Remember when video game ads were fun? I found myself looking closely at announcements for new games, looking for signs that this game uses a “freemium” model or pay to win with a ton of added microtransactions (sometimes in addition to a purchase price) , or live service grind-a-thon designed to regurgitate content for years to come and entice players into buying loot boxes or battle passes.
It’s exhausting. Keeping up with PC gaming news and playing on Xbox, PlayStation and Switch is now a minefield of monetization. There are still a few top-tier titles that want to stick with the classic formula, pay once, and get the whole experience. The Last of Us 2 on PlayStation 4 is a good example. But they become the exception.
More often than not, I see something that initially looks promising, like Marvel’s Avengers, only to realize as the months between the announcement and release that this is another live service. A game that the publishers want to build once and then update with tiny revisions, trying to charge you a little more each time. They’re available in different flavors now, but all with the same goal: to minimize the relationship between development costs and long-term earnings. An infinite L-curve is the desired result.
So, to categorize these feelings, I developed what I call the five stages of video game ad grief. No, this is not original. I’m not even claiming it’s helpful. But on the assumption that a shared burden is a burden halved, I decided to share it with you.
No need to thank me.
First step: excitement
What is that? A new game in your favorite series? Maybe new intellectual property from a developer you’ve loved for years? Or just a new something that looks cool and interesting, a different game and addicting in an exciting way?
It could be a new Fallout game! Or a revitalized classic, like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Crash Team Racing! It could be something from a legendary developer, presented in a breathtaking reveal as an undeniable milestone of a generation, like Bioware’s Anthem of Fate.
Wonderful! The video game industry needs innovation, as both PC and console gamers crave (or at least pretend to) novelty. This exciting new announcement – maybe at E3, GDC, or a smaller event like a Nintendo Direct – means you’ve got something nice to look forward to while you play your favorite games for third or fourth. the fourth time.
Second step: suspicion
But wait. There is something sinister in the air. Why does the developer claim that they will support this game for 10 years or more? Even most of the best multiplayer games don’t last that long in terms of active development. Why would a game company even want to make the same game for a decade?
Then you see it. A focus on multiplayer or co-op in a game that doesn’t really need it. A new format – say, a persistent online world like Fallout 76 or a loot shooter where you’re supposed to be playing with a party. An online competition system injected into a game entirely devoted to history – capturing and fighting Tolkien’s orcs as if they were Pokémon, for example. What is it doing there and why is it so featured in this gameplay announcement?
Why is everything quantified, with an RPG-style progression into a series of games that once relied on purer action? What is the tons and tons of cosmetics, broken down into a dozen different subcategories, including things like UI tweaks and hats that only other players see? Why has this sports franchise that has been around for decades suddenly turned into a management simulator, where you have to buy your players with fake money using in-game currency (bought with real money) that seems strangely like the game?
Why does this game suddenly look less like the game it’s meant to be, and more like … well, more like all the other tentpole games coming out of the AAA industry?
Third step: anger
Money. The answer is, almost exclusively, money.
Assassin’s Creed has gone from an action game with instant assassinations to an action RPG with upgradeable gear and bullet-sponge enemies. Fallout 76 attempted to transform a famous series dedicated to single player mode – where loneliness was part of the game’s very backdrop – into an empty map for online multiplayer and a recurring charge. Bioware has gone from creating engaging single-player RPGs to building an obvious and unappealing Destiny clone. All in the service of the pursuit of a “live” model that forces players to pay over and over again to get the latest content on an ad hoc basis. After all, a similar structure has worked in mobile games for years.
That’s why so many games now have a Fortnite-style battle pass, where endless quantified loot can be obtained more efficiently with ten dollars every two months? These systems are even being injected into older (but still popular) games like Rocket League.
Game developers and publishers have seen some examples of success in established mega-games – Fortnite, FIFA, Overwatch, DOTA, Destiny – and have tried to apply the same patterns and formulas to more or less all games. Even games that don’t have a real business to host them, like Grand Theft Auto or Ghost Recon.
If that doesn’t make you angry, either you’re too young to remember that this wasn’t the status quo, or you’re rich enough that buying your games in chunks for years at a time won’t be. not something that affects your budget. Either way, the editors absolutely love you.
Fourth step: disappointment
Ten years ago, a game like Marvel’s Avengers was coming out and would be more or less done, possibly with a DLC package added a month or two later. Once the game is finished, perhaps ported to another gaming console or PC, or repackaged in a Game of the Year edition, the developers would move on. Maybe they would make a sequel or apply what they had learned to something new.
It wouldn’t come out with years and years of character upgrades planned, each paired with a $ 10 battle pass to unlock any additional bonuses. It would not be built as a conceptual framework on which more content would later be nailed, like Anthem or Evolve. It wouldn’t be the slightest hint of an interactive medium that asks you to buy the rest in pieces. It would not be designed as an interactive roadmap for profit rather than experience.
It would just be a game. A game you paid for, then played, then finished, or not, if you really wanted to dive into it. But the choice was made by the player, not by an executive demanding that his company build the next multi-billion dollar sensation by resurrecting the corpse of the latter.
Fifth step: resignation
We are in the age of live service play, my friends. There are exceptions to this, of course, mostly from smaller developers and indies (with a few happy exceptions like Ghost of Tsushima). But for any game big enough to be advertised on an NFL broadcast, you can expect to pay sixty (or seventy) dollars for a fairly modest experience, cut out so you can pay for the rest of the coins one by one.
That hasn’t always been the case, no, but there is no indication that the trend will reverse anytime soon. A generation of mobile gamers is now old enough to afford and enjoy richer games (literally and figuratively) on PC and consoles. The idea of paying small amounts of money for the type of rewards that were previously built into games has been cemented in the brains of many gamers. Players who have paid an extra dollar to unlock a few lives in Candy Crush over the past decade see no fundamental problem in paying an extra ten dollars to get a “battle pass” now.
It’s not everyone. If you clicked on this article, it probably wasn’t you. But it’s a big enough group of gamers that publishers are absolutely sparkling to get those potential dollars and make games with budgets of $ 100 million. After seeing what happened to Fallout 76, and even Fallout 4 to some extent, I can’t wait to learn more about The Elder Scrolls VI with as much anticipation as it does terror.
I am waiting for the other shoe to be available on TESV6.
There are still plenty of indie games out there that are a full experience, right out of the box, and stay that way. You can find dozens of them come out every year. And they’re awesome, especially if you’re not the kind of gamer who craves that big, brilliant 3D action experience. But any game that gets big enough will be sought after by someone bigger – like Microsoft gobbled up Minecraft, like Epic gobbled up Rocket league.
The usual refrain at this point is “vote with your wallet”. But to be honest, that’s not really a solution. Enough people have been conditioned to keep paying for games that that just won’t change anytime soon. Not all live service games that lean for the barriers of infinite profit will succeed. But enough of them will succeed, to a sufficiently large extent, that this model will remain etched in the industry for years to come.
This is the industry we live with. You can try to avoid it and even be successful for a while. But ultimately, it’ll claim your favorite franchise or developer and throw it on the altar of live service. Your choices are to pay the tithe (and keep paying and paying) or find something else to play. Again.