Xbox subscribers now do more watching than playing

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What do you play most with your Xbox Live membership? If it's games, you're now in the minority.

In a milestone that may mark the beginning of the end of the Xbox being known mostly as a games console, Xbox Live users now spend more time on non-game services such as movies, TV, and music than they do on gaming. Don’t be confused by some reports that pit it against only “multiplayer” gaming: more than half of subscribers’ time on Xbox Live is used for non-game media, meaning both multiplayer and single player gaming combined has become the minority choice. That shift will probably continue, as Microsoft continues to pile on the providers. HBOGO, MLB.TV, and Comcast’s Xfinity were annexed to “the X” this month. All told, that brings its number of music and video services to 36.

As quoted in the Los Angeles Times write-up about it, Microsoft’s marketing and strategy leader for the Xbox, Yusuf Mehdi, notes that “people are turning on the Xbox to play games and then keeping it on afterwards to get other types of entertainment.” That sounds like a perfectly normal marketing sound-bite summing up the findings, but it might just be backwards. I am, in as much as I would reveal in, say, a Match.com profile, an avid gamer, and specifically a console gamer. But even for as much time as I spend on my favorite game titles, my entertainment progression when I get home from work usually starts with Netflix. A fella’s got to eat supper, after all, and I can’t very well game and eat at the same time. So I, and I’m guessing many others, are actually doing the opposite of Mehdi’s description: going to video apps first, and video games after.

That may not sound like a significant distinction, but that often means that my video game time is either cut short or squeezed out in a time slot normally dominated by it. Since not much detail was given as to how this shift breaks down, some important questions are left on the table. What specific kind of shift is it? Are a significant amount of gamers trading game time for video time? Or is it that video users are choosing the Xbox over a Roku or other alternative? It’s probably a mix of both, but what’s that mix? And how much should Microsoft be concerned that its users are drifting away from non-commodity products it directly produces — i.e. games — to content it has to wheel and deal for and that is offered basically as a commodity from a number of other vendors?

Also, this trend has to be considered in the context of other figures, such as the ratio of Xbox owners to Xbox Live subscribers. Nearly 66 million units have been sold, while more than 20 million are the “Gold” subscriber members that can use these other services. Sony’s PlayStation 3 may still be significantly lagging behind the Xbox in the number of services it offers, but its equivalent network access is free, leaving only the cost of subscriptions to whatever services require them.

While this shift is important both for Microsoft and at least the gaming and pay-TV industries, its ratio of Xbox Live subscribers will be another metric to watch in terms of this trend’s momentum. Regardless of the answers to the questions that remain, Microsoft is inching closer to not only dominating hard drives, but also TV screens.

Chris Huston

Though he relishes a dashed good book or a bit of sport (and British idioms), Chris Huston now spends much of his free time on his video game consoles, playing anything from Rock Band to Red Dead Redemption, or Need For Speed to Netflix. He finances these not-completely-innocuous vices by writing about video game companies and the technology industry for Hoover's.

Read more articles by Chris Huston.

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