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Death to Live Service

Long live the king

Poorna Shankar Posted:
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Columns Shank Rants 0

10 years seems like a long time, doesn’t it? That’s because, well, it is. 10 years ago, I had just started my first job out of college. In the intervening years, I have changed jobs three times, and was fortunate enough to buy my first car and house. A lot of life happens in 10 years.

10 years ago, Skyrim had yet to release, having been announced only a few months prior. 10 years ago, the consoles of the day were Xbox 360 and PS3. The Wii U wouldn’t release for another year.

And 10 years ago, the plague that is the Live Service was nary a twinkle in the eye of these publishing executives.

I am sick of live services. And I strongly suspect I’m not the only one. Let’s take a look at why I believe live services are detrimental to the industry (and consumers), and why the best thing for us all is their long overdue death.

What About MMOs?

Before we begin, it’s important we address MMOs. By their very nature, MMOs are live services. But in my frank opinion, MMOs are not the live services typifying the destruction of this industry.

MMOs are games which provide constant content updates, sometimes on a yearly cadence, as large expansions. These updates continue long-running stories, or tell new ones, and feel like they provide lasting value to player. Crucially, to me, they don’t exist to vampirically drain your wallet and your time…at least most of the time.

elder scrolls online gates of oblivion

Elder Scrolls Online: Gates of Oblivion

However, the “live service” game of today does feel this way. The monetization doesn’t add new content or anything of real value to the experience. Instead, the large “content drops” offered by live services are nothing more than new microtransactions for a new skin, or the ability to unlock a premium tier of a battle pass you have to then grind to earn. To me, this is the biggest difference between live service games and MMOs.

I’d like to believe that most people can differentiate between an MMO and the colloquial “live service” game. And it is the latter which I truly want to see die.

Cash Shops and FOMO

I want to be as transparent as possible so I’ll point the finger at myself for the duration of this piece. Let’s take a look at a game I enjoy, Valorant. This is a free to play game from Riot which is essentially CSGO x Overwatch. Mechanically, it’s a fantastic tactical shooter. Its low barrier of entry ensures as many people as possible can hop in and play.

But that’s entirely the point, is it not? Reducing that barrier of entry friction is key to attracting a large player base. The trick is to retain this player base and convert enough of them into recurrent spenders. And Valorant, like virtually every single live service, does so with a Battle Pass and multiple cash shops.

The Battle Pass is straightforward at this point. There are free and premium rewards. The whole pass costs around $10 to purchase. You can purchase individual tiers as well. And, of course, like any good live service, the pass contains cosmetic items only, thus providing ample room for defenders of such practice to shout from their rooftops.

The main shop, meanwhile, contains so-called featured items. You can buy items in a bundle for $88. Or, you can buy individual items. Some items, like this knife skin, are $35. There’s a less frequent shop called the Night Market which occasionally shows up and presents a more customized pool of cosmetics tailored to you.

valorant knife skin

I will admit that I have purchased the battle pass on occasion to “level up” and feel a false sense of progression. But I am fortunate to possess enough self-control so as not to spend $35 on a damn knife skin. However, many people do this and in fact defend it.

But why does this happen? Anecdotally, I have been told by my friends and various other players I’ve come across that they want to have a certain cosmetic because, “it looks cool.” That directly translates to fun.

“If I look cool, I’ll stand out. I won’t be missing out. And I’ll have fun,’ so goes the sentiment.

This speaks to a very real FOMO, or fear of missing out. And these publishers know exactly how to exploit it. By drawing people into a free game, and presenting them with various cosmetic options, they know players will justify opening their wallets.

The thinking here is that because the game is free, and because I’ve put X hours into it, surely I can spend $20 on a skin because the game has provided me more than $20 of entertainment. This is not atypical to what I have personally been told to explain away such purchasing decisions.

But behind this explanation lies that FOMO. People simply don’t want to be left behind. Publishers know this. And so they craft cool looking things which can only be obtained through real-life cash. They profiteer from such psychological manipulation.

This FOMO is not without consequences, least of all to developers. Polygon previously reported how the need to constantly churn out new cosmetics and content for Fortnite caused severe crunch for the developers at Epic Games:

“We’re always in crunch. Crunch never ends in a live service game like that. You’re always building more content and more stuff.”

But hey, as long as it keeps bringing in the dollars, right?

The Battle Pass and The Monopolization of You

Coupled with these cash shops are battle passes. While this also ties into FOMO, there’s something more at play here. Battle passes are time-limited by design, thus creating instant urgency and a desire for completion (more psychological manipulation). They generally last for around 10 weeks, requiring certain XP points to unlock the whole thing.

It’s important to note here that when you purchase the battle pass, you’re not actually unlocking the items. You’re merely paying for the ability to grind for these items.

If you want to unlock all tiers, you then have to grind XP. Fortunately, the games help you (sarcasm intended) by providing XP dumps in the form of daily challenges and weekly challenges. Therefore, it’s just a matter of logging in every day and every week to make sure you complete these dailies and weeklies. Once again, I fully admit to feeling this urge.

However, in the real world, people have jobs and families. This means they have limited time to close out these dailies and weeklies. Fortunately, these publishers have a solution to sell back to you for this problem they created. You can simply buy your way to completion of the battle pass. Simple, right?

valorant battle pass

Battle passes then present two problems. First, if you don’t want to open your wallet, you’ll have to log in every single day to complete challenges. Second, if you don’t have time, hand over more “completion” cash on top of the cash you shelled out for the premium battle pass.

Both of these problems lead naturally to the following conclusion. At a certain point, you are no longer playing a game. You are performing chores. Worse than that, you are paying with time or money to complete chores you purchased. And all of this is to keep you engaged in the game (read: product), thus monopolizing your time and wallet.

“They’re Just Cosmetics”

This brings us full circle. The game ceases to be a game. It is instead a business model sold to you under the guise of a game to draw from you as much cash as possible. And even then, it’s not enough. It’s not enough for these publishers to have most of the money all the time. They must have all the money all the time.

The reality is this is what modern gaming has become. It’s not enough to buy a game and expect a content-complete experience. Many times, as with Fallout 76 and Sea of Thieves, you are sold a shell of a game with the promise of content to come. But you still have to pay your hard-earned cash for this ghost of a game. Rare may have intended players to make their own fun in Sea of Thieves, but expecting players to make their own gameplay isn’t good game design. And it certainly isn’t worth $60. Gamers aren’t designers. It’s not their jobs to create game design. That’s the job of developers.

This $60 isn’t a purchase any more. It’s an entry fee. You are now expected to pay this full priced entry fee and then keep spending if you want to justify your purchase or have the gall to experience content which should have been included in the game on Day One. Want to be able to customize your character and gear? That’ll be $35 for that knife skin, please.

sea of thieves battle pass

Sea of Thieves "Plunder" Pass

I realize that many people reading this are fine with paying for cosmetics. But I urge you to pause for a moment and think about this. It wasn’t always this way. Not too long ago, you could spend full price on a game and customize your character entirely through plentiful in-game unlocks. You weren’t forced to play the base game with underwhelming cosmetics with the “cool” looking cosmetics held for ransom behind a shop. Those cool items were simply part of the game you bought.

Publishers have created a problem and are selling you the solution as a live service. And people (read: gamers) justify this by parroting publishers. “It’s just cosmetics. They don’t affect gameplay.” I vehemently disagree.

Games are a visual medium. What you look like matters. What you look like directly affects your enjoyment of a game. If it didn’t matter, games wouldn’t have character creators. If it didn’t matter, games wouldn’t contain highly stylized armor and gear. If it didn’t matter, then there’s no need to dye your gear. Surely, you’re perfectly fine with looking and sounding like everyone else, right? Because cosmetics don’t affect gameplay, right?

If it didn’t matter, then why are you buying them?

Death to Live Service

"Bungie is one of the premier studios in our industry and we are extremely pleased to have the opportunity to work with their talented team over the next decade.” – Thomas Tippl, CFO of Activision Blizzard, via GamesIndustry.biz.

This quote followed the newly inked 10 year-long deal between Activision Blizzard and Bungie, with the former set to publish the latter’s yet-to-be-announced game. That game, of course, would go on to be Destiny.

While Destiny may not be the “first” live service game, it is certainly the most influential. It arguably set the trend for what live services would come to be over the next six years. It doesn’t take much outlandish thinking to see how the existence (and success) of Destiny led to games like The Division, Fallout 76, and Anthem.

Look at that quote again. It specifically cites a 10-year deal. But, as we all know, Bungie became independent from Activision Blizzard in 2019. That’s a full year before the decade mark. So then, I guess that 10-year adventure didn’t pan out.

What about Anthem? Well, this story is more recent and perhaps more well-known. EA basically cancelled development of Anthem Next – the reboot of Anthem which was the original game meant to go on that 10-year journey.

"Anthem is a social game where you and your friends go on quests and journeys. It’s a game that we’ve been working on for almost four years now, and once we launch it next year I think it’ll be the start of a ten-year journey for us." – Patrick Söderlund, Former Chief Design Officer of EA, via GameRant.

The bottom line is this. Whenever you hear anyone in the industry mention a “10 year journey,” do feel free to ignore it.

But what does this actually mean? What are the consequences of this? Sticking with Anthem, it was reported that the new Dragon Age game is ceasing development of all multiplayer components and will instead become fully single-player. This came after EA saw the success of other fully single-player games from their own studios like Jedi: Fallen Order.

outriders demo

Outriders demo trailer

The day after this news was announced, People Can Fly, the team behind the upcoming Outriders, released their demo for their fully self-contained, non-microtransaction, DRM-free, non-live service game.

And while I found the demo to be a bit generic, the actual loot game felt good. It was fed to me in a way which always felt rewarding and not needlessly grindy. I felt like my time was respected. Plenty of people are thoroughly enjoying it. In fact, the demo is in the top ten on Steam as of this writing. Clearly, people seem to enjoy the experience.

And even though I don’t think Outriders is for me, I’m extremely happy for its early success. It shows me that perhaps other people (including developers) are sick of live services too. Perhaps people want a complete experience which doesn’t nickel and dime them  . Perhaps other people want a game which respects their time. Perhaps other people want a game which feels genuinely rewarding and doesn’t sell back solutions to problems it created. Perhaps other people want a game which doesn’t profiteer off of FOMO.

The success of games like Jedi: Fallen Order, Star Wars: Squadrons (and potentially Outriders), coupled with the collapse of Anthem Next, Artifact, and Marvel's Avengers give me a glimpse into a future where the live service bubble has burst. In the end, that is indeed what I wish for. I want this live service plague to collapse. I want an end to the profiteering off the backs of psychologically manipulating consumers.

Let’s bring back the desire and drive for self-contained content-complete games. Let’s bring about the death of live services.


ShankTheTank

Poorna Shankar

A highly opinionated avid PC gamer, Poorna blindly panics with his friends in various multiplayer games, much to the detriment of his team. Constantly questioning industry practices and a passion for technological progress drive his love for the video game industry. He pulls no punches and tells it like he sees it. He runs a podcast, Gaming The Industry, with fellow writer, Joseph Bradford, discussing industry practices and their effects on consumers.