Live Services – Part 3: The good, the bad and the ugly

For the final part of my three-part series on GaaS (part 1 & part 2) I thought I would list some of the Live Services/GaaS which I think do the whole service model very well. Or indeed very badly.

The good

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 works. And by retaining a subscription model 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.

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 pack 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.

The bad

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 Fortnite’s 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 | Bungie & Activision Blizzard
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.

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
I’ve written about this one before but EA has come under increasing criticism for its annual sports titles that appear to have only improvements in things 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 is a story of a f2p ARPG which was quite good fun and had a small but loyal following of fans. But 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 it will be around that long.

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 but when writing this 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 studios whose games are reinventing and innovating within the industry without the pressure from publishers. And right now it’s hard to argue that the big five western publishers don’t have a monetisation problem where their greed is killing something special in a lot of their games.

Live Services – Part 2: An ideal business model

Previously I wrote about GaaS games and some of the trends that we are now commonly witnessing as videogame consumers. In this second part I wanted to think about what I believe make the best business models when it comes to monetisation for a GaaS. 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 (maybe)
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

Fair pricing
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 V-Bucks, Platinum or Gold
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 have no-need for any of the above, as they aren’t GaaS games.

No mixing and matching of business models.
If the game has multiple tier versions at launch with season passes then there should be no-need for microtransactions. Games need to be fair in their overall value offering.


Of course this is all 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.

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.

Assassin’s Grind Odyssey?

A number of prominent Youtubers such as Worth A Buy, SkillUp, Jim Sterling, along with websites like Polygon have all noted that the recently released Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is much more ‘grindy’ than previous entries in the series. Indeed a few have mentioned that it isn’t possible to play the main story questline without having to complete a large amounts of side content beforehand. Indeed Jim Sterling went even further suggesting that the game’s progression is much more enjoyable once the permanent XP booster has been purchased (about £10).

Predictably this has stirred quite a debate on forums such as ResetEra and Reddit. With a usual range of reactions, from the ‘it doesn’t impact the game’, to those who are angry with Ubisoft for even implementing microtransactions. Many have claimed that Assassin’s Creed Origins had the same progression and microtransaction model. Although I can’t find any similar criticisms from that game’s launch a year ago.

To be clear I haven’t played the latest Assassin’s Creed game. So I don’t want to fully wade in to the debate. However where microtransactions are concerned there seems to be lots of misunderstanding circulating. I thought it might be worth delving into some of the key points being raised about this game.

1. It doesn’t impact the gameplay and you can ignore them

Not really true. All business models will have some impact on a game’s design. Usually a buy-once model will have the least impact because the developer or publisher isn’t pressured to monetise the game’s design. Just because you might enjoy the grind or not be inclined to spent any extra money probably means you weren’t the target audience for the microtransactions. Indeed Ubisoft is probably looking at those more casual players that only play a bit of games and don’t frequent videogames forums.

2. Just play more side quests

Misses the point entirelySkillUp mentioned in his review that even after 45 hours he hadn’t been able to ‘beeline’ the main campaign. Side quests should arguably be stuff that extends the game or grant additional rewards. With Odyssey it seems to be that the side content has become mandatory in order just to complete the main story questline.

Just being able to earn something in the game is irrelevant if it takes hundreds of hours to do so. That is where the example of ‘it takes 40 hours to unlock Darth Vader’ was so illuminating. It provided an undebatable fact to illustrate clearly the scale of the problem.

3. Just don’t buy the game or don’t buy microtransactions

Won’t make a difference. Neither of these options will likely register as a complaint against microtransactions. If you buy the game but never buy from the in-game store, Ubisoft can measure this and simply increase or change their business model to be more successful next time. And if you don’t buy the game, then it’s a lost sale that Ubisoft can’t measure in any meaningful way. But at worst may simply result in no sequels if the game sales are that bad.

Creating bad PR and being a noisy consumer is the best strategy to registering complaints with publishers. As we have seen with Star Wars Battlefront 2’s Lootbox fiasco or Sony’s stance on PS4 Fortnite cross-play, bad PR can force companies to change.

4. Microtransactions shouldn’t exist in premium £50-£90+ games

Maybe. Personally I think you have to judge each game on an individual basis. Arguably f2p games have a better argument for in-game transactions, but many publishers now use multiple business models to extract the maximum profit from their games. For example; preorder bonuses, multiple tiered editions, promotional tie ups, platform exclusive content, microtransactions and season pass models (sometimes yearly season passes). Assassin’s Creed Odyssey uses all of the these tactics.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a premium single-player game. It is not an online, multiplayer experience having to support thousands of connected players. Major upcoming content is being paid for by the season pass. So why are there in-game microtransactions? Wouldn’t it be better if all of that stuff was in the game and rewards for completing side quests and collectables. It is hard to argue against this viewpoint.

5. Games are more expensive to make and need microtransactions

Are they? First of all without real budget and sales figures from the publishers it is very difficult to validate this statement. Marketing spend is increasing but large western studios are tending to make less games which are profitable for far, far longer. This means there is less unpredictability about revenue, compared to say 5 or 10 years ago. And none of this accounts for the cheaper costs of digital distribution. There is evidence to suggest in real terms the costs of making games are actually decreasing.

It is very likely true that a game like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey would be profitable even if it just sold for a fixed price without any other monetisation.

The large western publishers are currently making record profits. They have become very good at monetising their games to increase revenue. They have more big data and experts than ever to help improve how they monetise their games. They don’t NEED to do it.


Information is good

Still whatever your view on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey it’s good to see the criticisms being raised are in the public domain. More information can mean being able to make a more informed purchasing decision. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve thought ‘but why didn’t the reviews pick up on this‘ when the latest post-launch problem comes to light.

As Jim Sterling himself admitted for a long time in traditional games media there was a genuine reluctance about raising any criticism of a game’s business model for fear of being blacklisted by a publisher. Now with increased social media and review channels there is genuine critique which publishers and developers can’t escape. And that is a good thing.

The Elder Scrolls Online Review

A casual friendly MMO and enjoyable Elder Scrolls game

If ever there was a game that can be described as divisive, then I think this game might be one such example. This MMO from Zenimax Online Studios (from the same organisation as Bethesda Game Studios) launched in 2014 to mixed reviews and anger from Elder Scrolls fans who wanted another single-player game. It was a subscription only PC game. Since then it has gone through loads of changes; transitioning to a buy to play business model, launching on consoles in 2015, the One Tamriel update in 2016, meaning you could go and do anything. And two large expansions arriving last year and earlier this year.

I first picked up the game in Febuary 2017 and at this point have played well over 200 hours on PC over a few different characters, getting near the end-game. Overall the game runs quite well although fps can and does chug when in large populated areas.

The Elder Scrolls Online can be a very pretty game at times

As someone who prefers solo PVE content and can be fairly slow, or casual in tackling content I would probably go as far to say this is one of the best MMOs I have played. There are 3 massive faction quest lines, one overall campaign and loads of zones to clear before you even get to the DLC and expansions (although the game calls them chapters) content. And everything you do is levelling some aspect of your character and can be tackled in any order you like. So you can simply go straight to the latest content if you so wish.

PVE questing is a very strong point in this game. Apart from fully voiced NPCs, quests don’t descend into kill/collect/gather ‘X’ number of items that so many other MMOs do. Quests often have choices and usually resolve around mini stories. One thing the game does well is organically group players. As you explore the world you will see and meet other players. This works really well for the Delves (solo) and Public dungeons. The game has PVP but I haven’t played it.

Combat is handled quite well. The combat is action based with telegraphs and markers for enemy attacks. It lacks the finesse of a game like Guild Wars 2 but is fairly enjoyable. In part due to the limited number of skills you can equip on your skill bar.

The game doesn’t have a gear score. Virtually everything you find will be for your current gear level. Once you get to Champion Points 160 gear is then end game as the game no longer scales gear up anymore. Champion Points are earned after max level and essentially allow you to spec up your character with additional skills and stats. They can take a fair while to earn to 160 although they are account based.

In fact the game has level and progression for pretty much everything. Your characters level, your 3 class skill trees, weapon, armour or other skill lines including guilds and DLC, crafting, mounts, backpack and storage and so on. Levelling even one character in all these areas will take a very, very, very long time. Like the main Elder Scrolls you level up skills by using them.

The game feels like an Elders Scrolls game. The gameplay, lore, world, User Interface all feel spot on. I do think it is popular to bash this game which isn’t based always on fact. In some ways this game does things better than the mainline games. Combat and crafting are much better, for example.

The race and class system is very flexible and again as a solo player allows for some truly creative freedom rather than being stuck to certain play styles. However any serious end game play in groups or guilds usually resolves around certain race/class builds.

In terms of negatives, the game still has the Star Trek-like looking humanoid races in my opinion, but to be fair so do all Elder Scrolls games. Certainly races like Khajit look rubbish in comparison to Char from Guild Wars 2, for example. And node stealing can happen albeit very rarely.

I think the biggest problem I have with game is it’s business model and maintenance schedule. The game continues to have an optional subscription but has an in-game cash shop which in late 2016 introduced lootboxes. These have since been tweaked to be worse. It seems that the most desirable items are being developed for these lootboxes. On top of this the game does DLC which whilst available to all subscribers, has to be purchased if wanting to own permanently. So that’s a subscription, collector’s editions, DLC, Expansions, in-game cash shop and lootboxes. Whilst none of this is abnormal for a MMO its feels an overly egregious business model and a massive negative against the game.

For EU players another issue is the weekly maintenance on the server which is done overnight for North American players so they avoid any disruption. But for EU players this means the game is unavailable during the daytime. It feels like a clear message that EU players aren’t as important to Zenimax Online Studios.

I think some of the criticism levelled against this game is sometimes unfair. It is an MMO first but still a good Elder Scrolls experience. For fans of the series there is a lot to recommend. Particularly if you want to experience Tamriel with friends.

Where The Elder Scrolls Online excels for me is as a solo friendly, fairly casual MMO experience. And on this basis I would recommended for anyone interesting to check out. However be wary of the overly aggressive microtransactions which otherwise really spoilt a solid experience.

Madden ultimate money

On Tuesday YouTuber Angry Joe released a video (link here) that is very critical of Electronic Arts (EA) and Madden 2019. Suggesting prioritisation on the Ultimate Team and microtransactions rather than working on long standing issues, or improving the overall game. I can’t really argue with the points he made. And of course this video could just as easily been about FIFA.

For some reason after this year’s E3 show I seemed to read many people think that EA has given up on lootboxes. When in reality it has done no such thing. Whilst lootbox mechanics suit sports games more than other titles, I will never personally support any games where you can use real money to purchase lootboxes.

And the only addition I would make to Angry Joe’s video, is that Madden (or FIFA) are far from the only free2play, freemium games masquerading as $80+ games. Games like Overwatch, Rainbow Six Siege, GTA Online amongst others are also free2play games that shouldn’t be charging any entry fee in their current form. Remember high quality shouldn’t mean the game can’t be free2play.

Either way it is good to see EA getting more heat and criticism for it’s overly aggressive business models. Hopefully Angry Joe’s video helps.