Today, Google is launching a new service called “Google Play Pass,” which for $4.99 per month gives Android users access to over 350 games and apps which will be served ad free and without any in-app purchases. Google will give users 10 days free and is also planning on offering the first year at $1.99 per month. It will be available in the US this week and other countries “soon.”
Google’s take on the app subscription model is a little different from Apple, which just last week launched Apple Arcade, its $4.99 games subscription service. Firstly, Google Play pass includes apps as well as games. Secondly, Google isn’t directly funding development their development nor demanding exclusivity.
At launch, all of the apps and games included in Google Play Pass were already available on the Play Store and will continue to be available as standalone purchases (or ad-supported). If you’ve previously installed any app that’s included in the service and sign up, your current app should automatically have its ads removed and its in-app purchases unlocked.
In a demo, Google showed me a game that normally would have an in-app purchase for an expansion pack — but as a part of Play Pass, it was simply free. The Google Play Store will soon begin showing a small, multi-colored ticket next to apps that are included in the Play Pass bundle, showing subscribers that it’s free and enticing non-subscribers to sign up.
Google says roughly two thirds of the apps included in Play Pass are games, including longtime favorites like Stardew Valley, Monument Valley, Limbo, and Risk. In other words, they include a mix of indie and institutional developers. Similarly, the non-game apps include biggies like AccuWeather and smaller, well-loved Android apps like Hi-Q recorder. I haven’t seen a full list yet, but other notable games that I noticed include Star Wars: KOTOR, Mini Metro, Old Man’s Journey, and Eloh.
Play Pass subscriptions can be shared with up to five family members and also integrate with Google’s parental controls for the Play Store. Unlike Apple, Google isn’t requiring more stringent privacy standards from apps included in Play Pass — though the removal of all ads is a big step forward for many of them.
Also unlike Apple, Google was willing to share at least a little about how it plans to pay developers: via user “engagement” with the apps. What precisely that entails is not entirely clear yet — Google says it’s more than simply tracking screen time or number of opens per week.
Developers may balk at their income being handled by another algorithm, but then again the state of Android apps is such that anything that brings in money at all would be a big improvement for Android developers. The platform has a reputation for doing a worse job of monetizing apps than iOS, after all.
Fortunately, developers shouldn’t need to do a lot of work to make their apps compatible with Google Play Pass. The company says that as long as apps use standard APIs for ads and in-app purchases, it should be a simple switchover — either way, developers shouldn’t need to ship two separate versions of their app.
Google says that the program is “invite only,” but will put up a web form where developers who want to participate can “express interest in participating.” A company representative also waved off my question about how it’s quite a coincidence that Google Play Pass comes within a week of Apple Arcade, saying that it had been in the works for some time and was simply ready for launch now. Although Google wouldn’t speak about specifics, I was told that long-term the intention is for Play Pass to make money — it’s not Google subsidizing apps.
I, along with many others, have been thinking about the potential implications of app stores switching to subscription bundles. For games, it could motivate developers to make stuff that’s less scammy, moving them away from in-app purchases that prey on the weak points in our psychology. In that sense, both Apple Arcade and Google Play Pass could be literal game changers.
But the longer-term implications are potentially bigger. Patricia Hernandez sees a potential future where apps sink to a “Netflix” level of quality where “The content doesn’t need to be ‘good,’ just good enough.” For both Apple and Android, that may be a champagne problem — right now it seems much more important to find a way to extract games from the in-app purchase gutter.
After that, who knows? Google Play Pass has the potential to be a very big deal for the Android app ecosystem. It includes both apps and games — I know for a fact that if I signed up I’d be more likely to use a weather app that’s included than one that’s not.
That puts more power in Google’s hands to pick winners and losers. But if Play Pass is even moderately successful, it could also put more money in developers’ pockets.