Live Service Games. What are they? Why are they a big deal?

Gaming has changed a lot in the last decade. From the way we play to the way we buy, and even the definition of gaming has been changed. One change that’s been the subject of much discussion is the advent of so-called Live Service games. Or at least their migration into the mainstream. Put simply, a Live Service game is any game that receives continuous support, updates, or content additions from the developers. Most of us of a certain age will have come to know them as MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) and they took the form of games like World of Warcraft, Runescape, and Everquest. These games were populated with real people as well as non-player-characters (NPCs) and were only playable online. Over the years, these games would be updated to remove glitches, add new storylines and items, and even add more servers as the player base grew and grew.

Marvel’s Avengers is the latest example of a Live Service game being taken to the extreme.

This model has been largely retained for modern Live Service games. One key change however is that the formula is now being applied to more than just Role-Playing Games, something many of us are welcoming. It’s good to see our multiplayer games get new characters, maps, and challenges to enjoy. Sadly, another key change is that the Live-Service model is no longer only being applied to multiplayer games. Some games are getting content updates and extra levels in their single-player modes and it’s not all for the benefit of those playing.

The Good

I’ve been a big fan of the Gears of War franchise since day one. The story of the original trilogy seemed to come to a satisfying end with 2011’s Gears of War 3. The big bad was defeated and a new day dawned as we were reminded of what we were fighting for all along. “Tomorrow”. This was quickly tossed aside when Gears of War 4 decided to go for a soft reboot of the franchise, bringing us to the present day and Gears 5. This is probably the game I’ve played the most since its 2019 release with nearly a week and a half in total (that’s 264 hours and counting) under my belt. It’s no exaggeration to say that Gears 5 has helped my friends and me stay sane. We play a couple of nights a week for a few hours of Horde.

This game has kept me safe from boredom and the virus!

One thing that has helped this, in my opinion, is the regular content updates in the form of numbered Operations. These come about every 4 months or so and bring with them a slew of new characters, new maps, new challenges, and even new weapons to play with. The Coalition (the developers of the game) also uses the Operation drops as opportunities to bring a range of updates to the game, from small gunplay tweaks to massive character playstyle overhauls (one class has gone from being melee focussed to being a flamethrower-based class for example). This, in my mind, is Live Service gaming done right. Every time you log in to the game there’s something new and exciting to keep you hooked.

This is just half of the free updates that Gears 5 got 6 weeks ago!

Of course, this all must be paid for and, as in most live games, Gears 5 hosts a bevy of cosmetic character upgrades that can be bought for real-world money. However, these can also be earned by playing the game as you normally would, so this system gets a tick in my book. There is the issue of certain features being disabled so as not to disrupt the in-game economy but that’s a whole other article! As things are now, I would say that Gears 5 is a class leader for games as a service.

Ad Break!

The Bad

Things aren’t always as rosy, however. As I’ve said in a previous article, FOMO is a powerful marketing tool. Players will be more likely to buy your product or play your game for longer if they feel like they can receive an exclusive item or a limited-time bonus. Such is the case with Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Currently, the game is going through its Ostara festival (named for the Anglo-Saxon Spring Goddess, from whom we get many of our Easter traditions), which features many limited-time decorations for your settlement, items for your character, and paint jobs and sculptures for your longship. This follows on from the Yule festival that took place over Christmas and will no doubt be replaced with some kind of Summer festival at the end of the month. This is all without mentioning the seasonal sales in the Helix Store (a sort of micro-store that you can spend real money on) that give different discounts on certain items depending on what time of year it is.

Reject hunting Templars; Return to hunting eggs.

This might seem like a nice thing to have in a game, and I’m only speaking for myself here, but when I finish a single-player game, I don’t keep playing it for the sake of playing it. I may go for 100% completion, or I may get all the achievements, but that’s about it. At most I’ll replay the story and ignore some of the side quests, but I’m not gonna hang around to see what might be coming later. I’ve got other fun, cool games to play and enjoy! Why, then, does Ubisoft want me to keep playing Valhalla like it’s the only game I own? Well, remember that Helix store I mentioned? Yeah, all the seasonal items get put in there once they’re released. So, if I ever get FOMO, or if I just miss getting one, I can buy whatever I want with real money. Obviously, if I spend more time in the game, I’ll be more likely to spend more money on it to get rare items (the sunk-cost fallacy is to blame here). It’s a win-win for Ubisoft. They can tempt me with their new fancy items for free to keep me interested in their product, and they can tempt me into buying their items down the road. But who am I buying these for? There’s nobody to show off for, other than bits of code that look like NPCs. There’s no multiplayer mode to show off a cool skin so people will say “Oh, he unlocked the Jötunheimr armour, he must be good”. It’s vanity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I don’t think it should be exploited to make a quick buck.

The- ERROR-37 HEADER NOT FOUND

Do you remember the most controversial game of 2012? Funnily enough, the series saw a lot of controversy recently when its latest release was thought to be an early April Fools joke. Still at a loss? Ladies and gentlemen, Diablo 3. This was still back in the days when PC games were sold on discs (remember physical media?). When I went into town, bought one of my most anticipated games of the year, popped the disc into my laptop, and installed it I was understandably excited to enjoy some good old-fashioned demon-slaying. Unfortunately, that excitement was cut short by a textbox informing me that I had encountered “Error 37”. The servers were apparently so overloaded with players trying to access this “always online” game that there wasn’t enough room for little old me. The problem here is that I was trying to play the single-player mode. I couldn’t’ play a game by myself because too many people were playing it. Let that sink in. Now, it should be said that there were a multiplayer mode and an online “auction house” that naturally required an internet connection to play. That’s fair enough. But to say to players “you can’t play on your own right now because we can’t afford more space” or even “at some point down the line we won’t support this game, so you won’t be able to play ever again” is absolutely atrocious PR.

Just seeing this image is giving me terrible flashbacks.

The decision to have the game require an internet connection was to prevent players from cheating and scamming other players in the auction house. This auction house was quite straightforward; if you found an item in the game that you didn’t want or need (some items were specific to certain classes so if my Demonhunter found an item that only a Barbarian could use it was worthless to me) you could auction it off to other players for in-game gold or real money. It was a handy way for some 20-year-olds to make a bit of cash on the side *cough* *cough*. Say, though, I found an incredibly rare and valuable item and I wanted to try and resell it many times over, that’s where we encounter a problem. If a player had a local save that wasn’t synced to the cloud they could, in theory, keep reloading that save to effectively clone the item, breaking the in-game economy (and costing Blizzard their premium from all real-money sales). Seemingly the only way around this at the time was to require all modes of the game to be synced to a single online save-file. An unfortunate side-effect of this was that if your router died or if your ISP had an outage, your goose was cooked. This is a pretty bad example of a game being presented as a service, but it’s absolutely not the worst.

The Despicable

DRM or Digital Rights Management is a catch-all term used to describe the various anti-piracy methods that game companies use to ensure their games aren’t stolen. Back in the old days, there might be a code or password in the game’s manual that you would be prompted to enter at a certain point in the game. This was a favourite of LucasArts point and click adventure games. A little while later developers cottoned on to methods of design that wouldn’t prevent the game from being pirated but would completely ruin the experience for the player if they were. Some of these were honestly hilarious, like in Crysis where all your bullets would turn into harmless chickens, or Witcher 2 killing Geralt in a cutscene, thus ending the game, or tricking the player into romancing their in-game grandmother. Nowadays, however, many companies will require games to be verified online in a one-off connection test or, for many live service games, require an internet connection at regular intervals. This is generally seen as ok as this kind of DRM is fairly rare. However, one recent example springs to mind for backfiring so terribly. Crash 4’s DRM on PC actually gives pirates a better game.

Even Crash himself knows what’s up.

Crash Bandicoot 4 is a single-player game. There is literally zero online content. There are outfits and skins to unlock and it’s likely there’ll be some downloadable content down the line, but there’s no communication between any two players at all throughout the whole game. There isn’t even an in-game store where players can spend money. On any console of your choice, this is irrelevant as you can play the game whenever, wherever (on the Nintendo Switch), and whether you live within 100 miles of an ethernet cable or not. However, on PC, the game requires you to be always connected to the internet, essentially turning the game into a Live Service. Remember all those issues I pointed out with Diablo 3’s launch? Yeah, imagine those only 10 years later and without the inclusion of a multiplayer mode and an auction house to justify them.

This is to prevent pirates from stealing the game as if you have an unauthorised copy of the game and try to play, it won’t be able to connect to the server and won’t start (something that will even happen to the official game once the servers are shut down in a few years). Seems straightforward enough, right? Well, some very clever people were inevitably able to come up with a workaround for this and now the game is freely available to all people of fortune who sail on the SS Piratebay. The official game needs a constant internet connection to play, the pirated one doesn’t. No matter how you slice it, the pirates are getting a better experience here. Oh, did I mention that this unofficial fix only took 20 hours to do? That’s right, people hated this decision so much that they fixed the game within a day (The fans that is, Activision still forces legitimate customers to use the online-only system). Activision pushed the Live Service envelope too far (all for the sake of fattening their wallets) and the gaming community said that enough was enough.

So what?

Like many things, the idea of a Live Service game can be fantastic in the right arena. Providing content for long-term players of some multiplayer or “endless” game is a wonderful thing (as I’ve learned over the last 12 months). However, there’s still every chance publishers will take things too far all in the name of greed. The best way to know if a game will have the kind of content you like or not is to read reviews or watch some gameplay videos. Preordering your games is a sure-fire way to set yourself up for disappointment like all of us who wanted to get on Diablo 3 ASAP! As always, the best way to make our opinions heard is to vote with our wallets. If you don’t like it don’t buy it. Some of the armour sets in Assassin’s Creed are cool though…

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Alex
With passions ranging from video games and emerging tech to superhero movies and fantasy TV, Alex is always up to date about what's happening in the nerd world and ready to bring the news to the masses.