Live Services – Part 1: The reality

Sometime towards the end of the last generation of videogame consoles and the transition to the current generation we saw major western publishers start to embrace the Live Service or Games as a Services (GaaS) as a preferred business model of their games moving forward. Games such as Destiny or Warframe moved away from Games as a Product (GaaP) to services. Although Wikipedia notes the idea originates in the early noughties with MMO’s.

The major western publishers and platform holders are all enjoying record revenues from financial results strengthened by recursive microtransactions and revenue from services. However as their profits have gotten larger so too has the pressure to increase year on year growth. Which could create problems over the next few years. Certainly there seems to be a far more vocal reactions to some of the negatives of GaaS games (i.e. Star Wars BattleFront 2 lootboxes) and a divisive element to them. Whilst lots of gamers embrace them there is a growing number who don’t like GaaS as a concept.

The definition of GaaS from Wikipedia is:

In video gaming, games as a service (GaaS) represents providing video games or game content on a continuing revenue model, similar to software as a service. Games as a service are ways to monetize video games either after their initial sale, or to support a free-to-play model. Games released under the GaaS model typically receive a long or indefinite stream of monetized new content over time to encourage players to continue paying to support the game. This often leads to games that work under a GaaS model to be called “living games” or “live games”, since they continually change with these updates.

The advantages of GaaS are clear for the publishers and developers; more revenue from ‘uncapped’ spending, more regular and consistent revenue, less games which have a longer shelf-life as well as legal advantages to selling services over products. For the consumers the advantages are less clear-cut but include potentially better supported games with a strong online element.

As I’ve spend some of this week reading about Red Dead Online there has been some clear negative reaction to some of the balance of the new online mode (Polygon, Wccftech and Reddit). This made me want to write about what some of the new trends I am seeing much more now which are not always for the better.

The hard reset
FIFA or Madden Ultimate Team for the clearest example. Every year a new £50-80 game arrives. And this means that all your progress in previous years is lost.

Games with a shelf-life
Contentious point here, but there are arguably a lot of games which are really products with some support. One of the major criticisms of Destiny 2 was that all your progress from the first game was lost. There was no connection at all between the original and second game. This isn’t a problem unique to Destiny, The Division 2 is likely to go through similar challenges. The key point here is how ‘long or indefinite stream of monetised content’ has there to be for a game to truly be considered a GaaS by definition?

Developers prioritising a sequel, or next paid-for product
I remember when Destiny 2 was having its problems last year, reading someone ask ‘why aren’t Bungie sorting this out, what are they doing?’. Of course the easy answer was ‘working on Destiny 2:Forsaken and Destiny 3’. A lot of content is actually made with the main game and/or released by separate in-house development studios whilst the main team works on the new, next game (Destiny 2 and The Division both did this).

This might not be that different from the old days when developers moved onto the next project, however there’s a balance when asking people to commit to a service which are usually more expensive in terms of cost and time required.

Time-limited content
This tactic is both try to re-engage players but also to pressurise them into spending money instead. However from a player perspective they can be both rewarding, but if you’ve not got time to engage in an event then the ‘fear of missing out’ can be tiring and stressful. In many ways seeing time gates on content tends to have the opposite effect on me and makes me want to play something else instead.

Yearly season passes
A tactic we have seen in a number of games. You’ve purchased the ‘gold’ edition of a game. Then after the first 12-months a Year 2 content pack is released. In some cases a Year 3 etc. Particularly irritating if the game is actually cheaper to rebuy everything rather than the year season passes you’ve missed.

Introducing microtransactions after a game’s release
Years ago Forza Motorsport 5 was rightly criticised for launching with a myriad of aggressive microtransactions. Since then most if not all games from major western publishers release the microtransactions after the games reviews. Indeed sometimes the microtransactions might be implemented later on – long after the release, i.e. The Division.

Perfectly working in-game cash shop
It just works. And have you noticed how some premium, expensive triple-AAA, western published games have in-game cash shops that look like that of a free to play game? *Cough* Rainbow Six Siege.

Bugs & maintenance ignored
Prioritisation of paid-for content rather than actually fixing the game itself. The is true of many GaaS out there now.

Poor new player experience
This is a difficult one but a lot games just straight up get this wrong. Or there are loads of games that are prepared to drop you into a multiplayer mode without so much as a shooting range or ability to play bots first. The difficulty is whilst this may help retain players it doesn’t pay anything for developers looking to fix after a games launch. And therefore never really gets fixed. Of course it can also be the systems upon systems that the games doesn’t necessarily want to explain.

Drip feed of new content
New microtransactions, new cosmetics, or Lootboxes don’t really qualify as new content. i.e. Ghost Recon Wildlands Year 2 Season Pass is really a bunch of lootboxes along with a couple weapons! New maps, new story missions, new racing tracks can often feel like they are on the back burner compared to recursive game modes, new enemies, new in-game shop items or other more smaller content.

Focus on PVP/Multiplayer
The main gripe of fans of single player experiences. That actually publishers have prioritised cheaper to make multiplayer content over single player or PVE content. GTA V is a great example of a game which has not ever received any single player content since it came out.

The never ending grind
Only 8 hours to unlock a gold bar

Incomplete games at launch
Games need to be solid and relatively feature complete at launch. To have missing modes or features only a few weeks away feels shoddy. Roadmaps with future content should be adding to rather than making up for missing content.


Of course I don’t want this to be all negatives however we also live in a time when there is a greater influence of a game’s business model on the end product, something I’ve blogged about before. And crucially getting a GaaS wrong can ultimately impact a company’s financials. Something we’ve arguably seen recently with Destiny 2: Forsaken. Some of the above negatives that I see in GaaS are actually grinding me down rather than making me look forward to new videogames. Major Publishers seem keen to embrace the revenue aspect of GaaS but I’m not sure all their games are really ‘services’ or get the balance right when it comes to the support or indeed the business model.

The Division 2 pre-order mess

I wrote a short while ago about some of the games I was most looking forward to in the next 12-months. And following a couple of hundred hours on The Division, it’s sequel is one such game.

I finally got around to looking at the different versions available and it’s a mess. Far too many versions across physical, digital releases and different regions. In the UK it’s £87.99 for the Ultimate Edition on Xbox Live, which is the only way to get all of the content including the additional stash space. Although the descriptions are very unclear and include no explanation of what you are actually getting for your money (i.e. how much stash space for starters). I would imagine it’s bare bones content and probably a waste of money that will be minuscule in comparison to what Ubisoft sell in their in-game cash shop. It’s no wonder the reception to this news on Youtube and Reddit has been so very negative.

However all of this nickel-and-diming such as the pre-order items, very expensive complete versions, inevitable microtransactions (and lootboxes), Year 2 passes are seriously dampening my enthusiasm for this game. I’m put off Red Dead Redemption 2 for similar reasons but certainly because it is so expensive for the full version. I know The Division 2 isn’t doing anything different from other major releases, but it still doesn’t make it hard not to stomach. It’s also a shame that Ubisoft can’t come up with a fairer business model.

Given that I regretted buying Destiny 2 (now a freebie on PlayStation Plus) on release and I didn’t really start playing the first game in earnest until patch 1.4 landed, the sensible thing to do is going to be to wait for the inevitable price drops. Or when I’m ready to play the game.

However as ever this means not crumbling and giving in when the ‘new’ game allure hits and Ubisoft ‘advertises’ the hell out of the game through Twitch and Youtube. Going to try and be strong.

My most anticipated games for 2018/19

At the height of a crazy hot summer, it might not be the obvious time to think about games that aren’t out yet. Still here are my thoughts on some of the games I am most looking forward to over the next 9-months or so. Particularly after the recent annual E3 show in June.

Definite

Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox One) – a great series, particularly the last release. Now prefer these to the main Motorsport entries.

The Division 2 – the first game was a flawed diamond, but I still racked up over 200 hours playing it. Concerns are that the map is ‘only’ 20% bigger and whether Massive/Ubisoft abandon the game after the main release and DLC as they did with the first game. The first game was crying out for proper paid-for story/PVE content for years 2 and 3.

Likely

Marvel’s Spiderman (PlayStation 4) – looks really interesting but given the backlog I suspect I might be able to save some money and wait for a sale.

Red Dead Redemption 2 – love the first game. Main worry is how riddled this will be with microtransactions. However if single player is unaffected then I will pick up. Makes sense to watch the early opinions and reception roll in.

Would like but no deal

Fallout 76 – genuinely intrigued but the complete lack of detail so far and the possible huge monitisation/PVP element is a total put off.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey – looks very much like the 2017 AC, which is still on the backlog so may as well leave this one.

Destiny 2: Forsaken – regret buying Destiny 2 so not going anywhere near this. Worried for the future of this franchise given the pressure the contract places Bungie under. Suspect that future sequels like Destiny 3 (2019) will stick to the ‘cut and paste’ four areas, campaign, PVP and lack of content model that the first two games have been. Arguably a GaaP with some support rather than a true GaaS/Live Service. Also as a solo-PVE’er Destiny 2 seems to be refocusing on grindy, group activities again. Which is fine, but not for me.