The “games as a service” philosophy is not that great
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.
(Excerpt from Wikipedia)
Many people miss the times when you could purchase a finished game and play it from start to end without waiting for updates, balance patches and so on. I’m one of them. Then, nowadays, there’s the problem of not owning what you pay for, which is kind of troublesome because if the servers close down, you lose your investment — time and money wise.
I don’t mean to say that games as a service is inherently a bad idea, but to consider it a new standard in the industry means trouble for people that, like me, have less and less time to play things as responsibilities pile up and don’t want to take “gaming” as a second job instead of pure entertainment.
When talking about games as a service, it’s hard not to mention free-to-play games (or F2P), which are entirely based on this model. Some types of game can only thrive when using such strategy. The recent explosion of Battle Royale games is a prime example. These days, in a highly competitive market, many games that depend on player numbers wouldn’t be able to survive without the promise of free, highly optimized content, and that’s understandable.
However, for a long time, saying that a game was “F2P” meant it was an unfinished product that could only be enjoyed by spending money to unlock high-tier (or “end-game”) content, and the players who spent more were more powerful. Then Warframe and Path of Exile hit the market and this preconception started to change. They were considered the best examples of what F2P could achieve, all the while keeping a fair business model along the way.
They are not perfect, of course. I’m an assiduous Warframe player and have a lot to complain, but not about their business model. However, I’m well aware that, in the future, all the time and money I spent in the game might go into the Limbo (haha, Warframe joke), since I don’t really own the copy of the game I play or the contents I might buy.
Now consider Monster Hunter: World, for example. While it clearly doesn’t follow the concept of “game as a service”, it draws some ideas from there. The fact that there are seasonal events and you have a limited time to do them and get the rewards is one of those. This creates a responsibility for the player, who has to log in every day not just to receive the daily rewards, but to farm whatever will be available in that month’s event. The player bought the game, it was delivered finished, it’s even possible to play offline, but the player doesn’t control the rate at which to enjoy the game itself, and might be cut off of content.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that there’s free content being delivered post-launch, but the “gatekeeping” — so to speak — controlling what content you can access, and when, based on things outside the player’s control seems to be there just to lure people in, all the while disguised as “interactive events”. It creates a commitment that the player didn’t sign up for.
Older Monster Hunter games didn’t have to do that. You bought the game, it was complete (even with the post-launch content), you played from start to finish at your own pace — which could go from 100 to 1,000 hours, literally — and enjoyed the product.
Monster Hunter: World is still a very good game, but this change is enough to make me worry, just a little bit, about what Capcom might have in mind for their next titles.
But, for every fair business practice in the industry, it seems that there are two or three exploiting the players to maximize profit. Or so it looks like when you go around the internet reading news about recent launches. Two of those, Anthem and The Division 2, went full dip into the games as a service idea, really embracing every possible aspect, but failing to deliver a good product at launch.
Being both AAA titles, it’s almost unbelievable the amount of issues players reported (Anthem more than anything else). There’s bad pacing, bad loot, bad AI, bad end-game content, lots of bugs, content cut out to be delivered later, and so on. It’s also becoming common to use players, instead of a QA department, to track and solve bugs — and, sometimes, game balance — which is a huge red flag.
Worst of all, these are paid games, which means you acquired something you don’t own and can’t even play it properly.
Don’t even get me started on Fallout 76 and Bethesda, which I talked about here.
It’s hard to blame the developers, though. As said before, the game industry is getting more and more competitive and, in some cases, to maximize profits is the only way for the company to stay alive and keep making games. This means that, financially, games as a service is a good idea to keep money coming in. Just look at Apex Legends, which is extremely successful, and is helping Respawn Entertainment conquer back the market after some troubles at the launch of Titanfall 2.
However, the market can’t really work solely on this business philosophy, since it requires players to be constantly playing the game. This means the player base has to choose which game to keep playing to not be left out and lose content, instead of being able to enjoy as many games as possible. This divide might lower profits in the long run, because no game will be able to retain the necessary number of players to keep a constant revenue while 10 recently launched games are also fighting for the same shrinking market share.
We’ve seen this happen before with MMORPGs, when a sudden influx of new titles, a lot of them F2P, caused some major companies to lose a lot of players to the competition, threatening the survivability of the business as money went away. World of Warcraft, the most successful of the bunch, had 10 million players on its heyday. Nowadays, it’s rumored to be around 2 million (Blizzard stopped sharing player count in 2015). It’s still a lot, but clearly a huge decline.
I’m a firm believer that is better to focus on delivering highly polished, confined and finely tuned content than an open box full of superficial content that might change as time goes on. Just think about Diablo 3: when it was released, a lot of people thought the game didn’t live up to the expected quality of the previous entries. This perception changed only after the release of Reaper of Souls, the game’s first expansion, that carried a lot of structural changes to the game itself. In the 2 years between the release of Diablo 3 and Reaper of Souls, the Auction House was scrapped, the difficulty system was revamped, and a lot of end-game content was added.
Why wasn’t the game launched this way in the first place? It would’ve been a better experience for the players, and it would have saved Blizzard some criticism about their development.
Funny enough, the same thing happened with Ubisoft and The Division 1, but the launch was so ill-received that many people didn’t try the game again after the “relaunch”, even though it became an excellent product.
All of that being said, I know that game as a service seems to deliver some semblance of job security in an industry plagued by seasonal layoffs, and that relies heavily on outsourcing. This might also be a valid strategy to deliver a game that the company doesn’t have the funds to finish in one go, but as soon as the game starts to lose player retention, people will get fired anyway.
It’s better to deliver content in a finished package than in an open one. When players finish a game, they might still want to play the next one, which can be improved upon its predecessor from the ground up, instead of having to redo everything in a launched title while not breaking anything already set in place.
People love sequels, even when the critics say something is bad because “it didn’t innovate enough”. Every launch doesn’t need to be a stellar success to make a profit since players can still buy “finished games” years later. On the long-term, the sales add up. Instant profit is waived for a continuous revenue — with its ups and downs — based on launched titles that don’t require constant management and investment. It’s no wonder that there are still Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed titles being launched every year or so, even with a few bad games in-between big successes.
Also, giving players back some sense of ownership might create more “hardcore fans”, because then they can talk more about their favorite game in the series, details about story, and what the future holds, instead of arguing online about balancing, leaving the game because of the last patch, buying cosmetics, or if it’s fair to pay some sort of VIP access.
It’s better to have access to a series of games, and be able to play your favorite title whenever you like, than to be locked in the current iteration of a 10-year old game that you might not enjoy that much anymore — while also being unable to look forward to a sequel.