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Live Services: Not So Lively Anymore

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/19/23 at 03:32 PM CT

Just a few years ago, every Games Industry publisher and their dog was trying to get in on the hot fad of Live Service gaming, where a slow, steady drip-feed of grindable content keeps players engaged and playing a single product for years upon years. Live Service gaming is, ultimately, just the latest incarnation of an Industry model that has been around for decades, first exemplified in the MMORPG boom of the of the early 2000s, when the success of games like “EverQuest” and “World of WarCraft” saw a proliferation of similar games using similar monetization strategies.

Our current – and rapidly ending – Live Service bubble can be attributed directly to the success of Epic Games’ “Fortnite,” which popularized the now-infamous “Battlepass” mechanic, essentially transforming a Free2Play game into a subscription-based game through the power of FOMO. In spite of “Fortnite’s” ongoing success as a Live Service, numerous copycats – including “Rumbleverse,” “Anthem,” and “Marvel’s Avengers” – have either shut down permanently or announced a shutdown in the near future. Likewise, Ubisoft, which has become heavily invested in Live Service gaming, even adding Live Service trappings to otherwise-excellent single-player titles like “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” and “Immortals: Fenyx Rising,” has preemptively announced the cancellation of numerous game releases in 2023, with all of them being Live Services or Live Service-adjacent to some degree.

The problem, of course, is that the Live Service monetization model makes competition very difficult, as each and every Live Service game wants to be a monopoly in and of itself: Consuming all of a player’s disposable income and – most importantly – all of a player’s time and attention. When monopolizing the latter, that leaves no room for competition from any other Live Service products, whether from a company’s competitors or from the company itself. Ubisoft’s oversaturation of the Live Service space may have served them well initially, but ultimately, Live Service gaming relies heavily on time investment, and players who have sunk months or years into grinding an account up to snuff in one Live Service game are not going to be easy to convince to dump that game and all the accompanying time, effort, and money, to jump on board the new hotness. Thus, Live Service gaming falls into the same trap that Perpetual Growth Capitalism does, in that it needs an ever-growing – and unsustainable – population of new customers with new money to prop it up.

On the other hand, when a company cuts its losses and turns off a Live Service game altogether, while it may seem like it’s freeing up resources that could be spent on a new Live Service game, the actual outcome is a severing of both trust and addiction between the game publisher and the customer base. Not only do customers suddenly have reason to doubt that the publisher will support its Live Service endeavors in the future, but the customers are forced to quit Cold Turkey, giving them the opportunity to reflect upon how much they actually enjoyed the Live Service experience in the first place, and whether or not they actually need another similar experience in their gaming lives. As a case in point, when Square-Enix shut-down “Final Fantasy Record Keeper,” the game’s online communities were filled with people shouting, “Free at last!” and vowing never to try any of Square-Enix’s other Live Service games. If Live Services were actually beloved, their discontinuation should be met with wistful eulogies, not sighs of relief.

Of course, gaming isn’t alone in hitting Subscription Saturation, with the endless streaming video services all suddenly finding themselves losing butt-loads of money and shedding subscribers hand-over-fist. As someone who hates subscriptions and heavy-handed monetization with a passion, this is all good news.

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