Live Service Games Represent an Unfortunate Future

In the last year alone, a number of triple-A studios, including Rockstar, EA, and CD Projekt Red have proven that they’re either unable or unwilling to put finished products to market. Most recently, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto Trilogy launched with a number of bugs that were either as old as the original games (GTA III released in 2001) or came about through simple laziness, such as untextured and invisible bridges, spelling mistakes, and poor character models. 

Unfortunately, a precedent has already been set for this to continue well into the future. Ubisoft, makers of 2014’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, a game so broken at launch that it became a meme, may re-launch the same franchise as a live service game. What does that mean? Live service games utilize the idea of a single game (almost) forever. This is the model that Rockstar has been using with GTA V and, to some extent, that Bethesda has adopted for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

The best way to think of a live service game is as an ongoing series of small updates to an existing product. This doesn't really describe Skyrim, which is just being re-released every few years, but we can already see the live service concept in action with DLC, which is designed to extend the lifetime of a title, albeit with a secondary and tertiary purchase. The problem is that any game that’s based on the premise of ongoing updates can launch (and remain) in any state. This goes for early-access titles, games funded on a promise, such as via Kickstarter, multiplayer games, and MMOs. 

Review Embargos

Purchasing has become a bit of an experimental thing within all types of gaming. Xbox Game Pass, Humble Monthly, and PlayStation Now effectively allow gamers to rent entire libraries, while, in the casino industry, the no deposit casino bonuses championed by brands like BetMGM and DraftKings can give players the opportunity to win cash without putting up any money of their own first. It’s debatable why there’s so much variance in terms of how games are delivered to customers but it’s a trend that seems to be here to stay. It's clear the online casino industry has benefitted from experimenting with different promotions.

Of course, as gamers, the broken-game-at-launch trope is our own fault. Mass pre-ordering, tolerance of review embargos, which forbid the press from peeking at a new product before the release date, and Non-Disclosure Agreements applied to betas mean that a lack of information can be the default on launch day. Creators are getting increasingly sneaky, too. Reviewers of Cyberpunk 2077 were only allowed to use video approved by the developer, hiding the game’s now-infamous problems.

Live service games will almost invariably use microtransactions to pay the bills. Using Destiny 2 as an example, major updates - which must be paid for - are funded via a cash shop selling cosmetics and other digital goods. In a scenario such as this, where developer Bungie is at least consistent with content additions, the live service does seem like a serviceable model, provided that the player is happy to pay to extend their experience. The MMO genre, in contrast, is full of games that serve as funnels for gamers’ cash. Rift, for example, while still active, had been abandoned by publisher Gamigo for years until the middle of November 2021.

Due to an overreliance on attentive developers, live service games don't promise much of a future for gaming.

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Last Updated: Nov 30, 2021