Over the last console generation, continuously updated games-as-service titles have become a major part of the industry.
“Games as a service” refers to games that receive ongoing updates over the course of several years. They can make games profitable for longer by incentivizing smaller purchases over a longer period of time. While fan-favorite platforms like Fortnite, GTA Online, and Genshin Impact rake in profits in the millions and billions, similar experiments like Red Dead Online, Anthem, Marvel’s Avengers, and Fallout 76 have failed to capture the same success.
Following Ubisoft’s July announcement that the single-player Assassin’s Creed franchise would pivot toward a service-based model with Assassin's Creed Infinity in the coming years, Inverse reporters Christopher Groux and Just Lunning debated the viability of GaaS in the coming decades.
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Christopher Groux: There’s no denying games as a service will play a key role in the future of gaming. As platforms like GTA Online and Fortnite continue to evolve and online server technology allows these games to grow in unexpected ways, the amount of internet-connected games we play is bound to increase.
That being said, even as networked gaming technology advances, there are clear signs that games-as-a-service isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. And it probably never will be.
Competitive multiplayer shooters have improved with service-based trappings, there’s still an elephant graveyard of spectacular failures like Anthem or Fallout 76. Even the struggles of Rockstar’s Red Dead Online shows us that service implementations are often more flawed than refined. Publishers see Fortnite and get high expectations of a similarly large, ongoing cash flow; They’re quick to pull the plug when those dreams aren’t realized.
Just Lunning: Publishers are still struggling to figure out why it works for some games and not others. Avengers supposedly only made 60 percent of its intended profits!
My primary issue here is that people seem to think that anything can be GaaS with a few tweaks. It takes more than multiplayer and regular updates to make a good service game. Many of these failed attempts feel like an exec flipped the service game switch on a whim to be part of a trend. But it didn’t work out.
It reminds me of how multiplayer used to be tacked onto games like BioShock 2. Why? I think the big failures from the last several years have taught publishers some lessons they won’t soon forget.
Nearly every popular game on mobile these days is technically a service game. As mobile games like Genshin Impact, Bleach Brave Souls, and Among Us also hit consoles, the culture will begin to shift. Most companies have a lot to gain — and earn — from going multiplatform and free-to-play. Epic Games made 9 billion from Fortnite in its first two years. Everybody is chasing that success.
Christopher: What about Assassin’s Creed Infinity? It’s touted as an entirely service-based offering for a franchise that has yet to truly enter the service arena, despite dabbling in online stores and paid DLC.
I don’t think that vision will ever actually come to fruition. Ubisoft’s Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora seems destined for a lukewarm reception when it’s launched in 2022, and it might scare the company away from live service entirely. Beyond Avatar’s core fans, nobody will play it. Much like 2020’s Marvel’s Avengers, it seems like a product that forces service elements where they may not belong.
Just: The service elements in Avengers do feel out of place. I think this is a temporary growing pain for the medium that will be eliminated a few years down the line. Things are going to change as we see two things crop up:
- Integration of mobile and console games
- Console games developed with the intention of becoming service games
There are also benefits to working off a single code base. In the midst of Among Us being propelled through app store ranks, the developers canceled Among Us 2 to instead expand the original. Now, it’s even getting a physical edition. Crossplay and cross-save are becoming increasingly more common across various games and franchises. That’s going to make it easier for publishers to get games in peoples’ hands.
Or you can take something like Final Fantasy XIV. You’ve been able to play on the exact same account you had in the PS3 era. This isn’t a limitation. The game evolves with each console generation, shedding players from older generations as it grows with its core player base and recruits even more.
Sure, we can keep having big semi-annual entries to AAA series, but that’s often more work than necessary. I actually think Assassin’s Creed Infinity might work for this very reason.
If you compare the graphics in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, barely anything has changed in those two years between the titles. So why do we even need another game? Expanding and upgrading a pre-existing game world is easier to develop, leading to more consistent content overall.
And with games getting more expensive, service games will at least make gamers think they’re saving money. I’ll take that over $70 purchases, even if it means occasionally paying for a battle pass or annual update. So I think Assassin’s Creed Infinity has a lot of potential in that regard, depending on how they approach monetization and updates.
Christopher: On the topic of paying less for games as service, one might argue that’s not exactly the goal of publishers. Free and paid GaaS alike are often riddled with microtransactions that have players spending more money over time. That’s why publishers flocked to them and why so many projects in that mold have failed in the eyes of gamers.
If we’ve learned anything over the last few years in this area, it’s that gamers like paying once for a complete experience. Consider EA’s now-infamous Star Wars Battlefront II. The publisher has since retreated its service-based ambitions and is now releasing offline-centric games like Jedi Fallen Order, It Takes Two, a rumored Dead Space revival, and a non-GaaS version of Dragon Age 4. These projects were also likely helped along by Capcom’s success with Resident Evil and its remakes. Some of the biggest publishers are leaving GaaS behind. It will be leveraged more thoughtfully, and that’s a good thing.
Will battle passes as we know them still persist, you think? I’m not so sure.
Just: Battle passes will totally persist. They deliver a windfall of finances for little work. Season after season, Genshin Impact provides essentially the same battle pass with different reskins, and yet gamers keep paying between $10 and $20 for it.
The difference between free and paid GaaS titles is going to vary between franchises. It’ll probably default to whatever the consumer base can handle. I don’t think we’re ever going to settle on a single variant as the standard.
Sports games like NBA, FIFA, and WWE are essentially the same game every year with minimal changes. Fans would likely love it if that switched to a GaaS model where you purchase a single soccer or football game that updates annually with new teams. That won’t happen. FIFA microtransactions are non-transferable between games and rake in a lot of revenue for EA. The company reportedly made 1.62 billion between 2020 and 2021 on all their microtransactions in sports games. Additionally, each player had to purchase a new sports game for that year, paying $60 just for access.
That’s too much to give up.
Alternatively, because of infamous GaaS experiences like Battlefront II, more shooters will likely be standard for GaaS and free-to-play options. Battle Passes will be key profit sources for those games.
How do you feel about in-game ads in GaaS titles? Perhaps running into a McDonald's billboard while you’re strolling through Warzone?
Chris: If GaaS is to persist, in-game ads are a way to make the model work as long as they aren’t obtrusive and remain relegated to free experiences. I’d be okay with in-game nods to any fast-food chain if it means purity of gameplay remains.
When it comes to the next decade, I think there will be platforms like Fortnite and Genshin that take those routes, while softening some of the hard edges that have been allowed to exist over the past few years. Take a look at 2021’s Halo Infinite. The multiplayer will be free-to-play and allow players to purchase any Battle Pass at any time while swapping between them at will.
This relates to the general growth of the medium as you mention it. But, at the same time, there's a strong enough current from first and third parties alike to move away from GaaS when it’s right for the product. I’m hopeful the industry will adapt. If it doesn’t, a lot of traditional gamers who are spending money on things like Resident Evil Village, Mass Effect Legendary Edition, and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart today are about to feel very alienated.
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