John Tabbernor, Columnist // Illustration by Ryan Mcdiarmid
I hate to break it to you, but we’re not playing video games anymore – we’re playing live services. You may have heard the buzzword being tossed around the video game industry over the last year or two, and for good reason. Publishers and developers are consciously moving away from static price tags on their games. We’ve seen this in the past with post-launch add-ons, downloadable content or special editions with packed-in bonuses. But now, games are specifically designed to keep us playing. Forever. Or until the publisher decides they’re not making enough money anymore and pulls support and shuts down the servers.
This idea of the “forever game” or “games as service” is nothing new. The mobile games market has been perfecting this business model for years, and only recently has the mainstream games industry caught up. It’s a simple idea really – keep players playing and paying into the same game rather than moving on and buying a new one. In more business-y terms, this is often referred to as “PRI” or “player recurring investment.” It’s something that Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry developer Ubisoft is doubling down on. The company announced earlier this year that it would be moving most, if not all of its titles to this live service model. Their CEO, Yves Guillemot, went so far as to say, “PRI has the potential to deliver prodigious value for our shareholders.” Essentially, it will make them boatloads more money.
And this model is incredibly effective. Epic Games’ Fortnite has quickly become a cultural phenomenon since its release last September. By May of this year, the game had already made over $1 billion. None of that money came from a traditional price tag associated with purchasing the title. The game has always been free to play and earns revenue only through cosmetic-based microtransactions. Similarly, in 2017 Activision Blizzard made $4 billion on microtransactions alone. That is the unicorn that live service games are chasing. Publishers want to figure out how to give their game as long of a tail as possible. That way they can continue to rake in money from the same users. It is far more valuable for them to keep us paying a few dollars here and there every month then to charge us $79.99 once every few years. It’s why we’ve seen new releases like Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 adopt not just similar game modes to other successful live services, but also plan a yearlong roadmap of new content and events.
There’s a number of different strategies developers utilize to keep players in their ecosystems for as long as possible. Many games now feature daily login bonuses that reward us if we keep checking in and playing the game. Others have limited edition “game passes” that unlock seasonal rewards for playing during a specific event. Even the recent <i>Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey<i> offered players a one time $10 experience boost that will help get them through the massive game just a little bit faster. Even the highly controversial blind box or “loot box” is still prevalent in the space. Certain governments around the world have likened blind boxes to slot machines and gambling. These reward players with a chance to earn items or cosmetics in exchange for real world money. The key word there is “chance.” Whether it be gambling mechanics or daily login rewards, these systems become all the more troubling when we take into account their addictive nature. Players may be able to control their spending and limit how they interact with these systems, but those that are predisposed to developing addictions may wind up paying the price.
In the end, I suppose it falls to each player to determine how they derive value from these games. For me personally, it can feel like being pulled in a million directions. Investing in a game is no longer like going to the movies – strapping in for an experience that I know has a definitive end. I find myself growing anxious, and no longer excited when I see an interesting new game or franchise announcement. I worry whether it will be worth the time and the investment. Will this hot new open world co-op action role-playing game be a money pit? On top of that, will this new hotness pull me away from the games that I’ve already sunk so much time, effort and money into?
We saw a similar monetization model with massively multiplayer games in the early 2000’s. These subscription-based games asked for $15 per month from every player. After World of Warcraft rocketed to success, countless more titles tried to get a piece of the pie. However, most shutdown just as soon as they sprang up when players weren’t willing to make that extra investment. Maybe in the Netflix era, we’re more accustomed to paying into these types of live services. Truth be told, I’m really excited to check out The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and to see what other interesting new shows Netflix might have planned down the road. But will I be playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 a year from now? I seriously doubt it.