In a world where Netflix and Spotify dominate the television and music markets, it’s only a matter of time before the subscription approach becomes commonplace for games as well. There are a handful of services out there already, but between the technical hurdles that games present and the misty details of publisher contracts, none has really taken hold. Some services, like PlayStation Now, are designed around streaming; you can play in an instant, without waiting for any downloads, but latency can be in issue. Other services, like Xbox Game Pass, avoid the lag issue with standard downloads, but they don’t have the pick-up-and-play convenience of streaming.
Utomik is looking to change all that. It’s a PC-based game subscription service that boasts the instantaneousness of streaming services with the stability of locally-installed games, by making use of partitioned downloads. To put it simply, each game on Utomik requires a small download upfront—about 100-200 MB or so—that enables you to launch the game and play the first part of it, and then it downloads the rest of the game in the background as you play.
“Play while it downloads” itself isn’t a new concept, and all the major game platforms have something like this available to certain titles on a case by case basis. Utomik is the first service I’ve seen that puts it to use so widely, though, and to use it as a solution to the common problems faced by game subscriptions.
Utomik entered open beta in February this year. I’ve been using it on and off since June, and I have to say, I’m really impressed with how it’s shaping up. For most games, the initial download takes barely a few minutes, even though I’m stuck on old-fashioned ADSL connection. It’s not quite instant in the way that a streamed video is, but in practical terms, it’s close enough; you can browse the list of games, find something that appeals, and be playing it before something else swoops in to occupy your attention. Some games require a bit longer—think open-world games, where it’s not so easy to partition the data—but they’re fairly uncommon and clearly marked.
At present, Utomik includes just over 600 titles, making it one of the biggest game subscriptions in sheer volume. That doesn’t impress me as much as the range and variety on offer, though. There’s a good balance of AAA and indie, “hardcore” and “casual”, Western and Japanese. Powerhouse games like Saints Row: The Third and Borderlands sit alongside indie darlings like Tengami and Burly Men at Sea. The most popular games list includes the things you’d expect, like Metro: Last Light and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic as well games like the Heart’s Medicine series that certainly aren’t aimed at your typical “gamer”.
To help you wade through this list, there are a handful of different channels that group games by genre or publisher. The home page within the Utomik app also shows selected highlights, newly added games, and the most popular titles. There’s nothing as complex as the suggestion algorithms that you see at play on services like Netflix or Steam, but it’s enough to make it easy to find something to play even when you’re not sure exactly what you’re in the mood for.
This is something that other subscription services that I’ve used fall short on. They often have a good selection of high-profile games, but tend to lack variety, and browsing and discovery tend to be trouble. Utomik isn’t perfect—it’d be nice if it had a “My List” feature where you could bookmark games to play later, or a way of creating and sharing custom playlists, for want of a better term—but it’s still better than most.
At present, the standard price for all this is US$5.99, or a “family plan” for $9.99 that supports up to four users. Considering the volume and variety of games, this is ridiculously cheap; I wouldn’t be surprised if the price goes up when Utomik leaves beta for a full release, nor would I begrudge the company that decision.
On the other hand, the low price makes me wonder about the value for developers and publishers who put their games on the platform. Utomik’s creators are open about the fact that creators are compensated based on time users spend playing their games, which could potentially lead to problems down the line, especially as the service grows bigger and it gets harder for niche titles to rise to the surface. Publishers and devs must see some value in it, or Utomik wouldn’t have the number of partners that it has, but value for creators is always something I wonder (and worry) about when it comes to subscription services.
Still, I’m looking forward to seeing how Utomik continues to develop. Even in this beta stage, it’s one of the better game subscriptions available, in terms of variety, value, and sheer volume of content, and it looks like it’s just going to keep getting better in the lead up to its full release.