A little more than two years ago, the gaming community was almost hysterically excited for No Man's Sky. The hype was so intense in some quarters that reports of a brief delay were met with death threats. When it finally came out, the subsequent backlash was equally powerful, making No Man's Sky a cautionary tale about releasing an anticipated console release as something resembling an early access game.
No Man's Sky has since recovered, but it's been a long road. In the meantime, Fallout 76 is suffering a brutal critical reception of its own. It's currently sitting at 55 on Metacritic—even lower than where No Man's Sky was at launch—and has been derided by fans and critics alike as a half-realized mess.
Some have called this a rebuke against Bethesda—evidence of the tide finally turning after years of bug-ridden games like Fallout 4 getting a "free pass." I see it as more of a cautionary tale for service games in general.
Service games—online platforms designed to hold players over a long period of time—are treated as a kind of magic bullet by publishers seeking big profits these days. MMORPGs were the first true service games, but in recent years everything from Street Fighter V to Destiny to Minecraft have fallen under this umbrella. They're alluring to executives not just because they generate huge amounts of revenue, but because they attract large and dedicated audiences who stick around for the long haul, with the most successful of them being industry-defining hits. Minecraft got Markus "Notch" Persson a mansion in Beverly Hills; GTA Online made GTA 5 one of the bestselling games in history, and Hearthstone created a billion dollar genre all its own. These are the sorts of successes that can transform a publisher virtually overnight.
But as Bethesda is learning the hard way with Fallout 76, there are some pretty significant pitfalls to developing a service game. Many suffer from downtime and a large number of bugs. Efforts to balance gameplay or introduce new content can go badly wrong. Their communities can be very finicky, often fanning the flames of internal dissatisfaction into major controversy. Any publisher developing a long-term service game is attempting a high-wire act with hungry sharks circling below.
At the moment, Fallout 76, which was tabbbed as one of the biggest games of the year, is splashing around trying to avoid being eaten. Critics have complained about everything from bugs to a badly lacking solo experience at launch. Some hardcore fans have embraced Fallout 76, but they are rapidly becoming impatient, as evidenced by the top post on the Fallout 76 subreddit being titled "Bethesda needs to talk to us today." It includes a lengthy list of complaints including a lack of push-to-talk, poor endgame, no hub, and poor A.I.
As other service games have shown, these problems are rarely fixed overnight, and even if they are eventually addressed, the damage can be lasting. Destiny 2's community, for example, has reportedly been quite happy since the release of the Forsaken expansion; but in its most recent earnings call, Activision said it was still underperforming versus expectations. There's already talk of Bungie hitting the reset button yet again with Destiny 3.
At their best, service games can be amazing. Warframe is a popular example of a middling free-to-play shooter that has recovered to become one of the most popular games of the generation. It boasts a ferociously loyal community and hundreds of hours of free content. Its expansions are treated like joyous holidays in which players eagerly open all of their new presents.
But as with so many other games of its kind, it's taken Warframe years to get to this point. Indeed, it feels like every success story of its kind begins with, "It was a total disaster at launch..."
Nevertheless, more publishers than ever are pushing for service games of their own in the vain hope that they will have their own GTA 5 or Destiny. EA has been particularly aggressive on this front, ultimately pushing out Star Wars developer Amy Hennig and shutting down Visceral Games in part because they weren't prepared to develop a FIFA Ultimate Team-like experience. Next year, EA will be launching Anthem, which will be its own take on Destiny.
EA has had precious little success with its service games—even its sports games have been troubled of late—but it's developing almost nothing else these days, and its portfolio is suffering for it. EA's only real triple-A offering this year is Battlefield 5, and it's already being buried by Black Ops 4 and the omnipresent Fortnite. Meanwhile, single-player offerings like God of War and Spider-Man are the the toast of the industry and certain contenders for Game of the Year.
That's the element that's getting lost in the constant push for service games. Traditional single-player experiences may not be as profitable over the long-term, but they can nevertheless elevate a publisher's profile while garnering a loyal audience. Bethesda itself can attest to the lasting power of a game like Skyrim, which remains very popular seven years after its release thanks to its dedicated modding community.
Either way, success is not guaranteed, but as Fallout 76 is demonstrating once again, the degree of difficulty with online games is that much higher. There are many things that can go wrong with service games, and they often take a lot of time and lot of investment to reach their full potential. So if other publishers think they can generate a surefire hit by turning a known property into an online service game, let Fallout 76 be a cautionary tale. The potential for profits are high, but so is the potential for high-profile disaster. And thus far Fallout 76 has been exactly that.
Major Game Releases This Week: November 26 to November 30
- Artifact [November 28, PC]: Valve throws its hat into the CCG ring with a hardcore DOTA spinoff that's by all accounts extremely complicated. It may well be the DOTA 2 to Hearthstone's League of Legends, but with Hearthstone flagging and Thronebreaker failing to find an audience, Valve may find that the audience it was expecting is no longer there. At the very least it bears watching as an indicator of the overall health of the genre.
- Darksiders III [November 27, PC, PS4, Xbox One]: Darksiders returns as a ghost of the second-tier triple-A games that used to define gaming's middle class. Those games are long gone, but Darksiders is still a notable enough name to warrant a sequel, apparently. Alas, Darksiders 3 looks like the weakest entry in the series so far, even if Fury seems like a pretty cool character. Its nice to have another Zelda-style game out there, especially with Breath of the Wild going off in some very different directions, but Darksiders 3 seems destined to be overlooked.
- Ark: Survival Evolved [November 30, Switch]: Speaking of service games, Ark: Survival Evolved is one of the more successful examples of the category, though it's suffered plenty of problems of its own. It joins Warframe as the vanguard of service games on Switch, where it's apt to do well with younger players by simple virtue of having a big ol dinosaur on the cover.
Mike's Media Minute
It's been a minute since I've had a chance to contribute a new Mike's Media Minute, but I'm back this week with new box office numbers and more! Ralph Breaks the Internet, the sequel to Wreck-it-Ralph, had a take of $84.5 million for its Thanksgiving debut. That's the second largest Thanksgiving gross of all-time, behind the animated monster that was Frozen. The global debut came to $125.9 million, driven partially by the North American debut and China, which offered up $19.5 million.
Creed II, the sequel to the Rocky spin-off, bowed this Thanksgiving weekend with a $55.8 million debut. That doesn't sound like much, but it's the biggest opening of a live-action film for that holiday. It's number seven overall, behind Frozen, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Moana, Toy Story 2, Coco, and Tangled. Creed II has yet to start its international release, but that's a good start overall, ahead of the first film and what's likely a small budget.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald took third for the weekend, but it's still quite a bit behind the first film and other Harry Potter films. The opening weekend was only $62 million, and the second weekend was a fairly average 52.7 percent drop from the first. Even with its worldwide take, the second Fantastic Beasts looks like it'll struggle to reach the first film or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the next lowest entries. Warner Bros has another three Fantastic Beasts films planned, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some pruning there.
Finally, the last notable bit of new is that Sony's Venom crossed $800 million worldwide, landing at $822 million. It looks like the tank is out of gas though, with the first film in Sony's Venomverse having spent its energy in every major region at this point. $822 million is enough to get get Venom on the Top 5 of 2018 Worldwide though, which is a great milestone. It also puts the film ahead of the first two Raimi Spider-Man films, Deadpool, and Guardians of the Galaxy. That means a sequel is guaranteed. Sony recently added dates for two untitled Marvel-brand films: July 10, 2020 and October 2, 2020. It's likely a Venom sequel will take the October date, hoping to repeat this year's performance, while Morbius will take July.
This Week's News and Notes
- We're all just getting back from Thanksgiving here at USG, and we're not gearing up for one last run before Christmas. In addition to covering Smash Bros Ultimate and Just Cause 4, it won't be long before we're making our Game of the Year picks. Should be a fun month!
- With the PlayStation Classic due next week, new information continues to emerge about how it will handle saves, disc swapping, and other details. One point of interest is that roughly half of the North American version's library will comprise the 50hz PAL versions of the games, meaning they will run slower than their North American counterparts. It's another disappointing turn for a system that's already being criticized for its underwhelming library.
- In the meantime, massive Smash Bros Ultimate leaks have hit the internet thanks to an early release in Mexico. This will unfortunately make it more difficult to take part in spoiler-free discussions. Worse, it's already being pirated. A bad situation all around.
- Skyward Sword was reportedly teased for Switch over the weekend, making it the latest Wii game to make the jump. Nadia has some thoughts on how Nintendo should go about addressing its somewhat controversial motion controls.
- Contributor Jeremy Parish continues his ongoing History of RPGs series with a look at how Ultima 4 and Wasteland ushered in a new era of maturity for the genre. We're almost out of the 80s folks!
- I went and saw Fantastic Beasts 2 last week, ultimately coming away confused, bored, and more than a little dismayed by the direction J.K. Rowling is taking the lore. The best I cane say for the franchise at this point is that there are already seven wonderful books that comprise a very tidy arc, and everything else is secondary at best. I find its the best way to keep my sanity in this world of reboots, remakes, and unwanted prequels
- Axe of the Blood God: Mass Effect and KOTOR are more popular, but Baldur's Gate 2 is BioWare's magnum opus. Guest Troy Goodfellow joins Kat to break down the story, the world, and all the other reasons that this magnificent RPG deserves to be in the Top 10 RPGs of all time. Now available on Spotify! Subscribe here for the full podcast!