Sat. May 18th, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Games that are considered “live service” or “Games as a Service” mostly revolve around online multiplayer components and receive often free ongoing updates to add more content or refresh the game.
  • Live service games depend heavily on microtransactions and premium content like battle passes, paid cosmetics, and loot box mechanics.
  • Live service games face criticism over predatory monetization practices, abandonment risk, and the impact that this model of monetization has on gameplay design.

From Fortnite to Suicide Squad, the number of “live service” games has exploded over the past decade, but what exactly is a “living” game and why do they draw the ire of so many gamers?

What Is a Live Service Game?

Also known as “living” games or “Games as a Service,” there are a few ways to define a live service game. These games are typically based upon some form of online multiplayer, built around the idea of constant evolution over time through the release of additional content and updates. Titles are often (but not always) free-to-play.

Not all games that receive post-launch content are live service games. Cyberpunk 2077 and Elden Ring both have significant expansions but they’re not live service games. The number of changes and frequency of updates are generally much higher in a live service game.

For live service titles, the base game is often seen as the starting point, with the “end-game” being a jumping-off point for future expansions. Many of these games lay down multi-stage roadmaps for years of content, ahead of time. These games often see major shakeups to core assets like maps, classes, and game modes.

Perhaps the most obvious telltale sign of a live service game is its monetization model. Additional gameplay content is normally free to pique the interest of players old and new, but there’s a dependence on premium currencies, battle passes linked to “seasons,” and microtransactions to introduce time-limited multiplayer content, with a heavy emphasis on cosmetic items.

Some examples of live service games include free-to-play titles like Fortnite and Warframe; standalone releases like Sea of Thieves and the Destiny series; and subscription services like World of Warcraft. Sometimes only the multiplayer portion of a game may be considered a live service, as is the case with Grand Theft Auto: Online and Halo: Infinite.

These are prominent examples, but more games have started incorporating aspects of the live service model which further blurs the lines. Sometimes a publisher will sneak a “cash shop” into the game in a post-launch update, for example.

Some games come close to the live service model without ever being considered “living” in nature. No Man’s Sky is one example where the game has received a huge number of transformative updates, all of which have been free. It’s generally accepted that games like this aren’t “living” (and they’re more often not the exception, rather than the rule).

What’s Wrong With Live Service Games?

There has been no shortage of live service games over the past decade, and there is growing evidence to suggest that gamers aren’t as receptive as they once were to the model. In many ways, it feels like there are “right” ways and “wrong” ways to approach games as a service.

One of the major criticisms is the predatory monetization practices that many of these games have relied upon. Not only can prices be excessive for cosmetic items, but many games don’t offer outright purchases. Instead, they sell a random chance using “loot box” type mechanics as seen in EA Sports FC’s Ultimate Team.

This practice has been linked to problem gambling and has led certain jurisdictions like Belgium to ban the practice. Of particular concern is that loot boxes introduce minors to the mechanics of gambling. Many games have since pivoted away from loot boxes (including giants like Fortnite) in favor of battle passes instead.

Battle passes are optional purchases that gamers can work their way through throughout the season. As you progress through the season, you can unlock more consumables, cosmetics, emotes, and more. Such battle passes are frequently time-limited, so if you don’t complete them before the season is up, you lose out.

Some games allow you to spend even more to skip certain levels or to complete a battle pass in its entirety. This “double dipping” feels predatory in that it preys on a fear of missing out. The argument that “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” wouldn’t ring so hollow if these games weren’t constantly highlighting what you could have won after every match.

Games built around live service models are also at risk of being abandoned, sometimes well before their time. In 2023 free-to-play battle royale wrestling game Rumbleverse was shut down barely six months into its launch. Many saw this as a sign that the genre was too crowded, others questioned what sort of return publishers expect on these products.

It’s not only free-to-play titles that are at risk of being abandoned though. In December 2023 Ubisoft announced that The Crew would be shut down, servers would be switched off, and the game would be unplayable in March of the following year.

This is a nine-year-old game that once cost as much as any full-price title. Ubisoft could patch in an offline mode, but the company would probably prefer that players move to The Crew 2 or The Crew Motorfest and spend money there instead.

The Crew is a dusty old racing game that you might not care for, but the idea that a game that isn’t yet a decade old can be delisted from sale, have its servers switched off, and be completely unplayable is troubling.

Are Live Service Games in Trouble?

The term “live service game” has been known to ruffle feathers and raise eyebrows among the gaming press as more publishers jump on board. In early 2024 this came to something of a head with the release of Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League, published by Warner Brothers and developed by Rocksteady Studios.

The game previewed poorly and released with a damp thud. The Verge noted that the game has been “monetized to hell and back” and criticized the lack of a satisfying ending due to the need for players to infinitely grind and play as-yet-unreleased future expansions.

This wasn’t the only time the game was criticized for allowing monetization to impact gameplay directly. The titular Suicide Squad all use the same guns and melée attacks because the loot aspect of a “looter-shooter” means there’s little value in rewarding players with guns unless they can use them everywhere.

There’s also an element of disappointment that developer Rocksteady, known for their work on the genre-defining Batman: Arkham games, was put to work on just another live service title. The last mainline Batman release was in 2015, which means that fans waited nine years for a follow-up that fell short of the mark.

The Destiny franchise helped define what “live service” meant when it first launched, but Destiny 2 made headlines in 2023 for its disappointing State of the Game update which drew criticism from fans. The problem was acknowledged by developer Bungie, who issued an apology and assurance the company will do better in future.

Even multiplayer royalty Battlefield adopted a live service model in 2022. Battlefield 2042 used a Call of Duty-esque “operator” model, replacing classes with avatars that were to be released over many years. EA changed track in 2023, reinstating classes and running free play events in a bid to tempt players back. The overall unfinished state of the game at launch probably didn’t help either.

There are so many live service games right now, many of which are probably on your backlog. Established giants like Fortnite and APEX Legends always move forward, and are free to play to get players in the door. It takes something innovative like The Finals with its destructible arenas or Foamstars with all the backing of a company like Square Enix to even make a dent, or so it seems.

Some of the Biggest Games in the World Are Live Service Games

Not all live service games are in trouble, and not all live service games have a negative reputation. Fortnite is a good example of a behemoth that seems to go from strength to strength. Continued success in big titles like this seems to concentrate users, many of whom become invested after years of battle passes and unlocks.

Fortnite is more like a live service platform than just a game. Epic can add entirely unique experiences like its Minecraft-esque LEGO tie-in and skins as varied as Peter Griffin and Goku. Fortnite has become a proving ground for experimentation, new technology, and player choice. The icing on the cake came when the game set its highest concurrent player count by effectively resetting itself and reintroducing the original map.

Marketing can also have a big influence on the live service model. Helldivers 2 launched in February 2024 as a multiplayer co-op shooter that incorporates live service mechanics. The game was so popular at launch some players waited hours to get a game as the servers struggled to cope. The game went toe-to-toe with Suicide Squad and came out on top.

Helldivers 2 by Arrowhead Game Studios
Helldivers 2
Arrowhead Game Studios

The Call of Duty franchise is still popular, with a free-to-play edition (Warzone) and full-price releases every year. The game has switched to an “operator” model where players choose avatars, including paid real-world figures like Snoop Dogg and Nicki Minaj.

Even Microsoft is expanding live service games to non-Xbox consoles, including previous Xbox console exclusives Sea of Thieves and Grounded which are making their way to Switch and PlayStation in 2024.

The biggest-selling games of the year are overwhelmingly single-player in nature, and in 2023 the US best-sellers list devised by research company Circana was dominated by the likes of Starfield, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, and Hogwarts Legacy. Nintendo titles like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Super Mario Bros. Wonder are also featured. Nintendo’s refusal to disclose sales numbers makes that all the more impressive.

There are also a few live service games including two EA Sports titles, two Call of Duty releases, and Diablo IV. But free-to-play titles arguably dominate when it comes to hours played, and you won’t find them on any “best seller” lists.

Live service games aren’t going anywhere soon, even if some of them get a frosty reception and newcomers find it hard to compete with behemoths like Fortnite. Warner Brothers announced a renewed focus on live service games in November 2023, while Ubisoft is leaning heavily into the live service model for a future Assassin’s Creed title codenamed “Infinity.”

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By John P.

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