To say that gaming is changing would be a massive understatement. Games used to be a physical-only thing and if you’re old enough you’ll remember the huge boxes PC games used to be packaged in – the cardboard monstrosities that would fill our homes. The past few years have seen a steady rise in the move towards digital and where PSN, Steam, or Xbox Live purchases used to be reserved for the smaller indie titles, we’re now pre-ordering Destiny 2’s digital version or preloading Monster Hunter: World so we can start playing immediately.
One thing that nobody seemed to like was the bad old days of new iterations of the same games each year. But now developers and publishers have realised that players have been getting more savvy and sequels have to do something special to justify an annual purchase. Big changes are happening because the yearly sequel is on the way out in favour of a new model: games as a service (GaaS).
You may not realise it, but you’re already both experiencing and are likely a fan of this type of thing. FIFA is the biggest example and one of the most popular. Ultimate Team is the poster child for GaaS and we’d bet that in the not too distant future this mode eventually breaks out into its own game. It’s astonishing that EA haven’t already done this. Sure, you can play Ultimate Team on the go, via mobile app (or on Switch if you like your FIFA handheld), but given that it started in the early days as a paid add-on for FIFA 09 it’s remarkable to see its status as one of the most played modes in the world right now. EA have actually attempted to do Ultimate Team before, via a PC version a few years ago, but it didn’t reach the same heights. However, the time may be right very soon to try again on all platforms.
Another series that’s surprisingly still a yearly fixture is Call of Duty. Again, there’s been an attempt on PC to make this a service-based game, but exclusively in China. It’s developed by Activision Shanghai and distributed by Tencent, one of the biggest companies in the industry who own Supercell, Riot Games, and have partial ownership of Epic Games of Fortnite fame. It’s a free-to-play experience that’s been in open beta since 2015 and you have to wonder if one low-selling Western Call of Duty game would see Activision lean towards the games as a service online model.
Activision are clearly big fans of GaaS. Destiny’s original plan was apparently to create a living world which would evolve over time. Updates would just keep adding and adding to the world, but rumoured development problems combined with criticisms of that title meant that it didn’t end up as something played over the longer term as planned. It still lasted a few years, with expansions bringing the player base back time after time, and we have to wonder how long Destiny 2 will do this. It’s surely cheaper for the developers Bungie and publishers Activision to add to a game, making money on new content, than it is to create a brand new game in Destiny 3.
It seems that the game-playing audience is more ready for this, too. Ubisoft have been absolutely nailing it with the whole games as a service thing. Rainbow Six Siege is over two years old but remains enormously popular, boasting in excess of 25 million registered players. This has been done without the need to make a Rainbow Six Siege 2 (and Ubisoft very much used to sequelise the Tom Clancy games, with Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 1 and 2, Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six 1 and 2). Instead, by treating the game as a platform and adding new maps and operators over time, Activision have found the game has maintained its popularity to the point that it’s even spawned an eSports scene. Speaking of eSports, racing games are surely going to be looking towards becoming a service. Codemasters’ F1 series, for example, would be a perfect fit for the model given that racing game visuals are at the very top end of the quality spectrum so altering things for players via an ad-hoc approach would make sense.
For Honor is another game using 'seasons' of play to keep people coming back and even Ghost Recon Wildlands (which wasn’t particularly well received) is getting in on the act, adding Predator (yes, from the movies) which got people talking about Wildlands again. We’d bet concurrent player numbers suddenly jumped up when this happened.
The idea of games as a service isn’t a new one. MMORPGs have done this for the longest time, with the World of Warcraft coming out as far back as 2004. And while developer Blizzard stopped giving subscription numbers around a year ago, even then, over ten years in, the numbers were still in the millions. The difference, then, is that WoW is a paid service, while the other titles that are going down the 'service' route are one-time purchases, offering content at a later date to keep you playing. One upfront cost, no subscription: how can that not be appealing? Knowing your beloved game is going to stay current and culturally relevant? That’s a big deal, and once word of mouth gets out about how well supported a game is, half the work is done and you’re going to want to get in on the action.
It doesn’t always work, of course. Street Fighter V was Capcom’s attempt at making a fighting game as a service, and it had (to say the least) a rocky start. A season pass brought characters into the game slowly but surely: that was the lure to get you coming back. Where Street Fighter V failed here was that it also had some pricey costumes for the characters and shipped missing features you’d expect from any competing game, like the story mode, which was a genuinely shocking element to be absent upon launch. Fast forward to this year and Capcom are putting out Arcade Edition, which is almost certainly a second go at the idea. The core game is brilliant and in many ways this is the second chance it deserves.
What this means is that 2018 is going to be full of games demanding your attention over a longer period of time. Monster Hunter: World is, obviously, going to be an online game that you play with friends and we’d bet it will have features that aim to keep you from drifting too far from it. EA Sports UFC 3 will likely retain the Ultimate Team aspects and we all know how addictive those modes are. Sea of Thieves is almost certainly a game that will go down the GaaS route, attempting to bring player groups together over and over with new adventures and holding onto people. Given the incredible success of Grand Theft Auto Online, we’d bet that Red Dead Redemption 2 will feature a huge online experience that will have people playing for years.
The thing is, if we as players keep supporting this movement, there’s a possibility this is helping fund the smaller, new games. Who’s to say whether the support for FIFA Ultimate Team means that EA can put funds towards a game like A Way Out, the co-op adventure we’re all looking forward to? What if Activision’s success with Destiny helped pave the way for the safe bet that was the remake of Crash Bandicoot? All these wonderful games can happily coexist, but it’s clear that the landscape of gaming is changing and the way we play is evolving.
Single-player games aren’t going away, but it seems the idea of bashing out a quick sequel might be fading. Developers are thinking harder about creating a longer tail for their titles and more love than ever is being poured into games to keep us coming back for more. Time will tell if this progress is a good thing, but right now we’re enjoying the fact we feel no pressure to leave a game we’re loving because the next ten things have been released. You can have games you jump back into time and time again, but also still enjoy the blockbuster experiences solo – and right now, we’re finding it hard to see the downside of that.