When I said “Triple-A” needed a rebranding, I didn’t think the industry would come up with an even more ludicrous term!
Lots of people want to shred the very conceptual core of “Live Service”, but the real problem with the term isn’t that it changes anything – it’s that it changes… exactly nothing. Not a damn thing. It’s just as nebulous and vague a conceit as “Triple-A”, and it’s done purely to reassure shareholders that yes, video games still make a profit so please continue to invest your money in us and please ignore massive high-profile failures in the market recently from every major third-party publisher in the industry, thanks ever so much for your dosh… I mean time, yes, time. Ahem. Time. Because Time Is Money.
I mean that too; “Triple-A” was a play on the safe investment rating system, where AAA represented a safe, sound investment into a company that could pay its bills on time and increase its value. Now that “Triple-A” is dead, “Live Service” has appeared to perform much the same task; reassure jittery investment groups that games are being designed with long-term profit models in mind, that they are being thought about and respected. There’s no functional difference between the two; they perform the same task and say the same thing, in a roundabout way.
Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true.
“Live Service” doesn’t have the core nuance of “Triple-A”; because the latter was able to hoodwink even the consumer into thinking they were buying a safe, well-made premium product. It was, as I have remarked in the past, a brilliant bit of Business-Speak; a definition that was able to stretch across the vast chasm that divided the investors from the consumers and speak to them in roughly the same way, saying more or less the same thing – this is safe, trust us and buy it. That’s what made the decimation of the “Triple-A” terminology so remarkable; it was perhaps the –ONLY- decent term they had to perform such a Herculean feat. And it worked… until it didn’t, as games like The Order: 1886 launched as New Triple-A IP and hit the market with the force of a wet Kleenex, and games like Street Fighter 5 and Assassin’s Creed: Unity showed that in fact “Triple-A” no longer even meant a fully-featured or even functional product. Both sides began to see through the illusion – and it was a remarkable illusion – and “Triple-A” was forever tarnished.
That said, “Live Service” already seems to have bombed as the replacement term.
First of all, as I said earlier, it changes nothing since Live Service games are already out there – Destiny 2 and Star Wars: Battlefront II are the vanguard of the “new breed”, whilst ageing titles like World of Warcraft offer some historical glimpse into what could be possible. I think most will already be acutely aware of the major flaw in this ‘rebranding’; using Destiny 2, a game bleeding users like a haemophiliac in a barbed-wire thong and Star Wars: Battlefront II, a game which has pushed politicians and regulators the world over to investigate how egregious microtransactions and loot crates can be before you insist on restricting them to adults only, means “Live Service” is already fighting a losing battle on both fronts. For the consumers – it’s coming in at a point where the games reflecting this vision are just plain terrible. And for investors, the games themselves aren’t shifting enough units, and seeing the steep decline of users must have them very worried as well.
“Live Service”, like “Triple-A”, could only flourish in a place where the games industry was putting in the effort. Because whatever the industry wants to call these big-budget, microtransaction-laden multiplayer-focused online-only extravaganzas, if they continue to be like Destiny 2, Star Wars: Battlefront II, Shadow of War: Middle Earth, For Honor and their ilk, consumers across the world will continue to turn their nose up at them.
Because it’s not the terminology – “Triple-A” as a conceit has merit, if the series is both bankable and profitable and the software in question was, in fact, worth the investment. If the games continue to get negative reviews, if consumers continue to make those discs hit the used bins faster than my wheelchair strapped to the SpaceX Rocket, if they continue to see poor sales and limited user pools, then it doesn’t matter what you call them – they stink and people can’t always suppress the gag reflex.
Rather than actually, you know, improve games and make them worth something to consumers, the Big Publishers seem to have taken the easy and, let’s be honest, intellectually lazy option of just trying to call it something else and selling it that way. There’s no difference, no ethical or technical change, no deeper meaning or lesson learned. It’s the same bullcrap we’ve been enjoying the last five years. Only they’re trying to convince us all that they’ve changed, no really, look; it’s LIVE SERVICE now! Eh? EH!?
The good news here is that the games industry is rectifying itself somewhat.
Destiny 2 bombed? A lot of its users managed to gravitate towards Monster Hunter World – making Capcom the luckiest set of people in the world today because there was no way Monster Hunter World could have sold if Destiny 2 and Star Wars: Battlefront II had already swallowed up that marketshare. Tired of big publishers becoming one-trick ponies? Here’s THQ Nordic, actively buying up and out studios to broaden its remit and the idea that THQ might be back as an actual publisher now is something else, I assure you. You don’t want a machine with these crummy “live service” games? The Nintendo Switch has you covered and it’s still selling gangbusters, though admittedly it really needs a big new game or two.
And this isn’t unheard of in business or industry; when a shift happens towards a purely profit-driven model happens, a counter-culture is inevitable that pulls in the opposite direction with an equal or greater amount of force. It’s about balance; good versus evil and all that, harmony in all things. If games are too consumer-focused, they often lose investors. If they’re too investor-focused, they lose consumers. It’s about keeping things in a good place that can enact both elements in a way that gives you both. It’s not perfect; but that’s life, so you know, #dealwithit.
So no, “Live Service” isn’t some dystopian future; it’s the dystopian present. It’s what got the industry into the head-scratching position it’s currently in where massive, decades-old franchises like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars can be dragged into a messy weave of loot crates, microtransactions and enough collectors editions to start building a decent-sized cabin. It’s the present which has Bungie trying to save Destiny 2, but not forget its fiscal obligations and just continuing to drive players away. And long-term, games like World of Warcraft showcase that there is no “indefinite” model; new stuff will and indeed, must replace the old, or you end up with a market that stagnates and slows down, and when big-name behemoths like World of Warcraft have already effectively decimated the competition and sucked up all the money and users, the end result is a market that visibly resembles a wasteland, littered with the thousands of brands that have tried and failed to find enough available resources in the vicinity.
But yeah, the good news is – Live Service is already a joke. People are already acutely aware of what the games industry is doing here, and investors will certainly be aware that we all know what’s going on here.
If the games industry was truly looking to establish a solid model, they’d take good ideas and build on them; I don’t actually think Loot Crates are the worst thing ever. I’ve said before, these elements have their place within the video game market. But they need to be sparing, the model needs to be somewhat consumer-friendly and respectful and most importantly, the video games – for at the end of the day, they are still video games – must be good. There’s no point cramming in a ton of microtransactions and DLC packs into a game only to find it sold like a bottled fart in the midst of a hurricane, you know, like Evolve. Remember that game? No?
That was always the problem with “Triple-A”; it was never used correctly. Rather than be attached to games and brands of viable strength, the term was wheeled out for whatever a publisher wanted to push that given month, and damned be the consequences. Rather than build on solid games, the industry built its new foundations on weak-sauce third-party content with all the flavour and texture of a block of ASDA Mild Cheddar.
Live Service is no different; the industry is already building the foundations of this on failure and the end result… well… is going to be the exact same. Which is sort of funny if you think about it, right UbiSoft?