounts of subscribers, with Netflix having lost almost one million subscribers directly after their price hike and subsequently looking at cutting those prices back down. 

The content they do have is also hurting, regardless of brand. Take a look at Secret Invasion, a Marvel Cinematic Universe show starring Samuel L. Jackson, and a massive culmination of stories throughout the Marvel universe. One would think the show would garner a large audience. Yet, it was the second least-watched MCU show to date. When it comes to consumer subscription ideology, such instances starkly contrast with historical ideals of brand loyalty. I would also argue this isn’t an aspect of superhero fatigue, as audiences have shown more than enough willingness to engage en masse with the MCU, which I’ll get back to in a bit.

Subscriber numbers and content offerings further intersect with the perceptual evolution of streaming content. There was once a pivotal moment where a ‘Netflix Original’ stamp connoted a certain prestige and automatic viewer interest. Groundbreaking shows like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Stranger Things” catapulted Netflix into the global consciousness and epitomized the allure and qualitative expectation of streaming originals. Yet as the platform burgeoned, morphing into a colossal content hub, certain sections of its audience began responding to a dilution of this once mighty originality and quality. Prices ascended, yet for some, the product drifted towards mediocrity. Public sentiment shifted away from Netflix originals and back towards watching “reruns” of The Office and Friends.

The Unwavering Ship of Gaming Loyalty

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Mirage (AC: Mirage), despite harboring a merely satisfactory Metacritic score of 77 and a user score of 6.9 (a death sentence for some games), astounded the gaming industry by becoming the company’s most triumphant current-gen launch to date. This paradox of critical evaluation versus commercial success is not uncommon within the gaming sphere. Behemoths like Riot, Epic, and Ubisoft have weathered the same undulating seas of critical feedback that streamers have, only to find their player base persistently engaged and vocally advocating for enhancements and improvements. Instead of leaving the studio in the dust, players share vast amounts of feedback, letting the studios know how to keep players spending their money on the studio’s games. 

But what engenders this seemingly unshakeable loyalty among players? It’s an amalgam of emotional investment, community integration, and an entwining of player identity within the virtual realms these studios craft. Even amidst critiques, players linger and become vocal advocates for change and improvement. AC: Mirage is a product of this feedback, ditching modern changes made to the series and returning to an old-school gameplay loop. Thus, despite less than ideal reception, the game brought Ubisoft their greatest success in years. Players loyally stuck with Assassin’s Creed through thick and thin, and have shown they are gladly willing to return to this world when they feel ownership over the product. Their critiques are not mere expressions of dissatisfaction but a call towards a collaborative ascension towards a mutually desired pinnacle of gaming excellence.

How can I be sure that this is more than a brand but a media-specific trend that streamers refuse to adapt to? Let’s return to the concept of superhero fatigue and the underperforming Secret Invasion. Many are tempted to say audiences don’t want to engage with the MCU the way they used to, that their products are coming out at too quick a clip, or asking for too much commitment. A notable criticism is the need to watch several TV shows to understand the plot of a movie, which all ties into more TV shows and movies. 

Swinging from the virtual rafters of the gaming industry’s anticipatory excitement is Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man 2. It is an experience estimated to clock in around 17-30 hours, and the direct sequel to two other previous games. That’s roughly 30-60 hours of prior game time to catch up and even more content starring a Marvel staple. Indeed, superhero fatigue and story knowledge would have severe implications for a $70 product, the cost of several month’s worth of a Disney+ subscription. Despite not being released yet, the game currently sits among the top 10 best-selling games in the USA PlayStation store (at the time of writing). A profound pre-launch allegiance is symbolic of the gaming community’s voracious appetite and unwavering confidence in certain studios and platforms. It’s not the brand; it’s the medium. 

Charting a Course Toward Subscriber Loyalty 

The path toward establishing staunch viewer loyalty in streaming begins with forging a bidirectional interaction model akin to what’s seen in the gaming industry. Streaming platforms can potentially revolutionize the viewer experience by purposefully crafting communities around content and amplifying viewer involvement instead of canceling many of their shows before they even get off the ground. How will viewers find an affinity and create a sense of creative ownership over a product if they assume it’ll be canceled before watching it? Creating dedicated forums, interactive live sessions with content creators, or hosting virtual events might be the catalyst to transform passive viewers into an engaged community. 

For instance, implementing features enabling viewers to contribute to future content decisions, such as voting on potential shows or movie sequels, can instill a sense of ownership and participation. Implementing viewer feedback in fun and insightful ways can excite audiences to engage with an IP online. Tailoring this content and a streamer’s user experiences based on viewer feedback can enhance platform usability and make subscribers feel heard and valued, weaving a thread of loyalty and identification with the platform. How many complaints have we all seen online that the UI for many of these platforms is more challenging to navigate and growing worse with each iteration? When was a streamer last implemented feedback to enhance the immediate user experience and improve their UI?

Streaming platforms must tread the fine line between innovative content creation and aligning with consumer expectations to bolster enduring subscriber allegiance. The former era, where platforms like Netflix were hailed for groundbreaking shows like “Stranger Things,” showcased an optimal blend of novelty and viewer appeal. Revitalizing this spirit of innovation necessitates a recalibration of content strategies. It involves consistently producing content that is not only original and compelling but also resonates with current viewer preferences and global trends. Integrating data-driven decision-making with creative processes has guided platforms to cater their content to the most common denominators, sacrificing community and artistic originality in favor of algorithmically minimizing risk. Disney even went so far as to remove showrunners or writers from some productions, with many wondering how many other streamers are doing the same. It’s seemingly less about the art or the audience and more about producing the least risky works, and it’s backfiring. 

The unwavering loyalty seen within the gaming domain against the mercurial subscription patterns of streaming platforms, a vault of lessons is waiting to be unlocked and implemented. As we keep discussing, streaming services’ current trends are not painting a picture of long-term growth or industry innovation. We’re watching streamers cannibalize themselves in real-time. The gaming industry, despite its own set of challenges, has managed to entrench a level of consumer allegiance and engagement that streaming platforms have, thus far, only skimmed. By unraveling the strands of deep-rooted loyalty among gamers, streaming platforms have an opportune moment to reimagine their engagement strategies and content creation paradigms. Lessons derived from gaming—direct consumer involvement, community-building, long-term support for underperforming projects, and strategic content development—can illuminate a path towards mitigating the inconsistent subscription trends and establishing a steadfast viewer base for streaming platforms.