AAA game publishing moves in a great cycle. Like a well known story, it’s beginning is always the same. Someone comes across a potentially profitable model and a single publisher shifts its focus, like a leviathan turning to a school of fish to devour them. Then, slowly at first but gaining speed, the entire industry will focus all of its resources to the pursuit of this new way of doing business. Like a swarm of locusts it will descend upon this new promised land of milk and honey, of dividends and positive quarterly growth. Yet, each and every time, they will strip the land clean and when there is nothing left to consume they will pass over the horizon leaving only desolation in their wake.
I know that’s probably a little more melodrama than is neccessary. Nonetheless, it’s an apt description. Corporations are always chasing the next golden goose and will often follow those who are doing well of they aren’t as successful with their own ideas. How it plays out varies by industry, but in games it usually takes the form of trend chasing and market saturation until the bubble bursts. We find ourselves in the midst of another bubble, and it’s one that I think will begin its decline this year, if not an outright collapse. I am, of course, speaking of “live services”
The live services model has been marketed as one of the greatest developments in gaming history. Games that evolve as new content is added regularly allowing players to experience near limitless gameplay. Developers can add to and adjust games as needed to ensure a well crafted player experience while keeping the games fresh and engaging. On paper these seems like a great use of the possibilities offered by online connectivity. Unfortunately, like so many things, the positives of this model have been corrupted and twisted into an abomination of greed and mismanagement.
Nearly every major publisher has some sort of live service style game. From Rockstar’s unbelievably successful GTA Online to the unbelievably dreadful Fallout 76 major tentpole properties are being set up with online gameplay meant to draw in players. Competitive games have seen the addition of seasonal content and progressive reward systems, such as Fortnite’s Battle Pass, as encouragement for players to stay engaged with the game.
The problem is that this isn’t sustainable at it’s current scale for a variety of reasons. It is a bubble, no different from those seen in housing markets or tech companies, and at it’s current rate it will burst within the next year or two. The two biggest problems are the availability of player time, which I will talk about now, and the cost of creating and maintaining these games which I will cover next time.
A Matter of Time
There are 24 hours in a day. Yes, we all know that, but it needs to be stated as it is the key issue from a player standpoint as games become more open ended. Players have a limited amount of time to put into games, no matter how much they may love them, and every minute they put into one game is one that they cannot put into another. Despite more people playing games now than any other time in history, the number of available players is a finite resource and is being stretched thinner as more and more games are released. With that, the number of players who will be making monetary investments through microtransactions or whatever the game uses to continue making money will be spread thinner as well. For the sake of brevity, assume that anytime I mention “player base” or something like that here I mean both player time and player money.
Each new release is going to pull players from one game to another because the games are being released without an equal number of games closing down. Rockstar has released Red Dead Online but GTA Online is still active. While it may attract new players who weren’t invested in the other, there is a lot of overlap in that venn diagram. I have no doubts that the overall profit for the company will go up, there is a certain level of diminishing return that factors in each time one of these games comes out.
This leaves a company with two choices. Maintain existing games after new ones are live and continue with less of a player base while increasing the costs of running both, or shut down older games and hope that the fans of one title move to their other title and not to the competitions. Obviously, a lot of that requires a cost benefit analysis and will be different for each situation. However, the fact remains that the market is becoming more saturated by the day and eventually it’s going to become very difficult to gather up enough players to justify a games expense and continued existence.
There is also a growing number of gamers who are becoming burned out on the constant grind of these always live games. The constant drip feed of new content is nice but eventually the loop becomes stale. New mechanics and modes help for a time but you can only alter a game so much before you risk it becoming so different that players leave. Call of Duty adding a match three mode, Candy Crush style, would definitely be a change and bring variety to the franchise but I dont think the core audience would embrace it with enthusiasm. People eventually need to be able to feel that they have completed something, even if only for a short time, without the pressure of feeling they will fall behind or the game will begin to feel like a chore. Players who do leave games that have a constant expansion built in may choose not to return because they feel that they “are too far behind to catch up”.
As these live service games continue to be pushed to the forefront of each publisher’s line up, and as they get more expansive and expensive, the risk of failure grows and the lifespan of any given game shortens. Next time I will go into more detail of why this is such a financial crisis for publishers and why this bubble bursting may be one of the worst the gaming industry has ever seen.
Until then, keep an eye on the clock and use your time well.