It’s time we talk about the prevalence of Live Service releases.
With last week’s onslaught review out of the way, we finally get to the meat of the issue I wanted to present: the AAA release schedule. To really delve into fixing this issue, we need to look at several facets of the game industry, from the rise of mass-production games to the Live Service model of game development.
This may end up a little drier than most of my reviews or editorials, so I apologize in advance for slightly less humor here. I’m just trying to get this all out without rambling too much.
With so many high-profile games coming out, one must inevitably notice a certain pattern emerging. Metro: Exodus is an open-world shooter. Far Cry: New Dawn is an open-world shooter. Apex Legends is a multiplayer shooter. Anthem is a multiplayer shooter.
If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, you’ll have noticed how many times we see “shooter” in our AAA Industry releases. However, that’s not really the problem I’ve got here, moreover the lack of innovation between said games and their predecessors. Sure, Metro gave us more open-ended levels, but they’re still levels. Far Cry hasn’t fundamentally innovated for several installments now. Even Anthem plays quite a bit like Mass Effect, with key focus on “powers” and “archetypes”.
These games vary so little from their predecessors that most feel more like an expansion pack or spin-off than a true title. Look at the Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty franchises for perfect examples of the problem with producing the same thing over and over. Odyssey has turned into a full-on RPG in order to “innovate”, while Black Ops 1200 eschews its’ narrative for zombies and Battle Royale. They’ve had to drastically change their titles to stay relevant, to a decidedly mixed response.
Because every AAA Publisher needs that yearly installment, we’ve seen games become more identical to their predecessor than ever before. The only things that change are the year-long gimmicks that play on the previous year’s cool unique selling point. Remember when 2013 was the year of the fucking Bow? Every hero had apparently stopped what they were doing to take archery lessons for some reason. I was almost surprised when Halo didn’t have The Chief swinging around a Plasma Bow or something equally nonsensical.
This Mass Market Paperback problem has led to many games looking like clones of the previous. People were blown away that Far Cry: Primal used the same map as Far Cry 4, yet New Dawn is no different (to those who call out ‘it’s a spin-off game’, I’ve got you covered later this month). It’s not just a problem for me though, than it is for the wallets of consumers. If we’re to buy a 60 dollar game in the near future, only to find it blatantly using last year’s assets, I’m going to feel rather vindicated in my complaints now.
With the advent of Live Services going into retrograde, we’re seeing tons of games that want all of your attention all at once. I can’t just sit down and play one game anymore, because playing one game for too long will result in a feeling that I’m missing other shit in other titles. Live Service is more than just a time-sink to me, but a gated community. With Live Service models, it’s not just about paying for the content by buying the game, moreover padding the length of that content until the publisher can bring out monetization or an expansion. Here’s a slightly retro example:
When I picked up Destiny for sixty bucks at launch, I was treated to “a ton” of content. It was a super-massive game with tons of potential…. if I got on every day. Destiny, you see, had timed events. Because it was a Live Service, my content was held hostage behind certain dated timelines. The Iron Banner, a pivotal PvP mode, was left at the whim of the release timelines. The Queen’s Bounty, completely forgotten for months on end. Many amazing events were simply not available unless I jumped on exactly when the game wanted me to get on.
While this isn’t always a problem, I find it increasingly common to see large swaths of a game feeling desolate during non-event seasons. Destiny had whole areas of the social hub barred from entry unless an event was in town, leading me to feel like I was being punished for no adequate reason.
This is why, for me, the Live Service model is leading to this problem with release scheduling.
The final point I want to bring up before my scathing conclusion is the problem with competing companies. For awhile, it was a Battlefield vs. Call of Duty scenario, but it’s quickly turned into an EA vs. Activision, or Ubisoft vs. Capcom, or whatever publishers are vying for your money during a tight release window.
It used to be if there were two games with close releases, you’d buy the one you were looking forward to playing the most, and potentially check on the other ones after a few months had gone by. But now we’ve got several potentially good games, none of which have been really reviewed until the last minute, and players are forced to make gut-decisions that may come back to haunt them later.
When it comes down to it, these publishers know they hold all the cards, and by pushing their release dates as close together as possible, they’ll get enough people to just double-dip on their purchases, so that way they can have the best possible experience. And now that I’ve gotten these three pillars out of the way, let’s take a brief look into the life of this strawman I’ve got here, Timmy:
Timmy the Player
Timmy likes playing video games, especially with friends. He’s an avid console player, but he’s been known to play on his old laptop here and there when he’s trying out single-player games.
He’s just learned that his three favorite publishers are coming out with their mainline titles, and he’s very excited. He’s been waiting for several months for any news about their newest developments, and now Timmy will finally get to play them, except…
…they’re all coming out in the same week.
No worries, Timmy thinks to himself, I’ll just buy one of them and get the others on a sale! Sure, I love all these games, but I can only really afford one or two right now.
However, then Timmy learns that each game will have seasonal events and exclusive items. This means that if he doesn’t get in on the action right away, he may lose his chance at getting those items forever. And what if the game he chooses ends up being very unpopular. They are, after all, a Live Service, and if there aren’t enough players to support the game, he may never be able to fully experience some of the content.
Now, luckily, these game developers are smart. Using their coveted “Basic, Silver, Gold” system, they give Timmy the option to buy a hacked up version of their game for only 2/3 the cost, giving him the ability to buy all three games. Now, Timmy can play each game with his friends, before deciding which of the three was most worth his time. Then he can upgrade his purchase of that game to get all the other content.
But now, Timmy has given all his money to the publishers, only to play one game of the three. Timmy eventually realizes that he’s played right into the publisher’s hands. The game they all decided was the best of the three wasn’t even that great, but they’re stuck with it now. They begin settling for crappier and crappier releases, since something is better than nothing.
And that’s how we come to today: Anthem players are organizing a blackout day. Battlefront 2 was humiliated at launch. Fallout 76 is utterly atrocious. Yet we still have avid players of all of these titles, because they were convinced of the need to be a part of the Live Service. Combined with the tight release schedules, they’ve probably even bought into several of these franchises. It’s a cycle that leads to a poorer overall product and, more importantly, publishers who think they can get away with bad releases, so long as they (mostly) fix it up before the end of the game’s life cycle.
Fixing Release Schedules
Let’s take a look at the other end of this spectrum: indie releases. With the amount of indie devs out there, there will always end up being some release overlap. However, people don’t typically stir up much fuss over it. Why? These indie games are relatively inexpensive, usually aren’t Live Service, and are almost always Unique Selling Points. Stardew Valley is a unique game that decided to innovate a very old idea with a ton of polish. Wargroove takes a tired old formula and ups the ante on it, whilst providing a ton of charm. Neither of these titles require you to purchase them immediately to receive all the content, and neither break to bank of consumers.
If we’re going to continue aping this Live Service trend, games need to become cheaper. I’d pay the equivalent of a “twenty dollar a year” subscription to the Call of Duty Live Service over having to pay 60 bucks every year to get a new game with none of the old content. And this happens in every AAA installment: new game with half the updates removed, for the low price of 60 bucks a year.
I hope this little editorial has given a bit of a fresh perspective on the AAA Gaming Industry. We’ll see you next week.