I like to think the rise of games as services is one of those monkey paw situations. We asked ourselves, "What if the games we enjoyed never ended?" And just like that, games as services became the buzziest business model in the games industry. Unfortunately, with every video game and entertainment company racing to become my next all-important obsession, I feel my personal connection to the medium changing.
Games as service titles are typically defined as video games which have the infrastructure to support live updates. Like Overwatch or Grand Theft Auto Online, developers can push out content for a single game years after it first comes out. While it gives companies more opportunities to earn money from players, it also threatens to redefine video games–particularly Triple–A games-forever.
As Square Enix laid out yesterday, the Japanese company is looking into more "games as service" type business models, claiming that the era of single-player games is over. From an economic standpoint, the games as service models are popular for two reasons: 1.) video game companies can continue to generate revenue and player interest from a single game and 2.) players get more content for their dollars.
Service games are part of an overarching plan to have us and the media we consume become symbiotic. It's nice to have so many of the games we purchase continuously deliver new content, but like an anti-Coolio I look at my life and realize I have too many things. It's frankly exhausting keeping up with this trend of investing in games without any clearly defined end.
Take games like Destiny 2 and Overwatch, two games I enjoy immensely. I love the creative community that has gathered around these two popular service games–games I expect to play and write about for years to come. But I also treat these games differently than I do my single-player experiences. If the latter feel like personal projects, service games like Destiny 2 and Overwatch are like Netflix.
Each month there's some new content to check out or character to play and I'll binge on the experience. But like Netflix asking me if I'm still there after so many episodes, I sit back and wonder if I'm really there in the moment or if I'm just binging to prepare for the next season of content.
Multiplayer games are perfect for the games as service model because if you and your friends are both intertwined in its systems, the better chance it has at becoming the Next Big Thing™. If a single IP can generate an infinite amount of content, all the better for your company. It's also good for us in the media, who can find new ways to mine ideas and stories from a single game we know everyone loves. But what do we lose in the process?
Remember when you could just hide away for a weekend and finish a game? For the longest part of my gaming career that's how I've played games. I ignored online multiplayer games, preferring to spend hours on a single-player story, looking for something new to fall in love with. Finishing a game is a personal experience. While I won't deny that there's value in having a shared gaming experience with players online, or binge gaming sessions, my best memories of games will always be with the hours poured into a single story experience. Like crying after beating Silent Hill 2, or crying after beating Cave Story, or crying after playing Nier: Automata... You get the picture.
I obsess over Overwatch and PUBG, but I love Silent Hill 2 and Cave Story. Those are games I can revisit after years apart and remember who I was when I first played them. I remember how I felt when I finished. Because like all good things, they end. I felt some personal accomplishment from complete a game. It's funny how much has changed since the days of tacked on multiplayer modes. In the future, there may be tacked on single-player modes.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently dissected the dual life of Team Fortress 2 and how the console version of the game remains perfect while years of updates to the PC version turned the latter into a shadow of its former self. RPS writes of the different trajectories of the PC and Orange Box console versions:
"Like the unaging [Dorian] Gray, the blemish-free vanilla version continued to exist, trapped in amber on PlayStation 3s and Xbox 360s that have—like the story's titular picture—now been hidden away in attics. It's still there, if you know where to find it, but nobody bothers to. Meanwhile, the gnarled, twisted, changed version walks the internet, scaring past friends with his vastly different visage and new free-to-play form."
It's a great observation that captures my feeling towards service games. Games like Overwatch or PUBG change, and will continue to change. Eventually, the game you once knew won't be there. Some service games are already way different than when they first released. Single-player experiences remain static. Like a book you re-read when you're older, the text is the same even if the meaning you take away from it changes. Silent Hill 2 will always read like Silent Hill 2, but who knows how some new game will play in a year?
I'm not suggesting games like Overwatch or Destiny would be better as single-player experiences. They're designed specifically for multiplayer and to provide further updates and expansions. What I am saying is that as these experiences and services become the norm, and big release games start adopting a more service-forward approach to design, we won't interact with games the same way we used to. In some ways we already don't. Games will take months and years to complete a cycle and sometimes they risk becoming a version of the game we never asked for.
When games don't leave us, they reject a chance to be remembered. They exist now, in constant conversation. Overwatch won't be forgotten anytime soon because it is here now and always. You can't say, "Remember when we..." with your friends on Destiny 2 because you're focused on saying "I can't wait until we..." when the next expansion or raid drops.