After several days of playing Kingdoms of Amalur as a palate cleanser from the bland meal that was Square Enix’s Avengers, I have come to a realization that half of all “Games as a Service” titles suck. I’m not going to candy-coat it, I’m going to be blunt with this one. Games that continue to evolve over time seem like a great idea only to eventually become stagnant or just straight up boring, and that is if the game actually works at launch. I found myself pondering the entire concept that has now taken over this industry. I feel as if any time I start one of these games not only am I met with an archaic array of menus and generic gameplay, but there is the faint aroma of desperation. Like a GameStop employee who just got yelled at for not having good numbers and really needs to get a pre-order from you.
Every waking moment of these titles are filled with some sort of deep, depraved temptation urging you to spend money. They will remind you that you are plain, default even, and use that as leverage to line their own pockets. They take advantage of “FOMO” in order to force you to come back into the game, and most of the time that fear is subsided by the laundry list of tasks you have to complete in order to feel any emotional connection to your character or game. But it can’t be all bad, right?
Sugar in the GaaS Tank
Games as a service titles, or GaaS for short, is a hanging pinata that just waits for the next company to come over and take a whack at it. With each company looking to take a swing, they hope to strike as swift as Epic Games did. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds took the world by storm with the first significant “battle royale” genre. Then Fortnite made tons of money while becoming a staple in modern video game culture. Apex Legends launched out of the blue and much to our collective chagrin, managed to keep their head above water this entire time. But for every Fortnite or Apex, we will always have a Battleborn or a Battle Cry, or some other title with the name battle in it (I mean how else would you know it’s a game about fighting). Not every game can strike while the iron is hot like Overwatch.
It takes finesse and sometimes being in the right place at the right time. More importantly, it takes focus to create something that is going to last. A lot of people might not like Fortnite, such as myself, but I can at least admit when a title does something interesting. Currently going through a Marvel themed season, Fortnite still dominates the headlines and continues to build excitement among fans. Most crucial of all, it delivers rewarding gameplay while essentially remaining unchanged at its core. It’s the same no matter what season it is, but Epic has created a system that rewards players for their time spent in the game one way or another.
Even if you are not the top player in the round, you still walk away with something, and that helps players feel as if they are still progressing. If they don’t hit the number-one spot, they can at least feel the rush of endorphins when they unlock something. Call of Duty Warzone doubles down on that feeling with the Gulag, a smaller player-vs-player area that rewards the winner with a respawn back into the main game. You’re not just experiencing a possible win through loss, you’re put back into that adrenaline filled mindset until you have been completely removed from the game. Mileage varies depending on skill level of course.
These player-vs-player (PvP) titles are relatively simple concepts. The gameplay loop of attempting to come out on top is a cycle that can sustain itself as long as companies have people playing. Have an interesting map with cool weapons and some systems that enhance gameplay or do something interesting can make people return to the game and possibly invest in the economy. But on the other side of the coin you have a much deeper experience, one that many companies cannot properly handle. This is called player-vs-environment (PvE) and for some reason, none of these titles ever launch finished or without issues.
The Destiny Enigma
These PvE titles focus on players fighting off enemies that are controlled by an A.I. system. They tend to have RPG mechanics like itemization in order to keep the grind going. Companies tend to create these inventory systems filled with various gear that offer perks for equipping them while looking stylish. Not only are fans playing a numbers game, but a game of accessorizing; attempting to find the item that makes your character look dapper while murdering an entire colony of alien robots or each other. If there is one company that was able to nail the concept down, it was Bungie. But it wasn’t all good for them.
Destiny launched in a bad state with concepts that just didn’t quite make any sense. Despite the myriad of issues, Destiny finally hit its stride with The Taken King expansion. After a year of trouble, Destiny finally found its groove. It later on released an expansion titled Rise of Iron which proved that after all this time, Bungie learned something. Then somehow with the launch of Destiny 2 it was revealed that Bungie didn’t quite learn anything at all.
It then took another year for the game to hit a mark that was even similar to Rise of Iron. Till this day, the game is becoming overhauled over and over, attempting to hit that perfect balance of gameplay and number crunching. The problem is, Destiny is not just a PvE game. Oh no, it has a whole PvP element called “The Crucible” which happens to have a drastic effect over how everything works, especially those who do not like the PvP element.
Almost every season you can see a talking head on YouTube discuss the intricacies of the Crucible; what weapons are best to have and what weapons need to go. The meta changes on an almost weekly basis. Many aspects of Destiny’s focus seems rather blurred and even though on paper it sounds like a great idea, the execution is ultimately problematic.
Destiny’s reward system comes in the form of power. The higher your “light level” the better your abilities are against monsters of the same level. Unlike older RPG’s, there is never a moment in this game where you can go back and slap the enemies, using the power you earned to feel superior to the foes that once bested you. Instead you chase numbers in hopes that the right armor with the higher number drops for you. When content isn’t as vast, you are left to perform the same tasks over and over again. I can’t make it through a single full season of Destiny because it gets too repetitive and the game requires a lot of dedication.
Bungie isn’t the only company with a hold on the PvE GaaS market. Free games like Dauntless, Path of Exile, and Warframe are all centered around the very PvE concepts that seem to work rather well. Even though some titles might have PvP elements, they are nowhere near as focused as the main PvE-course. They seem to deliver a good experience to players with little problems. These are full, playable titles that you can lose yourself in without paying a dime. Eventually the guilt hits you and you toss $10 their way for more bag space, but it’s still money well spent for the time you put in.
GaaS concepts are great on paper. They offer something that other linear games simply cannot bring to the table. Despite that, we need to recognize that when players become your currency, you need to deliver. There is a balance that companies need to understand when it comes to these types of games, and players need to understand it too. Companies can only put so much money into a game and need to make a return on investment. If only so many people play the game they could end up losing more than they earn. So companies need to focus more on what the title is before ripping it to shreds and turning it into a shadow of its former self.
In the past I have thrown around the opinion that GaaS are just MMO-lite games. I have been a devout World of Warcraft fan and somehow that game tends to offer storylines and quests that last longer than entire quarters of Destiny content. On top of that, gaining new equipment and finding things to do isn’t that difficult because most of it is at your own leisure. Most of the time you have months, if not years to obtain the mount you want. There is a steady increase of content that is released over an expansion’s two-year life span. Destiny cannot give content of that caliber away for free. They simply can’t. At the same time, Destiny doesn’t have a subscription model. I know I am comparing apples to oranges here, but when you step back, the lines begin to blur.
Okay, enough about Destiny. What about other titles like Anthem? This complete dumpster fire of a game lost fans almost immediately. Nothing about that game made sense and none of it felt particularly rewarding. It was a dull experience where the best part of it was flying. When traversal is the most fun aspect of your looter-shooter, you failed. Fallout 76 also happens to fall as a PvE GaaS title that doesn’t just deliver a terrible experience, it insults you with an array of broken graphics, glitchy systems, and marketing ploys that literally lied to customers when it comes to the content of their game. And I am leaving a bunch more out.
Oh, it doesn’t end there either. You have Ubisoft, who is infamous for putting micro-transactions in single-player titles such as Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Ghost Recon: Breakpoint. They might not be GaaS titles but when you create an in-game economy that can be cut up and sold as a premium, you only stoke the anger. Even their actual GaaS title, The Division, doesn’t have micro-transactions as predatory as some of these single player experiences. By the way, The Division is also an unequivocal boring mess that only caught my attention for a little bit before the grind ended up becoming archaic. Plus, having enemies pop up behind me in battles for no reason became incredibly annoying. After all, this is a cover based shooter. What is the point of the cover when you keep on spawning additional enemies behind me, making cover inherently useless? That’s not good gameplay at all, but I digress.
What about the Avengers, Steve? Well, it has it’s problems too. It’s glitchy as Fallout 76, it has a useless inventory system like Anthem, and a resource system as broken and stupid as Destiny’s; this makes Avengers a “Greatest Shits” album of modern gaming. The fact that the game is fun is it’s saving grace, which somehow already makes it better than Fallout 76 and The Division. But it’s still a game that needs another year of conceptualizing and improving which shouldn’t be the case.
It is my reasonable understanding that as consumers we spend money on titles that we expect to work. It shouldn’t be released in a half-baked state only to be told “we are working on it.” I know developing a game isn’t easy, but you cannot tell me that any quality assurance tester thought that any of these titles were good to go on day one. Sure, the developers know when something needs to be fixed, but the publishers need to also understand that more time in the oven can be a good thing as long as you allocate the time correctly. That is why I don’t hold Crystal Dynamics as the bad-guy when it comes to The Avengers (read my review for a better idea why). I hold Square Enix up as the villain with this title.
Best Miles Per Gamer
There are ways to make sure these games actually work on launch. But if you are developing a title that is supposed to last a long time then perhaps we are looking at the wrong model. I think the best way to release a title like this is take advantage of the preview programs and early access. The games release in that state anyway, so might as well slap that sticker on it. Getting folks outside the company involved will help immensely. However, big publishers and developers might not like this because people tend to run their mouths and a single bad headline can ruin a project or a small company. If something is bad, someone is going to spill the beans.
The next step is to build your relationship with the people playing the game and have a department actually filter out the good and the bad ideas and build upon them. This way the publishers have cultivated a wonderful, meaningful community that keeps the game going. After all, with titles that need so much involvement, why would you even bother with trying to hook a casual audience? They tend to drop games almost as fast as they pick them up. There is nothing wrong with that, but when you are trying to make something so massive and promote longevity, the hardcore fans will be the ones carrying the title on their shoulders.
This all seems like it could be difficult. But it is so incredibly simple; you just need the right people in the right spots. Communication is key but it is also important for developers to understand that they do not know everything that the fanbase wants. After all, if the people playing your game might think something is going to help, then perhaps you should consider it.
Running on Empty
The saddest part in all of this, is how conditioned we have become to the idea that games can release in broken states with the promises of improvements. It has been over a year since Anthem was supposed to be fixed and at this point it is becoming a PS5/Series X game. Even more upsetting is how each of these titles, whilst broken, ask us for more money. Granted they are not forcing you to buy into their economy. Having them present while a game is broken is an insult to injury, knowing that your upfront cost was not good enough to appease these companies. Don’t use the excuse of “Well there is free DLC” because if the main game doesn’t work then what can I expect from said DLC?
I’m just tired of it all at this point as I am sure many of you out there are as well. I know companies need to make money. It’s a business after all. But I can’t help but feel as if every one of these GaaS just don’t respect the players that buy them. And they feel like cheap cash grabs, waiting for that high roller to grace them with thousands of dollars. They need to focus and really put effort into what they really want to be. Otherwise everything can easily fall apart. In the words of the great Ron Swanson, “Don’t half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.”