Publishers Are Embracing Games as a Disservice

Publishers Are Embracing Games as a Disservice

THIS WEEK IN BUSINESS | Take-Two offered an ugly peek at the future with NBA 2K21.

This Week in Business is a collection of stats and quotes from our sister site that sheds light on console sales, new trends, and more. Check back every Friday for a new entry!

Nothing makes me feel more like a luddite than service games. I've played a few of them; I've even enjoyed one or two of them: I played Marvel: Puzzle Quest for about three years before the endless treadmill completely sapped the experience of any joy.

But even when I enjoy such a game, I find myself wishing it was instead a static, complete experience. There are plenty of reasons for that.

For one, I like finishing things, whether to get a sense of closure or because I have a (usually quiet) voice in my head that belongs to a rabid completionist. But service games are incomplete by design, a bottomless pit for throwing money into or an ever-expanding array of content.

I also value games as an artform and want to see them preserved. But with service games, there's never any one true version of the game to preserve other than the latest one, and that in itself is fleeting, either set to be overwritten by the next update or ultimately abandoned when it ceases to be profitable.

On a more practical level, I value the concept of owning the games I play. But service games are forever the domain of the publisher that maintains them, and that publisher will maintain them to benefit its own interests. Oftentimes those interests overlap with the players, but when they don't, there's no question whose needs will win out.

So let's talk about Take-Two. This week the company updated NBA 2K21 to put an unskippable video ad for the Oculus Quest into the pre-game loading screen.

I'm not a fan of that in any circumstances. Advertising is already pervasive in our society, with exhortations to consume jammed into absolutely every crevice of our lives that could comply with a brand style guide. To the extent that games are an escape, they are a much better escape if they aren't regularly pausing to ask us to buy other games.

But that's besides the main point here, which is about service games, because Take-Two added these advertisements in a post-launch update; six weeks after launch to be exact. That's time enough for the initial wave of reviews to come and go, for the game's reputation and word-of-mouth to be established, for the NBA Finals to have wrapped up (October 11 was the last game), and huge numbers of early adopters and casual players to have put the game down and moved on to the next big thing.

These ads make the game experience objectively worse. If they didn't, Take-Two would seek them out and include them for free, rather than try to slip them in when fewer people are paying attention, after the Metacritic average has been essentially set in stone and far enough in advance of NBA 2K22 that it can pre-empt outrage about a game launching with those ads intact. "Why are you so upset? We had these in last year's game," they could say to undercut the newsworthiness of the franchise's creeping push toward maximal monetization.

"Yesterday's 2KTV ad placement impacted our players' experience in a way we didn't intend, as these ads are not meant to run as part of the pre-game introduction," the company said after people noticed and complained about the ads. "This will be fixed in future episodes."

Last month, Electronic Arts got called out for updating UFC 4 with advertising blurbs in the middle of fight replays. Like Take-Two, it waited until weeks after launch, and after people complained, it backtracked on the practice. Unlike Take-Two, EA said it wouldn't be reintroducing them in the future.

It doesn't really matter, though. EA and Take-Two and any other publisher running a service game will try this and other ways to further monetize their games again in the future. Some of these tactics will prompt backlash and be reintroduced in a way to minimize that. Some might be so hostile to players that they'll become cautionary tales and never tried again. And some will be cleverly deployed the first time and take root without ever generating the sort of pushback EA and Take-Two saw recently.

You can bet the EAs and Take-Twos of the world will be forever looking for ways to squeeze a few extra pennies wherever they can, and the negative impact that has on the player experience only matters in as much as it can hurt the bottom line. And in a service game world, they can always err on the side of more money, undermining the user experience and backtracking only on the rare occasions when it seems like the online anger could impact real-world sales, finding that sweet spot of what will be tolerated until they wind up with a massive userbase of players who are perennially dissatisfied but not quite willing to walk away.

QUOTE | "The senior officers and directors of [Electronic Arts] were at all times fully aware of the unlawful nature of their enterprise and took active steps to carry it out. In the alternative, the senior officers and directors [of EA] were reckless or willfully blind to the unlawful nature of their enterprise and took active steps to implement it." - A class-action lawsuit before the Supreme Court of British Columbia accuses EA's use of loot boxes in games since FIFA 09 of violating Canadian gambling laws.

QUOTE | "AOC's stream did something that politicians, especially on the left, have done a miserable job of for many years—effectively and naturally engaging with younger (potential) voters in the online spaces they already occupy and enjoy." -'s Rob Fahey examines the significance of US House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Twitch debut, which drew 439,000 concurrent viewers.

QUOTE | "The real truth is the streamers should be paying the developers and publishers of the games they stream. They should be buying a license like any real business and paying for the content they use." - Stadia Montreal creative director Alex Hutchinson kicked a hornet's nest on Twitter by suggesting game creators' relationship with streamers should be more like the one streamers have with musicians.

QUOTE | "The recent tweets by Alex Hutchinson... do not reflect those of Stadia, YouTube or Google." - A Google representative really wanted people to stop yelling at the company over Hutchinson's tweets.

QUOTE | "We are writing to inform you that your channel was subject to one or more of these DMCA takedown notifications, and that the content identified has been deleted." - An email from Twitch reportedly sent to hundreds of partners who had collectively seen thousands of their old videos and clips summarily deleted for use of copyrighted music without the opportunity to appeal.

QUOTE | "Due to all these harassments, Microsoft decided that it was for the best sever ties with me as a host, so I wouldn't be more exposed to situations like these that happened." - Isadora Basile explains why she was fired from her job hosting official Xbox Brazil news videos on YouTube .

QUOTE | "Last week's programming changes are unrelated [to the harassment]. They are the direct result of our ongoing effort to reach more players in more languages with the real-time news and comprehensive information available from our global news outlet, Xbox Wire." - In the same story, Microsoft explains that it fired the person it hired less than two months earlier not because of the constant harassment directed her way, but because it decided to make a significant marketing and communications strategy shift in Brazil less than a month before the launch of its new console and didn't care if that meant jettisoning a new employee already under siege from its own community.

QUOTE | "I was surprised, and I felt as naive and confused as a lot of other people. But I've been thinking about it a lot—I was and am extremely focused on the craft of making games. I actually don't care about anything else in my job, and because of that I don't see other trends that are going on in the company. Just as I would ignore the budget, to the frustration of my managers, because there's no correlation between the budget and the quality of the game that you can use in a meaningful way." - In an interview about his new book, Ubisoft Massive managing director David Polfeldt discusses the summer's revelations of numerous sexual misconduct claims at the publisher, specifying that he continues to not care about anything else in his job besides the craft of making games, and letting abusive people know that Ubisoft Massive may be a studio where they can safely prey on Polfeldt's employees.

QUOTE | "In an act of utter bad faith and contractual breach of confidentiality requirements, Human Head secretly provided Bethesda and ZeniMax with 'keys' that permitted it to play a confidential, pre-release version of Rune 2. This enabled Bethesda and ZeniMax to see for themselves the threat that Rune 2 posed to their hit franchise, Skyrim/Elder Scrolls." - In suing Bethesda and ZeniMax for the shady way they turned Rune 2 developer Human Head into their internal studio Roundhouse, Rune 2 publisher Ragnarok may be slightly overstating how worried the Elder Scrolls people were about their game.

QUOTE | "The way I did projects was to have an idea for a category I wanted to be in, then to watch for somebody who was passionate about it. Then my job was to somehow protect their passion, because everybody on a project wanted to put some piece of themselves into the game. And if suddenly I've got 100 people working on the project, then my goal is how to get the other 99 people to just do what they're told and shut up and not try to filter their personality into the game. How that could be done with 1,000 people, I don't know." - Sierra On-Line co-founder Ken Williams doesn't know how his philosophy of game development could work in modern AAA gaming.

QUOTE | "I didn't think about the [Moon Discs in the PlayStation RPG Moon] as 'background music.' It was important to me for players to be actively listening to the MDs, so the request I made to all the artists was that they didn't have 'background music for Moon' in mind when composing." - In a direct contrast to Williams' approach, Moon sound engineer Masanori Adachi wanted all the musicians who contributed to the game to leave their own mark on the project.

STAT | 36% - Percentage of survey respondents who said they were planning to buy a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X|S this year. 18% said they planned to get the PS5, and the other 18% said they planned to either get an Xbox Series X or Series S.

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Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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