The last few weeks have seen some bad news for some high profile live service games. This includes highly anticipated titles on PC, console and mobile such as Rumbleverse, Apex Legends Mobile and CrossfireXL. This has led to several articles and opinion pieces decrying that the live service game model is dying. But let’s take a bit of a closer look behind the details and ask the question; is there actually evidence to back up that claim?
Are we actually seeing an unusual number of LiveOps games being pulled?
It’s not unfair to say that there has been a cluster of high profile titles being pulled recently. But are there actually more live service games being pulled than usual, or is there anything that could explain this other than the live service model is dying?
Firstly, we need to consider the broader economic context. We’re in a cost-of-living crisis, have an economy with significant inflation and increasing costs for user acquisition. We know that (according to Venturebeat) “overall [US] video game sales saw a decrease of 5%, even with console sales reaching $6.57 billion in 2022.” However, that same article identified that there was an (expected) uptick for the holiday season “with the biggest month-over-month gains in December from… games that could benefit from gift card usage and holiday-based live ops or events.”
This is all happening at a time where it's becoming more difficult to find and serve players. This is best demonstrated when we hear people like Alex Shea at Voodoo saying that "Hypercasual is dead" or SayGames CEO, Yegor Vaikhanski saying that they are now focused on releasing ‘hybridcasual’ games with deeper gameplay, live ops and a mix of IAP and ad-based monetisation. This supports the idea that there has been an increase in efforts to make more games as live services, and we have seen more high profile games going that way. Of course with more and higher profile live service games being proposed, it’s inevitable that we will be more inclined to notice when a proportion of them do indeed fail.
Is it that AAA companies don’t know how to do LiveOps?
I often hear the argument that AAA teams are still struggling to adapt to the very different ways of development that live services require. However, is that actually true? We see titles like Fortnite, COD, DOTA and Clash Royale delivering amazing experiences to their huge player bases with a clear service mindset. However, to deliver at that scale is no trivial feat. Consider the pressures on those teams and licences, especially established IP where the challenge includes moving from a successful pay-upfront model to one focused on recurring revenues. This is not an easy transition to push through for any team, especially where the targets are set so high. You have to not only take your players with you, but your bring along your corporate leadership and shareholders at the same time. There are significant risks when innovating or changing models that don’t neatly fit the quarterly targets expected from the market. Too often it’s much easier to acquire a team that has resolved those issues and, I suspect, why we see M&A deals like Take-Two acquiring Zynga.
Is it unusual for Live Service games to fail?
It’s also important to remember that it is completely normal that some games get pulled before release and others get taken off the market post release, regardless of whether they are Products or Services. Sometimes they struggle to find an audience, sometimes the game doesn’t deliver the levels of retention or monetisation needed. But even when the game has the potential for success, games can struggle due to unrelated internal issues at the studios.
Yes, it's sad for the developers and those players that do love the game, or who have had their expectations set too high, but in the end no-one wins when a game is released that isn’t sustainable. One of the biggest challenges for many teams is that they aren’t set-up for sustainable delivery, get caught on the content treadmill and fail to find monetisation options that deliver delight for their players.
But just as important to remember is why do we see Live Service games being pulled in the press and not seeing products? Well, leaving the game unsupported on a store page costs you nothing. And products that fail tend to fade away into obscurity.
The real power of a service comes through how they can respond to players in ways that a product never can. Look at the way that games like WarFrame pulled through, a game which really looked like it was dead on arrival.
Last year on the Barclays Games Industry Insights, Rebecca Ford, live operations and community director at Digital Extremes, highlighted the important of “much smaller timelines between idea and release, meaning that you aren’t sitting for three to four years wondering if your title will be enjoyed. You get short bursts of rapid feedback and then are able to use that feedback while creating the next big thing for the game."
You don’t have to be making a Fortnite to benefit from adding longer-term engagement and retention as well as more sustainable revenue models. It requires planning, design and a focus on systems, and it helps to work with a team that has the experience to deliver it. The key is that when the designers listen to players and deliver meaningful change rapidly, we see that Services are actually the best way to deliver value to players.
Let’s not be fooled into a false equivalence that seeing some high-profile live service games being put into sunset is evidence of a bad or declining model.
All games have a life-cycle, but with live service we can sustain and grow an audience for longer and more sustainably if we do it right. But there will always be games (products and live services) which don’t work out, or which reach their sunsets earlier than expected. Are we to assume that the product model is failing because so many product-based games fill up the store listings without getting any downloads?
Live service games are here to stay and can be a positive force for creating amazing and lasting playing experiences, as well as more sustainable game studios.
About Oscar Clark
Oscar Clark literally wrote the book on Games as a service, and is Chief Strategy Officer at Fundamentally Games LTD, a publisher of living games committed to transparency and genuine partnership with developers.
About Fundamentally Games
Fundamentally Games Ltd was founded in 2019 to focus on bringing games to live, helping game developers with managing live operations to scale their game. Their engagement-led strategy aims to scale games faster by getting more players, doing more things, more often and for longer. Now offering publishing and UA funding with a commitment to transparency and genuine partnership with developers.
In March 2021 Fundamentally Games announced their UA Testing Program where they can fund testing and support for games early enough to make a difference.