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 Review

Start spreading the news, I want to be a part of it. A flawed but great game.

When I think of a game that captures a location almost perfectly, it’s hard not to think of Ubisoft’s 2016 third-person shooter Tom Clancy’s The Division. It’s recreation of a New York city torn apart after a release of a deadly virus is stunning in almost every way.

Given the sequel is coming out early next year and how I am all but done with this game, I thought it might be worth compiling how I felt about this first entry in the series. It’s made more interesting by the fact that it does some things really well, but then in other areas almost falls flat on itself. That said I really enjoyed The Division and my hundreds of hours with the game are something I’ll look back fondly on.

In short Ubisoft created one of the best third-person shooters of this generation. Whilst it’s more of an RPG in places there is no doubt that the core gameplay loop is on point. Weapons and movement feel right, audio is great, graphically it is one of the most stunning games I have ever played. And the loot game, the ‘just one more go’ compelling gameplay loop, is largely there and done well.

It is also is a game that respects the solo player in ways that its competitors such as Destiny don’t. You can play the whole of this game solo, never needing to matchmake or group up. And whilst there will be group or multiplayer activities you will miss out on, there is no exclusion from the end-game. Almost every activity will improve your character in the end-game. And in effect grouping up just gives you a faster route to find the same end-game gear.

However it’s no secret that the game has problems. And I think none more so than how Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment handled the support of the game. You will often here how The Division was supported more than Destiny or how Ubisoft has done a good job with support. However that’s not entirely accurate. In reality The Division morphed into getting events and piecemeal recursive modes, but really missed out on substantial story, locations and new PVE content. And ironically The Division may have some of the same challenges as the Destiny series has been through when the sequel comes out.

The second year ‘no-show’ of content isn’t often talked about but in a Ubisoft shareholders call in February 2017, it was announced it had ‘another triple-A game lined up for the coming financial year but that this will now be replaced by continued support for an existing, well-performing live game’. And it does appear this was definitely referring to The Division, as shortly afterwards it was confirmed that there was no paid for content for year 2 of the game. What this meant was that The Division got Lootboxes, events and a new game mode. But what it never got was new missions, areas, story, factions or anything major. For many, including myself this simply reaffirmed that the game was in maintenance mode whilst Massive worked on the sequel and basically cemented my burnout with the game. Every time I’ve gone back to the game for events I’ve very quickly burnt out as I’m got sick and tired of playing the same content over, and over, and over, and over.

And even the Year one content felt like it was outsourced although it did add greatly to the game. Three big content drops that were managed over the first twelve months whilst the majority of the studio were likely working on the sequel. Indeed it feels like the much talked about 1.4 patch that dramatically improved the game was as much about increasing the playerbase than anything. And of course as players didn’t substantively return in droves, then it may have been why Ubisoft abandoned major content for the first game to focus on the sequel.

And that is one of my chief concerns with the sequel. That it received true support rather than being a Games as a Product with support in disguise as a live service. It’s getting old very quickly how publishers talk about GaaS but then continue to do major £80-£90 releases very regularly.

The game had lots of other problems. A less than stellar launch, lots of cheaters on PC, a small map with a lack of variety and a very short story campaign with a small number of missions, along with lots of issues with PVP. But all of that aside, this is a game that still shone through it’s problems. And particularly now if you were to have come to the game late. What you’ll find now is a very well balanced, interesting and with loads of modes to enjoy and explore. Indeed the ‘player power’ fantasy is almost perfect with the way you are able to breeze through more challenging content now.

This is a game I could probably write much, much more about, but in short, I do think this was a great first entry that has hopefully setup what will be a more interesting and polished sequel. Hopefully without too aggressive monetisation. But for now, good bye New York. I am leaving today.

Single player campaigns aren’t always the answer

More and more the Videogame industry has moved to Games as a Service (GaaS) and multiplayer only games. And we have countless examples from developers that tell us that is what their consumers want. However one thing that is often asked is whether a new game has a single player campaign. I feel this is the wrong question. What we really should be asking is whether ‘this game has compelling single player content?’. As someone who prefers playing Player Versus Environment (PVE) content solo, this is the question I tend to ask of many games before I try them.

And just to be clear matchmaking isn’t always a solution either. Whilst this should be standard for any game offering up group content there are those that get anxiety or simply don’t want to group up with other players.

No Bros. required

Best of times, worst of times

I loved playing multiplayer games such as Team Fortress Classic, Day of Defeat, Halo, Battlefield Bad Company 2, Call of Duty etc. over the years. However online multiplayer games have some major downfalls. Other players can be toxic, they require much more time commitment and can be more challenging. Sometimes it is nice to play a more relaxing game.

Therefore it seems a shame when games have components for single players but fall short or ignore the solo player altogether. While many might retort ‘just play a single player game’. This response simply misses the point. Multiplayer style games can offer new unique gameplay. Indeed new emergent genres like Battle Royale cannot be experienced in other game styles. And with the industry moving increasing towards Player Versus Player (PVP) Live Services the choice for those not wanting to play those games is becoming less and less. Not only that but these GaaS platforms tend to be better supported.

And whilst this blog post is musing about games from lots of different genres where it can wildly vary;  it isn’t impossible to open most if not all games to single AND multiplayer audiences. I can’t help but feel moving forward that the way developers think about content needs to evolve rather than just split games into single or multiplayer only experiences.

So below are a few online multiplayer games which I’ve played over the years that surprisingly can be really fun for a strictly Solo player:

Call of Duty: Black Ops (multiplayer mode)
Treyarch came close to delivering the ultimate pseudo-multiplayer experience for solo players. Black Ops Combat Theatre mode allowed a solo player to level up, unlock weapons and perks in exactly the same way as the online experience but against AI bots. It was only let down by the inability to complete challenges or prestige (earn a badge and keep levelling up). It’s inclusion never made the experience any less for the hardcore multiplayer audience. Call of Duty : Ghosts would later go on to offer a similar Squads mode allowing for some offline progression, but once again falling short of the full depth of the online experience.

Warframe
Whilst is has been moving toward more and more group content recently the core of the game still doesn’t omit solo players. Whether it’s levelling different warframes, grinding materials or parts, levelling mastery rank, there is loads to do. In structure this game is very much like an ARPG. And therefore like Diablo 3 or Path of Exile, is very accommodating for solo and group players.

The Elder Scrolls Online
MMO’s often cater for the solo player when levelling, such as World of Warcraft. But then at the end-game offer just group content for progression, i.e. increasing gear score etc. However The Elder Scrolls Online, is actually much more forthcoming in catering for solo players at end-game. Indeed the developers are aware many of its playerbase are solo players. Sure there is group content, but you can craft, level or loot even as a solo player taking part in the end-game. Actually ESO has some of the most robust methods for organically grouping players in the open world or one of its numerous dungeons. It is also a very casual, friendly MMO. I’ve written in more depth about this game before.

The Division
I played this game for over 200 hours as a solo player. Never once grouping up with any other players. My end game build was pretty high end (literally a High End build). Whilst there is group content and the game is arguably more fun as a group you can play the end-game as a solo player. Unlike the first Destiny game which offered little content to do after the max level is reached, The Division does a much better job of offering lots more dynamic content. I hope the sequel is just as solo friendly and doesn’t move towards more group content.

Unreal Tournament & Quake 3 Arena
Very old games but both include full support for mixing up human and AI bots. I spent hours on these games playing solo against bots in various modes. In the days before RPG-like progression systems became the norm.

There are probably more examples but these games above stand out for me. In a future blog post I’ll list some of my thoughts on features I would love to see in games to make them more solo friendly.