The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the most-played games on Steam this week. The role-playing adventure debuted May 1, 2015, but it is actually more popular than ever. While it had 92,268 simultaneous Steam players on its 2015 launch day, it surpassed that concurrent-player figure with 94,601 players yesterday, December 29, 2019. This comes as a result of the megapopular new Netflix show The Witcher, which premiered December 20. But more important, it reveals how games like The Witcher 3 are lasting longer than ever.
Back in 2010, I was writing about games “freelance” (I was getting paid $200 a month to write news stories while also delivering sandwiches for Jimmy John’s). And I did an interview with then Netflix VP of communications Steve Swasey. That original story is lost to the internet Langoliers, but here’s an archived version of a G4TV story about the interview. One of the questions I asked Swasey was if Netflix would ever begin renting games.
His answer: “Probably not.”
“[Renting games] is a whole different model than movies,” Swasey told me back in 2010. “A great movie from 1972 is still a great movie, but nobody wants to play Madden 95.”
And Swasey had a point back in 2010. At that time, games quickly lost their value because technology was advancing so rapidly. But that has started to change, and The Witcher 3 is indicative of that.
The Witcher 3 was made to last
OK, Swasey’s point that no one is going to want to play an old Madden is right, but gaming has changed a lot since 2010. And, really, that change started in 2011 with the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. There’s a reason publisher Bethesda Softworks has re-released that open-world RPG so many times: It holds up. It’s still just as good as almost any game coming out new in 2019.
For evidence of Skyrim’s staying power, we can go back and check Steam’s concurrent player stats once again. Despite launching eight years ago, Skyrim surpasses more than 20,000 simultaneous players almost every day.
And The Witcher 3 exists in that same paradigm. People have gone back to it over and over for years. And, again, this is why CD Projekt Red has been able to re-release it multiple times. The latest version hit Nintendo’s portable Switch system earlier this year.
Games are lasting longer for multiple reasons. Games already look real enough, and they are about as complicated and deep as people could want. Visuals will continue to improve and gameplay will continue to evolve, but the rate of those improvements has slowed due to diminishing returns.
Eight years before Halo debuted in 2001, we were just getting Doom and Star Fox. Eight years ago from now, we got Skyrim, and that game could launch today with only some minor upgrades.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Netflix should start a rent-by-mail service for video games. The time for that is over. But the point is that you can now build a library of enticing games from the last decade that all add significant value to something like a cloud streaming service. That’s one of the reasons Xbox Game Pass seems like it’s catching on. Sure, it’s getting new games, but it’s also relying on a back catalog that gets people excited in the same way that Netflix’s library of movies from the 1970s used to.