house of cards-465

My horrible clipart! Original image courtesy of Netflix

House of Cards is fantastic TV. Kevin Spacey at his best. His character, Frank Underwood is a malevolent, self-important Congressman. And the future of Xbox Live may derive from the show that follows his political endeavours. How you ask? Compelling reasons, if I say so myself.

A show about political turmoil and the cost of doing business in Washington, Netflix’s first big-budget production House of Cards is revolutionizing the TV business. An entire 13-episode season released at once, meant for binge viewers and spoiled if only dabbled in small increments. It is masterful showmanship on Netflix’s part, to spend $100 million on talent like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright to headline a British remake, and have a success. As haughty a premise as that sounds, in fact the show works too well and is first in a line of Netflix-produced content. Cult hit Arrested Development received a fourth season, alongside new shows Orange is the New Black and Hemlock Grove to premiere this year.

Netflix’s innovative approach to giving its users worthwhile content and attracting new subscriptions is reminiscent of Microsoft’s social experiment with 1 vs 100 Live, a real-time, free version on Xbox Live. A resounding success, I remember an average night would have 50,000 people playing simultaneously. Host Chris Cashman explained the popular title failed due to executive mishandling, and he even goes on to state: “…I think the future of Xbox LIVE must be in creating original content.” Therefore, I posit this nugget to anyone reading: Inspired by Netflix’s Emmy-worthy success, could Microsoft reintroduce original content?

It would justify a monthly subscription

Netflix justified its value by offering subscribers a convenient method to binge-view any show or movie in existence (even though the Canadian one is subpar). Largely, for how much content people absorb, $8 a month is a steal; the single drawback being one’s massive Internet bill. Around 40 million subscribe to Xbox Live to access other services, including Netflix–essentially a pay-to-pay-more scheme. Microsoft’s push to transform Live into some kind of deluxe platform to easily access an ever-growing network of services is not enough to attract new subscribers.

While Netflix has convenience on their side, hosting original content adds more benefit: keeping the confidence of the user base high, a surge in popularity (and subscriptions) once word spreads, and for the media, lots of articles and followup pieces hyping the new show to bits. The gaming audience is more socially engaged than the average Netflix/Twitter user, therefore gossip would circulate even faster. That’s essentially what happened with 1 vs 100 Live: after one night of positivity, numbers skyrocketed thereafter to reach over 100,000 people.

Playing 1 vs 100 Live with friends became a nightly obsession. Even in a Christmas season with names like Borderlands and Assassin’s Creed II. It was the first time my yearly subscription felt validated, like Microsoft had earned my dollars. And how Netflix did not shortchange Canadians on House of Cards either. Obviously, consumer satisfaction isn’t always in the corporate interest, but subscriber admiration is not necessarily a terrible thing to have. Especially for pay-to-use services.

Episodic gaming is now a thing again

Unlike Netflix, Microsoft has no interest in spending an absurd amount to restore confidence. Exorbitantly high game budgets don’t allow for such free spending these days. Which works benevolently in Microsoft’s favour, because the resurgence of releasing segmented episodes is cost-efficient and prolongs a user’s time and interest in playing the game. Telltale’s The Walking Dead is the picturesque example of a title doing things this way, making players want to salivate for a new instalment.

The question is whether, under this system, Microsoft would choose to impart every episode at once, following the example of House of Cards, or in a timely manner. Delayed iterations keep users subscribed longer, and likely they are interacting with the console otherwise, so except for the occasional bunch who purchase one-month Gold passes, the company cannot do wrong.

A console generation brings another generation of gamers

Sometime in April, supposedly, Microsoft will showcase the Xbox 360′s successor. It is exciting for plenty of reasons, but one more so than most: it will bring a whole new league of players. From young to old, regardless of age, all three console-makers need compelling machines to attract that audience. Nintendo has failed tremendously and Sony impressed last month, and Microsoft is left to dazzle the hearts and minds of audiences everywhere.

This falls back to my original point about justifying the monthly price tag should Xbox Live continue it. In Microsoft’s case, its service needs to incentivize players to join. Draw players in with engaging content. And not through silly gimmicks like achievements either; making consumers feel they are spending cash on quality is marketing 101 and in a heightened state of competition, the draw is most important.

Netflix has a virtual monopoly on Internet streaming, but broadcast-backed services like Hulu are biting into Netflix’s market share. When that happens, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings can take every point of this article on this little ole’ blog in reverse, and the tech blog elite can reiterate every point. Maybe I’ll write an article to spite them all titled “What Netflix Could Learn From Microsoft”. That’s future talk though.

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  • coffeewithgames

    I’m just too cheap right now to pay for a subscription like Xbox Live. I did it for a few months on the original Xbox, but it didn’t last long.

    I see Sony is using their PlayStation Plus subscription model in interesting ways, providing discounts/free games to subscribers, but I’m even too cheap for that.

    If more people were like me, the subscription model might be a problem for companies, but thankfully for the companies most Americans have a negative savings.

    I have said it repeatedly in comments on several sites (and Twitter), that I think Microsoft will use Xbox Live to help make the next Xbox “cheaper” initially, with a subscription; I’m just not a fan of recurring payments on a service l might not use very often.

    Netflix, that is a service we use on a daily basis, and for the majority of the day between everybody in the house.

  • B Chambers

    Another excellent observation, Jeff.

    I’m very pessimistic about this next console generation (and really gaming in general). Episodic content kills my motivation to play because it takes too much control out of my hands. If it becomes the norm of the future, I probably won’t be gaming for very much longer or, I’ll be a late-to-the-party gamer who plays games only after all the content has been released.

    • Jeff

      I like episodic gaming because it titillates the player base, especially if an episode is good. End on a solid cliffhanger and you’ve hooked A LOT of people into downloading the next one. The Walking Dead is the perfect example. Each episode ended on or near a critical point.

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