With more popular video game titles seeing the addition of in-game monetization and missing content — and gamers growing frustrated at the half-baked nature of modern online gaming — the question becomes “when,” rather than “if,” the straw will break the camel’s back.
Live service models in video games, which usually have the intention of monetization and adding new content via post-launch updates, has gained steam in the gaming industry. Games such as “Sea of Thieves,” “Anthem” and the “Destiny” series have followed the live service model, while games like “The Witcher 3,” a 2015 single-player game, saw multiple free content drops after a complete release.
Originating in 2004 in World of Warcraft (WoW), live services were utilized alongside the WoW subscription service — a continuous revenue stream for developer Blizzard Entertainment — as a way to add content to the game. WoW now offers a free subscription service offering in-game chat for players up to level 20. The live service model later made its way to free mobile gaming apps like “Clash of Clans.” Modern day examples of live services include season passes and free updates alongside purchasable in-game items known as microtransactions.
Live services in $60 games create a bigger problem for gaming as a whole. “Sea of Thieves,” a pirate simulator published by Microsoft for the Xbox One console, released with little content despite its $60 price tag. Content was later drip-fed through free updates, with bigger additions to the game included in large free updates months down the line. Despite multiple free content updates, the lack of activities at release alienated general consumers, which drove casual players away.
The release of a game with minimal content can quickly drive away large amounts of people, leaving only the hardcore fans to experience future game additions. This trend poses an issue for online-based gaming if it continues, with lacking content making it harder to play online due to dwindling player populations.
“Anthem,” a recent video game published by Electronic Arts (EA), falls into the same live service trap. Despite being lauded for its in-game traversal — allowing players to take to the skies akin to Iron Man — complaints center around the blatant lack of content during the endgame — the portion of the game after players finish the main storyline.
At launch, three strongholds, multiple challenges, multi-tiered missions called contracts and public events made up “Anthem’s” endgame content. With a total development time of about six years, the amount of endgame content in the final product at launch makes people wonder what went on behind the scenes the entire time.
Rather than using the live service model responsibly and releasing a finished product to add onto, it’s used as a crutch far too often. With “Anthem’s” content roadmap detailing future plans for content drops, it’s clear the developers never intended for the game to be completed by the release date.
This ultimately leads to a bigger problem: gamers not getting their money’s worth from video games they purchase at full price. Walking into a Walmart or Best Buy and dropping money on a new game only to be met with the promise of content months, sometimes years, down the line is unacceptable. While “Anthem” is said to see 10-years worth of content support in the future, casual players and console hardware might not stick around for the wait.
This shift toward live services might be due to modern game developers feeling immense pressure prior to big name releases. With publishers not thinking twice about shutting down esteemed development studios — such as Visceral Games, the studio behind the popular sci-fi horror franchise “Dead Space” — the lack of job security and the increasing demand for top-notch visuals and gameplay by gamers can cause developers to cut corners for time, leading to the implementation of the live service model.
In an industry saturated with dozens of game releases every year, the timespan a game has to capture audience interest is growing ever-smaller, which makes the live service model as a whole unsustainable. While betting on players sticking around for extended periods of time post-launch could be cost-effective, it hasn’t boded well for developers so far and doesn’t seem like it will in the future.
“Destiny 2,” while sporting healthy launch sales, faltered commercially during its release of the “Forsaken” expansion. The game currently sits with a 3.6 out of 10 user score on Metacritic. More current titles such as “Anthem,” while topping physical retail charts in the United Kingdom for two weeks straight, sold significantly less than the 2014 live service title “Destiny 1.”
If scores on Metacritic, a review aggregating site, are anything to go by, games with the live service model have seen sharp backlash in recent years. “Fallout 76,” a post-apocalyptic online shooter developed by Bethesda, saw ire regarding its live service implementation, reflected in its Metacritic score for PC, Xbox and PlayStation. This was due to the rampant game-breaking bugs and glitches present in the game upon release, which plague the game to this day despite multiple updates attempting to fix them. This collective response from the gaming community against the live service model could mean problems for future online games implementing the same design.
With gamers growing cautious of online-based games and the live service model in general, the question becomes whether big-name publishers and developers will read the room and adjust or follow the same path at their own peril.