EA and the Live Service Craze

EA continues its march to make everything a live service.

Anthem

EA, the publisher best-known for making Star Wars games unpalatable, is at it again. Or, I should say, it’s CEO is at it again. In the company’s latest earnings call, CEO Andrew Wilson tried to explain why Anthem, Bioware’s latest game, did not do so well. While his explanations may have soothed wary investors, his comments did nothing to calm my angst about the modern AAA game market (especially the Western market). In fact, his remarks have made me more wary of the future of gaming than ever before. Let’s see if I can keep myself from going into full-on rant mode from here on out.

In case you didn’t know, live service games are games that are usually multiplayer-focused affairs that receive regular updates for years after launch. That’s the official definition of live services, anyways. My definition for live services is that they are games that launch with little to no content, charge full-price upfront for it, lack any kind of cohesive narrative, and are designed with microtransactions and lootboxes in mind. In short, they are the kind of game I avoid like the plague. It’s unfortunate for me that most developers (particularly American ones) have only been releasing these types of games this console generation.

The disappointment that was Anthem wasn’t the only topic of discussion in the earnings call but it might as well have been. Anthem, like every game developed by AAA studios nowadays, sold “below expectations” and EA’s Andrew Wilson tried to explain why it did poorly to investors. He says that it’s challenging for a game like Anthem to be successful because the company not only has to develop a game for hours of offline play but also for “100 or 200, 300 hours” of online play. I would buy that explanation except for the fact that EA probably pressured Bioware, a studio known for single-player story-driven games, into making a live service game that could be exploited for revenue for years after release. In my opinion, Anthem was doomed from the start since it was being made by a company whose expertise lay outside of the realm of online games.

Not every game needs to be a live service but we all know that EA (of all companies) really loves the concept since these types of games usually have high levels of “recurrent user spending.” Therefore, studios under its wings tend to feel pressure to make games in that vein. This spending mostly takes the form of microtransactions and lootboxes for things like cosmetics (you know, the stuff that would unlock for free while playing a game). Game companies love live services because, as they always like to remind us, games are expensive to make and thus companies need more money. Again, I would buy that argument except for the fact that most games are expensive to make because of the very nature of live services.

Live services, as I said above, usually launch light on content but typically promise regular content updates for years on end. This promised content usually takes the form of a “roadmap” that’s unveiled even before the game has launched. This all sounds good but let’s think about it for a moment. Games used to be developed, get released, and then that was it. The expenses stopped at the release date. If a game is a live service then the development team has to keep working which means the costs keep going up. That’s not to mention the costs of the servers, support staff, and everything else that’s needed to keep a live service going. The costs of a live service are therefore astronomically higher than a regular game. A company can then claim that modern games are indeed expensive to make when in fact it’s the fault of the company (and executives) for those insane costs. It’s very convenient if I do say so myself.

Anyways, back to EA. CEO Andrew Wilson went on to say that Anthem also failed because people’s expectations of the game were skewed. That is to say that people were disappointed by the lack of content available in the game at launch. He says that the company is “learning” so this will never happen again. Andrew Wilson says the company will, in future, change how it communicates with its audience about its games. One thing he said was that “You should expect that we’ll start to test things like soft launches.” As you can see, EA isn’t learning the right lessons from its mistakes. It’s just trying to learn how to make its practices more acceptable. It doesn’t want to address the root problems of its games (lackluster content) but wants to learn how to market it to make it sound better than it actually is.

This “learning” process will undoubtedly come in handy for Bioware’s next game, Dragon Age 4. In a recent article from Kotaku, journalist Jason Schrier has written in detail about the struggles that Dragon Age 4 has already gone through and continues to experience during its development. While at first it was supposed to be a normal Bioware title that was a single-player story-driven experience, Dragon Age 4 is now being pitched as “Anthem with dragons.” Yeah, let me know how that works out for you, EA. I for one won’t be buying it. As I said above, not every game needs to be a live service especially games from studios that don’t have the necessary experience to make them.

My biggest issue with what Andrew Wilson said about soft launching games is that companies have essentially been soft launching their games for years already (Jim Sterling has a good video about his topic which you can find here). There are a multitude of examples just from the past few years; Anthem, Destiny 1 & 2, No Man’s Sky, Fallout 76, Sea of Thieves, Tom Clancy’s: The Division, Rainbow Six: Siege and the list goes on and on. Some of these games have been more successful over time than others but that doesn’t change the fact that most of them did launch a little light on the content side. This has led to games receiving terrible review scores at launch. Then, a few years and several patches later, articles like this one will pop up saying that now is a great time to try these games. If I wasn’t interested in the game in the first place, why would I want to jump in years later? Who has that kind of time to jump back in and spend hundreds of hours playing the same game? I know I certainly don’t but maybe the kids of today do.

Another side of the live service craze is that it has even affected single-player games. The best example of this is Final Fantasy XV. XV came out in December 2016 and it had what one might call a rocky development cycle. Perhaps because of this Square Enix, the game’s publisher and developer, continued to support the game with regular updates, patches, and DLC. It not only received one season pass but two (count ‘em, two!) season passes. The last piece of DLC released earlier this year more than two years after the launch of the base game. The game had so much post-release content planned that the last few pieces of DLC have been cancelled. This, to me, seemed like a waste of time. Why, you ask? Because Square Enix, with all that time, effort, and resources it spent on XV’s post-release content, could have developed the next entry in the long-running series by now. Hell, it could have even finished and released the Final Fantasy VII Remake. But no, the company decided to stick with XV for years on end when it never really needed to.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from EA’s earnings call was when Andrew Wilson stated that he wants to learn a few lessons from the mobile gaming market. He was ostensibly talking about the soft launch concept when he said this but we all know he was really thinking about all the “recurrent user spending” that the mobile market is known for. Point of fact lootboxes and microtransactions got their start in the mobile market and game companies simply imported them into the traditional gaming sphere. I was actually kind of excited by Andrew Wilson’s remarks because it made me think that maybe, just maybe EA would make all of its games free-to-play since it insists upon modeling them after ones released in the mobile market. But no, we all know that EA doesn’t want to give up all the money made from charging the traditional sixty-dollar price tag for its games on top of the money made from microtransactions and lootboxes.

It’s a shame that EA won’t make its live service games free-to-play since there are several examples of successful games with that kind of business model. One of which is even published by EA itself. I’m of course talking about Fortnite and Apex Legends. Both of these games are full of microtransactions while also offering plenty of content. I’m basing my observations solely on what I’ve read and heard from other people because I personally don’t play these games. I’m just using these two games as examples to show that games can be successful when they’re truly free-to-play. If EA was serious about following the mobile market more closely then it should fully adopt its business model instead of simply sticking its money-making aspects on top of a traditional game release model.

Simply put, EA’s plans for the future depresses me. EA isn’t the only company that has adopted the live service model for its games but it is the most ardent follower of that kind of business model. Many companies seem to be moving in that direction and I’m frankly getting bored of it. Whenever I see a game which promises to be an online experience, I immediately write it off because I know that it’s going to be unfinished at launch, be full of microtransactions, and will probably be repetitive beyond all belief. This whole live service trend has reminded me of why I started this blog. I wanted to play games that were complete experiences at launch therefore I had to look to the games of the past (the big exception to this is the Indie market). Based off of what EA and many game companies are doing nowadays, that won’t change anytime soon.

 

 

Thanks for reading! Do you like any live service games that have come out recently? Is my perception of them wrong? Let me know!

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