Live service? Buyer, beware!

The Elder Scrolls: Legends, a fairly uninspired digital card game from Bethesda, has become the latest in a long line of live service games not to deliver its promised content. The reason is simple: maths. The numbers didn’t add up for Bethesda to make continued development worthwhile, either because the game had already slipped into loss-making territory, or the scant money it was making wasn’t enough. So after two-and-a-half years, new development has been shuttered, and while the developers promise to continue “maintenance” support, in reality the game is brain-dead and on life support. It’s only a matter of time before it’s shut down altogether, and while Legends does have a single-player mode which I’d hope would be able to continue to be played, a lot of live service games don’t. When the servers are switched off, that’s it. Curtains. It doesn’t matter how much money you might’ve put into the title.

At this point I’d hope more and more gamers are becoming aware of this phenomenon. It isn’t an isolated issue; time and again a live service title will launch – often in a half-finished state – with promises of huge amounts of additional content to come. Often termed a “roadmap”, far too frequently these promises don’t come to fruition.

In most cases good intentions are there in the beginning. Nobody makes a bad game on purpose, and developers do genuinely intend to release the additional content when the game is launched. In that sense, strictly speaking these aren’t scams or deliberate false advertising. But it’s a hard pill to swallow nevertheless for a player who purchased a game like 2014’s first-person shooter Destiny, which promised to be a “ten year” experience. Destiny received its final update barely two-and-a-half years later, with a full sequel released a few months after that – as another full-priced game. And think also of Anthem, Bioware’s live service which launched only in March 2019 – only to have its roadmap cancelled after a single update.

In many cases, there is good reason from the point of view of games companies to discontinue support and move developers over to new projects. At the end of the day, no company can survive long term running a loss-making project, and there comes a point for a live service where the number of players – or rather, the number of players spending money – is simply not high enough to be sustainable. In cases like Anthem perhaps it’s the case that the number of players (and the amount of money coming in) actually never hit that mark.

A significant part of the problem is the way these games are planned and developed in the first place. Releasing what is essentially an unfinished title, with the promise of future updates and content to pad it out, can lead to live services feeling underwhelming when they first release. But this is a flawed strategy – interest in any game peaks in the days immediately before and after its release, so if it’s incomplete, riddled with glitches and bugs, and is overall a mediocre experience, that’s the narrative of the game in the minds of players everywhere, and that’s also what critics (and players) will be saying when they write their reviews. A bad launch can doom a project before it even has a chance to get going.

Surely it would make more sense to ensure that a live service is released with more than just a moderate amount of content. How much exactly is required will vary from genre to genre and title to title, but a couple of recent examples jump to mind. Fallout 76 released with no non-player characters to interact with. In a franchise which has always been strongly story-driven, this was surely a huge mistake. The result was a large, empty world, and besides wandering around it to see the locations and fight a few monsters, there wasn’t actually anything worthwhile to do. If the game had launched with significantly more going on, some of its other issues – notably the glitches and graphical errors – would have been less noticeable and the game would surely have got a better reception.

The 2015 iteration of Star Wars: Battlefront also suffered from the problem of missing content, compounded in its case by charging what was seen as excessive amounts of money for that missing content when it did finally release months later.

The fundamental problem is the “release now, fix later” business model. In most cases, a majority of players will not be willing to stick around long enough if the game feels lightweight and incomplete. And the reason for that is simple – there are other, better games available to play right now, games which aren’t short on content and which don’t have the same problems. Most games, with very few exceptions, have a short lifespan. If you consider all of the titles that released in the first half of the 2010s, how many are still being played in significant numbers today? In terms of live services, I can think of Grand Theft Auto V, Diablo III, and Rocket League. Maybe you can think of one or two more, but out of all the games that came out in those years, only an absolutely minuscule percentage are still being played in significant numbers to be sustainable and to warrant continued developer support. In short, the odds are against any game, no matter how great it seems, to survive beyond a couple of years. Only the truly exceptional, genre-defining titles make it. And most live services, especially ones which launch incomplete and broken, were never going to be anywhere close to that level.

When I see a game launch in an incomplete state, my first reaction isn’t to buy it, wait for it to get better, and keep playing. The promise of future content means nothing if the game isn’t good enough now. My reaction is to stay away, and wait to see whether things improve. And judging by a lot of reviews for these types of live services, a lot of people feel the same way – or wish they hadn’t spent their money too soon. The “wait-and-see” approach, which is a natural consumer response to any incomplete product that promises future improvements, is fatal to many live services. They become caught in a spiral: a bad launch leads to low player numbers, low player numbers leads to less income, less income means the company decides to cancel future updates, and the cancellation of updates leads consumers who were in “wait-and-see” mode to not bother with the title and go elsewhere.

In many industries – perhaps all – companies, driven by the desire to make as much money as possible for as little effort and expense as possible, see a successful product and try to copy its formula. This is what’s happened with live services. Once a few had been successful, games publishers decided to try to emulate that style of game and by doing so, hoped to reap the same rewards as Epic Games had with Fortnite or Rockstar had with Grand Theft Auto V. The fact that such titles are once-in-a-generation success stories didn’t matter to executives who thought only of the financial gains and nothing of the games or their players.

While it does vary from player to player, most people like at least some variety in their games, just as most people like some variety in their entertainment in general and in other aspects of their life. The number of players content to only play a single title for a decade must be small compared to the overall number of gamers across every platform. While it’s true some titles like Starcraft II or World of Warcraft manage to have active playerbases years after release, with some dedicated players sinking tens of thousands of hours into those games, the reality is most players have a library of titles, and are frequently looking for a new experience. After beating the campaign of a game like Destiny or Anthem, most folks will move on and look for the next adventure – and if the game isn’t all that good, the chances of them returning are slim, even with online multiplayer and expansion packs to try to lure them back.

So in addition to all the problems of releasing half-baked products, putting off players and causing many to avoid jumping in at launch, the very concept of a live service that lasts for years has a natural ceiling – a cap on the maximum number of players who would even hypothetically be interested to keep playing for such an extended period of time. Even the best title which could draw in players and convince them to ditch other games has, therefore, a natural limit of players who’d be interested to keep coming back. And in many cases, the sheer amount of money it costs to keep development going at this level, with updates, patches, and large expansions will simply never be cost-effective when considering the maximum number of players the game is ever likely to get. So if a studio sets itself up for future development expecting Grand Theft Auto V levels of income, but launched to average reviews in an incomplete state, the playerbase will simply never exist for that to be sustainable.

The reality is that many live service titles were never going to succeed. From the very moment the concept sprang into the head of an executive, it was a losing proposition. And to the credit of developers – who are usually not involved in the decision-making process – they do a valiant job under often difficult circumstances to get a title ready and keep it operational. But if the concept is bad, if the player numbers simply do not exist to justify the cost, and the game is pushed out before its ready, there’s nothing they can do. Even the most talented gamemakers can’t fix an unfixable mess, and that’s what many of these live service titles are – unfixable messes built on a flawed idea that was dreamt up by managers and executives who don’t understand the industry they’re supposed to be experts in.

I have to be honest and say that by the end of 2019, if someone chooses to buy into a game on the promises of marketing which speaks of “roadmaps”, “ten year plans”, and “improvements to come”, my sympathy for that person when the title shuts down a year later is limited – or nonexistent. There have been enough titles like this by now from almost every major games publisher in the industry that people should know better. A game – any game, regardless of promises – shouldn’t be treated as an investment to sink huge sums of money into, but a temporary product to be enjoyed while it lasts. While it may seem sad to think of games as disposable, that’s the way publishers treat them, and to avoid disappointment it’s the way we need to start thinking too. At this point I’m incredibly wary of putting any money into in-game content, as I simply don’t know how long that game and that content will be accessible. If someone has money to burn and they don’t mind losing it, that’s fine, but I don’t have that luxury and nor do many others.

There’s an old Latin expression – caveat emptor. It means “buyer beware”, and that basically sums up how I feel about live services. There is a chance – a very, very strong chance based on recent experience – that the title will not last as long as it says it will, and will not release all of the patches, updates, fixes, and expansions that it promises to. As I said before, this isn’t deliberate and it isn’t a scam, but it is the reality of most live services. And any player buying into such a service needs to be aware of that up front, and know that disappointment is coming down the line. If, armed with that knowledge, they still decide to proceed, that’s their call. But I’m afraid that they don’t get to turn around and whine when it all goes belly up, because we’ve all been down this road enough times to know that that’s where it was going.

Let’s all treat live services the way publishers do – as disposable, temporary products. If you want to spend your money on a game you won’t be able to play in future, and on in-game items that you’ll never see again when the game shuts its servers, that’s your call. But at least be informed of that decision, and be aware that there are many other titles, both single-player and multiplayer, which don’t jerk you around and waste your time and money. Maybe, just maybe, if we all bought those kind of games and left live services alone, nobody would have to suffer the money loss and disappointment that comes from their practically-inevitable demise.

All games and franchises mentioned in the article above are the copyright of their respective parent companies. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.