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High-Risk, High-Reward: The Temptation of Live Service

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Image Source: Gridly

Live Service Games present a tempting prize to studios who can succeed in the field, but a massive opportunity for failure if a game’s foundation isn’t rock-solid. Goliaths like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Destiny 2 continue to command their thrones, while others struggle with the complexities of launching and maintaining a successful, enduring live service. The unforgiving market is packed with studios competing to establish their space in an audience of shifting alliances, preferences, and industry dynamics. What makes an excellent live service game at launch, what keeps players coming back years into a lifecycle, and how easily can a poor public reception be turned around?

The Blizzard Storm: Diablo IV vs. Overwatch 2

Activision Blizzard offers a fascinating tale of contrasting fortunes with its newly launched Diablo IV and the increasingly controversial Overwatch 2. The former has kicked off with a bang, quickly becoming Blizzard’s best-selling game and releasing to critical praise. At the same time, the latter finds itself navigating the stormy waters of player discontent after years of playtime. We know Diablo IV made over $666 million (a cheeky demonic fact Blizzard couldn’t resist sharing) within a week of its launch, an extremely successful milestone by all accounts. With so many players, there’s a massive amount of money left on the table for future growth; but will Bungie follow a similar trajectory to Overwatch 2, with its waning player base and boldly predatory pricing structure?

The compelling contrast between Diablo IV’s initial success and Overwatch 2’s turbulence offers insights into the do’s and don’ts of running a live service game. The games both come from Blizzard, and watching how the company navigates each has been fascinating. The question that resurfaces is this: What drives the success of a live service game, and how can studios keep them alive and thriving?

Overwatch 1 was widely acclaimed for years, boasting a dedicated fan base that had grown accustomed to its charming characters and team-based mechanics. The switch to Overwatch 2, with its numerous changes in pricing structure and limited modifications to gameplay, has tested these loyalists’ patience. Transitioning from a 6v6 to a 5v5 mode is the primary gameplay update, with many fans jokingly referring to it as Overwatch 1.5, while also introducing higher prices for character skins, pay-to-play characters, a battle pass, and leaping into a free-to-play model. Many players have understandably argued that the sequel is less about changes to how the game is played, and more about hiking up prices to capitalize on cosmetics and FOMO tactics.

The promise of a co-op story mode was a significant selling point for many fans, but the recent announcement of content cuts has sparked outrage. Hero missions were pitched as a new primary game mode that featured talent trees, granting different buffs to heroes, providing a more nuanced RPG-like experience to always hop into. They’re somewhat fulfilling this promise, but with the elimination of character skill trees and co-op progression systems, coupled with the news that story missions would now carry an additional cost of $15, Blizzard has left a bitter taste in the player base’s mouth. This has been compounded by Overwatch 2’s live service costs, already considerably higher than its predecessor’s.

On the other hand, Diablo IV is navigating the start of a live service cycle quite well, a notoriously difficult period for most games. Usually plagued with bugs, crashes, inconsistent progression, and heavy-handed pushes to buy cosmetics, Diablo IV opened with a surprisingly smooth launch. The game was relatively bug-free, packed with players, and included a fleshed-out endgame vital to live-service offerings. Notably, nothing in game directly points you to visit the storefront, instead leaving the tab tucked away in the main menu, should you choose to peruse. Despite still being in the early days, the game’s initial success and fan reception hint at a bright future, already earning favor with its fanbase when most live-service games are under public fire. However, as many studios have learned the hard way, longevity in the live service world is hard-earned, and anything can happen.

Navigating the Tricky Terrain of Live Service Games

Live service games’ high-stakes, high-reward nature generally boils down to three intertwined challenges: Keeping players engaged, encouraging non-predatory spending, and maintaining an updated, thriving game environment.

Fortnite, arguably the industry’s poster child, has solved this puzzle relatively successfully, thanks to its continually evolving mechanics, map alterations, and transparent pricing. Despite being entirely free to play, Fortnite generated an astonishing $6 billion in 2022 alone, thanks to its skillfully crafted ecosystem of battle passes and character skins. This figure entices so many studios to throw their hat in the ring, but what makes Fortnite thrive where other games can’t seem to take off?

Looking at Square Enix provides some insight, as they have now launched a litany of live service games that shut down, with the notable example of Babylon’s Fall being taken offline not even a year after launch. With low player numbers (at one point having only one player active on Steam, an abysmal stat for any game), Square Enix decided to ditch the project instead of iterating or improving. While this may not have been a bad idea for Babylon’s Fall, often live service games need time to find an audience. I would argue that Epic Games’ constant updating of Fortnite is critical to their success; anecdotally, most of my millennial friends had ditched the game long after launch, only to be pulled back in by their massive “Zero-Build Mode” update. The new game-changing mode fundamentally eschewed vital mechanics of the game to give an optional appeal to a broader audience. Fortnite was losing players, Epic gambled on changing basic mechanics of the game, and audiences came back in spades.

However, not all studios have the appetite (or capability) for seismic shifts like Fortnite. Apex Legends, for instance, has taken a different approach, focusing on consistency in gameplay while featuring regular map updates, new characters, and balance patches. Yet, it has managed to sustain its appeal without drastically altering its core mechanics (though they have added some new modes, they are notably less popular among the player base). While we don’t have yearly earnings, we know the game has surpassed over $2 billion in lifetime earnings, so they’re still doing something right. This leads us to question whether radical changes are a boon or a bane in this market.

In some cases, pivoting from a live service model to a single-player experience can be an enticing solution to a studio that no longer wants to take the risk in such a saturated market, as illustrated by Warner Brothers Games’ Gotham Knights. Unfortunately, the game’s reception was lukewarm, primarily due to its transparent origin as a live service grind that was later repurposed. Filled with arbitrary loot progression systems, enjoying a single-player experience with mechanics intentionally designed for multiplayer progression proved a difficult hurdle for audiences. If not managed adeptly, this transition can be detrimental to a game’s reputation and overall success. Suppose a studio decides its structure as a live service offering won’t pan out. In that case, it’s wiser to overhaul most mechanics surrounding progression and not simply copy/paste from one format to another.

The Balancing Act: Consistency, Change, and Capital

The dichotomy of the experiences of Fortnite and Apex Legends prompts an examination of whether consistency or significant changes are critical to a successful live service game. The question, however, is more complex than it seems. Balancing consistent updates and improvements with moments of significant change can keep players engaged without overwhelming them with continual upheaval. Destiny 2, a game I’ve played for a while, constantly struggles with meeting fan expectations when balancing issues. While the core gameplay remains largely the same, a nerf to one gun or a buff to another can have a massive impact on the player’s perception of the state of the game. Last year was widely referred to as a significant low point for the game - even highly successful live services ebb and flow. But still, they’re doing something right, as Sony just bought the company that runs Destiny 2, Bungie, for $3.6 Billion.

Then there is the matter of capital. Call of Duty, which attempts to straddle the line between annual full-price releases and a live service model, may be outmoded in an industry where free-to-play games can garner billions in revenue. Yet, they also find their audience constantly placing among the top 5 on bestseller lists on release and currently sitting as the 7th most played game on Steam, as of the time of writing. Looking at their model, one can’t help but raise questions about the future of premium, yearly releases in an increasingly live service-dominated market. Does Call of Duty even have an incentive to reevaluate its release model, despite audience criticisms, when sales numbers and player engagement are so high?

The Future of Live Service Games: Adapt or Perish

As 2023 unfolds, the live service game market’s notoriously tricky barriers to entry and sustainment stand as firm as ever. Breakthroughs and pitfalls will continue to shape the industry landscape, emphasizing the need for strategic evolution and keen player engagement. In this high-stakes market, games that master the delicate balance between player engagement, non-predatory spending, and an appealing, evolving game world will thrive. Those that don’t risk falling by the wayside. This is the constant, unforgiving rhythm of live service games - adapt or perish.

Looking at releases to come, one thing is clear: the live service model, in all its complexity and dynamism, isn’t going anywhere. Studios will continue trying to get a piece of this highly lucrative pie, vying to keep players returning for years. Players claim to be growing tired of these models, but the numbers don’t lie, and people continue to buy. This doesn’t mean a live service’s success is a shoo-in, and newer titles like Diablo IV could fall victim to the court of public opinion with shocking rapidity. Does the format need to change for success to continue pulling in massive numbers? Only time will tell. Will new games rise to the challenge and adapt, or will they succumb to the ever-shifting tides of live service gaming?