For the last few years, a large share of the biggest console games and a vast majority of successful mobile titles have been released under the games-as-a-service model. They all hope to foster a dedicated playerbase by offering a game that grows and adapts over time. Though I usually find myself drawn to one-time-purchase games, every so often a live service game will pique the interest of me and my friends. I’ve played Smite and Rocket League since high school, but the smart and creative design of the Splatoon and Overwatch series are my favorites. Thanks to spending time with Splatoon 3 and Overwatch 2 and working on a live service game, my eyes have been opened to the intricacies of these ever-evolving experiences.
All of the benefits, problems, and motivations of games-as-a-service are laid bare in these titles. Playing Splatoon 3 is like visiting Disney World right after COVID restrictions lifted, with a vibrancy that entertains but can’t shake free the baggage. It strengthens its innovative gameplay with lessons learned from other live service games, all without microtransactions. And yet, playing it is soured by the typical tricks found in Overwatch 2 and the rest of the market. For all of the unique opportunities that these living games have, they are unsustainable, often predatory, and oversaturated. The bubble is about to pop.
Defining games-as-a-service is still a bit abstract. These titles usually fit four key criteria:
- An endlessly replayable game loop, most often involving multiplayer
- Frequent updates via the internet with changes to gameplay and paid content, with no clear end to development in sight
- A focus on monetizing by microtransactions
- Systems designed for retention
Up until the early 2010’s, a game company’s most viable strategy would be creating a singular and complete package, convincing the player to make a one-time upfront purchase, and then moving on to their next project. Players would usually only play it once, sometimes more if there was replay value. Games-as-a-service, however, are designed to have a replayable core loop. Like social media, success is defined by daily active user count and converting users to spenders. The game updates to give you new things to play or earn, and you come back to play more. Companies then charge microtransactions for some of the new content. Nowadays, live service development is commonplace and often expected across the industry.
Around the time free-to-play games proved the model, analysts found that players were more likely to pay for experiences they are invested in over new and unknown ones. Subscription-based games, such as World of Warcraft, had understood this for a while. In addition, the internet has given people access to so much content that companies are now just trying to keep your attention for as long as they can. So the natural conclusion is to continually update and monetize proven successes. Many studios turn to releasing as a free-to-play game, which is an easier sell than convincing people to pay upfront. A select few developers are able to double dip, riding their reputations or offering enough content to convince customers their game is worth a price upfront.
Another benefit for the developer comes in the form of the game’s development costs. The limitations and simplicity of old NES games meant a programmer and an artist could spend a couple months making an entire adventure. But as technology improved, studios had to hire more people to pack their games full of detailed art and hours of activities. Development cycles ballooned up to a few years, which is a lot of time spending money before making any back. So many studios think of a live service game like financing a car; they pay a good amount up front, but it hurts less because they’re spreading the payments out over months and years. Developers are able to build a solid foundation in less time and for less money, in hopes of using microtransactions to subsidize the cost of further content and features.
It might seem unfair to focus so much on the money, but games-as-a-service at their core want to keep money on the mind. Spending $70 up-front for a game is the ticket to get into the theme park, with an understanding in that moment of what you’re giving and what you’re getting. Games-as-a-service is the county fair; the atmosphere is fun enough, but everything around you is designed to convince you to pay. The relationship that the devs and players have with these games is fundamentally different from a one-time purchase, and it’s impossible to ignore when you’re playing Splatoon 3 and Overwatch 2 back-to-back.
While Nintendo has been dabbling in post-launch content to increase retention, Splatoon felt like their first real attempt at live service development. New weapons and maps get added frequently, shops rotate their offerings daily, and everything is centered around the endlessly-replayable multiplayer mode. However, it’s the Splatfest events that elevate the game and show what games-as-a-service is capable of. The town hub, already bustling on any given day with unique fashion and creative drawings, becomes a huge block party with bright lights and loud music. Players pick teams and compete in matches to settle age-old questions like “cats vs. dogs” and “money vs. love.” There is a real energy and sense of community to playing during Splatfests that makes them worth setting time aside when they roll into town.
Splatoon 3 makes it clear that while Nintendo prefers to forge its own path, it’s always got an ear up to the ground. The game attempts to rectify a lot of the tiny issues that could stack up and drive players away, like making it easy to team up with friends and skip previously-mandatory announcements. Players play matches to level up and earn limited-time rewards from Harmony’s catalog, similar to a battle pass. Gear progression has been streamlined in a way that makes it compelling for dedicated players to check in daily. All of this on top of further-refined gameplay across the board, expanded style options, and an extremely creative single-player mode makes it feel distinct from Splatoon 2 and well worth the initial $60.
The thing is, pretty much every live service game I’ve played in the last 5 years has had a battle pass, customization items to grind for, and pointless short-term goals to retain you. Always in service of selling something, and always trying desperately to hang the carrot. It is so similar to the other games in this space that I instinctively feel the offputting reaction of being sold to. Even when I am given so much content that I’m not able to pay extra for, I find myself weighing the value of my time. The gameplay can be tight, well-designed, and unique, but when every live service game you play has the same meta systems, you start to think hard about the treadmill under your feet.
The carrot and the treadmill are at the heart of the Games-as-a-Service Bubble. Fortnite‘s success raised the bar extremely high for live games, unintentionally changing how both developers and players approach them. Epic Games used their unexpected success, income from Unreal Engine, and an overworked workforce to get big-name crossovers and pump out frequent updates. In addition (or maybe as a result), Fortnite‘s monetization feels extremely fair as a player. The seasons last long enough for casual players to complete the comically-easy quests, which award purely-cosmetic rewards and enough currency to buy the next battle pass. It doesn’t ask for players to make the game their life, but it rewards the players that want to stick around.
So suddenly, analysts saw a variety of meta systems and economy loops that increased revenue and kept players in their ecosystem. As a result, developers were much more likely to have their projects approved by investors if they built their games around these systems. But just like everyone taking their piece of the streaming pie from Netflix, developers are diluting the live service space with products that are inferior or just can’t compete. Battle passes don’t last as long, don’t reward enough currency to buy the next pass, require way too much time to complete, or even lock gameplay content. Challenges aren’t released all at once and take forever to complete so that players have to return daily. The developers expect players to invest far too much time into their ecosystem, but most teams don’t have the resources to generate the large amount of content necessary to hold people’s attention. There are a finite number of possible customers, and they can’t consistently play more than one or two live service games. Because of this, it’s a race to the top where very few can survive.
It’s important to note that these games offer hours of content to play with friends, often for free. It’s easy to see an optimistic developer’s perspective, that maybe people will appreciate getting that much for free and eventually pay for this “endless” supply of content. However, instead of offering all players a good experience and selling a better one, a majority of teams will try to encourage purchases by offering free players a worse experience mired with psychological patterns. If the developer makes a free player’s progression slow, it may push players to skip the grind by paying. Alternatively, while it’s almost always better when games only sell cosmetics, they usually have nothing free to work towards and the microtransactions are priced prohibitively high. Players are incessantly informed of sales, deals, and the cool things they can get for a few dollars. I think players are starting to realize the bum hand they’re being dealt, with major franchises failing to retain players for reasons that might look minor from the outside. You can launch a free-to-play version of Halo, one of gaming’s most celebrated multiplayer shooters, and still have your launch seen as a failure due to unrewarding progression systems and a lack of content.
And now we arrive at Overwatch 2, which feels like the culmination of all of the grievances I’ve laid out here. The original game was a massive success for one of gaming’s most-successful companies, selling 50 million units and earning $1 billion in 3 years from the sale of loot boxes. The cosmetic-only boxes could be earned from leveling up, which usually took an hour or two of play. Even though they were packed with filler, they felt attainable in the short-term and rare skins dropped semi-frequently. If you wanted a specific skin, you could save up the gold they awarded to buy a specific skin. Players are right for all of their complaints about loot boxes, but in hindsight, Overwatch offered a relatively fair economy for players uninterested in paying extra.
With all of that success in mind, it’s difficult to see Overwatch 2’s move to free-to-play as anything but a way to make even more money. The gameplay feels tighter thanks to a leaner team size and more defined roles, but it fails as a sequel because nothing in this package feels more substantial to the average player than what the original game would introduce in an update. The real changes are seen outside of matches, where the economy has been completely overhauled. Everything revolves around the battle pass, which is paced slowly and does not award currency that can be spent on the next pass. Free players have little to work towards, with underwhelming battle pass rewards and such small amounts of currency from weekly challenges that it takes 8 months to save up for a Legendary skin. Players can also eventually unlock the newest character after roughly 50 hours of battle pass progression, which feels extremely greedy for a game originally defined by swapping characters mid-match to react to the enemy.
Every second outside of the core gameplay is drenched in that feeling, causing it to seep into my mind during matches. It is the exact type of experience that has trained the negative impulse I found in Splatoon 3’s live service elements. I feel the eyes on my wallet and the disrespect of my time whenever I’m in the game. For comparison, the small team behind Blaseball, the popular fantasy baseball experience, is adding cosmetic microtransactions and ways to engage with less time commitment. Blaseball is so unique that it probably couldn’t be kept alive any other way. The Game Band understands the issues and stigmas of the space they’re in, and they hope to make the experience enjoyable no matter how much time or money you have. But the well has been poisoned and oversaturated so heavily that I fear it’s too late for the teams that actually try to get it right.
While I think the majority of games-as-a-service have deep issues with their philosophy, there are plenty of games that make good use of the format. Like Splatoon 3, Deep Rock Galactic uses a free battle pass to reward dedicated players, and Final Fantasy XIV offers so much content with its base monthly subscription that players don’t feel cheated if they avoid the microtransactions. These games are prime examples of treating the customer fairly and fostering a positive community, which ultimately allows the game to survive as it brings in new players. Unfortunately, there will always be companies looking to make as much money as possible, regardless of how much it sabotages the space they inhabit. The live service bubble isn’t actually going to pop anytime soon, but for me, it might as well have.