For the longest time, video games have represented something of a ‘cash flow’ problem. This feels like the most basic of business observations possible, but corporations absolutely love recurring revenue. The traditional mechanisms for selling media are quite risky — you spend N years creating a game and you sell it for £40 (£50/£60/…£70). If the game does well, then congratulations, you have a gigantic cash injection with which to power your next release. If the release does poorly, then you’re in serious trouble, because you were relying on that cash injection for your next big thing. There are quite a few companies from the pre-live service period that went belly-up because they had one or two poor releases which then completely nuked the company. The very poorly received udraw essentially killed THQ (as it existed then), and there’s plenty of other companies (like Pandemic Studios) who made some absolute cracking games, but suffered an ignoble end when they created a couple of mediocre ones.
This is an uncertain position for a game company to be in, as your long-term survival is at the whim of gamer appetite at the time. Not to mention that almost all of the costs for game companies come from the actual development process itself, and not from long term support. This isn’t like making a crappy plastic toy, where at the very least you can stop production if they’re selling terribly: you’ve eaten almost all of the costs immediately and you’re desperately trying to recoup them. A second reason after risk, is growth. Investors absolutely love growth, and anyone who has worked at a publicly traded company will tell you about the all-warping effect of hitting quarterly report timings. Again, traditional game development sits very poorly within the paradigm of breaking your back to show growth from quarter to quarter. You’ll have a few periods of whatever trickling revenue comes in from your previous title, but otherwise you’re coasting until you make your next big release. Low numbers on quarterly sheet mean no growth, and no growth means big suity trader man no buy >:(.
I imagine these problems were one of the causes of expansion packs in older PC titles — much lower cost to develop, priced lower, bursts of content on top of a prior release to eke a bit more mileage out of an old title. The cadence of these packs was also quite slow however (especially compared to nowadays), and it was rare for a game (beyond the sims) to see more than one or two. Valve flirted with episodic content on Half Life 2 as a new mechanism for avoiding this problem, with…fantastic results, and EA and Activision took the approach of “making essentially the same game year after year” to get a consistent source of revenue out of their biggest franchises.
Live service games also nailed a few other “problems” for the gaming corporations, beyond providing a consistent source of revenue. Anyone who played games in the late 2000s and onwards will have experienced the impact of publishers burning hatred of the preowned market. The fact that players were selling on or, god forbid, lending them to their friends without the publishers ever getting a cut of the cheese was utterly intolerable to them. The very earliest vestiges of live service games really originated here, retailer-specific preorder bonuses, CD key activation tied to multiplayer access, and then microtransactions such as horse armour that are tied explicitly to your account. Each one of these elements is an attempt to lessen the importance of the initial purchase, so that less of the value of the product is front-loaded (the tradable/resellable component). These practices were tried after they simply tried to wrest ownership of the game entirely away from the player, and for the longest time internet arguments raged about whether or not you were merely “licensing” a product, or actually buying it. (The EU disagreed, and shat all over the absolutely draconian EULA)
Worth mentioning as well that there were other attempts to solve these “problems”, such as the subscription model for MMOs (possibly one of the causes of an absolute explosion of MMOs in the early to mid 2010s era alongside WoW), the obsession with online platforms like Steam (and the dozens of derivative versions that released after), and the movement away from dedicated server architectures (where players were given the ability to host and control their own servers). These are all, in their own way, heads of the same particularly foul hydra. You might have noticed it when going through the bits and pieces above: these practices are absolutely nothing to do with developing a better quality product, and purely to do with limiting player options and increasing revenue. That’s what live service is: it’s nothing to do with you, and absolutely everything to do with your money. The publishers won this battle, and you lost. So what has that left us with? Well, it’s left us with a world in which…
- Game companies can simply delete content that you paid for, with absolutely nothing you can do about it, because you don’t own that content.
- Cosmetics are set behind nightmareishly high pricetags, if they’re actually sold at all and not just gambled at you.
- Game releases are STILL priced anywhere from 70 to 100% of a max price game, despite having insane levels of additional monetisation strapped on.
- AAA releases come out absolutely riddled with bugs or just straight up unplayable because It’Ll bE fIxEd LaTeR.
- Nobody actually bothers writing a complete storyline, because if anything ever finished you might be tempted to move on and stop spending money.
- Game mechanics are contorted horribly to enable monetisation and “long lifespan”.
Live service design has turned every single game into the same absolutely featureless, formless blob of microtransactions, smeared across a treadmill of forgettable experiences. The most enraging part for me is that longevity is always one of the first trotted-out reasons for this sort of design. It enables developers to maintain their games for longer, and players to keep enjoying their favourite games! Does it? Does it really? Say, if I want to go back and play Command and Conquer: Generals, I’m able to do that. If your favourite game was Gigantic…oh, it’s gone. Battlefield Heroes? Sure, but not via EA because they ditched it, you have to rely on a community hosted version. Evolve? Shot in the back of the head, hope you like trawling through discords and doing some wack shit to try and play it peer-to-peer because they turned the servers off. Interesting how all of these live service games ended up fucking dead, I thought longevity was one of the benefits? Oh, good of the community to pick them back up and support them way past the game companies buried them. Interesting how, despite every attempt to kill player/community involvement in the running of these games, it’s the community that has to inevitably pick up the pieces when they’re binned.
Enjoy your incredibly entry-level, mediocre gameplay, brought to you by a need for player engagement over long periods of time. Looking forward to Thanos v3.85 of your game’s world, threatening the cosmos yet again, only to be turned into a weekly quest post launch because you needed to add another hundred metres on the game treadmill. Do you remember when you played games to enjoy them, rather than having some mechanic that massively incentivised you to do so? Hey, did you remember to do your dailies today, you little shit? If you do enough of those, and make sure to complete those weeklies too, we’ll give you a shiny shiny that’ll guarantee you’ll forget that you wasted hours upon hours of your life on this crap. Better enjoy the content now, before we rip it out from the game!