Amid a whirlwind of announcements from developers that they would be ending support for their live service games, some online analysts have begun to claim that the Games as a Service (or GaaS) model has run its course. As someone who embarrassingly spends a lot of time playing and reviewing many games that use the GaaS model, I’m here to tell you that reports of the death of the live service model are grossly exaggerated.
I can’t blame people for thinking the season pass-filled sky is collapsing – it’s been an absolutely terrible start to the year for live services. Whether you were disappointed with the news that Back 4 Blood’s developers would be moving on after just 15 months since its debut, or that Rumbleverse called it quits after just 2 seasons, it’s been a brutal couple of weeks of live service developers who the white flag waved.
But for anyone familiar with the games in question, these foreclosures probably came as no surprise. For example, many players saw the end coming long before Square Enix ended it for Marvel’s Avengers, which suffered from content pipeline issues, odd decisions regarding in-game cosmetic items, and an underwhelming first shot.
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Knockout City, a game that I personally adored and that IGN gave high marks to, made the crucial mistake of launching as a $30 game, creating an unnecessary barrier to entry that makes similar GaaS games free-to -Do not have play title. In the blog post announcing that their ninth season would be their last, they cited challenges in meeting players’ content needs with their small team, which is certainly not news to anyone who has played in recent seasons and hungry for new content.
Other bugs are even less mysterious, like CrossfireX, a pathetically awful game I’ve spent two weeks of my life reviewing. With practically nothing to recommend, I can only imagine how long it’s taken for it to have access to tens of millions of Game Pass subscribers.
What do all these failed live service games have in common? They each had their own issues unrelated to the live service model. GaaS is difficult enough to pull off when you get a win. Do it while putting out fires and watching the player count decrease? This is a recipe for disaster.
The challenge of successfully putting together a live service game isn’t new, even if you have a massive studio and a roster of talented developers – just ask Bioware. But in the same period since Anthem failed, Babylon’s Fall crashed and burned, and Halo Infinite succumbed to its abysmal live service plans for its campaign, we’ve also seen a number of notable successes from studios big and small.
Marvel Snap has many glued to their phones, Naraka: Bladepoint is one of the funniest I’ve had with the battle royale genre in a long time, and Fall Guys continues to be an amazing success story since it hit Xbox and Switch last year. Other newcomers such as Evil Dead: The Game and Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed also seem to have gained a foothold so far, although each has their own unique set of challenges.
That’s all in addition to existing games that continue to be among the most played games in the world, like Fortnite and Apex Legends (even if their mobile version is being discontinued). Others have launched sequels to their live service games to great effect, such as Call of Duty: Warzone 2.0 and Overwatch 2.
If the live service model itself is failing, why are we seeing so many notable successes at the same time we are seeing others crash and burn? The answer is clear: the problem lies with the games themselves. Whether it’s basic game design, lack of player interest, issues with timely content delivery, or some other issue, any GaaS game that follows the path of the Dodo has suffered from problems with the execution of this model rather than why.
Arguing that the model itself is to blame for the bugs that used that model is no more valid than saying that traditional $60 games fail as a model because Nerf Legends was a sham and Gotham Knights was a high-profile disappointment was.
Still, the question remains: Why do so many live service games fail? I’ve spent the last decade of my life speaking to live-service game developers, and any veteran of GaaS development will probably tell you: That’s because it’s incredibly difficult to be successful over the long term.
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For one thing, building a team to support a live service game is ridiculously expensive – in addition to the core team of game developers, dedicated teams need to be formed to create seasonal content and keep the hype train going. For example, Bungie has a core development team working on Destiny’s main expansions, as well as two other development teams (dubbed Alpha and Omega) working on seasonal content, staggering their releases between them. Each of these teams will need their own writers, sandbox developers, QA testers, project leaders, and more – almost like creating mini versions of your entire game studio, all of which need to be able to communicate well enough not to annoy each other to kick the feet .
When launching a live service game, all of this needs to be in place before the game launches its first season, which means the studios have to put in a tremendous amount of effort before they know if their game will even resonate with fans . If they don’t, for a comeback like we saw with Fallout 76, developers will have to fight like hell or die out altogether. That’s a bet many developers aren’t willing to take, which is why so many live service games start strong and then die an agonizing death trying to build live service teams that should have existed long ago.
Then there are the players: not only is their thirst for new content endless, but they don’t mind letting developers know where they’re falling short and giving developers access to instant feedback and critiques from players. This means development teams must have the flexibility to react mid-stream and switch horses to respond to that feedback. In my discussions with live service developers, I’ve heard that it’s not uncommon for entire projects to be shelved to shift focus to more immediate fan concerns on the web.
But even though the path is fraught with difficulties and littered with pixelated corpses, that hasn’t stopped the developers from moving on. Part of the reason for this is the old dollars and cents, as a big GaaS success can single-handedly fund a company’s projects and growth for years to come. But the other big part of the equation is the live service model itself, which unleashes a form of game development that didn’t exist before.
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It’s just not feasible to take 8-10 years to develop a game from scratch when you employ dozens or even hundreds of developers before you start selling anything. If you have an idea so ambitious it would take a decade to complete, then in a world where selling a $60 game is your only option, you either have to scale the scope of your project limit or shelve the idea altogether. But with GaaS, you can ship a “minimum viable product” like the vanilla release of Bungie’s Destiny, and then evolve and improve it over the course of a decade with community feedback, until it eventually becomes something as impressive as The Witch Queen.
Almost every developer out there wants to be the next Fortnite and that has resulted in a tidal wave of GaaS games flooding the market. With so many live service games reaching gamers’ hands these days (and many more on the way), I think we’re likely to see a higher number of failed GaaS projects than ever before. That’s because there can only be so many successful games that will ask you to spend all your time (and maybe a lot of your money) playing them. Even if you make a great game, you’re competing for the finite game hours of players participating in live service games, and that’s a zero-sum game. How many games that require you to play 10 hours a week can be successful at once? We’ll probably find out.
But that doesn’t mean the live service model is dying – every clue we have tells us it’s here to stay.
Travis Northup is a writer for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @TieGuyTravis and read his coverage of games here.