Remember when video game announcements were fun? I have found myself looking at new game announcements closely, looking for signs that this game is using a “freemium”
It’s exhausting. Following the news of PC games and games on Xbox, PlayStation and Switch is now a minefield of revenue generation. There are still a few high-profile titles that will stick to the classic formula, pay once and get the whole experience. The Last of Us 2 on PlayStation 4, is a good example. But they become the exception.
More often I see something that initially looks promising, like Marvels Avengers, only to realize during the months between announcement and release that this is another live service. A game that publishers will build once, and then update with small revisions, and try to get you to pay a little extra for it each time. They come in different flavors now, but all with the same goal: minimize the ratio of development costs to earned revenue. An infinite L-curve is the desired result.
So to categorize these feelings, I have developed what I call the Five Stages of Video Game Announcement Grief. No, it’s not original. I’m not even saying it’s useful. But on the principle that a shared burden is a halved burden, I have decided to share it with you.
No need to thank me.
Stage One: Excitement
What is it? A new game in your favorite series? Maybe a new intellectual property from a developer that you’ve loved for years? Or just a new thing that looks cool and interesting, a game that is different and catchy in an exciting way?
It may be a new one Fall out game! Or a revitalized classic, like Call of Duty Modern Warfare or Crash Team Racing! It could be something from a legendary developer, introduced in a breath of fresh air as an undeniable milestone in a generation, like Biowares
Lovely! The video game industry needs innovation, as both PC and console gamers want novelty (or at least claim to do so). This exciting new announcement – perhaps at E3, or GDC, or a smaller event like a Nintendo Direct – definitely means you have something nice to look forward to while playing your favorite games for the third or fourth time.
Phase two: Suspicion
But wait. There’s something eerie in the air. Why does the developer claim to support this game for 10 years or more? Even most of the best multiplayer games do not last that long when it comes to active development. Why would a gaming company even want to make the same game for a decade anyway?
Then you see it. A focus on multiplayer or collaboration in a game that does not really need it. A new format – say a lasting online world like Fallout 76 or a shooter where you are expected to paint with a party. A system of online competition injected into a game about history – capturing and fighting Tolkien’s orcs as if they were Pokémon, for example. What does it do there, and why is it so prominently featured in this game release?
Why is everything quantified, with RPG-style progression in a game series that used to rely on more pure action? What about tons of cosmetics, divided into a dozen different subcategories, including things like interface adjustments and hats that only other players ever see? Why has this sports franchise that has been going on for decades suddenly become a management simulator, where you have to buy your players with fake money using currency in the game (bought with real money) that feels suspiciously like playing?
Why does this game suddenly seem less like the game it should be, and more like … well, more like any other game tent pole game coming out of the AAA industry?
Step three: sun
Money. The answer is almost exclusively money.
Assassin’s Creed turned from an action game with instant assassinations to an action RPG with upgradeable equipment and cool sponge enemies. Fallout 76 tried to turn a series of well-known singleplayers – where loneliness was part of the game’s setting – into a blank map for online multiplayer and a recurring charge. Bioware shifted from creating engaging single-player RPGs to building an obvious and unappealing clone of Fate. All in service of chasing a “live” model that needs players to pay again and again to get the latest piecemeal content. After all, a similar structure has worked in mobile gaming for years.
That’s why so many games now have one Fortnite-style matchmaking, where an infinite amount of debut can be achieved more effectively with ten dollars every other month? These systems are even injected into older (but still popular) games, such as Rocket League.
Game developers and publishers have seen a few examples of success in established mega-games—Fortnite, FIFA, Overwatch, DOTA, Destiny—And tried to apply the same patterns and formulas to more or less every game. Even games that do not have any real business that suits them, like Grand Theft Auto or Ghost Recon.
If that does not make you angry, you are too young to remember when this was not the status quo, or you are rich enough that buying your games for several years at a time does not affect your budget. In either case, publishers absolutely love you.
Step Four: Disappointment
Ten years ago, a game like Marvels Avengers would come out and be more or less finished, possibly with a DLC pack added a month or two later. Once the game was complete, perhaps ported to another game console or PC or repackaged in a Game of the Year Edition, the developers would move on. Maybe they wanted to make a sequel, or apply what they had learned to something new.
It would not come out with years and years of character upgrades planned, each linked to a $ 10 match pass to unlock all the extra goodies. It would not be built as a conceptual framework on which more content was later nailed, as Anthem or Develop yourself. That would not be the tiniest hint of an interactive medium asking you to buy the rest of it in pieces. It would not be designed as an interactive roadmap for profit instead of experience.
It would just be a game. A game that you paid for and then played and then finished – or not, if you really wanted to dig into it. But the choice was made by the player, not by a leader who demanded that their company build the next sensation of billions of dollars by reviving the body of the last one.
Step five: Farewell
We’re in a time of the live service game, friends. There are, of course, exceptions to this, mostly from smaller developers and indies (with a few pleasing exceptions like Ghost of Tsushima). But for any game big enough to be advertised during an NFL broadcast, you can expect to pay sixty (or seventy) dollars for a pretty extra experience, chopped up so you can pay for the rest of the pieces one at a time.
It was not always like that, no, but there are no indications that the trend will reverse anytime soon. A generation of mobile players is now old enough to afford and enjoy richer games (both literally and figuratively) on PCs and consoles. The idea of paying small chunks for the kind of rewards that used to be built into games has been cemented in the minds of many players. Players who paid an extra dollar to unlock a few lives in Candy Crush the last decade sees no basic problems with paying ten dollars extra to get a “kampppas” now.
That’s not all – if you clicked on this article, it’s probably not you. But there are a large enough number of players that publishers are completely foaming to get the potential dollars, building games with $ 100 million budgets around them. After seeing what happened Fallout 76, and even to Fallout 4 to some extent I look forward to hearing more about The Elder Scrolls VI with equal parts expectation and fear.
I’m waiting for the other shoe to fall on TESV6.
There are still many indie games that are a complete experience, right out of the box, and remain so. You can find dozens of them released each year. And they’ve great, especially if you’re not the type of gamer who wants the big shiny 3D action experience. But any game that gets big enough will be sought after by someone bigger – like Microsoft sloppy Minecraft, which Epic extinguished Rocket League.
The usual refrain at this point is “vote with your wallet.” But to be honest, it’s not really a solution. Enough people have been conditioned to continue paying for games that it simply will not change soon. Not all live service games that swing for the fences with infinite profits will succeed. But enough of them will succeed, to a large enough degree, that this pattern will remain etched in the industry for years to come.
This is the industry we live with. You can try to avoid it, and even succeed for a while. But in the end, it will require your favorite franchise or developer, and throw it on the live service altar. Your choices are to pay tithing (and keep paying and paying) or find something else to play. Again.