Recently it has been a genuine struggle to think of when I last played a newly released game that actually felt complete. Pre-ordering a shiny new release generally feels like a gamble, a toss of the dice and cross your fingers that you’ve found the lucky numbers. That’s how it feels now publishers are going more towards ‘live service’ release models.
A live service game is where content is continually added after the game has been released, thus giving the consumer a reason to keep on coming back for more. Yet the huge cardinal sin that so many games have made and are continually making is that they’re giving us absolutely nothing at the launch date of a game.
Even with successes such as Halo Infinite, rightly praised for reinvigorating the franchise with fun multiplayer and a fresh take on the campaign, pivoting to an open-world concept there are aspects that feel half-baked. Both forge mode and the beloved co-op campaign were not available at launch, with the latter expected to arrive all the way in May.
Sure, the content is coming but are we really paying full price for features that are coming later? Halo Infinite is nowhere near the worst offender though, as the multiplayer is free to play (with the caveat of having to pay for even remotely interesting cosmetics or risk grinding for your entire life) and the game is actually in a playable state.
Let’s bring in the circus of absolutely catastrophic live service messes including Fallout 76, Anthem, Evolve and Marvel’s Avengers to name a few. These games were so bad at launch that they were basically dead on arrival,
Video games become victims of their own hype cycles they create, being shown to us at conferences with glossy none-gameplay trailers, stacked full of promises. We, the consumers, are instantly tantalised, we must have this game, look at all this lovely content they’ll spoil us with. It doesn’t matter that they’ve picked the oversaturated looter shooter market, this one will be THE BEST, it’ll make the rest of the genre look like a pointless waste of electricity.
So, we approach the release date and the roadmap of content comes out, nevermind the base game, look at how much is in store for us in the next few months. We come to release and the game is on fire, character faces look like pummelled clay, the game keeps crashing and you can complete the main quests in three hours.
This comes as a result of gaming industry problems that are exacerbated by the live service model. With marketing hype the game is rushed to be completed, developers are put under crunch hours and any delay is seen as a complete failure so they release an unfinished product. It isn’t fair on the consumer or the hard work of those who develop these games, it only suits to line the pockets of executives who make no real loss.
Live services are not all bad, Fortnite is one of the biggest games in the world, it is free to play and there is no necessity to spend a penny on it. You can purchase cosmetics and a Battle Pass which is packed with skins, emotes, gliders etc. None of the purchases give you a sudden leg up on anybody else, it feels like a level playing field.
Looking at a more recent release such as Forza Horizon 5, you don’t even realise that it’s a live service most of the time. Yet every week you get a new set of seasonal challenges, new content is being added already and DLC (downloadable content) isn’t being shoved in your face with a big BUY ME sticker.
DLC content will come in Forza Horizon but it’s the kind of game where you might actually consider purchasing some. The base content is so entertaining and the game feels constantly refreshed and that’s what makes a huge difference with a successful live service, you are more willing to pay because you want to experience more, you shouldn’t have to pay because the model expects you to.
When live services go wrong, they fail spectacularly and in high-profile fashion where unplayable products are released to absolute mockery. High amounts of hype lead to pre-orders which instils the sense that it’s okay to “fix it later” after launch. It isn’t okay, consumers deserve better, these games don’t even end up getting fixed most of the time because the playerbase deserts them.
Live services are at their most effective when based around cosmetic items and having dedicated support with a steady stream of new content. But crucially, there needs to be a solid base game to build from, otherwise even more games will have catastrophic launches. Video game publishers need to do better and work harder to stop these basic errors.
Matty Pywell is a freelance contributor to NME – you can follow him on Twitter.