This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee takes a look at the current state of live-service video games and how the trend may finally be starting to slow down or even dying.
Extra Punctuation Transcript
I am basically the same age as commercial home video gaming. I grew up alongside it. I track the phases of my life by what games platform I was using at the time. Philips Videopac, Commodore 64, SEGA Master System, Amiga 600, Amiga CD32, PS1, PC gaming, Gamecube, PS2, and after that I became a professional game critic, so all of them. The point is, I’ve been around a long time and I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go, because this is still a comparatively young medium where the fundamental aspects of creation are still in a state of flux. I mean, the movie watching experience basically plateaued once they figured out colour and sound, game designers are still discovering new ways to explore interactive narrative.
In the last few years I’ve heard a lot of negative doomsaying, partly from myself I’ll admit, about the way money has infected the games industry and that creativity is dead and that the only things the big studios make or give any attention to now are loot box infested live services, gear grinding Skinner box games and ghost train rides with the same token hacked out combat and RPG systems. Well, first of all, do you really think this is the first time money has infected the way games are made? This is just the nature of all things. Wherever stuff can be exchanged for money, there will be people trying to maximise the amount of money while minimising the necessary amount of stuff, or stuff-related effort. I mean, this is the whole reason video games crashed in the 80s. It wasn’t just ET’s fault, it was publishers hacking out too many inferior ripoffs than the market could sustain, in pursuit of the easy buck.
And the most important thing to take away is that the industry did crash. ‘Cos that’s what happens when you try to sustain an unsustainable business model. Funny that. And the current state of triple-A gaming is just the latest trend in unsustainable get rich quick scheming that’s going to crash just as surely, if not quite as dramatically now video games are a lot more widespread over a firmer foundation than they were in ET’s day.
The live service model was the reliable earner for a while but it is currently dying, if not already dead. It was admittedly a much more cunning and longer lasting money making scheme than Atari’s idea to release nine thousand Pac-man ripoffs; a game players could theoretically play infinitely, and in the case of those wonderful whales with more money than sense they all hope to suck in, pay for infinitely. Hard to go wrong with an infinite money generator. Except of course that it did, for the usual reason: because in capitalism, infinite money is not enough. There must also be infinite growth. There must always be more infinite money than there was last quarter.
And capitalist corporations, ruled over as they are essentially by giant bureaucracy machines, lack the benefit that you and I possess: an actual human brain that can point out when things don’t make any fucking sense. Any passing six year old or vaguely sentient dog could have explained to these publishers that when you have a game whose entire business model hinges around rewiring people’s brains so they want to play eight hours a day, the market can’t sustain more than a few of those. You can’t ask audiences to devote all of their free time, times two.
And yet, when the live services started enjoying success, rival publishers were not content to simply snap their fingers in frustration and go “Gosh, wish we’d thought of that.” No. Those guys are making money therefore we must do exactly what they’re doing, and then we will make the same money. That’s how bureaucracy thinks. So everyone had their own live service and kept announcing new live services because there must always be more, and now we’re seeing them all getting deserted and having their plugs pulled one by one like the coma ward at a financially insolvent hospital.
And this could have been very easily predicted by noting that the average user cannot be expected to login daily to nine different games and put in a few hours of grind with each one. Especially when they all offer very similar gameplay experiences because you’ve got to rip off whatever the popular games do, otherwise there’s no guarantee you’d make the same money. But as well as being predictable, this was all very clearly precedented. Because EXACTLY the same thing happened with MMORPGs.
About ten, fifteen years ago World of Warcraft was ruling the roost. MMOs stumbled along for a while through the Ultima Online and Everquest years but it was World of Warcraft that perfected the formula, combining a rich world that was approachable to newbies and had a robust endgame. And when it was noted that it was bringing in the dosh like a dockside brothel, everyone wanted a piece of that pie. One by one rival companies brought out rival MMOs and one by one World of Warcraft killed them stone dead. Star Wars Galaxies, The Matrix Online, Age of Conan, Tabula Rasa, Firefall, Warhammer Online, City of Heroes, Hellgate London, one can only wince at the carnage. And some of these were perfectly fine games. I remember rather enjoying my time with Firefall when I reviewed it for ZP.
But it didn’t matter, because the success of these games hinged on clawing the target audience away from World of Warcraft, and sooner or later they all drifted back, because World of Warcraft was where all their stuff was. They’d spent months, years, entrenching themselves and building up their investment in WoW, why on earth would they want to start from scratch in a game that wasn’t as good? And didn’t have as many players because they were all going back to WOW, too.
It happened then and it’s happened again with live services. A few will remain to keep the dieharders occupied and everyone else must return sulkily to the drawing board. It’s a cycle. It’s a cycle of publishers trying to get infinite gameplay to work as a model, because in theory it’s infinite money, and ultimately collapsing. Similar thing happened in the mid 90s when Quake multiplayer was popular, they put out games like Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament with no single player mode, and tried to convince us that we didn’t really want single player games. We wanted the thing that made them more money. Joke was on them, because the late 90s and early 2000s were a fuckin’ golden age for PC single player first person games.
And that’s why I feel less concerned about the current swamp of live services and gear grinders, because the signs are there that the cycle is moving on. For one, the density of remakes and remasters lately. Dead Space, Metroid Prime, Resident Evil 4, that’s always a sign that publishers are in a holding pattern waiting for the next big trend to emerge. But the big giveaway was Hi Fi Rush. Tango Gameworks’ excellent rhythm action game. And the fact that it was shadowdropped with zero hype. Sort of exposed the whole lie of hype, didn’t it. Let’s call it the hype paradox: the more time and effort you put into trying to convince people your game is good, the less good it will turn out to be. Whereas something obviously and genuinely good needs no hype at all.
And the way it was dropped on us felt for me like an act of surrender. “OK, fine,” Bethesda seemed to be saying. “We officially give up trying to convince you that what you want is overpriced mediocre crap that’s a thousand hours long. Here’s a game that’s ten hours long but it’s thirty bucks and really fucking good.” And what do you know, it did gangbusters.
The current state of triple-A as well as the MMO wave and the 90’s multiplayer shootersploitation were all part of the same pattern: the money men eternally searching for a guaranteed formula for success. And they will never find one, or rather, never notice that the formula already exists. You know how you guarantee success? You produce an original product that’s well made and reasonably priced. It’s as simple as that. But they’ll never take that to heart because coming up with good ideas requires creativity and investing in them requires a willingness to take a risk. And the money machine is capable of neither. Let’s set it to work managing our 401ks and leave the making of games to actual human fucking beings.