There is a buzzword in today’s modern gaming that’s slowly becoming the new norm and that’s ‘Live Service’ or ‘Games as a Service’ as it is known. This trend is dominating current releases. February brings two clear examples: Anthem is mere days away from release (Origin Access starts the 15th Feb) and Respawn Entertainment has just released its new heavyweight battle royale ‘Apex Legends’ as the next big contender in this arena already brimming with AAA titles. With this inescapable new shift in how we game, I have decided to explore how we’ve come to this point in gaming, the pros and cons of this new format and the consequential affects live service has to the overall quality of a game when longevity is the goal.
For those who are unaware of the term ‘Live Service’ due to happily living under a rock, games as a service (now known as ‘GaaS’ or ‘Live Service’) is the new method of delivery for video games, which at present is mainly driven by AAA titles. Its mandate is simple, release fewer games but stick with them long term. This creates a predictable cash-generative business model that is far more stable and lucrative than needing to create new IPs yearly.
The rest of the profits these companies see is made up through in-game purchases known as ‘Microtransactions’ or ‘MTXs’. These can be anything from Cosmetic items that have no effect on the mechanics of gameplay, lootboxes (a sore topic that requires its own article altogether) or in some cases, like Mobile free to play games, in-game currency which in turn can be used to buy progress accelerating items i.e. the worst kind of MTXs.
DEFINING THE ANGLE
For the benefit of scope I am going to focus just on Live service games on consoles and PC. Mobile gaming deserves an equal part in this conversation but if we’re being honest it is a beast unto itself and would be better covered separately. I know what you’re thinking (I don’t actually, but I’m going to go ahead and ask myself a question I have prepared an answer for this next section) How much more money does a live service game, or free game with MTXs make versus selling ‘one and done’ full price gaming products. Short answer, a tonne. Long answer, a f**k tonne. It’s simple logics, the longer your players stay in the game the more opportunity there is to entice them to part ways with their hard-earned cash.
THE BIG PLAYERS
Take-Two, EA, Epic Games, Ubisoft and Activision have been some of the publishing houses driving this new model. While the ethos is to make less games and stick with them longer, this has the adverse effect of the market becoming oversaturated with these new live service games. A perfect example here is GTA Online (the highest grossing media title to date bar none). A game that was originally made back in 2013, 6 years ago but still has a healthy playerbase. Games as a Service prolong the lifespan of a game to the point where new live services are created at such a startling rate that the market has descended into a bland overpopulation that is not sustainable, i.e. our current situation.
It’s truly remarkable to think that there is somehow a constant influx and returning player base for such a crowded market. It helps that not all live service games are the same: Open World platformers to MMO-Lite Looter shooters and Battle Royales don’t have quite the same appeal to the same crowd. However, even with differing appeals, the sole purpose of games as a service is to cater to every aspect a gamer could want.
MODERN GAMES AND OTHER MEDIA FORMATS
The turn of the millennia has seen an incredible dwindling of viewer attention span which has affected all media formats. Well, all bar one: the games industry seems to have escaped unscathed. Where other media format go games never seem to follow. In the realm of TV, film and also gaming productions are the highest they have ever been. In the sphere of television, we are unsatisfied consumers: we watch, we criticise, we move on immediately.
Video games have done quite the opposite. Players stick with games longer, they vouch and fight for them in the comments of Youtube videos. They have become a hobby more than a piece of creative art we engage with. Remakes are begged for time and time again- a complete opposite to the Hollywood trend where film and tc series remakes are instantly dismissed and torn asunder. Resident Evil 2, for example, is performing phenomenally both financially and critically (from what I’ve been told it’s killing it.)
It is really remarkable to see video games buck the trend of modern media. However, this isn’t the only reason games as a service has become the go-to delivery method of modern gaming. The publishers made this decision long before the masses agreed with the direction.
THE TREND SETTERS
Back in 2014, Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Rockstar Games parent company Take-Two Interactive since 2011 described Grand Theft Auto V’s multiplayer component Grand Theft Auto Online as “the gift that keeps on giving”. Speaking on FOX Business’ Risk & Reward programme then, Zelnick said GTA Online is an example of Take-Two adapting its business practices to create platforms that generate sustained revenue instead of a one-off spike in sales.
“Just a few years ago when we put out a product no matter how big, we put out a hit, we collected our money, we went on to the next [game]…Now [what] we’re finding is we’re creating recurrent consumer spending and we have the gift that keeps on giving.” Zelnick said.
This language then of ‘platforms’ instead of games fits right alongside Ubisoft’s current ethos now as seen in their ‘Earnings and Sales’ report FY19 dated Oct 30 2018.
This shift in paradigm of language with developers, and moreover publishing houses, to this new Platform type service is slow to accrue but not surprising. Companies such as Adobe now licenses its Creative suite products out with a subscription as does Microsoft, Apple and Avid Technologies. This is becoming the new norm and preferred state of play: turning products into recurring revenue services. Ubisoft chief executive officer Yves Guillemot said in a statement;
“[Ubisoft’s] success reflects the industry’s move towards a model that is less dependent on releasing new games…New releases now only represent a part of our business, which is now focused on long-term engagement with our player communities.”
“We overhauled our portfolio, developing numerous multiplayer games in recent years which have dramatically increased player engagement in the Ubisoft world,” he said. “Our players not only play for more hours at a time, but do so over a period of months or even years. We are thus able to offer them new experiences and content, thereby extending the lifetime of our games.”
There’s no denying Ubisoft and other publishers have done their due diligence with the numbers. Games that stay around longer provide more stable and consistent revenue. It is arguably this new ethos that allowed Tom Clancy’s The Division to survive its tumultuous first year to become a game that is now widely regarded with a huge player base.
Proof of its dramatic comeback comes in the form of the upcoming release of its sequel, simply named, The Division 2 (single Digit extensions to the existing IP seems to be the most common way to brand sequels whilst maintaining consistency as the players transition to the newest version).
Long story short, CEOs and publishing houses are enjoying the new golden age of live service gaming, but what does this mean for the player, the shmuck paying for these services day in day out with hard earned cash?
QUALITY OR QUANTITY?
The quality of a game that must maintain high player return over longer periods is still debatable. When you buy a new game, you are receiving a substantial investment for your money: new assets, story, mechanics, lore and entertainment. A game already in production must compete with this offering with something better, no? Well it turns out that the longevity of a Live service game is not always in quality but in fact in staggered quantity. In the below image is the release schedule of the Destiny 2’s Black Armory DLC.
At first glance it seems impressive to have so much going on over two months from a single update. But if you’ve played it, which I have, it becomes more apparent that there is not as much going on as it would seem. The Raid aside, Volundr Forge, Gofannon Forge, Izanami Forge and Niobe Labs are essentially the same activity repeated ad nauseum and thinly veiled as new content. You kill enemies for an extended time, grab ball, throw ball repeat til you kill the boss. Each of these activities plays out the same with a different enemy faction to be your timer fodder. Now I am not saying that this did not take serious development time to create, but in the grand scheme of paid content it falls a far cry short of its previous entry ‘Forsaken’. At a lower price the Black Armoury DLC’s shortcomings are hardly unexpected.
None of the content was clearly outlined when the Season Pass was announced. The roadmaps of scheduled release times came long after you’ve bought into the model. It begs the question: would any players looking for new content have actually bothered with the purchase if they knew what they were getting for their money? Peter Warman, CEO at Newzoo, said it best when he told [a]listdaily that;
“The other way to do this[Monetize games] is through season passes—convincing players to buy a full version of a game as well as all scheduled DLC and some notional updates at launch day. Season passes tie players to the game longer by forcing them to make an initial investment. However, there is little financial evidence of how well season passes monetize, due partly to how well console developers conceal return on investment.”
It would seem keeping players in the game is the true goal. In spite of your recurring subscription model being cheaper than your seasonal DLC updates, the in-game revenue accrued from cosmetics and MTXs is both lucrative and stable. So while the intention of maintaining a high player base for longer periods may be good, the overall model is in fact anti-player and anti-consumer.
Take Destiny 2’s ‘The Draw’ questline: a series of Boolean coded checks that reward progress for playing old content you have already bought and played a million times before. It accounts for 1/8th of the Season Pass’s content and amounts to a single exotic weapon which is not difficult to get, just laborious.
The quest is intended to engage the player with the game for a period of time longer than necessary. The Exotic questline for ‘Thunderlord’ stretched ten minutes of content over 3 weekly resets. Whilst the player is receiving consistent content updates, the overall quality is degraded by the limitations imposed by the background goal: new content must engage the player over a longer period of time in order to entice them into buying more in-game MTXs.
It’s clear to me that the result of the push towards live service games simply creates a vacuum for creative drive within the AAA scene. This includes any scene that adopts this method. Publishers and developers placing their predictable cash-generative business model ahead of their new and interesting ventures shows where we’re headed: an oversaturated market with bland IPs. This is not to say that new IPs will never be invested in as the sales boom from hit IPs is too alluring to turn away. This simply means that creating Live service games is a safer bet. If we adopted this formulaic approach 20 years ago I feel we would have plateaued much earlier in gaming than we actually have. Let’s not for a second mistake this as an attack on AAA titles or an admission that all is lost with modern gaming. I am simply aiming to point out that the longevity of these live service games is going to hit a crucial breaking point much sooner than later.