I swear that every time I look away, the gaming industry comes up with a new way to complicate things. Sometimes it’s stuff you can identify in a second, going “how did no one else think this was a bad idea?” but with certain concepts it’s harder to tell, and you only start seeing the bigger picture after a few years have passed.
Today’s topic concerns one of these ideas that are hard to identify as potentially catastrophic, but I feel that there have been enough exponents of this concept failing or getting near the failure point over the last few years, so now it won’t be a weird thing to say what I am about to say: Games as a Service titles are a bad idea and they only work in very specific cases (which are hard to predict). It’s like gambling, only actually riskier. If I want to spend some cash on games of chance, I can just do a quick web search for the best online casino sites and blow my money with full knowledge that I might not get anything back. Getting into a GAAS is actually a far riskier proposition, since I might spend sixty bucks on a title that will be closed down the next year, and all the potential that was sold to me in trailers and cool roadmaps is gone forever (along with my money). At least a casino tells me outright that my chances of winning aren’t exactly sky high instead of selling me dreams of a future that might not happen…
Why do I think Games as a Service have become an inherently risky proposition? Let me tell you a tale of a title that in many ways acted as a predecessor to some of today’s higher profile failures. Once upon a time, EA decided they needed to have a go at Diablo, but instead of working on a fantasy ARPG, they asked Maxis (you know, The Sims, Spore, SimCity…) to create something new based on some of the ideas and tech borne out of Spore‘s development. The resulting package was an online-only ARPG that experienced frequent server issues and never achieved the popularity the publisher expected… so it ended up being canned AFTER release, and the servers shut down, making it utterly unplayable (and if you bought it on Origin, entirely removing it from your account, because why not, right?). If you, like me, bought this game at launch expecting to play it for years to come, then you wasted sixty dollars with no way of getting them back. Because of the way Darkspore worked, it was hard to play for most of its short lifetime, so it’s not even that everyone who bought it had the time to get to the endgame and get their money’s worth out of it.
Why did I bring up Darkspore? Well, lately there has been talk that EA is currently deciding whether to let BioWare continue to work on Anthem‘s relaunch, or to cut their losses and can the whole thing, leaving customers in the dust with not much to show for their sixty bucks. This is a game that I actually enjoyed, but ended up leaving aside so I could go back into it once the developers could fix the bugs and rework the parts that didn’t work, and I’m pretty sure that most people who got it are in the same situation. EA originally marketed it as a title that would rival Destiny, getting support and new content for years to come, and yet here we are, two years after it came out, and apparently the end is already in sight. Of course, this could just be an EA thing, right? Well, it isn’t. Square Enix’ Avengers title could very well end up dead in the water soon-ish, considering that new content has trickled out at a snail’s pace, and there’s no mention of more stuff coming after Hawkeye’s introduction. Even Destiny hit snags along the way (enough that Activision chose to separate themselves from the franchise). Other giant publishers like Ubisoft have experienced the curse of GAAS first-hand as well, with titles like Ghost Recon Breakpoint having to be re-worked after launch due to players hating the new elements that were put in place to pivot the series from tactical shooter to open world RPG-lite Game as a Service.
Now, I get that “endless” games have the potential to be perfect money makers for whoever got them right, but the reality of the situation is that the ones who actually got there weren’t designed from the start with that idea in mind. Grand Theft Auto Online is pretty much one of the most successful Games as a Service of the past two generations, yet Red Dead Online doesn’t seem to have achieved the same levels, even if it was created by the same developers, and with a wildly beloved IP. What’s the big difference? GTAO wasn’t forcing players to whip out their credit card at every turn when it came out, and it had a ton of free content right out of the box. RDRO was a lot lighter content-wise, yet it kept asking for Gold Bars in order to unlock more activities. So, what solution do I propose? I’m not exactly an industry professional, so I won’t claim to have one. I’d say that doing something like what People Can Fly are doing with Outriders is a good start though. Make a full game right from the start, sell it as one, and if it works, then think about expansions and “endless” content. Don’t go into it thinking it’s going to be an infinite moneymaker, because very few games end up achieving that, and the ones who don’t can tarnish the future of your company for decades.