The Impact of Live Service on Game Design
Live Service/Games as a Service has been a fundamental change in how games are designed and supported for months or even years. The very best games can become a license to print money for the developers, and transformed League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2, among many others into juggernauts.
But when you’re thinking about a game as not just a finished product, but a continued project, it’s raising issues in terms of what exactly is the consumer getting in the first place.
The main point about live service is providing continued development and content for a game well past its launch. This content extends beyond just bug fixes, but adding in new game elements, and even brand-new gameplay loops.
At its best, live service keeps a game in the public eye and retains its value for far longer compared to traditional games. For Esports, you absolutely need your game to be live service if you expect it to remain in the competitive space for long.
Along those lines, live service games do transform into different products over the months or years of support. You cannot play a game like Team Fortress 2, Payday 2, League of Legends, and more, now and get the same experience as launch day.
We’ve even seen titles get a “redemption” run after having a bad launch — such as Sea of Thieves and No Man’s Sky. Having games get better after being released is great, but that still leaves the question about what was going on at launch.
Surviving the Launch
The reason for this piece came from reading the review of the Surviving Mars expansion over on Rock Paper Shotgun. When the game was released, it was criticized for not having a lot of depth or content beyond the initial gameplay loop. Over a year later, the expansion “Green Planet” has been released and it’s being praised for the new system added.
Like No Man’s Sky and Sea of Thieves, it’s a case of game being released not at its very best, and it’s something we’re seeing more of from the indie space. I’ve been playing more and more games lately from indie developers who within a week to a month of putting a game officially out, release major QOL and bug fix patches for the game.
On one hand that’s a good sign, but we’re talking issues that anyone who was looking and playing these games should have caught or commented on during playtesting.
Just like the rise of digital distribution, there have been discussions about the quality of games being released, not what they are after months of updates, but how they were on day one. As we talked about, the very best examples of live service take a game that’s already great and enhance it, but what about the games that didn’t start great?
Making Things Worse
From the Rock Paper Shotgun review, there are a few quotes I want to bring up:
“While I might gently argue that there’s nothing actually wrong with this approach (and that in an age of digital releases, constant patching and early access, we should stop expecting developers to shit out games as single, perfect lumps of gold) …”
This is the first one where the warning light went off in my head. It should not be acceptable to get a product with legitimate problems day one and then expect it to get better over time. While technical issues and weird bugs can be found and fixed after launch, the same can’t be said of having blatant design problems in your title day one.
For critics of live service, this point is the biggest one for their issues with the practice — a game shouldn’t start out bad and then be patched to “be fixed.” The hallmark of live service games is the very fact that they’re not the same game they were at the start.
Many people will argue that consumers shouldn’t complain about a game getting fixed because “you got to play the game earlier than everyone else.” However, it’s important to point out that, no, those people didn’t get to play the game earlier, they were playing a different game. Payday 2, for instance, is fundamentally a different game after new systems like pre-planning were added in.
The other point I want to bring up is an even trickier one: what happens when DLC becomes the saving grace for a title?
Making Things Better
Green Planet for Surviving Mars continues a Paradox Interactive trend of their live service design (and yes, I know they were only the publishers for the game). The expansion adds in a brand-new goal of terraforming Mars bringing a new system, buildings, and challenges to the game. This challenge provides a sense of finality to a play and from the review is a very big deal:
“Still, I’ll say this: this is the game Surviving Mars should have been in the first place. Releasing what feels like the heart of the game a year late will mean a lot of people overlooking it as minor DLC for a base product that didn’t grab them, and it might not get the love it deserves as a result.”
This is not the first time that a Paradox game has received massive work through expansions. Each one of their big hits has had multiple expansions — each one adding in a new game system and radically changing the game.
Unlike other titles, playing a Paradox Interactive game at launch is a completely different experience than waiting and buying them with the DLC already out. It’s often joked by fans that you should wait at least six months after release before playing a game from Paradox: as they should have expansions and fixed any launch bugs by then.
Surviving Mars by itself is $30 (retail price), with Green Planet costing an additional $20 if you didn’t get the season pass. For me, I got the complete edition on sale for $19; giving me everything at this moment in time.
As with previous Paradox expansions, all new systems — no matter how big or small — are locked to their respective expansions. This creates a very awkward position for newcomers if they buy the game on sale and get a lesser experience unless they spend more money.
This is not the same as the Payday 2 example from above, as Overkill always made system-changing updates free as to not fragment the playerbase. And that leaves us with a very sticky question: If a developer releases content that is so pivotal that it corrects problems with the original design, should that content be put behind a paywall?
And that takes us to an example of another game who it has been argued should not be played without the expansion.
XCOM got XCOM-ier
XCOM 2 by Firaxis at launch was already a great game. While there have been plenty of arguments both for and against its redesign of the mission structure, no one could argue that buying the game at launch was not getting a complete experience. As with XCOM 1, Firaxis released smaller bits of DLC that added in new missions and elements, but the game could still be enjoyed regardless
When the expansion War of the Chosen came out however, they went all-in with top-to-bottom improvements to the UI, systems, gameplay loop, and brand-new elements. There were discussions before launch that the work that went into War of the Chosen could have filled an XCOM 3. The new systems added with the expansion greatly improved the game with content that no one was asking for but can’t imagine playing XCOM 2 without it now.
War of the Chosen, in my opinion, is one of the best expansions for a game released this decade, but that takes us back to the previous section. If this expansion is so fundamental to the experience that anyone who has played the game can’t imagine playing without it, then shouldn’t it be free keeping with what we talked about?
In this case, I would argue no for several reasons. War of the Chosen didn’t “fix” problems with XCOM 2. As we talked about, if you wanted to play XCOM 2 without any DLC or expansions, you still had a great game. There is a difference between fixing issues that people have pointed out and giving them original content.
As with Enemy Within, the changes to the base game make it harder on top of the new content, and brand-new players may still want to play the original game first just to get their feet wet.
Where Do Things Go from Here
When games promote season passes and continued support, it raises excitement and dread about what’s to come. Many gamers have felt that season passes are not worth the extra money and are essentially gambling on an unknown value and amount of content. I should point out that while I did get the season pass for XCOM 2, War of the Chosen was sold separately.
Live service presents a very tough topic for developers and how much should they continue to support a game. While I will be linking to a video I did on the topic, this piece is already too long to delve into that now. Digital distribution is not going anywhere and while we’re certainly seeing live service in multiplayer design, the question remains if more singleplayer games will go the same route.
Theoretically, you could support any game indefinitely as long there are people willing to pay, but that raises one final question for this piece — Should a game be supported forever?