As I’ve been writing my book on RPG design, one of the more interesting stories to break is the number of live service games that have failed or are dying as we speak. The latest game from Rocksteady, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, which showed a lot of interest with its first reveal, was met with the opposite following the news of its RPG and live service elements. As I said in the follow-up post regarding RPG design, I want to talk about how studios have tried to force-feed live service design, and why those games continue to fail compared to mobile and dedicated live service games.
The Never-ending Search for Fancy Pants
I’m not going to talk about RPG design as a whole in this post: that’s the point of the other post. The live service model and engagement was a trend that blew up in the mid-2010s, as developers and publishers saw the money that mobile games were bringing in.
The live service model adopted by AAA studios went in two different directions. The first, and far more popular, take is using it to leverage continued support of multiplayer systems, as seen with titles like Dead by Daylight, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and many more. In these games, the live service itself is used to add in more maps and more purchases, and the goal is to keep the multiplayer experience stable, usually until the next game in the series comes out if that’s the route the developers are going.
On the single-player side, these are games where the live service itself is about attaching as many RPG and monetization systems one could fit to try and make the game seem bigger than it is. These are titles where there is a focus on gear ratings, weekly or monthly cosmetics, and the “promise” of more content to use all those fancy clothes and upgrades the player finds. In this case, live service is about taking a single-player game with a fixed amount of content and trying to convince someone to keep playing it and returning to it day after day. We could even lump Back 4 Blood in this category because, although it was designed as a multiplayer game, it was still positioned as a story/mission-driven game with progression.
The live service model’s true goal is to keep someone invested in a game to the point that they will keep spending on small purchases (cosmetics, upgrades, perks) and continue to have an interest in larger purchases (new expansions, new DLC). However, in the grand scheme of the market, every single one of these games, even the major hits like Fortnite, Destiny 2, and Call of Duty, ultimately fail when it comes to what makes a successful example of the live service model. With the “death” of Marvel’s Avengers and the lackluster reaction to Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, it’s time to talk about how every major studio game that has tried to do live service or promote itself as “live service” missed the actual point of the model compared to mobile/F2P designers.
Why Every AAA Game Failed in Live Service
Live service design is not something any studio can just jump into and expect to print money for months and years of a game’s lifespan. As I’ve talked about in previous posts and videos, it requires a different kind of structure compared to other games.
For a live service game to work, your game must have short, mid, and long-term content. Short-term content is what the primary monetization model of your game is based around — new characters, new weapons, cosmetics, etc. Mid-term content is the major events and systems that get added and expanded over months and even years of support. To put this in traditional development terms, mid-term content is the expansion content for your game. This is content that, once it’s added, doesn’t go away and makes your game legitimately bigger and improved.
Now for the hard stuff — long-term content. Long-term content is the development of original mechanics and game systems for your title — effectively treating it as a soft sequel to your game, within the game itself. Some mobile games will even use this as a way of developing new monetization mechanics such as a brand-new tier of characters. Games like Genshin Impact have had massive updates that added entirely new characters and areas to explore. Throughout 2022 Arknights added several new gameplay modes, with new resources and ways of upgrading characters further. Even Marvel Contest of Champions and Dragon Ball Legends have added new rarity tiers of their character monetization to entice further spending. Long-term content is something that once added, never goes away, and the game becomes larger and different as a result.
When we look at AAA studios that tried to do live service, they often fail in different ways. For single-player-driven titles, they view live service as this: here’s a piece of content every three to six months and that’s it, and maybe there’s one year of support and the game is done. And the content that gets added simply adds breadth to what’s already there but doesn’t grow the game. When there is something actually new, it’s often very light in terms of new elements and is over fairly quickly.
If your idea of new content for a live-service game is one new two-hour level every three months, you are in the wrong market. The rest of the live service and RPG progression don’t do enough or are interesting enough on their own to warrant playing the game daily, no matter how many daily and weekly quests the game wants you to do. These games are often very plain in terms of the moment-to-moment gameplay — to make the RPG systems more prevalent. Better examples do keep adding in short to mid-term content but still aren’t necessarily growing the game design year-by-year.
Multiplayer-focused games are often better when it comes to short-term content: updating new maps, releasing a cosmetic pack, and having a few events during seasonal times. The ones that do last will focus on mid-term content — adding new characters, creating new maps, etc. But where they fail is with long-term content: creating something legitimately new and original that wasn’t seen in the game before. With Destiny 2, the stories of the developer removing/locking content do not sit right with me. As a live service studio, you should never be removing access to story-driven content — it should be archived and remained accessible. In Fortnite, while the different chapters do mix up the game, so much of the game’s content is simply tossed out after it’s no longer the flavor of the month. And despite being over six years old, there is nothing in terms of long-term content added to Dead by Daylight at this time.
The problem that often comes with supporting multiplayer games is that there is no real focus anymore on attracting new players or winning back people who left for one reason or another. These games tend to become very insular after a few months of release — and usually after horror stories of how painful they can be for new players. The other problem is that the short-term loop of these games becomes highly repetitive without the greater focus on mid and long-term content needed to inject variety into the core gameplay.
This is why so many of the multiplayer-focused live service games just ended up failing after a few months. The game’s loop wasn’t interesting enough to retain a large audience who would play it daily, and there wasn’t any content being developed to grow the game beyond just a limited section of hardcore fans. For the ones that do succeed, like Counterstrike: Global Offensive, they have reached that point where it’s no longer about changing/growing the game, but simply focusing on short and mid-term content to keep their fans happy. And with that said, there has finally been word that there will be a sequel to Counterstrike.
And to that point, it’s also why I would argue that multiplayer-focused games in this respect shouldn’t be considered part of the live service market in the same way as F2P/mobile games or MMORPGs. There is a very obvious reason why these games don’t see fundamental growth and changes to their gameplay loops — it would upset the competitive nature and multiplayer experience. However, having the game change and grow is at the heart of what defines a live service game. The one exception that I could think of is Overkill Software’s Payday 2, as they supported that game for years and did change the basic structure, adding in new gameplay systems during its peak.
The MMORPG genre is an interesting one in this respect. By design, they are forced to make sure that they have all three kinds of content in them. This is also why the cost of developing one is so high and why we really haven’t seen any new large-scale MMORPGs over the past decade, with Final Fantasy 14 currently the most successful example of the genre.
The never-ending challenge for live service games is to be as accommodating as possible for new players with great short-term content, make the mid-tern content enticing and keep people playing, and turn consumers into fans who are waiting for the long-term content to keep supporting the studio and game.
To make a proper live service game, you need to be thinking far longer in terms of your development.
The companies that have best succeeded in terms of live service aren’t just thinking about their game day-by-day or month-by-month, but looking at what months and years of support will look like. The original successes of Path of Exile and Warframe worked by being released (or by repackaging, as with Warframe) a great core gameplay loop and short-term content. From there, these games grew massively over the years — adding new story content, new game modes, and new things to monetize.
The reason these games worked so well was that they were enjoyable to play without the need to spend money, and when new content gets added, the consumer base responds positively because it means their game is going to get even bigger and better. It’s why for games like Path of Exile, Warframe, Arknights, Genshin Impact, Azur Lane, and other live service successes, the fans are more than happy to spend money on new content or on a new banner if it means that the game will continue to grow and change. And these developers have a proven track record at this point of not just resting on their laurels. Every new major event in Arknights will add original rules and mechanics that haven’t been seen in the game up until that point.
And being able to grow and change means not only balancing the short and mid-term content to make sure that there is always something new on the horizon but being able to think long-term about the game: what will it look like in one year’s time, two years, three years ahead?
Right now, I’m enjoying Limbus Company by Project Moon, and while I do like the game, it is without a doubt starved for content at the moment. With that said, the developers have promised weekly updates to the game and a content roadmap for the rest of 2023. If your live service game isn’t legitimately a different title in some way from the start of a year to the end, then you are not succeeding as a live service game. When we talk about the major successes, the ones that AAA studios have been trying to copy for years now, they don’t settle with just pumping out banners or sitting around waiting for money to come in. They are developing new and original content — new stories, new music, new mechanics, and systems.
With that said, let’s address the elephant in the room — investing a year’s worth of resources in games like this is a huge risk. You need to be very confident in your game and once you start, you cannot stop no matter what. Consumers can smell blood in the water, if there is the slightest hint that your game is dying or is at end of service (EOS), they’re going to leave and never come back.
How to Plan for Live Service
Creating a successful live service game is different than creating a successful launch for a live service game. There have been countless mobile/F2P games that had amazing results in the first two months, then slowly (or quickly) ran out of steam and began a downward spiral. Two live service games that I liked at their launch both went EOS in 2023. One of them, Illusion Connect, I played for about three months at launch and enjoyed it. However, it was during the second and into the third month that it didn’t seem like anything new was coming. They were still releasing banners for money, but there were no new gameplay modes, no new systems that weren’t tied to the gacha/monetization, it just became a slog to play it. Then there are the live service games that just feel like money sinks, where if you don’t make meaningful progress in the first month or two thanks to free resources, the entire game grinds to a halt unless you get lucky or start spending.
What I appreciate about Limbus Company is the developer’s roadmap of trying to have something new each week, with plans around major events at least once a month. While this doesn’t fix the lack of content at launch, it provides the consumer assurance that the developers have a plan for where they want the game to go. And with that said, the game is in a much stronger place at the end of their first month than they were at the start.
If you want to succeed with live service, you have a very narrow window after launch to “prove” to people that your game is worth continuing to play. I would say that any live service game has two, possibly three, months from launch as their test. This is also why a lot of live service games delay their global launch for at least six months to a year depending on the studio. By doing that, it allows them to effectively pool the content developed for their localized versions and be able to use them with the global versions to always have content coming out on a fixed schedule. Again, if you are trying to work on a live service game and you have not released anything substantial in three months’ time, then you are failing the model.
Not So Easy Money
For the live service games that truly succeed, it can become a studio-defining title — earning multiple accolades and making a lot of money. “Small” successes in this space can be bringing in millions of dollars monthly.
But if you think that a live service game is simply just keeping the servers up and having a few new shirts every month, that’s not going to work. There is a flow of “money comes in, money goes out” for maintaining a live service game. You’re going to be earning money, to put back into your game for new content, to then be earning more money. This is a very aggressive form of game development; as I’ve said, you should be having new content at the longest duration coming once a month.
For more about F2P Design, check out my book on the F2P Market, and for more on RPG design, there is “Game Design Deep Dive: Role Playing Games” due out in 2023
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