Amazon revealed its new cloud gaming service, officially called Luna, at its annual Alexa hardware event today. That makes it an immediate competitor to Google’s Stadia, Microsoft’s xCloud, Sony’s PlayStation Now, and a number of other services from major game publishers all eager to try the code on how to stream video games over the internet.
But in a revealing interview with Protocol published after the event, Amazon’s Marc Whitten, the company’s vice president of entertainment devices and services, clarified one of the most vital questions around Luna that wasn’t answered during the reveal: what’s the business model? And from what we can glean from the interview, it’s looking a whole lot like the cable of video games, for better and for worse.
Whitten tells Protocol that Luna won’t follow the Stadia model, which is free but requires users to pay for individual games to stream on the platform. (You can also pay for Stadia Pro to get 4K streaming, access to a small but growing library of free titles, and other perks.) It’s also not following the xCloud model, which is bundled into Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription as a free add-on for the Ultimate tier. That arrangement lets you stream any of the 100-plus games on the Game Pass platform but only to an Android device right now.
Instead, Luna will offer individual “channels” for partner publishers, modeled similarly to the Amazon Channels platform, which lets Prime subscribers add individual TV streaming service subscriptions as add-ons all bundled into one monthly payment managed by Amazon. These channels will be priced differently and will seemingly come with differences in perks and restrictions, although details are slim at the moment. The service will launch sometime soon in early access for a small number of users with just two channels to start.
The first channel will be an Amazon-branded one called Luna Plus, which sounds a bit like Stadia Pro in that it offers 4K streaming and “unlimited hours of play,” but it goes further by offering access to dozens of games all for $5.99 a month. It’s not clear what that game list looks like beyond the early slate of confirmed titles, including Resident Evil 7 and Control, but the model already gives Luna a slight edge over Stadia by not requiring subscribers to pay for most of the titles they want to play. In fact, it doesn’t appear that Luna will let users pay for any games at all; right now, it looks like you’ll have to subscribe to a channel to access anything on the platform.
The second channel will belong to major game publisher Ubisoft, which is offering the same perks as Luna Plus (although Ubisoft is restricting users to one stream per account instead of the two allowed on Amazon’s channel) and presumably access to most, if not all, of the company’s vast library. Amazon won’t say what the Ubisoft channel will cost, but it may be priced higher than Luna Plus and more in line with UPlay Plus, the $14.99 subscription service Ubisoft introduced last year.
“You’ll see other channels over time,” Whitten told Protocol. He added that game publishers “are pretty excited about the idea.” It’s unclear how, say, indie games or titles from midsized publishers that may not be able to support a full-fledged Luna channel will be added, or if that’s why Luna Plus exists. It’s also unclear how companies with competing cloud priorities, like Microsoft and Sony, will be treated. That said, Electronic Arts, which is working on its own cloud gaming platform, did earlier this month partner with Microsoft for Xbox Game Pass, which suggests we could see EA’s Play subscription arrive on Luna.
But more generally, why wouldn’t publishers be excited? Luna’s format sounds like a lucrative format for cloud gaming, mostly because it’s structured similarly to the current streaming TV landscape. Just like how Amazon Prime gives you access to Prime Video for free with your monthly or annual payment, Luna Plus will give you access to whatever games Amazon can acquire the cloud gaming rights to in exchange for its monthly fee, which it may raise after the early access period.
Meanwhile, if you want to pay for additional games from other publishers, you’ll buy access to that publisher’s Luna channel, just as you would subscribe to HBO or Netflix separately through the Amazon Channels platform. Amazon will handle all the billing and subscription logistics, and presumably Amazon gets a cut of all monthly subscription revenue in exchange for managing account sign-ups and, more importantly, powering the entire Luna service on its AWS cloud computing platform. The whole thing feels a lot like a basic cable package with add-ons you pay for separately or the cord-cutter equivalent of paying for a half-dozen streaming services alongside a Sling TV or YouTube TV subscription for your cable access.
This all seems great for the game publishers eager to monetize a new distribution channel, but it may be a bit of bad news for gaming fans hoping models more like Nvidia’s GeForce Now would become the norm. Nvidia’s model lets you play games you already own via Valve’s Steam marketplace on a number of screens, including a Mac or Android phone.
But the service was initially met with fierce opposition from game publishers when it exited beta and Nvidia began charging for it earlier this year, mostly because some publishers didn’t appear to give express permission to Nvidia to stream their intellectual property from a cloud server. Many publishers have since opted back into Nvidia’s platform, following some high-profile departures like Activision Blizzard and Take-Two Interactive. But the GeForce Now situation illustrated how the biggest game makers in the industry see the benefit of cloud gaming as primarily a way to sell games to new customers (or access to games via a subscription), and less of a way to give existing ones more ways to play the titles they already own.
Cloud gaming is still in its infancy, of course, and every major player is experimenting with the business model to find out what sticks. With the introduction of Luna and Amazon’s channel-based approach, we’re seeing yet another gamble on how the future of game distribution will be structured. Although this time, Amazon is following a successful template in how much of television is bundled and sold on the internet today. Whether that’s a savvy move will depend on whether consumers see enough benefit in Luna and what it has to offer to add yet more fees to the ever-growing list of monthly subscriptions.