Why Are Live Service Games Getting Worse and What Will Happen in the Future?

We take a look at the growing crisis for the Games as a Service model and what the future spells for them

Why Are Live Service Games Getting Worse and What Will Happen in the Future?
Photo by Erik Mclean / Unsplash

For recent years, the Live Service model has been showing clear signs of struggle. Most new live service games are dying in this competitive market at an accelerated rate. With some publishers and studios cancelling development before launch. In the past, while establishing the model, developers were willing to invest considerable resources to them. This included a respectable amount of time, to allow them to evolve and establish in the market.

In the last couple of years, a slowing trend for live service games is reaching critical mass. This year alone has seen a notable number of live service games going under. The big publishers with significant funding or known franchises haven't escaped this trend. EA cancelled Battlefield Mobile before launch, and shut-down Apex Legends Mobile in only one year. Six-months after launching it, Epic Games shut down its brawler battle-royale Rumbleverse. It all seemed to amount to an expensive experiment. In another baffling executive decision, Sega and Creative Assembly canceled the expensive development of Hyenas, their own first entry in this ferocious market.

The common-sense belief is that only bad games fail. Through the years, examples such as Anthem, Marvel's Avengers, or Babylon's Fall will validate this belief. But that doesn't account for the games that had good design and gameplay, and still failed. For examples of this, remember titles like indie darling Splitgate, Epic's Paragon or CliffyB's LawBreakers.

The chances of success may look accessible, but failure possibility grows with each snag. Players expect devs to make a good, interesting, original game that'll give a constant drip of quality content to keep them engaged. With devs just reaping the reward for this common-sense blueprint. But fine-tuning that appealing gameplay will increase developing time and costs. When the first obstacle that delays the release appears, it will damp the public hype and interest. If devs create the engaging drip of content and price it right, established competing titles fight for the player's time and attention. Or maybe the previous games' playerbase have invested progress they don't want to walk away from. And if the game has any competitive focus, devs need quick and ruthless action when dealing with a cheater or balance problem, otherwise the public leaves in droves and maybe won't come back.

By now, economy-savvy players are quick to recognize the pitfalls of the genre. Phrases and terms like FOMO, sunk-cost fallacy, time sinks, and monetization fatigue justify mistrust in the usual practices. And no one forgets that we're dealing with a global recession that's changing spending habits, with people going outside as the pandemic lock-downs lifted.

So, is all this spelling doom and gloom for the model? Not in the short term, at least. For starters, the industry has reached a size where turning trends requires considerable collective effort. Some modest success stories still happen, granted, few from 2023. But names like Marvel's Snap and Party Animals come to mind. And some comeback stories, like Halo Infinite's miraculous revival. Some events, like Bungie's faltering grip in the market, signal opportunities for the taking.

Big live service projects continue development, like Bungie's Marathon, or the multiplayer spin-offs for The Last of Us and Horizon franchises. Despite the managerial challenges and slowed-down development, publishers and studios consider these a feasible enterprise.

I have to add the interest on revivals for some of these games. Like the unique closed event that brought Motiga's Gigantic back for a weekend, done by Gearbox as the current IP owner. Or Cliff Bleszinski advocating from his retirement for the return of LawBreakers. Considering the money sunk in development, it isn't weird that IP holders would want to recoup at least some of those costs this way.

If anything or everything here beckons the live service model decay, it's the shake-up that signals the need for a redesign and evolution. A change like the release of the Unreal Editor for Fortnite, that now fuels the games' economy with player-generated content. Other developers have established similar systems with varying levels of success. Namely, Halo Infinite's Forge could have played a major role in their resurgence.

Both big and small developers have lessons to learn from the increasing disenchantment with the live service model. A re-evaluation of models labeled as obsolete can give lessons from their strongest successes. Like the abnormal story of No Man's Sky. It's hard to ignore Hello Games' triumphant self-funding after so much adversity. Sustaining this growth seven years, an active lifespan longer than many other games, with sales mostly coming from public goodwill.

It's undeniable that traditional, monolithic releases dominated the gaming conversation the last two years. Elden Ring and Baldur's Gate 3 have had tremendous accomplishments both in technical and commercial nature. They both did it in genres considered obsolete or saturated. AAA Developers labeled Baldur's Gate 3 an anomaly for breaking the norm. And last year, players confused a crowd of western developers for enjoying Elden Ring's bare-bones open world design.

Histories like any of the last three mentioned, prove that modern, feature-complete, microtransaction-free games can garner considerable support for an economic success. And can overcome troubled development cycles favorably.

If the increasingly risk-averse management of publishers and studios can adjust to face this crisis, perhaps this can lead to fewer cancellations. Hopefully, player and consumer-friendly innovations in monetization models can come with it. Some gameplay variety that escapes the stale approved genres in the market wouldn't hurt either. Watershed events can define innovators. This definition will depend on the lessons learned from the trial.

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