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 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.

Warframe Review

One of the most unique videogame experiences there is.

Warframe is fantastic. From the minute you first play it and start with the first movement of your character, you realise you are playing something stunningly different. Something special. So much has been written already about this game, so to get straight to the point – Warframe is one of, if not the best ‘looter shooter’ out there at the moment. It’s very unique, comes from a strong, creative and innovative developer. And has the best Community teams in the business of all online games. It’s an outright classic. It is also the near-perfect example of how a Live Service should be done.

Warframe is a game I first saw years ago when TotalBiscuit covered it in his fairly famous ‘WTF’ video on YouTube in January 2013. After that is was a game I would often see mentioned but for some reason would never play. Probably in part influenced by my negative reactions to free-to-play (f2p) business models. But in 2016 I finally had a chance to catch up with some f2p games that I had been meaning to play. There is only one of these games that I stuck with and still play even after 2 years. And that game is Warframe.

Warframe is unique. Unique combat, unique character movement, unique levelling. It also has uniqueness all through its style, designs, world, stories and numerous component parts. It’s hard to compare it to anything but it’s one of the strongest third-person shooters there is. The combat and visual display in front of your eyes is like watching the finest fireworks display you’ve ever scene when everything is flying about on screen.

No end of customisation options

The mod system which is used to upgrade your warframes is also a work of genius. Collecting and equipping different buffs and bonuses to your warframe can give you huge levels of customisation although levelling each individual mod can take long amounts of time (or money). Also fashion frame is a true end-game experience if you want it to be. A bit like the fashion wars in Guild Wars 2, there is an almost never ending mixture of parts, armour, weapons and colours than can be played with to come up with some absolutely personal and distinct creations.

As an f2p game one of the first questions should be; ‘is the business model fair’. And for the most part it does things well including being extremely generous with content. There’s in-game trading for the virtual currency (although no auction house just a chat channel) and every item can be earnt in the game. Although many of these are either time-limited (vaulted), require reputation grinds or only be obtained from a suitable high level clan.

However ‘Prime’ cosmetics cannot be earnt in game and can only be purchased for money. Prime items are the best items in the game and overall the prices for the quarterly Prime Packs feel ridiculously expensive (£92 on PC, for example). Although you can obtain Prime Warframes just playing the game (essentially the characters and therefore different play styles). However if you are low on time or a more casual player obtaining things can be very expensive. It certainly isn’t the most egregious business model which is often why people refer to Warframe as ‘f2p done right’. However it has it’s positives points but also has some negative points that are more difficult to defend.

And of course there is a never-ending release of new frames, new items etc. Which can make the game just feel like an impossible rat race to keep up with at times. Digital Extremes are doing their upmost to pump out new content but as a game now over 5 years old I would personally like them to relook at the basics. I suspect they will always prioritise new revenue generation over maintenance and improving old content. And at this point the game is layer, upon layer, upon layer, upon layer of systems designed to lengthen the grind. In places it feels like a mess. Particularly the new player experience which isn’t very good. As a new player you have countless questions which the game does very little to help with. Fortunately there is a wonderful community to help out, but alas that isn’t the point.

It’s also a game that should ideally have cross-play or at least have the intention of working towards this even if it’s years away. I would love to play on other formats although I’m not encouraged in any way to do so. However to be fair that isn’t a criticism that is unique to this game.

I have genuinely enjoyed and loved every minute with this game and would wholeheartedly recommend Warframe. It’s a one-off experience available on all current formats and is one of the better games out there at the moment. It really deserves the success it has had to date.

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.

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.

I’m outta GaaS with Live Services

Excuse the pun. Somewhere on my Grouvee profile there is an entry for Path of Exile. Playtime around 15 hours. It should be much more. But after trying to get into the game twice I had to really pull myself away from it and uninstall it. Even though I was really enjoying it and wanted to play on.

So why did I uninstall it? I had to. I just couldn’t commit to another GaaS (Games as a Service)/Live Services game. There is only so much time in the day or money you can spend. And given the grindy, all time consuming nature of GaaS games this is even more true.

I remember Jim Sterling saying in one of his recent Youtube videos that he tries to have one service game and that’s it. And that’s probably a sensible recommendation. Although that’s very hard given just how many games have or are switching to this model.

Recently Digital Extremes (DE) hosted their annual convention for their online game; Warframe (another online game I really enjoy). And whilst the internet raved over the new major updates I couldn’t help but be a little bit disappointed. A version on Switch. Couldn’t care if I have to replay everything (and a one-time account switch isn’t going to make one iota of difference). Fortuna – a new location on Venus, like 2017’s Plains of Eidolon. Which were essentially their own economy and grind that I have barely touched. And Railjack. Group content that doesn’t appeal. And even more Warframes. More things to collect. More grind. As much as I love the game there’s still loads I haven’t done after years of owning it. And unless I commit to it much more, at the expense of other games, probably never will.

Who doesn't love Rhino?

Probably unpopular opinion but I can’t help but think that Warframe needs to sort out some basics. Start committing more development time to improving old graphics, old loading screens, UI improvements, stability, removing bugs and crucially making the new player experience much, much better. Also making sure that the new player isn’t faced with a gigantic wall of content before they can catch up.

Of course DE admitted in the recent Noclip ‘making of’ documentaries on Youtube that ultimately there’s a balance between maintenance and new content. I suspect the allure of revenue and profit will always pull them more to the latter.

But this is an aside. With Warframe even though I’ve currently spent nearly 350 hours playing it, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. That there are simply too many frames, too many weapons or too many collectables for me to keep up with. Of course you don’t have to collect them all, but who doesn’t want to have a large library of frames, be well equipped for the endgame or have loads of cosmetic options. To look good whilst being a ‘space ninja’.

And with some of my other favourite GaaS games it’s no better. In Guild Wars 2 I have three level 80 characters. I’ve spent ages exploring the world. But I’ve never completed my personal story. Barely scraped the expansions; Heart of Thorns or Path of Fire. Last year I finally got around to trying The Elder Scrolls Online. And my ‘to do’ list has grown even bigger there too. Despite days of playtime I only have a Champion Points 121 Altmer Sorcerer. I’ve not even got to proper end-game (160). And whilst I’ve completed some of the regions and faction quest lines, I’ve still not been to Morrowind. And the home of the Elves (Summerset) is but a pipedream.

I suspect that I am going to have to make some tough choices with these games. And to be happy with more focused, realistic goals. I don’t want to give up on any of them yet as I adore these games. And all of these examples above will probably be around for years yet. Either way I need to be careful about signing up for more GaaS moving forward. Games like The Division or Destiny scare me less because in reality I don’t believe they are true GaaS games. As bi-annual or three-yearly releases there’s a finality about them. But games like Path of Exile or Warframe will continue their unrelenting content grind. At least until people stop buying.

Hopefully this is a case of less is more. And recognising that actually playing less service-type games might be good thing. For me.