Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a few shake-ups in the gaming industry. Specifically, the closing of two prominent studios: Visceral, the folks behind Dead Space and Battlefield Hardline, and Runic Games, the folks behind Hob and Torchlight. Despite being two very different companies working for two very different parent companies, they were shut down for the exact same reason: their owners wanted to re-focus on games as a service, specifically with multiplayer components. And the games those companies were used to making were pretty much the opposite of that: Dead Space was at its best when it was a single-player horror-action game, and Torchlight 2 was far too open and player-friendly to be able to monetize efficiently. They simply didn’t have a chance to thrive, at least, not in the way that EA and Perfect World wanted too.
Because they want to focus as games as a service.
When you hear stories like this, and you think about their implications, it’s easy to see why so many people are apprehensive about the idea of gaming as a service, when in reality, there’s nothing terribly wrong with it. In fact, I would (and will, later in this article) argue that gaming as a service could actually be a really good thing. But many of my earlier arguments certainly don’t seem to hold water with these recent revelations, especially the ones that showcase exactly what those two companies think when imagine what a future of gaming as a service actually looks like.
But let’s take a step back: what IS gaming as a ‘service’? Honestly, in practice, it’s not that terribly different from what we already have, it’s just a question of mindset. Basically, the old accepted wisdom is that video games are a product: you pay a flat fee for them, and it’s yours, you own it, you can do whatever you want with it. But that idea was challenged as early as 1995 with Meridan 59, the first MMORPG. It, like most games that would follow its style, marched to a slightly different drum: you would pay for it, but then you would continue to pay for it every month as a subscription. The reasoning was sound enough, at the time: it was an online game and servers cost money. You know, a service.
Gaming as a service has been around for the lion’s share of modern gaming’s life: it only feels new and scary because the lines between the product and service are growing increasingly blurred. While I would be hard-pressed to find the exact moment when that started to happen, I’d say what really got the ball rolling was back in the mid-to-late 2000’s when game executives were suddenly in a panic about used game sales, which they called (at the time) the #1 threat to the gaming world.
It was bull, but the thing about bull is that if you spread it passionately enough, you start to believe it yourself. And so, developers became preoccupied with ways to ‘solve’ the used game problem, ranging from “increased replay value with multiplayer”, locking content behind a one-time code so only new games would have the full package, and of course, encouraging people to pre-order so they could lock in those guaranteed sales. Ultimately, none of those ideas would be the solution publishers were looking for… but it did get people talking about “ownership” of a game. After all, why should re-selling a game be a problem, people argued, if it was your property the moment you purchased it?
And it’s that line of thinking that got developers looking enviously at the budding PC gaming market, where Steam and others were able to use the very real threat of piracy piracy as an excuse to lock down on both returns and used sales: meaning that if you bought a game, it basically had to be new. Losing the right to do this, as well as growing concern regarding games “vanishing” after their servers were shut down (if Steam ever goes under we’re all going to be losing a lot of games we ‘owned’), got people talking in worried, hushed tones about games becoming a ‘service’.
Well, PLAYERS were worried. Publishers, well, that’s a wet dream come true for them.
Again, I would be hard-pressed to remember exactly when developers started acting on this “games as a service” notion in the world of triple-A single-player games, but I can pinpoint the exact moments it became a big deal: EA’s latest remake of Sim Cities and Blizzard’s Diablo 3. Both technically single-player games that required gamers to be online when playing, no matter how you were doing it. While EA backed down somewhat from the firestorm that exploded soon afterwards, Blizzard stuck to their guns because, frankly, they knew they could get away with it, they’re freaking Blizzard. If they released a colorful box with a dead rat in it they’d sell out in two days.
I digress: while I don’t recall if “game as a service” was ever tossed around verbatim by either company, the hallmarks were all there: the company technically ‘owns’ the game, you’re just paying to use it for a while, you had to be online to take advantage of it, and the company promised that in exchange for this, you’d get a whole bunch of neat stuff. To many, that didn’t seem like a good enough trade, a sentiment that was only exaggerated with the Xbox One decided to try it.
You remember how that turned out. The whole idea peaked for a while, developers backed away, and now we see it coming back, and while people are certainly scared of it, I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again: not only do I think the future of games as a service is inevitable, it’s not strictly a bad thing.
First, why do I see it as inevitable? Mostly because it works. For one, a monetization service company known as Digital River has looked into the reality of gaming as a service, and they found that games that commit to it have “tripled” in industry value. According to the market, the system works, and there’s literally no good reason for developers not to jump on this gravy train, not as long as gamers keep buying into it themselves. Plus, the idea of making something a ‘service’ has made our lives better in many places: just look at Netflix. It turned the “product” of owning DVDs and videos obsolete: it’s way better to just pay a monthly fee and have access to everything.
And that’s what I mean when I say gaming as a service can actually be really good: you’d bet your butt I’d be willing to pay a monthly fee for a gaming version of Netflix. One that actually works, in any case (looking at you, Gamefly). I’d even pay it twice if it means I can get mainstream games on one service and Nintendo games on another. The model isn’t perfect, obviously: it means your gaming would rely on your internet connection, it would mean developers would have less incentive to make longer, sprawling games with replay value, and you know they wouldn’t be quick to give up their precious microtransactions. But the seed of a good idea is there.
Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening. What we’re seeing, predominantly with Star Wars Battlefront 2 and to a lesser extent, Shadow of War, is the industry trying to have its cake and eat it too, by selling you a 60-dollar retail game then have that individual game act as the platform from which developers can sell things that only impact that single game. It’s making the product a service, rather than turning the whole industry into a service for the customer.
Here's the thing: while this is very troubling, I don’t think this is the kind of thing I have to sound the alarm over, not on the consumer side. Because while there are a lot of people who decide that they’d rather spend money on games than join the “boycotters” every time developers pull this stuff, the simple fact is, there isn’t an infinite amount of money in the world. If Star Wars Battlefront 2 does shockingly well and other developers flock to this model, most gamers simply won’t be able to afford it. Publishers will quickly realize that while maybe one or two games can get away with it, it’s not a system that can support the whole darn market. And because of that, there will always need to be single-player games and other services on-offer, at least, until someone actually steps up and does the whole “gaming Netflix” thing I just mentioned.
So do we need to worry? Sure, of course we do, go read the world news and tell me now’s the time for calm. But as far as this subject is concerned, no, I think we’re in a pretty safe spot. As for what might spawn from this failed experiment, though… well, that’s a question to ask tomorrow. Because that’s when we’ll have to fight it.