Live-Service Games Are Dead, Long Live Live-Service Games

I'm going to start listing games. Let me know when you see a pattern. Echo VR. Crimesight. Dragon Quest The Adventure of Dai: A Hero’s Bonds. CrossfireX. Rumbleverse. Knockout City. Apex Mobile. Battlefield Mobile. If you said "hey Sarah, those are all live-service games cancelled in the last ten days!", then you’re close. My name is actually Stacey. But otherwise, that's exactly correct. Okay, let's play again. MLB: The Show. The Last of Us Multiplayer. Assassin's Creed Infinity. XDefiant. Haven Studios' new game. Deviation's new game. Sony London's new game. Media Molecule's new game. Guerrilla Games' new game. The next Twisted Metal. Bungie's next game. If you said "hey Susan, those are all upcoming live-service games either confirmed or rumoured!" then again, it's Stacey. It's a common name. But otherwise, correct again. Live-service games are dying and coming back to life over and over again, like ceaseless zombies marching towards piles of cash that they will never reach before their flesh rots off and they crumble to ash.

Looking at the recent cancellations (and extending back longer than just ten days, you can toss in the likes of Battleborn, Hyper Scape, Anthem, Marvel's Avengers, along with a host of others), you might feel like the live-service bubble has burst. Looking at all the games yet to come, you might feel like it is just beginning. While the upcoming games could simply be doomed to failure post-burst, that seems like a knee-jerk reaction in the wake of the rapid cancellations. And let's be honest, how many of you had really heard of Crimesight? Many of the upcoming live-service games are being pushed by Sony, who tend to drive industry trends. A couple of them might fail, especially if it's a smaller studio trying to wade in or Ubisoft throwing everything at the wall in the hopes it will stick, but it feels like the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.

Live-service games remain the most popular genre out there. Fortnite has continued to reign supreme after a resurgence, Call of Duty: Warzone 2 still packs players in despite heavy criticism of stale gameplay, Apex Legends is going strong, Pokemon Go made over $700 million last year despite being a 'dead game', and then there's Destiny 2, World of Warcraft, Genshin Impact, GTA Online, Sea of Thieves, and Final Fantasy 14, but I'll spare you a sentence explanation for the popularity of every mainstream live-service game out there.

Live-service is often viewed as unpopular, but that's only because of how badly it fails when it goes wrong. Live-service games made without creativity usually result in bad monetisation practises, a lack of interesting upgrades, and piles of needless currency that make playing the game a grindy chore. We say we prefer single player experiences that offer rich, self contained stories, and the success of the likes of The Last of Us Part 2, God of War Ragnarok, Elden Ring, and Red Dead Redemption 2 shows that to be true, but when these behemoths aren't around, are we checking out the less polished double-A options of single-player experiences, or are we all aboard the Battle Bus?

There's no right answer to that question, no 'right' video games to enjoy. But the fact is, most of us dabble a little bit with live-service games in some form or another. When we do, we stick around. Even the biggest, most successful single-player games are here and gone, at least from a profit perspective. Live-service games keep making money over and over again. As these blockbuster single-player games grow more expensive to produce and take longer to boot, studios need to keep money trickling in. Live-service games, when they land, offer that constant revenue stream.

The landscape is likely changing. We may see fewer CrossfireXs in the future, as smaller games in a crowded marketplace decide to opt for other lottery tickets in their quest to strike it rich. But the biggest studios still know getting just one of these games right covers the cost of getting five wrong. The live-service bubble hasn't burst, but it might no longer be in reach of the little guys.

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