A recent trend among AAA developers in the Game Industry has been approaching video games as a service as opposed to being a product. While this may not sound different at first, it marks a major shift in selling and developing your title which can mean a big success or a big failure depending on how you approach it.
“Games as a service” is a concept that doesn’t just apply to multiplayer games anymore and is something that developers of all genres should know about in today’s market.
Traditional game development has always been around developers working on a game as a completed experience in the sense that once the game was done it was done IE no DLC or micro transactions following the release. The most consumers would get for additional work for a game would be either bug fixes or the occasional expansion pack.
The first time that we could legitimately talk about games as a service would be the MMO boom of the last decade. MMOs were games that weren’t meant to be finished but had continued development through supporting the servers, designing new content and doing whatever they could to keep people playing and paying subscription fees.
The push for treating games as a service is an evolution of that model but instead of just doing it in the MMO genre; we see it both in single and multiplayer games. Publishers today such as EA favor the service model of game development for reasons which have to do with reducing risk.
“Look. These are different times. And different times usually evoke different business models. Different consumers come in. They’ve got different expectations. And we can either ignore them or embrace them, and at EA, we’ve chosen to embrace them.” Peter Moore, COO of EA
A major theme of the AAA game industry lately is the fact that publishers are very risk adverse. With games costing millions of dollars in both development and advertising, a failed game could be a studio killer. Having a game that has already been a success and continuing to develop content for it is a win-win for the publishers.
They get continued money from a property that there is already a fan base for and it is easier developing more content for a successful game as opposed to starting from scratch and building something entirely different. And games where the service model works are some of the most successful and profitable games around and examples of what the consumer wants.
More of a good Thing:
The pros of the service model when done correctly are about giving the fans more of what they loved. As we talked about earlier, older titles were “one and done” and the shelf life was limited because of it. However being able to continue working on a game allows the developers to add more content and provide value to both old and new fans.
Games like Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends have both undergone massive changes over the years thanks to the continued development and improvement from the developers. A more recent example would be the work that Overkill Software has done with Payday 2. Since the game was released last year, they have continued to put out both free and paid DLC expanding the number of levels, weapons, story and design of the game.
The extended content greatly expands the shelf life of a game and gives developers the chance to earn more profit than they would with just releasing a set experience. The variety of possible DLC means that you can have your entire team working on various upgrades and keeping busy to produce content that can be sold.
All this sounds well and good, but the flip side of this is when fans are given less while still expecting to pay more.
When it doesn’t Work:
Because it’s easier to patch and update games these days compared to the pre digital era, the temptation is there to release titles earlier and then finish it with post release support.
“Going Gold” or when a game is finished and ready to be shipped doesn’t apply to today’s market where a game could be shipped but not finished. Or basing and promoting your development on future sales and not on what you currently have.
Planetary Annihilation has been having this issue despite the successful kickstarter. The game was considered completed enough to be called version 1.0 and released last month. However features such as save functionality, offline mode and a general lack of polish on the mechanics and UI were criticisms seen in reviews.
The developers have brushed this off saying that the game will still be worked on over the coming months despite their launching of a new kickstarter project for another game — Human Resources.
And there is also the case where developers are releasing games with less content and features with the intent to sell it back to consumers at a later date. The Sims 4 surprised fans when a number of systems and functionality that have been introduced in previous games was cut for Sims 4, with the general impression is that they will be brought back as DLC options at a later date.
The problem is that “games as a service” is not an excuse to release an unfinished title and requires more considerations by the designers.
Making it Work:
The examples that have made the games as a service model work didn’t cut corners with the development or leave out core systems to be finished later. They each delivered a game that was good enough on its own from day one to be a success. It wasn’t a case of fixing something that was broken but adding the icing to the cake and that’s the key factor in this model.
Having your game be great on release should be the goal of any developer and then taking that foundation and improving upon it is the way to make games as a service work.