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.

And if one green bottle should accidentally fall…

So 2018’s Call of Duty has rolled out, and all appears to be good; critically and probably commercially too. Actually Activision and Treyarch added a really well received Battle Royale mode that will probably be the new Twitch darling for a little while.

It’s been known for some time that Call of Duty Black Ops 4 wouldn’t have any single player campaign. However I had personally hoped that there would be some meaningful solo PVE content that allowed people not necessarily into PVP to have a reason to play Black Ops 4.

Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case. One Reddit user has researched in detail just how much of the game is available offline. And it isn’t much at all. Basically no Blackout mode and no ‘offline’ progression for either Zombies or Multiplayer. So beyond some basic tutorials there is no reason for someone interested in single player to buy this game. Whilst that’s not a surprise it’s a shame that the developers couldn’t have been more honest and responded in greater detail before the release. The community should not have to provide all the details.

There is a chance the game has more solo content when online but this is probably unlikely (EDIT: it appears levelling at least in Zombies is a thing when solo and online). And whilst there is nothing wrong with this game being multiplayer only, this represents the moment the popular Call of Duty series gave up on single player gamers.

Of course Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 isn’t alone in prioritising online multiplayer. Star Wars Battlefront (2015) and it’s 2017 sequel both have anaemic, barebones solo content. The sequel added a campaign but that wasn’t really what the community wanted. The Battlefield series has a paltry single player mode and no solo content beyond this. Rainbow Six Siege launched with a PVE mode that supported group and solo play but has been abandoned since launch. And the last Halo game had a solo campaign with nothing else for solo players. Would anyone be surprised if Halo 6 ditched the campaign or at least moved towards an online/open world design?

Unfortunately the days of rich solo content when publishers were scared of not shipping meaningful solo modes have gone (Unreal Tournament, Quake series, Rainbow Six Vegas etc.). Publishers of multiplayer first person shooters just don’t care about solo gamers.

So it seems these days first person shooters break down into; story driven or open world (Wolfenstein, Doom, Metro or Far Cry), Live Service (Destiny) or multiplayer (Call of Duty, Battlefield, Rainbow Six, CS:GO) and therefore the solo first person shooter is far from dead. However the multiplayer first shooter is now an irrelevant game type where solo players are concerned. A real shame because it wasn’t always that way and it arguably shouldn’t have to be either. How does that song finish again… ‘There’ll be no single player games sitting on the wall.’

A solo player’s wishlist

So recently I wrote a blog post lamenting the lack of options in most multiplayer games when players don’t want to play or group up with other players. It’s fine that there are multiplayer only games and it’s great that so many good ones exist. However I think the following suggestions are some realistic ideas which can help to open up a multiplayer game-like experience for a solo PVE player, but crucially without taking the focus away from the main audience.

Bots, bots, bots…

Given that most games use AI, adding bots to any multiplayer mode seems pretty logical. Particularly when most players, even those who only play multiplayer, often request practice modes. Games like Call of Duty, Unreal Tournament and Quake series have long since included bots. And given that even community mods like Battle Royale Singleplayer Experience (BRSE) Mod for Arma 3 have built a whole 64-player BR mode, it seems not too much of a stretch to suggest it is possible for developers to implement.

Rocket League has some offline game modes.

Offline Progression

It’s interesting new games such as Rainbow Six Siege and Star Wars: BattleFront 2 (2017) have included bot/solo modes in their progression systems, i.e. you earn renown for playing Terrorist Hunt on Rainbow Six Siege. However it often seems to come at a cost of a much reduced reward versus playing online. Last year Ubisoft significantly reduced the amount of renown you could earn in Rainbow Six Siege solo PVE modes to apparently stop people farming renown too fast. As renown is a virtual XP currency you can use to purchase some in-game purchases they were clearly worried about impact on their financial revenue. Battlefront 2 does a similar thing with a daily arcade cap.

I have yet to hear a good reason for why levelling in offline modes isn’t acceptable but at the very least let players earn XP in an offline profile. Doom (2016) or Counter Strike: Global Offensive have bots, but no ability to earn XP or unlock anything, thereby negating any point of playing these modes beyond practising. Call of Duty Black Ops implemented an offline multiplayer mode which shows offline progression can work really well.

Developers and publishers seem to forget that solo players have spent money on your game too and are another source of revenue for in-game purchases when respected. Rainbow Six Siege’s Terrorist Hunt modes showed promise at launch but seem to have been a ‘tick box exercise’ for when the game launched with no real support since.

Dynamic Content

Group content is great fun, but why can’t content vary depending on the number of players? ARPG’s have been doing this for years. Including solo modes or scaling content isn’t necessarily a bad thing and potentially an easy way to open up content to all players.

Games as a Platform

This is a thing already. Games like the The Sims, Sid Meier’s Civilisation series. Like GaaS but potentially opening up a new way to sell single player content and make content not centred on multiplayer content commercially viable. You could argue season passes and DLC (free or paid) fit into this category as well. Certainly one other way to open up a multiplayer focused game to a new audience is sell the content that allows a solo player to experience the game. For example, want to play this game offline against bots, then here’s the single player component – only £29.99 or so on.

Longevity

Solo modes are a very good way to ensure some longevity when the servers are switched off. As games like Lawbreakers have already recently demonstrated, some games can have a short shelf life.

And that’s all the suggestions for now

But on a final observation developers and publishers seem to view offline modes as increasingly not worthy of the their time. Potentially a threat to their online player base. For example, if everyone plays solo modes then the online population will decrease etc. But what I think they fail to realise is that they aren’t currently appealing to this type of player. In other words it’s an audience they are completely missing and not selling games to.