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.

What cross-play should mean

Update 27 September 2018:
Sony announced that cross-play is coming to Fortnite on PlayStation 4. I’ve written a new blog to reflect this news. So whilst some of the criticism below is outdated the thrust of the blog remains.

Original Blog Post:

During the recent criticism of Sony and Epic for locking-out Fortnite accounts on other systems, there seemed to be a lot of feedback that cross-play should be allowed. But that this wasn’t a new thing. However since Epic opened up their game with an update in March of this year I simply don’t recall an incident like this before. In other words a major release such as this that lets you play your game on any system.

Just to be clear cross-play matchmaking is the ability to play multiplayer with users of the same game on other platforms. This isn’t new. However Fortnite also allows for cross-play progression and purchasing. This is new. And also brilliant.

You see publishers and developers have loved transitioning from Games as a Product (GaaP) towards Games as a Services (GaaS) because of the greater earnings potential and the record revenue and profits being made. Online only games with potentially multi-layered business models (i.e. buy to play with season passes, DLC and microtransactions etc). But arguably part of offering a service rather than a product is being available to as many people as possible and on as wide a range of platforms as possible. All other entertainment industries have embraced allowing consumers to take their media with them. Even with restrictive Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems if you buy a movie from Google Play Store, or an eBook from Amazon Kindle, you can watch or read on your mobile phone, videogame console, computer, browser or numerous other devices. Same with all the streaming services, like Netflix or Spotify.

So why is it that games like Warframe, GTA V, The Elder Scrolls Online are separate entities on different formats. Why can’t I play my PC Elder Scrolls Online character on PS4 or Xbox versions even if I have to buy the game again? Given how some of the most expensive games to play are actually GaaS games, it arguably isn’t an unreasonable request for a consumer to have access to their purchased on more than one format. Certainly when games have a lifespan of over a 5 or 10 years then it’s also very conceivable formats will change over that time.

Of course it isn’t relevant for all games to offer cross-play. Many games are largely single-player, or small budget indie affairs and rely on buy-to-play business models. And here it would never make sense for cross-play to be offered.

In SkillUp’s recent Youtube video interview with Digital Extremes (the makers of Warframe) he asked if he can continue to use his existing Warframe account with the new Nintendo Switch version. The muted and slow response was both slightly predictable and disappointing. They talked about a possible one-time account transfer as they did offer for PC players who wanted to move to the new PS4 or Xbox One versions. But realistically a one-time transfer brings about its own risks and pitfalls that the customer is fully expected to accept and live with (i.e. what if the Switch version stops being supported).

For me the positive reasons for publishers and developers to embrace cross-play progression, play and purchases simply outweigh the negatives. I applaud Epic for making Cross-Matchmaking, Progression and Purchases a thing for consumers even if for now those who play on Sony’s systems can’t utilise this. And Sony and Epic do deserve massive criticism for their handling of Fortnite cross-play debacle. Denying access to consumers own accounts and purchases they have made is completely unacceptable and needs resolution, like yesterday.

Personally I think Fortnite has probably changed my view of what I should expect from GaaS or Live Services. If companies can’t or won’t bother offering cross-play. Then I’m not sure I can be bothered with their games.