So we come to the end of an era. For a long time, major publishers pursued a slate of marquee, tentpole releases that were pushed out nearly every year. The AAA industry was a huge machine that brought together multiple studios to service single brands. If you liked a major series of games, you didn't have to wait long, because it would be back next year.
There's been a shift recently. Publishers have found that sometimes it pays to keep players on a single title long-term. What used to be called "games-as-a-service" in industry jargon-games perpetually updated with downloadable content and free updates, supported by additional purchases and microtransactions-has become "live services". Developers are tasked with keeping the excitement running over more than just a single year.
The biggest illustration of the new trend is the change in Ubisoft's releases. During the recent financial earnings release, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot stated that the publisher was seeking to have fewer annual launches. The company finds its revenue buoyed by games that consumers never stop playing, like Rainbow Six Siege, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, The Division, and For Honor.
"[Ubisoft's] success reflects the industry's move towards a model which is less dependent on releasing new games. New releases now only represent a part of our business, which is now focused on longterm engagement with our player communities," said Guillemot. "To achieve this, we overhauled our titles portfolio, developing numerous multiplayer games in recent years which have dramatically increased player engagement in the Ubisoft world. Our players not only play for more hours at a time, but do so over a period of months or even years. We are thus able to offer them new experiences and content, thereby extending the lifetime of our games."
Assassin's Creed was one of the major annual releases, but Guillemot was reticent to confirm another entry in the series this year or next year. Instead, he noted that Ubisoft was planning more downloadable content for the game, likely beyond the Season Pass already detailed.
"We are concentrating on Assassin's Creed: Origins for which we are going to launch a few other DLCs. You will be amazed by what will come on Origins, so that's the only thing we can say for now," said Guillemot in response to a question.
We've been seeing this change in publishers over the course of the last year, stretching into current statements to investors. A move to live services was already apparent, but Square Enix was one of the first to really acknowledge that this was the way forward for AAA.
"Gone are the days in which single-player games were of primary status and multiplayer games secondary. Lately, multiplayer games have taken the lead, and it is the standard for games to be designed for long-term play," said the company's annual report, noting a desire to "develop games designed not to be played once after launch but that customers can enjoy more and play longer."
The publisher has put its money where its mouth is. Final Fantasy XV launched in 2016, but it only finished its first round of downloadable content and updates in December 2017. Square Enix has more DLC planned for the game. Its predecessor, Final Fantasy XIV, is a massively-multiplayer role-playing game with a subscription fee that just saw the release of its Stormblood expansion and a Final Fantasy VI-themed patch. The mobile side of Square Enix is also working the Final Fantasy brand hard with titles like Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius and Final Fantasy: Record Keeper.
Electronic Arts has been doing annual games through its EA Sports brand for a very long time, with Battlefield being released at least every two years since Battlefield 1942 in 2002. The publisher hasn't changed that cadence yet, but EA CEO Andrew Wilson pondered such a change for its EA Sports games in an interview late last year. Wilson was responding to the idea of EA simply selling roster updates to FIFA and Madden, something the company already does in South Korea and China.
"I think there's a world where that might also happen in other parts of our business," said Wilson. "There's a world where it gets easier and easier to move that code around -- where we may not have to do an annual release. We can really think about those games as a 365-day, live service."
Former Electronic Arts studio Visceral Games was working on a Star Wars title that was planned as a linear single-player experience. EA ended up shuttering Visceral Games completely, moving the Star Wars game to EA Vancouver to create a "broader experience that allows for more variety and player agency". To many, that sounds like a live service game. Bioware is currently all in on Anthem, which looks like a response to another major service series, Bungie's Destiny and Destiny 2.
Even Nintendo is getting in on the idea of releasing more downloadable content to extend the life of its games. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild just finished its Expansion Pass content with the release of the Champion's Ballad, Splatoon 2 has seen a number of updates, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is about to begin its DLC releases. According to Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima, this is all a part of the plan.
"To promote longer gameplay for individual software titles, we plan to implement even more downloadable content and events that build excitement for games," Kimishima stated.
There are a number of reasons why this shift is happening. In part, it's become untenable to keep these huge annual machines grinding on year after year for most games; costs are significant and a failed or underperforming release can throw the whole thing in disarray. Adding to an existing game is a bit easier than starting over again, and allows developers the chance to improve their titles, instead of launching a game and leaving it behind. Those improvements also offer a chance for new players to join a community; players will pick up older releases if they get more heat and hype, as illustrated by the growth in games like Digital Extremes' Warframe.
More importantly though, there's money to be made. Ubisoft acknowledged that revenue from its back catalogcame to 44.5 percent of sales for the 2016/2017 financial year. In further charts released during the earnings call, Ubisoft showed that its live games made 52 percent of their first-year sales in year two, up from 13 percent for its traditional releases.
Take-Two Interactive Software, the parent company of 2K Games, 2K Sports, and Rockstar Games, saw nearly half of its sales for the last quarter coming from what it called "recurrent consumer spending". That's comapny speak for microtransactions and downloadable content. The biggest contributors for the quarter were NBA 2K18, NBA 2K17, and Grand Theft Auto Online. NBA 2K17 is still making money a year later and Grand Theft Auto Online launched in October of 2013. Take-Two had a great quarter with only two major releases: NBA 2K18 and XCOM 2's War of the Chosen expansion.
"Our positive momentum continued in the second quarter, enabling Take-Two to deliver another period of better-than-expected operating results," said Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick. "Grand Theft Auto Online delivered its best quarter yet, Net Bookings from Grand Theft Auto V grew year-over-year, and we enjoyed the successful launch of NBA 2K18, which generated growth in both units sold and recurrent consumer spending."
There's potentially more money to be made in making more content for the same game rather than moving onto the next entry immediately. As an added benefit, developers under the live services model are committed to their games over the long term, meaning they're more likely to knuckle down and fix problems. There are a host of games over the past decade that released, didn't sell, and were summarily abandoned by the developer and publisher. Under this new model, we see situations like Rainbow Six Siege, where Ubisoft kept working on it until the game was what the community wanted.
The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 generation lead to the rise of these huge, annual releases, but this era is moving towards something different. It's a synthesis of the traditional development model and ideas found MMOs and free-to-play titles. By and large, players are seemingly enjoying it, because if you're loving a game, why wouldn't you want more of it? There are definite issues that the market has to deal with: if you're playing one game for a whole year, then there's less room to try out games from a competitor. But right now, the live services model is where publishers want to plant their flag. Hopefully, we'll see if this is good solid ground.