3D Space RTS fan.
Searching for life outside the homeworld :)
Days, when released games were considered a final product, are gone. With internet speed advance developers had their chance to fix the game with patches. And as games complexity began to rise, checking for patches in the internet after installing the game from CD/DVD became standard. Steam as a game distribution network was just an evolutionary step forward. And this, along the overall software development tendencies, was a step towards paradigm change from "Game As a Product" to "Game As a Service". Something similar is Windows10 is doing right now, constantly upgrading every time I log in ("What's he building in there?" (c) Tom Waits), so I try do it less :)
In this article I will try to think of what changes come with this paradigm shift.
"Game as a service" suggests that game life-time is as long as possible. And as the "Broken Reality" book says, a game now requires not the hype-train gamers, that would swallow the game and ask for the sequel, but gamers that would live normal life and access the beloved game from time to time. Something of a life-time addiction :) And, for example, mobile devices allow player to switch to the virtual reality while riding the bus or else.
And it's no wonder that a lot of play-and-pay mechanics were brought from MMOs and mobile platforms. While advertisements were not so successful in PC/Console games - though "Quake Live" had been changing levels in a favor of their sponsor Intel, and it was pretty much OK, and, even more, it would fit perfectly in a city environment of some modern combat game, just hire some professional product placement specialist - loot boxes and mini DLCs found their way to the player asses, so that some countries announced it as a gambling, which automatically limits player base to adults only.
And while it's quite natural for a human being to try to find its own visual look (you know that feeling when all try to be different and end up with still looking the same), and it's OK to pay for some... hats?.. to look differently from the initial grunt, it should not go into pay-for-everything mode. There should be balance between some free starter kit - player should still have some choice to have initial positive link between him and a screen character - and observable potential outfit to be accessed. And this outfit should be accessed in two ways: pay or play. First one bring us the money, and some rear items definetely should be only for the money; and second one gives us the player base, which nowadays is one of the most important assets a game possess: no players - no game. For example, that's why "Quake Champions" had been made free-to-play: to increase active player count. Personally, though I had no chance to play "Aliens: Colonial Marines" online as there were no players, I liked their upgrade system that worked in a single player as well: with level-up you get points for weapon upgrade and outfit modification. Surely, it's not the only game that uses similar system, "Battlefield"/"Quake Wars"/"Call of Duty"/"WoT" probably use the same mechanics.
Btw, it feels potentially interesting: as for Multi Player we require players, MP could be free-to-play with play-or-pay modification system; but Single Player could be a normal payable DLC, that would give you some character upgrade points in MP for playing SP DLC. Probably, as a canonical model of a SP campaign was a game mechanics introduction along the game story disclosure, a game introduction part could be simultaneously a MP tutorial and SP demo, fair enough. Cannot be 100% sure, but it seems that "StarCraft II" and "Hearthstone" have similar mechanics. Though, "Hearthstone" has given access to previously unavailable SP assets, probably, so that certain part of the players could get into the game, feel its intellectual potential and stay also for MP with its lootbox mechanics. I see something like a players pyramid, with a base of free2play, but to increase the speed of going up in ranks - to improve chances of acquiring cards for a deck of a certain strategy - you will need to pay with your time or with your money, and that's basically is the same for an average adult. Seems like unobvious pay2win mechanics.
So, we've come to the dark "pay2win" side. Gamedesigners are already taught to use this effect: regular free2play mobile game offers you several easy levels, where you're get hooked to the game mechanics, that might be not so good, but achievement feeling says that "you're good!" as you win - and then you get a level with a much more higher difficulty set. And some greedy devs are just making levels unpassable without the donation cheat. Can't say for sure, but probably unfair pay2win game mechanics made players criticize heavily EA's "Star Wars: Battlefront II". Of course, real life has no perfect balance and sometimes it's really pay2win - whether it's your money or your time, growing up your skills; but we wait from the game to be more fair than the real life.
Most addictive links are created when things are given: the more you spent time in the game, achieving something there, the harder is to leave the game. To gain this, game needs several things. First, player needs to get positive reinforcement - game should be winnable, otherwise it's kinda of a masochism, as it was shown in the "The Beginners Guide", and these kind of guys are very narrow part of the potential audience. Second, player needs a challenge: winning should not be easy, otherwise it would feel like pure boring time-killing, not the process, where a player can prove that he's worthy, show and gain skill that might be pretty much useless in the real world - but the feeling of some achievement would remain. And for that gamedesigner should create challenges in a player's zone of proximal development, something like difficulty levels in case of PvE - game logic might adjust difficulty automatically, like it was in "Homeworld"/"Homeworld2", sometimes quite cheezy, with simple multiplication, which is not good - or in case of PvP there should a fair ranking systems, so that players with same level skill are met, otherwise it would turn into the "childbeating", like it was in the earlier days of "Quake Champions" or in some MP with only oldfags left. Fair play is respected.
Third, there should be a possibility for a player to know and show others what is his place, rank, what he has achieved. It's like Maslow's pyramid level of Esteem, "prestige and feeling of accomplishement". Probably, if we go back, then Physiological level is about game optimisation, so that game runs smoothly on the computer; Safety is about "you can play this game"; and Belongingness is about fair play with same level guys, feeling that you are accepted in this "world". And for players to have this prestige feeling safe, game ranking and economic systems should really be stable. It will really hurt their feelings if a new balance fix would make new players achieve in no time things that old player gathered for years. Probably, that's why some critical balance and gameplay improvements are better to be done in a sequel; and that's why it's so uncozy to play "Early Access" games.
And forth, sometimes ideal gameplay cannot compensate the context of a game. If a player don't like elves devs have a little chance to get them into the fantasy game. For my surprise, we can even compare this to the final stage of Maslow pyramid - Self-actualization, creativity - if a player can't understand why the hell he's doing all this entertaining action, having no high goal, he would leave as well. The plot and entourage are powerful tools - probably, that's why kinda average games based on movie or boardgame license are sold pretty good. In this case player sees the world not just pretty bones of game mechanics. For example, in "Magic Duels" (online "Magic: The Gathering") there are short campaigns, that serve several purposes: first, it's an advanced tutorial, second, it's an introduction of new game mechanics, and third, these campaigns tell the story of a world, including a player as a planeswalker. On the other hand sometimes players themselves create the high goal, like killing 10 billion of aliens in "Halo 3" MP.
This probably will make players spend more time in a virtual world with artificial rules. There was a story of elephants that while baby could not break out from a tied rope, but grown up they don't even try. Hard to tell were will all this lead us (see "Man Disconnected"). Hope these new games will propagand us something kind and good, like it was in "Detroit: Become Human" or "Wolf Among Us", where despite your decisions you are still on the ideological rails of the game creators. On the other hands, there are games like "Eve: Online" that have no story but the one that is created by the gamers themselves...
Due to the fact that game's content and core mechanics might change heavily in a process of development (see examples in the "Blood, Sweat and Pixels" book), especially if the game comes to the public testing as an "Early Access" product, we need an application to have a high moddability, so that changes would not be scary, but quick and doable. Like in the best Karmaki engines traditions - ok, we may discuss if users may mod the game as cheating and hacking are not welcomed - but certainly, developers should be able to do it, as loot boxes, mini and major DLCs are popular nowadays :). Just let's not forget that long love and life of many classic games were granted by modding communities, that have shown untrivial ways of playing the original product. Surely, I don't mean that "Daikatana" development way should be applied, I mean that the development should be agile.
Imagine, "Battlefield" is made modular: like the next chapter of a franchise contains all the chapters done previously, and you simply select and pay for the era you want - from WWI to modern conflict. And this would sound familiar for players of "World of Tanks"/"Warthunder" - it seems like all is required is to add the infantry and weapon evolution system with the next "WoT" patch to get a new "WoT" competitor :). Anyway, we see here that MMO monetization practices are the part of a long-term support plan.
As an example, we can mention Valve's "Half-Life 2" plans on episodes release: it also can be seen as an evolutionary step in mixing sequel and DLC and using existing resources as much as possible. And while the idea seemed to fail (with the followers like "Sin Episodes"), I consider this was a premature success, as the big publishers now use very similar approach - "Fallouts" and "Far Cries" with obligatory set of DLCs are released nowadays like a "Fast & Furious" and are going into online - "Fallout 76", "GTA Online", "Red Dead Redemption Online"...
Some AAA-titles sufferred of incorrect resource investment strategy: for example, this has happened to Relic's "WH40K: Dawn of War III". While being one of a relativetely new and already well-known RTS franchise, the game was literally abandoned by developers. What happened? I admit that the game had some issues with graphical design and game design, but I guess that wasn't the main problem: both developers and publisher didn't have long-term post-release product support and development plan. Maybe, they didn't believed in it - and then, why player should? But, maybe, they planned game as an old-style selling product - release once, get money/critics, go for a sequel: well, typical Waterfall-type project that lacks feedback from the customers.
On the other hand we have Blizzard that continuosly updating it's products, improving balance and gamedesign, looking forward for a years-long support, like it happend with old titles, and happens with "Starcraft II", "Hearthstone" and even with "Diablo III" that started not so good, going into the "pay2win" mode, but it was fixed - btw, with the help of Relic's ex-gamedesigner. So, here we see story of success that show us that correct post-release investments bring even more success and might even fix broken thing. Like, there was a joke about two programmers, creating their dream-app. The first one wanted to create ideal product, the second released the product as fast as he could, got the money and hired the first one. So, I'd say it should be considered that the release 1.0 is not a final release, but the late stage of beta-testing. The final release comes with the latest patch, obviously: devs of "Broforce", "Shovel Knight" or "No Man's Sky" will approve it.
But, of course, money is money, and if even Activision Blizzard, that spent 500 mln on a dark horse of the "Destiny", closes its project "Heroes of the Storm" (well, they should have not been greedy when "Dota 2" was a "WarCraft III" mod), then how can we blame Relic/SEGA for not trying to save the game? Probably, there was no man who'd say "In the name of the Emperor, we're going to rework all the mechanicus, at least in multiplayer, to make this game involving!" and a budget to support this man. Well, shit happens. Will see how Relic will deal with the "Age of Empire IV".
Similar approach might be applied to the opensource games - the ones that are driven by the community, like "Battle for Wesnoth", "The Dark Mod", "VCMI" etc; we can even say this about some greater mods - a development of a product never stops with a first release, while there is a demand for a product, it's alive and evolving. These games's development are made in the bazaar not the cathedral way, with all the advantages and disadvantages of the approach. And also, there's no money involved, but man-monthes directly without transition.
Nowadays gamemarket is overfilled with games of all the types, and according to the economics law, a product that can offer a customer more or better features will win customers. The product and the team behind should be adaptable. And this is also about the platforms.
Many developers teams are ignoring UNIX operating systems - Mac and especially Linux OSs - but despite the fact that there's not so much users - I don't know the official statistics - they could become the most loyal ones, as many game genres are outnumbered in Linux. Of course, this situation is getting better, first with Steam native client for SteamOS/Ubuntu; second with Vulcan slow but inevitable incoming, third, with Steam implementing its own Wine analogue, SteamPlay, and forth, having PS4 and Switch using FreeBSD forks. You can see yourself that selecting between various gameshops, presented on Windows - Steam, GoG, Battle.Net, Origin, Uplay, Microsoft Store, Bethesda, Epic, Discord (and probably Unity will enlarge its asset store to something bigger after the event with SpatialOS and Epic)... - having Linux as main trusted platform, user will select, of course, Steam. And his wishlist will mostly contain multiplatform games, unless the game is a "mustplay".
And because of that, despite that I liked Amplitude Studio's "Endless Space" and "Endless Legend", I decided not to buy "Endless Space 2", though it was great (on Steam free holiday); despite I like "Q.U.B.E." - I've decided that I don't want to buy "Q.U.B.E.2"; and despite the fact "Starcraft II" should be a great game (million flies cannot be mistaken!), I'm having "Dawn of War III" in my library. Probably, "Age of Empire IV" won't have such luxury, as it's Microsoft franchise now.
Of course, many great games lack multiplatforming - like windows-only "Homeworld" remaster with "Deserts of Kharak" (but karma is a bitch, and now Gearbox head is experiencing some problems with a law - that's the "Vox populi - vox Dei" for "Homeworld", "Duke Nukem" and "Aliens:Colonial Marines"!). And, for example, GoG could have invested in their own native Debian/Ubuntu client with Wine fork, bringing good old games to Linux as well, where they'd be felt damn good.
In the very beginning of the HTML5 and WebGL public release there was idea that all this multiplatform problems could be resolved by a web browser. There even was a browser port of "Quake Live" in the early stage of development that worked on Firefox and was truly multiplatform. Google had an idea of a browser-based ChromeOS, but that didn't worked, though it's funny that even Microsoft is planning to use WebKit engine for its Edge browser, the heir of the Internet Explorer. But of course being on the edge of the progress requires some more resources than browser can offer, so still it's required to get deeper to the machine resources.
And let's not forget that many PC games are good enough to play on tablets, and while iPads use same MacOS, AndroidOS is just another Linux fork. Modern engines, like Unreal or Unity, allow multiplatform builds. And mobile gaming market has a lot more potential in a "game as service" paradigm. For example, "Reigns", "Hearthstone", "Clash of Heroes" feel very natural on a tablet, and same, many TBS would fill same, but of course, you need to work on a responsive GUI for a mobile devices - for example, "Clash of Heroes" was a little bit glitchy, and, probably, same Ubisoft "Heroes III HD" was removed from the Google Play because of poor quality port.
But, of course, in the end it's all about the money - how many features you can develop in a given budget i.e. time calculated from per month cost of salaries and rent. And it's good if the project is 80% done - according to Pareto principle. Everything above becomes "a feature nice to have", and these feature realization go to the post-release plan, if there was such. But as I said earlier, you never know what feature will be fateful - like in a Nash equilibrium going for a mainstream win you might both lose and win everything, but having something unique about your product might find you a smaller but stable audience. That's how the "Game as a Service"/"play'r'pay" strategy works: you engage players with something unique, so that created players community support the game further. And like in the saying "One cannot live in society and be free from society", same the developers cannot be free from gamers opinion: ignoring customers may lead to ignoring of the product. And to follow, change and try something new you need to be agile :)
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