The Rise and State of Games as a Service

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It seems that as time progresses, the more games we get, and the more our games want to spend time with us. While more video games are always welcomed, we’ve seemed to have hit a point where there are too many games that want to be services.

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So like many of you, I’ve been inundated with a plethora of different game releases to choose from this spring. Games like Ape Out and Devil May Cry 5 I’ve been able to blow through in a weekend, but then there are games like Apex Legends, Anthem, and The Division 2 that demand more of my time and involvement with updates, content drops and opportunities to hang with my friends. Not to mention older games that I’m interested in (Fortnite, Overwatch) receiving updates, games that I’m looking forward to (Mortal Kombat) receiving betas, AND more and more games being imminently released (Days Gone). It seems that as time progresses, the more games we get, and the more our games want to spend time with us. And while more video games are always welcomed, we’ve seemed to have hit a point where there are too many games that want to be services.

This generation of games has been partly defined by shared world shooters, battle royale, and games as a service; games that continue to stay alive by providing content on a continuing revenue model. The best example of this is a game like Destiny which launched with a ten year roadmap of content updates. We eventually saw the game grow with expansions such as The Taken King and eventually Forsaken with Destiny 2. Fortnite’s Battle Pass is another example; providing a seasonal model allowing for players to level up each season to unlock new skins, emotes, and cosmetic gear while chasing challenges on an ever evolving map with exciting events that take place. Games as a service allows for games to stay interesting, be played for longer, and for developers and publishers it allows them to make more money from players past the initial sale.

As promising and as mutually beneficial the “games as a service” model appears to be, these games have had nothing if not a rocky go this generation. We’ve seen successes such as Overwatch and Fortnite, and so far with Apex Legends, but games like Destiny, No Man’s Sky, Fallout 76, Anthem and others have had infamously troubled launches and some to this day are even still struggling. Many of these are shared world shooters, a genre that sees its roots in Borderlands and really came to fruition as a service-based platform with Destiny.

Destiny was a game that felt mechanically solid; coming from Bungie, a studio that brought to us the console first person shooter that defined the genre. The production value was there along with refinedly tuned shooting, an interesting world, and beautiful presentation with vibrant skyboxes to gawk at. However what the game contained in presentation, it lacked in content. Before the arrival of The Taken King, many agreed that the game suffered from a lackluster narrative, and not nearly enough fun activities to really keep the player engaged. The interesting thing is that Destiny is not alone in this.

Fallout 76 launched with preceding excitement and immediate disappointment as the online based entry of the esteemed Fallout franchise boasted the architectural bones and beloved, deep universe of Fallout 4, but lacked the means to keep the player involved such as an engaging story and a satisfying loot progression. The game also launched with technical issues such as crashing and glitches that kept players from fully enjoying the experience. And even though Bethesda’s large worlds are known for their bugs, Fallout 76 seemed especially plagued and it’s not the only shared world experience to suffer from this type of thing.

Anthem is another game which has had reported issues with crashes and performance. It’s a commonality at the launch of online-based games, but this gen they’ve seemed to become more noticeable than ever as games have pushed to be more connected than ever. Anthem is also another game where the lackluster story and underwhelming content just don’t seem to have people satisfied with the experience.

So what’s the problem here? The issue we’re seeing outside of just the technical performance of these games at launch is the issue of content. Whether it’s story content, gameplay content, or unlockable content for the player to use, the balance of content has presented itself as a difficult thing for developers to nail.

As far as story content, telling a great story is difficult, and in a multiplayer instance traditional storytelling is practically thrown out the window because with multiple players, comes countless variables that come into play. You can’t really have Uncharted style set pieces in a shared world shooter and you can’t really have a player be Peter Parker in a world where every player is meant to feel special. So story content is dealt out in alternative ways; maybe as a pre recorded tape you can find while exploring, or in the form of in game chatter, or in the process of handing out a mission. Finding ways to satisfyingly deliver narrative in an impactful way through this format is challenging.

Outside of story content is the actual gameplay content or the gameplay loop which is somewhat key to a good game. And for the most part, I’d say a lot of games as a service games are actually fun to play. Destiny’s shooting is second to none and during my short time with Anthem, flying around and taking out enemies was actually fairly enjoyable. The problem for many people is the lack of things to do at launch in many of these games which presents an interesting conundrum. At the launch of Destiny 2, I put in countless hours, completed the story and the subsequent raid and left satisfied with my time with that game. For many, they completed that content and wanted more even though that content lasted tens of hours. Games that want to be services are usually structured for returning players; creating content built for repetition and endless enjoyment. Lack of content balance or in many cases, just pure lack of content which we see a lot of the time leads to dissatisfaction. And once again, this seems like a thing, that many shared world shooters and games as a service are still trying to figure out.

Within the same breath of “gameplay content” is “unlockable content” or in a simpler way to put it: loot. Loot progression is a key factor for a lot of these games because they’re basically the macguffin; the core carrot on the stick of the experience. Loot is what keeps us going. Finding a brand new weapon in The Division 2, or unlocking an epic skin in Apex Legends is an exhilarating experience. It means the numbers played to our favor and it’s a somewhat dangerous feeling in many contexts that have led to both good and bad results.

The good? – Finding dope gear is fun. It’s fun and satisfying to use a super rare weapon in Borderlands. it’s fun to show off my new Overwatch Reaper skin to my friends and there’s a feeling of euphoria in video games when you happen upon something valuable.

The bad? – The monetization and the occasional bad balancing of loot has caused many players to lose trust in developers and lose trust in their games. Star Wars Battlefront 2 is the most egregious example to come to mind in recent memory. Overpriced unlockables along with a slow grind to attain these unlockables in game not only upset players, it caused widespread controversy as many believed that this format analogs to gambling in many cases. And when we’re often put into a position to spend real money on a game that we’ve already paid full price for, and roll the dice on whether or not we’ll obtain the rare item we want, the gambling comparisons are admittedly apt. 

Games as a service is the evolution that we’re seeing the games industry take whether we like it or not. I don’t believe that means we’re seeing traditional video games go away by any means, but I do think it means we have now entered a new era; an era of constant connectivity and ever-evolving experiences. And even though we’ve seen a rough go for many games as they try to adopt the service model, I firmly believe that these games can be a force for good. No Man’s Sky, one of the most troubled and controversial game releases of this generation has been able to redeem themselves through updates like No Man’s Sky Next and Beyond. Destiny had The Taken King, Rainbow Six Siege clawed its way into success post-launch, Warframe and Apex Legends are two free to play games that people adore, and even a recently launched game like The Division 2 is showing what a launch with minimal performance issues, satisfying loot, engaging gameplay, and an interesting world can strive to be. As games evolve and learn from each other and as technology only gets better, I truly believe that there’s a brighter, exciting future for games as a service.

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