The “live service” spiral

Have you ever wondered why so many so-called “live service” games fail to live up to expectations and ultimately get shut down? Or why so many of these types of titles are actively despised by players all around the world?

I’ve lost count of the number of times an exciting-sounding game has been announced only for me to end up sighing with disappointment when I hear the dreaded words “live service.” To many players, those words have come to epitomise all of the worst things about gaming as a hobby in 2021, and it’s got to a point where a game has to offer something truly exceptional before I’ll even consider stepping over the live service hurdle to give it a shot.

This is how “live service” games make me feel!

I’ve talked on a number of occasions about the “release now, fix later” business model that has corrupted the modern games industry. In short, games companies see the internet as an easy way to roll out patches and fixes after a game has been released, thanks to the ubiquity of internet connectivity on every gaming platform nowadays, so they figure they can release a game in an incomplete state and fix it after launch. Though games like Mass Effect: Andromeda and Cyberpunk 2077 prove that this isn’t a phenomenon unique to live services, these kinds of titles are almost universally afflicted.

Many live service games launch with a “roadmap” – another dreaded gaming neologism that rightly turns off anyone who hears it. In lieu of actual gameplay features, levels, and content, the game arrives in a threadbare state with a so-called roadmap, which is little more than a euphemism for promises of updates and new content. All too often, though, the promised updates never arrive because the game gets shut down. The roadmap leads to a dead end.

How’s that roadmap working out for you, Anthem?

If a game felt complete – with enough characters, levels, and whatever else it needs – promises of further content would be no bad thing. It would give the game’s fans something to look forward to while they enjoyed what was available at launch. But it’s rare that a live service feels complete at launch, and most roadmaps end up promising content that should have been part of the original game.

So we come to what I’m calling the “live service spiral.” Here’s how it goes: a live service game launches to mediocre reviews from critics and players, with many criticising its threadbare state and unfinished nature. Though there is a roadmap promising further content to come at some nebulous future date, many players who were considering picking up the game instead adopt a “wait-and-see” approach, biding their time until the promised updates arrive and the game is actually worth playing. But this leads to lower-than-expected sales, which in turn means that the publisher panics and decides to cancel the roadmap, ending development on the game and cancelling planned updates and patches. The game’s remaining players drift away, disappointed, to await the next title and begin the cycle again.

The first Destiny game was an early example of this phenomenon.

In 2021, having seen so many of these live services stumble out of the gate and get unceremoniously shut down shortly thereafter, I have less and less sympathy for players who still believe the hype and get hooked in with promises. If a game isn’t good enough when it launches to be worth my time – and more importantly, my money – why should I give it either on the back of vague promises? And if you choose to invest in a live service game knowing how many have come and gone in the blink of an eye, why should I offer you my sympathy when the next one follows the pattern and also fails?

So many games have been in this position. Just in the last few years we can call to mind titles like Anthem, Star Wars Battlefront, WWE 2K20, Destiny 1, and probably Marvel’s Avengers within the next few months. So there are more than enough examples to serve as warnings that this business model is not worth investing in.

Marvel’s Avengers could be next on the chopping block.

Here’s the basic problem that games industry managers and executives can’t seem to wrap their corporate heads around: for every Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto Online there are a dozen or more Anthems or Destinys. For every title that adopts a live service model and makes a success of it, there are dozens more that fail. And if a company isn’t willing to put money and effort into creating a title that players actually want to spend their time playing, desperately chasing the faltering live service trend will always be a losing proposition.

Many live service games were doomed from the very moment they were conceived in the mind of a business executive. Someone with precious little understanding of the industry looked at Fortnite or Rainbow Six Siege, and without knowing the first thing about those games nor realising they’re about a decade too late, said to their team “make me one of those.” From that very moment the game was dead on arrival – but nobody realised it, or at least nobody had the balls to tell the publisher.

Not every game will see the success of titles like Fortnite. Companies need to set realistic expectations.

All the way through development and through the extensive marketing campaign that followed, dedicated developers tried their best to build a game to the specifications of some moron in a suit, and it was all for nothing. All of that time, effort, and money was pissed away chasing after a concept that’s already played out for a company that never understood it in the first place. In many cases, “crunch” and other abusive working practices saw developers and other employees suffer actual quantifiable harm, all for the sake of a meaningless, useless piece of shit game like Anthem. Imagine working yourself half to death for the sake of Anthem, only to see the game shut down months after it launched.

Hopefully the backlash some of these games generate, combined with lacklustre sales and continued failures to meet expectations, will see this business model slowly start to die off. But all of us need to be very careful about throwing our money into any live service game that comes along in future. Companies have proven time and again that they see these games as disposable and they’re willing to cut and run from a failing project no matter how many players get screwed over in the process. If they treat their own games with such little respect, why should we buy into such a model?

We have to find a way to break the live service spiral, to show games companies that this business model is no longer viable. Some noteworthy failures, like those mentioned above, will start to cause a rethink in corporate boardrooms, but the process needs to accelerate. Not just for the sake of us having better games to play, but for the physical and mental health of those in the industry working on these titles.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The worst things about modern video games

The first home console I owned – after saving up my hard-earned pocket money and pestering my parents for ages – was a Super Nintendo. Gaming has changed a lot since then, and while many of those changes have been fantastic and introduced us to new genres, not every change has been for the better! In this list I’m going to cover some of my biggest pet peeves with video games in 2021.

As always, this list is entirely subjective. If I criticise something you like, or exclude something you hate, just keep in mind that this is only one person’s opinion. Gaming is a huge hobby that includes many people with many different perspectives. If yours and mine don’t align, that’s okay!

Number 1: No difficulty options.

Some people play video games because they love the challenge of a punishingly-difficult title, and the reward of finally overcoming an impossible level after hours of perseverance. I am not one of those people! In most cases, I play video games for escapism and entertainment – I want to see a story unfold or just switch off from other aspects of my life for a while. Excessive difficulty is frustrating and offputting for me.

As someone with health issues, I would argue that difficulty settings are a form of accessibility. Some people don’t have the ability to hit keys or buttons in rapid succession, and in some titles the lack of a difficulty setting – particularly if the game is not well-balanced – can mean those games are unavailable to folks with disabilities.

While many games are too difficult, the reverse can also be true. Some titles are just too easy for some people – I’m almost never in that category, but still! Games that have no difficulty settings where the base game is incredibly easy can be unenjoyable for some folks, particularly if the challenge was what got them interested in the first place.

In 2021, most games have difficulty options as a standard feature. Difficulty settings have been part of games going back decades, and in my opinion there’s no technical reason why they shouldn’t be included. There’s also not really a “creative” reason, either. Some developers talk in grandiose terms about their “vision” for a title being the reason why they didn’t implement difficulty options, but as I’ve said before – the inclusion of an easier (or harder) mode does not impact the game at all. It only impacts those who choose to turn it on, and considering how easy it is to implement, I find it incredibly annoying when a game is deliberately shipped without any difficulty options.

Number 2: Excessive difficulty as a game’s only selling point.

While we’re on the subject of difficulty, another pet peeve of mine is games whose entire identity is based on their difficulty (or perceived difficulty). Think about this for a moment: would Dark Souls – an otherwise bland, uninspired hack-and-slash game – still be talked about ten years after its release were it not for its reputation as impossibly difficult? How many late 2000s or early ’10s hack-and-slash games have dropped out of the cultural conversation? The only thing keeping Dark Souls there is its difficulty.

A challenge is all well and good, and I don’t begrudge players who seek that out. But for me, a game has to offer something more than that. If there’s a story worth telling under the difficult gameplay I’m impressed. If the difficult, punishing gameplay is all there is, then that’s boring!

Difficulty can also be used by developers as cover for a short or uninteresting game. Forcing players to replay long sections over and over and over can massively pad out a game’s runtime, and if that’s a concern then cranking the difficulty to ridiculous levels – and offering no way to turn it down – can turn a short game into a long one artificially.

I’m all for games that offer replay value, but being forced to replay the same level or checkpoint – or battle the same boss over and over – purely because of how frustratingly hard the developers chose to make things simply isn’t fun for me.

Number 3: Ridiculous file sizes.

Hey Call of Duty? Your crappy multiplayer mode does not need to be 200 gigabytes. Nor does any game, for that matter. It’s great that modern technology allows developers to create realistic-looking worlds, but some studios are far better than others when it comes to making the best use of space! Some modern games do need to be large to incorporate everything, but even so there’s “large” and then there’s “too large.”

For a lot of folks this is an issue for two main reasons: data caps and download speeds. On my current connection I’m lucky to get a download speed of 7 Mbps, and downloading huge game files can quite literally take several days – days in which doing anything else online would be impossibly slow! But I’m fortunate compared to some people, because I’m not limited in the amount of data I can download by my ISP.

In many parts of the world, and on cheaper broadband connections, data caps are very much still a thing. Large game files can take up an entire months’ worth of data – or even more in some cases – making games with huge files totally inaccessible to a large number of people.

This one doesn’t seem like it’s going away any time soon, though. In fact, we’re likely to see file sizes continue to get larger as games push for higher resolutions, larger environments, and more detail.

Number 4: Empty open worlds.

Let’s call this one “the Fallout 76 problem.” Open worlds became a trend in gaming at some point in the last decade, such that many franchises pursued this style even when it didn’t suit their gameplay. Read the marketing material of many modern titles and you’ll see bragging about the size of the game world: 50km2, 100km2, 1,000km2, and so on. But many of these open worlds are just empty and boring, with much of the map taken up with vast expanses of nothing.

It is simply not much fun to have to travel across a boring environment – or even a decently pretty one – for ages just to get to the next mission or part of the story. Level design used to be concise and clever; modern open worlds, especially those which brag about their size, tend to be too large, with too little going on.

The reason why Fallout 76 just encapsulates this for me is twofold. Firstly, Bethesda droned on and on in the weeks before the game’s release that the world they’d created was the “biggest ever!” And secondly, the game had literally zero non-player characters. That huge open world was populated by a handful of other players, non-sentient monsters, and nothing else. It was one of the worst games of the last few years as a result.

Open worlds can work well in games that are suited for that style of gameplay. But too many studios have been pushed into creating an open world simply to fit in with a current trend, and those open worlds tend to just flat-out suck because of it. Even when developers have tried to throw players a bone by adding in collect-a-thons, those get boring fast.

Number 5: Pixel graphics as a selling point.

There are some great modern games that use a deliberately 8-bit look. But for every modern classic there are fifty shades of shit; games that think pixel graphics and the word “retro” are cover for creating a mediocre or just plain bad title.

It may be hard to remember, but there was a time when the idea of using a deliberately “old-school” aesthetic would have been laughed at. The first few console generations were all about improvements, and I’m old enough to remember when 3D was a huge deal. It seemed like nobody would ever want to go back to playing a SNES game after trying the Nintendo 64, and while there are still plenty of gamers who love the retro feel, I’m generally not one of them.

That isn’t to say that realistic graphics should be the only thing a game strives for. And this point works for modern graphics or visual styles in general – bragging about how detailed the graphics are, or how unique a title’s art style is, means nothing if the game itself is shit. But it likewise works for pixel-graphics games – an outdated art style does not compensate for or cover up a fundamentally flawed, unenjoyable experience.

Games with pixel graphics can be good, and many titles have surprised me by how good they are. I’ve written before about how Minecraft surprised me by being so much more than I expected, and that’s one example. But I guess what I’d say is this: if your game looks like it should have been released in 1991, you’ve got more of an uphill battle to win me over – or even convince me to try it in the first place – than you would if your game looked new.

Number 6: Unnecessary remakes.

We called one of the entries above “the Fallout 76 problem,” so let’s call this one “the Mass Effect: Legendary Edition problem.” In short, games from even ten or fifteen years ago still look pretty good and play well. There’s far less of a difference between games from 2011 and 2021 than there was between games from 1991 and 2001 – the pace of technological change, at least in gaming, has slowed.

“Updating” or “remaking” a game from ten years ago serves no real purpose, and in the case of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition I’ve struggled at times to tell which version of the game is the new one when looking at pre-release marketing material. There’s no compelling reason to remake games that aren’t very old. Re-release them or give them a renewed marketing push if you want to drum up sales or draw attention to a series, but don’t bill your minor upgrade as a “remake.”

There are some games that have benefitted hugely from being remade. I’d point to Crash Bandicoot and Resident Evil 2 as two great examples. But those games were both over twenty years old at the time they were remade, and having been released in the PlayStation 1 era, both saw massive upgrades such that they were truly worthy of the “remake” label.

I’ve put together two lists of games that I’d love to see remade, but when I did so I deliberately excluded titles from the last two console generations. Those games, as I said at the time, are too recent to see any substantial benefits from a remake. In another decade or so, assuming sufficient technological progress has been made, we can talk about remaking PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4 games – but not now!

Number 7: Fake “remakes.”

On a related note to the point above, if a title is billed as a “remake,” I expect to see substantial changes and improvements. If all that’s happened is a developer has run an old title through an upscaler and added widescreen support, that’s not a remake!

A lot of titles that acquire the “HD” suffix seem to suffer from this problem. Shenmue I & II on PC contained a number of bugs and glitches – some of which existed in the Dreamcast version! When Sega decided to “remake” these two amazing games, they couldn’t even be bothered to patch out bugs that were over fifteen years old. That has to be some of the sloppiest, laziest work I’ve ever seen.

There are other examples of this, where a project may have started out with good intentions but was scaled back and scaled back some more to the point that it ended up being little more than an upscaled re-release. Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning springs to mind as an example from just last year.

Remakes are an opportunity to go back to the drawing board, fix issues, update a title, and bring it into the modern world. Too many “remakes” fail to address issues with the original version of the game. We could even point to Mass Effect: Legendary Edition’s refusal to address criticism of the ending of Mass Effect 3 as yet another example of a missed opportunity.

Number 8: The “release now, fix later” business model.

This isn’t the first time I’ve criticised the “release now, fix later” approach taken by too many modern games – and it likely won’t be the last! Also known as “live services,” games that go down this route almost always underperform and draw criticism, and they absolutely deserve it. The addition of internet connectivity to home consoles has meant that games companies have taken a “good enough” approach to games, releasing them before they’re ready with the intention to patch out bugs, add more content, and so on at a later time.

Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the most recent and most egregious examples of this phenomenon, being released on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in a state so appallingly bad that many considered it “unplayable.” But there are hundreds of other examples going back to the early part of the last decade. Fortunately, out of all the entries on this list, this is the one that shows at least some signs of going away!

The fundamental flaw in this approach, of course, is that games with potential end up having launches that are mediocre at best, and when they naturally underperform due to bad reviews and word-of-mouth, companies panic! Planned updates are scrapped to avoid pumping more money into a failed product, and a game that could have been decent ends up being forgotten.

For every No Man’s Sky that manages to claw its way to success, there are a dozen Anthems or Mass Effect: Andromedas which fail. Time will tell if Cyberpunk 2077 can rebuild itself and its reputation, but its an uphill struggle – and a totally unnecessary one; a self-inflicted wound. If publishers would just wait and delay clearly-unfinished games instead of forcing them to meet arbitrary deadlines, gaming would be a much more enjoyable hobby. Remember, everyone: NO PRE-ORDERS!

Number 9: Forcing games to be multiplayer and/or scrapping single-player modes.

Some games are built from the ground up with multiplayer in mind – but many others are not, and have multiplayer modes tacked on for no reason. The Last Of Us had an unnecessary multiplayer mode, as did Mass Effect 3. Did you even know that, or notice those modes when you booted up those story-focused games?

Some games and even whole genres are just not well-suited to multiplayer. And others that are still have the potential to see single-player stories too. Many gamers associate the first-person shooter genre with multiplayer, and it’s true that multiplayer games work well in the first-person shooter space. But so do single-player titles, and aside from 2016’s Doom and the newer Wolfenstein titles, I can’t think of many new single-player first-person shooters, or even shooters with single-player modes that felt anything other than tacked-on.

Anthem is one of the biggest failures of the last few years, despite BioWare wanting it to be the video game equivalent of Bob Dylan. But if Anthem hadn’t been multiplayer and had instead maintained BioWare’s usual single-player focus, who knows what it could have been. There was potential in its Iron Man-esque flying suits, but that potential was wasted on a mediocre-at-best multiplayer shooter.

I started playing games before the internet, when “multiplayer” meant buying a second controller and plugging it into the console’s only other available port! So I know I’m biased because of that. But just a few short years ago it felt as though there were many more single-player titles, and fewer games that felt as though multiplayer modes had been artificially forced in. In the wake of huge financial successes such as Grand Theft Auto V, Fortnite, and the like, publishers see multiplayer as a cash cow – but I wish they didn’t!

Number 10: Early access.

How many times have you been excited to see that a game you’ve been waiting for is finally available to buy… only to see the two most awful words in the entire gaming lexicon: “Early Access?” Early access billed itself as a way for indie developers to get feedback on their games before going ahead with a full release, and I want to be clear on this point: I don’t begrudge indie games using it for that purpose. Indies get a pass!

But recently there’s been a trend for huge game studios to use early access as free labour; a cheap replacement for paying the wages of a quality assurance department. When I worked for a large games company in the past, I knew a number of QA testers, and the job is not an easy one. It certainly isn’t one that studios should be pushing off onto players, yet that’s exactly what a number of them have been doing. Early access, if it exists at all, should be a way for small studios to hone and polish their game, and maybe add fan-requested extras, not for big companies to save money on testers.

Then there are the perpetual early access games. You know the ones: they entered early access in 2015 and are still there today. Platforms like Steam which offer early access need to set time limits, because unfortunately some games are just taking the piss. If your game has been out since 2015, then it’s out. It’s not in early access, you’ve released it.

Unlike most of the entries on this list, early access started out with genuinely good intentions. When used appropriately by indie developers, it’s fine and I don’t have any issue with it. But big companies should know better, and games that enter early access and never leave should be booted out!

Bonus: Online harassment.

Though this problem afflicts the entire internet regardless of where you go, it’s significant in the gaming realm. Developers, publishers, even individual employees of games studios can find themselves subjected to campaigns of online harassment by so-called “fans” who’ve decided to take issue with something in a recent title.

Let’s be clear: there is never any excuse for this. No game, no matter how bad it is, is worth harassing someone over. It’s possible to criticise games and their companies in a constructive way, or at least in a way that doesn’t get personal. There’s never any need to go after a developer personally, and especially not to send someone death threats.

We’ve seen this happen when games are delayed. We’ve seen it happen when games release too early in a broken state. In the case of Cyberpunk 2077, we’ve seen both. Toxic people will always find a reason to be toxic, unfortunately, and in many ways the anonymity of the internet has brought out the worst in human nature.

No developer or anyone who works in the games industry deserves to be threatened or harassed. It’s awful, it needs to stop, and the petty, toxic people who engage in this scummy activity do not deserve to be called “fans.”

So that’s it. Ten of my pet peeves with modern gaming.

This was a rant, but it was just for fun so I hope you don’t mind! There are some truly annoying things – and some truly annoying people – involved in gaming in 2021, and as much fun as playing games can be, it can be a frustrating experience as well. Some of these things are fads – short-term trends that will evaporate as the industry moves on. But others, like the move away from single-player games toward ongoing multiplayer experiences, seem like they’re here to stay.

Gaming has changed an awful lot since I first picked up a control pad. And it will continue to evolve and adapt – the games industry may be unrecognisable in fifteen or twenty years’ time! We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed for positive changes to come.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer, publisher, and/or studio. Some stock images courtesy of pixabay. Some screenshots and promotional artwork courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Five games that prove “release now, fix later” doesn’t work

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the titles on this list.

One of the most annoying trends in the games industry over the last few years has been the “release now, fix later” approach taken by companies. I’ve looked at this problem before, but suffice to say that the internet and digital distribution have led publishers and studios to release their games in an unfinished state, with a plan to roll out patches and fixes after release.

A few years ago – even as recently as the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 generation – this wouldn’t have worked. But with so many people buying games digitally nowadays, companies seem to think that they can get away with it. However, there are many examples over the last few years of games that failed to live up to their potential – or failed entirely – because of this attitude.

Yes, we’re going to talk about Cyberpunk 2077 again…

The few days either side of a game’s release are incredibly important. Reviewers get their hands on a copy and play through the game, getting their reviews ready in time for launch. Then players who pre-ordered and those who got the game on day one get to play the game for themselves, and within hours of release a game’s reputation is pretty much set. It takes a lot of hard work to change anyone’s first impression – so if the game was in a bad, unfinished state, that will be the headline. And once that becomes the prevailing opinion, it’s very difficult to change minds and convince people to give it a second look.

As a result, releasing a game too early can kill it – even if subsequent patches and hotfixes bring it up to code.

Let’s look at five games that fell victim to this “release now, fix later” phenomenon.

Number 1:
Destiny (2014)

One of the first big games to suffer because of this was Bungie’s Destiny. After departing the Halo series following 2010’s Halo: Reach, Bungie struck out on their own to make what they promised would be a “ten-year experience” called Destiny. Less than three years after Destiny’s 2014 release, though, Destiny 2 would launch.

There was a lot of interest in Bungie on the back of the success of the Halo series. Halo: Reach had been hailed as the best entry so far, and there was nothing to suggest that Destiny would be anything other than fantastic. In a way we can call this a case of overhyping, but Bungie actually did a reasonable job of setting appropriate expectations for what Destiny would be. The finished game was just not very interesting to many players, and after beating the main campaign, most didn’t stick around.

If Destiny had been released in a complete state instead of promising updates and expansions, perhaps more players would have stuck with it. But this is precisely the problem with games that go down this route – an underwhelming experience puts players off. Why would they bother coming back to Destiny to see the latest update(s) when the game was only okay the first time around? Games need to be good when they release – not average with the promise of becoming good later, and that, in a nutshell, was Destiny’s problem.

Number 2:
No Man’s Sky (2016)

No game is more synonymous with “release now, fix later” than 2016’s No Man’s Sky. I actually felt that, for what it was, the game was decent even at launch, but I hadn’t bought into the hype and went into the game with moderate expectations! There’s no denying that No Man’s Sky was missing many promised features at launch, and while it wasn’t plagued by bugs or glitches in the way some games on this list were, it felt threadbare to many players.

No Man’s Sky is a classic example of overhyping. Studio Hello Games and its head Sean Murray seemed incapable of saying “no,” promising players that No Man’s Sky would be an infinitely pleasurable sandbox in which they could do just about anything they wanted. A key part of marketing in the games industry is reining in hype and knowing when and how to set accurate expectations – something that Hello Games completely messed up.

Hello Games put in a lot of hard work to bring promised features to No Man’s Sky in the years after its release, and in 2021 the game actually does meet many of those lofty expectations. But even so, many players who were burned in 2016 have not returned, and the game’s reputation is still in the gutter in many people’s minds. There’s even a sense that Hello Games should not be “rewarded” for fixing the game after its release, and I know folks who refuse to buy it on principle.

Number 3:
Fallout 76 (2018)

Fallout 76 may be the worst game on this list. It was certainly the most disappointing to me personally. Not only did it launch in a crappy, broken state riddled with bugs, but it was also threadbare. A double-whammy, if you will.

The heart of any role-playing game comes from great, memorable characters. And the Fallout series has always provided plenty of interesting people to engage with, triggering quests and storylines that are easy to get invested in. Fallout 76 had precisely zero non-player characters at launch, making its world feel empty and its quests uninspired and meaningless. Aside from wandering around, looking at the pretty (if decidedly last-gen) environment and battling a few buggy monsters, there was literally nothing to do in the game.

There were other problems which don’t stem from the game being forced out the door too soon, such as Bethesda’s reliance on a massively out-of-date game engine and a crappy shooting mechanic that single-player Fallout games had managed to cover up with the VATs system. But the core of Fallout 76′s problems came from being released in an unfinished state. The game’s reputation tanked and has not recovered, and Bethesda, which had already been on a downward trajectory, is now held in especially low regard.

Number 4:
Anthem (2019)

BioWare released two games in a row in the mid/late 2010s which both suffered this exact issue. After Mass Effect: Andromeda was ridiculed on release for being a buggy mess, Anthem likewise had issues at launch. Though there were fewer bugs than in Andromeda – or at least, fewer egregious ones – Anthem was nevertheless unfinished.

For a live service title, Anthem was missing a lot. There were few customisation options, not enough interesting loot, and the final act of the game, which is the most important part as it’s where players will spend most of their time, was described as being just plain boring. In addition, the enemies were repetitive, the story – something BioWare is usually good at – was lacklustre and uninspired, and the game was just mediocre.

Mediocrity is not good enough when there are so many other competing titles to play, and Anthem soon lost the small number of players it initially picked up, dropping more than 90% of its playerbase within a few weeks of launch. What happened next is typical of underperforming live services: its “roadmap” of planned updates was cancelled. Though Anthem technically limps on and its servers are still active, in reality everyone knows it’s dead.

Number 5:
Cyberpunk 2077 (2020)

Cyberpunk 2077 is unusual in the sense that, unlike the other entries on this list, it’s a single-player game. It isn’t the only single-player game to ever release too soon, but it’s certainly the most significant one in recent years. CD Projket Red appear to have been desperate to release the game before the end of 2020, and whatever the reason for that may be, the end result was a game so riddled with bugs and glitches that many described it as “unplayable.”

Sony took the unprecedented step of withdrawing Cyberpunk 2077 from sale on the PlayStation Store – a move which has not yet been undone. CD Projekt Red, which had been one of the most popular games companies in the view of the general public, saw its reputation collapse – and its share price took a nosedive too.

Even now, almost three months on from release, Cyberpunk 2077 is still in a bad state, especially on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game is simply not optimised to run well on those consoles, and it will take many more months of work to get it anywhere close to playable. However, in some ways the bugs and glitches have covered up what may come to be seen as Cyberpunk 2077′s worst failing: the game underneath the bugs certainly does not live up to the pre-release hype. Far from being a genre-busting once-in-a-lifetime experience, what players who stuck with the game through its issues have found is an okay first-person-shooter/role-playing game, and little else.

So that’s it. Five games which prove unequivocally that the “release now, fix later” concept simply does not work. The sooner games companies come to realise that a delay is better than a bad launch the better. There is a much-overused quotation from Nintendo legend and Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto: “a delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.” Despite all of the games above promising fixes, they remain, in the eyes of most gamers, bad.

Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto has a thing or two to say about this!
Picture Credit: Vincent Diamante from Los Angeles, CA, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s the fundamental problem with this approach. It’s very difficult to overcome first impressions, and if a game launches to mediocre reviews and online criticism, that will be the only thing most people remember. No Man’s Sky has worked incredibly hard to overcome its launch issues, and the game is in a state today that genuinely lives up to the expectations players had and the pre-release hype. Yet the game will always come with an asterisk, and when people remember No Man’s Sky in ten or twenty years’ time, the fact that it was a colossal disappointment will be first and foremost in people’s minds.

As more and more games release in an unfinished state and go on to underperform – if not fail hard – I hope that games companies and publishers will come to see the folly in this approach. Maybe the 2020s will see more delays and better games as a result. We can only hope, right?

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some screenshots and promotional artwork courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

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.