The below was first published in three separate blogs in December 2018. I have merely merged the posts and made some small amendments to try and make the article flow better as one piece. I also have made some small changes to try and refresh the content a little bit although some of the comments and thoughts at the time have aged a small bit. For example Destiny 2 & Bungie were still working with Activision Blizzard and Red Dead Online has received some changes. However the sentiment and my thoughts are all still very relevant today. Thank you.
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 have been 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 some of the implementation of GaaS that we are seeing.
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 much 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 some of the new trends and how they are not always for the better.
The ‘hard reset’
FIFA or Madden Ultimate Team are the clearest examples. Every year a new £50-£80 game arrives. And this means that all your previous progress is gone.
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 the lost of all your progress from the first game. There was no connection at all between the two games. This isn’t a problem unique to Destiny, The Division 2 is likely to go through similar challenges. 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 the next Destiny‘. 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.
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.
This tactic is both to try to re-engage players but also to pressurise them into spending money. 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 was really a bunch of lootboxes along with a weapon and some gear. 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 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 post-launch.
The never ending grind
Only 8 hours to unlock a gold bar…
Incomplete games at launch & minimum viable product
Games should 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.
Ideally a good GaaS should have a solid game that is brimming with content, and the money made be used to further add content to the already rich game. However for many GaaS games the opposite seems to be true; launch with a minimum viable product and then patch in ‘held back’ content to give the perception of ongoing ‘support’ until the next paid for content is released.
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.
An ideal business model
Ideally the fairest business model is pay once or a subscription, but the industry has tried to move away from these. So this should probably be a called a wishlist of how I would envisage the ultimate GaaS business model. I think there’s a balance of how companies charge and price a service.
The following are things publishers and developers should be steering away from when it comes to a videogame business models in my opinion:
- No lootboxes
- No pay2win, i.e. purchasable items with ANY stat increases.
- No XP or in-game currency boosts
- No separate currencies
- No currency that can be purchased
- No level gating of items only to be removed for players spending real money
Lootboxes have been debated in great depth but with a growing number of independent bodies or governments now starting to investigate or legislate against them, publishers should do the right thing and stop their use immediately. The impact on children and the lack of protection for consumers is one of the biggest problems the videogame industry has ever faced. But a problem of its own making.
So the question becomes what would I consider more acceptable business models in a GaaS videogame?
Purchasable cosmetics (sometimes)
Personally I would prefer cosmetics were earnable. Remember when you saw someone in endgame gear in early World of Warcraft. You knew it was a badge of honour. Something to respect. Now cosmetics usually just mean the player who has spent the most money on the game. Ideally cosmetics should be earnable, or at least there is a balance; still allowing players lots of customisation without having to spend money.
Time limited content should be reserved for a few seasonal events
It’s cool to earn stuff from an event but using this as a continual mechanism to get people to login is less cool.
All items should be earnable in-game
With ‘reasonable’ play-time as well. And not hundreds of hours
So not charging £30+ for a skin. Characters or skins really should be ‘micro’ in price. I know if games charged less I would actually be encouraged to spent more.
No made up currencies (i.e platinum, gold or x-bux etc.)
Just price the purchasable item in a local currency where one transaction can be made. No ‘best value’ packs etc.
Online/multiplayer games only
Single player games rarely have need for any of the above, as they aren’t GaaS games or have services costs or ongoing content.
Limited mixing and matching of business models
If the game has multiple tier versions at launch with season passes then there should be a need for microtransactions? Games need to be fair in their overall value offering.
Of course this is likely wishful thinking, but I do think that the better examples of GaaS games embrace some of the above (although not enough) pricing strategies. We have to consider games on a case-by-case basis. However generally it’s reasonably obvious to spot the videogames which get the balance wrong when it comes to the cost and the impacted design of a GaaS business model.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Below are some of the Live Services/GaaS which I think currently do the whole service model very well. Or indeed very badly.
Path of Exile | Grinding Gear Games
Often the term ‘free to play done right’ is banded around for many games. But I think here it is actually the perfect descriptor. Since 2013, Grinding Gear Games have been working on their ARPG with growing praise from those that have played it. The game does some major things right. All content is free, the game can be played as a free player with no penalty and makes you want to support the developer rather than feel you need to. It is far from perfect in that selling cosmetics limits the visual customisation options and the prices of some of its packs or in-game items feels slightly too expensive. But again it gets the balance right. And ultimately is as close to the best f2p game business model as you will find. The content on offer is fantastic and it is an outstanding ARPG as well.
World of Warcraft | Activision Blizzard
You could probably insert a few MMO’s here, but Blizzard’s 14-year old veteran game’s subscription model still mostly works. There are very few in-game items to buy for real money. Whilst players moan about subscriptions, they still can provide one of the fairest business models a videogame can use. It’s also worth mentioning that WoW expansions have a Collector’s Edition but with only a few cosmetics included. There’s no Normal, Gold, Ultimate version rubbish here. There are negatives such as the best looking mounts which are saved for cash shop purchases and the ability to purchase in-game gold. This won’t be true of WoW Classic though which is also included in the subscription.
Guild Wars 2 | ArenaNet
No subscription and reasonably priced microtransactions. Far from perfect but does a lot of things very well when it comes to its business model. Unlike WoW it doesn’t have a subscription which is its strength.
Warframe | Digital Extremes
Great game, wonderful developer. F2p largely done right although the Prime Access packs are very expensive. However probably the best community manager in any videogame. And a phenomenally unique game. The fact this is the best looter shooter out there speaks volumes.
Call of Duty | Activision Blizzard
Year on year release. Season Pass, pre-order items, over £100 for the most expensive version and p2w in the form of weapons with better stats being in lootboxes. On top of that, this year’s entry has a slow grind version of the Fortnite battle pass which has been designed to be very sllloooooowwwww at rewarding the player for obvious reasons. Eugh. About the most offensive cocktail of business models in modern triple AAA videogames.
Destiny 2 | Bungie
Again yearly releases, season passes and an endgame designed around lootboxes. For many including myself the realisation hit with the second game that there just wasn’t enough to justify the high purchase price. Great shooter and for the hardcore group PVE players they will be able to see pass these faults (although since this was written Bungie has gone independent from Activision Blizzard so is there hope here for the removal or dramatic shift away from Eververse?
Grand Theft Auto Online | Rockstar & Take Two Interactive
A freemium, mobile game in structure. Everything is built around earning money which is very, very slow to acquire. It isn’t pretty. But unfortunately it has generated billions for Take 2 and Rockstar and clearly a blueprint for the recently released Red Dead Online.
FIFA/Madden Ultimate Team | Electronic Arts
EA has come under increasing criticism for its annual sports titles that appear to have only improvements in features relating to the Ultimate Team modes that are generating EA near or over a $billion every year. Like GTA V it’s effectively a freemium mobile game, with declining reasons for those not wanting to play the online mode to consider buying the game.
And the ugly
Marvel Heroes | Gazillion Entertainment (now defunct)
Marvel Heroes was a f2p ARPG which was quite good fun and had a small but loyal following of fans. However it is no longer around since it’s closure in November 2017. The studio and game were shut down only 12 days after Disney announced it was ending it’s working relationship with the developer. It’s a great example of where it’s possible to invest money and time in a service but unfortunately there is no guarantee about how long it will be live. I could list others like Evolve, or Lawbreakers. Indeed maybe even Fallout 76 which has turned into a big mess of a game. But ultimately I just needed one example to make the pun work!
I probably could list more examples in each category. However when writing this piece it started to become clear that a trend has emerged over the last few years which is arguably good for consumers. And that is the rise of smaller, more dynamic, independent studios whose games are reinventing and innovating within the industry without the pressure from publishers.
Right now it’s hard to argue that the big publishers don’t have a monetisation problem where their greed is killing something special in a lot of their games.