Cracks in the Foundation: The Live Service Post-Mortem?

by: 
hello world!
| April 14, 2023

If you’re someone that cares about video games, you surely know about the industry’s same ol’ song and dance at this point. Any time a new genre or mechanic goes viral or becomes “trendy,” the triple-A executives are gonna put out the order for that shit to be run straight into the ground. “Certainly,” the executives say, “if a ragtag team of devs at an indie studio ‘X’ discovered that people love feature ‘Y,’ we can do that in every game for the next five years and print money.”

Obviously, that short-sighted executive fails to realize that the indie devs succeeded because they were filling an entirely new niche, that they were creating a passion project, something made with heart and soul. The executive doesn’t realize that every other executive is ordering the same thing, and now the market is oversaturated. 

And in an oversaturated market, people are inevitably going to end up winning and losing. There are so many examples of this: how many MOBAs were created to chase the success of League of Legends? How many still have live servers today? 

PUBG is one of the juggernaut IPs that withstood the battle royale crash, after kicking off the entire craze alongside Fortnite.

Same with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, titles that took the world by storm. For a while, it felt like every single game being released had to have a battle royale mode. And how many moderately sized battle royale games still exist? When media outlets are able to put together “top 10” lists for forgotten BR games, I think it’s fair game to acknowledge this toxic industry cycle.

Now, it looks like the “live service” model (for better or for worse) is approaching that same sunset. Recently, we’ve seen an entire slew of live service games meet their untimely demise. So far, 2023 has spelled the death of titles such as Knockout City, Rumbleverse, and CrossfireX. Mobile titles weren’t spared from the carnage, either – Apex Legends Mobile is shutting down, and Battlefield Mobile will never see the light of day. 

Maybe the biggest “yikes” of all is that some of these games are just releasing “dead on arrival,” such as Babylon’s Fall, which was released in March 2022 and then subsequently killed in February 2023. The title was most famous for hitting a low point of one concurrent player, which stands as a truly foreboding indicator of where the future of live service games may lie.

Babylon’s Fall has indeed fallen unceremoniously… It was hard to find a group of players as large as the one pictured above when the game was live.

What’s the driving force behind this downward spiral? How is it that even massively popular IPs like Apex Legends and Battlefield can’t support their live service side projects? Is every live service game doomed to die?!?

Well, the answer lies somewhere between the squabbling of the industry’s big dogs and the audience consuming the products themselves.

The reason that live service games are so profitable is because they’re able to effectively completely monopolize a consumer. There’s a constant stream of content to pay for, with many live service games finding success in a steady rotation of shiny new skins, seasonal battle passes, and meaty expansions with story content or missions to play. All of those things have a price tag attached, and a player will shell out more and more money until they’re monetarily dedicated to a single game.

A live service game also demands every second of a player’s free time. It doesn’t do so explicitly, of course. But there’s the implicit understanding that lapsing on one part of the new expansion means you won’t be able to do another part with your friends. If you don’t dedicate yourself to the battle pass, then you don’t earn all the rewards. 

Destiny 2 is already on its 20th “season,” and you have to constantly dedicate yourself to the game to keep up with the meta.

The live service game doesn’t see itself as just a game. No; if you invest yourself into one of these titles financially, then you’re essentially scheduling your free “hobby time” around that game for at least several months if you want to make the most of your money.

That’s exactly why the idea of “live service” is doomed to fail… at least at the frequency with which they’re being produced now. As with any hobby, video games already require a degree of mental calculus to figure out what to spend time and money on. Live service games completely tip the scales.

Take, for example, the following conundrum:

Maybe you love Destiny 2 to death… well, Destiny asks you for a lot. A lot of time and a lot of money. And maybe you love hopping into Fortnite, and you’re thinking of shelling out for the battle pass. The question is, can you justify monetarily supporting that second game with all the time (and money) you’re already spending on Destiny? What about a third game? A fourth?

It becomes impossible for a gamer to keep up with an oversaturated market of live service games. The very nature of the model means that some of these titles will rake in an obscene amount of money, and others will die very quickly. 

The idea of the “live service game” will not take leave of the industry any time soon. Of that, I have no doubt. We have, however, reached a sort of “critical mass,” where anyone that seeks out live service games has already found what they’re looking for, and they will stick with their chosen titles through thick and thin.

Juggernaut IPs will probably still be able to release live service entries and have an audience to support them without fail… but it’s becoming more and more of a gamble to release a game like Rumbleverse on the live service model.

Rest in peace, Rumbleverse. We hardly knew ya.

Frankly? This is probably for the best. The propagation of live service games has made it difficult for gamers to play a variety of titles. People have jobs, school, family, and friends to keep up with. They don’t have time to grind out a battle pass while trying out new gaming titles. 

The triple-A gaming industry needs to stay in its lane: gaming is a hobby, not a job. When the last toxic live service game breathes its last, I’ll personally cheer.

What do you think about the future of live service games? Do you think they’re starting to die out at all? And I’d love to know if anyone else out there has issues juggling live service games for fear of missing out on any of the new content, too! Let me know down in the comments below!

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