There’s a new report of questionable validity being circulated that 500 studios, or 95% of those surveyed, are working on live service games in some form. That “form” may be loose, as it considered “live” games anything with frequent, ongoing updates, but even if those numbers are skewed, yes, it’s clearly a trend as stated by those running the likes of Sony, Warner Bros and countless other studios.
The idea, in theory, is that one-off single player games might be able to sell well, but they have no ongoing revenue after the fact, and with big budgets, may barely break even or still even lose money.
But it’s becoming clear that there may be no faster way to lose money than to go all-in on live service, as depending on the genre, even the “successful” ones are burning through cash and players at this point.
I bring this up, of course, mainly because of the launch of Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, a game that appears to be selling relatively poorly, judging by the truly abysmal 12,000 launch day playercount on Steam, albeit we’ll need more data to be sure. There, it’s easy to see how the idea that the game was live service in the first place was a hard sell, much more so than another standard, standalone superhero game from the Arkham creators would have been.
Meanwhile, also within WB, we just had the release of Hogwarts Legacy, which was the first non-Rockstar game to outsell Call of Duty in a given year in a decade, and now it has 25 million in sales.
And yet, when pressed about its future video game plans, WB CEO David Zaslav can only talk about live games, recurrent revenue and ongoing engagement. But at a certain point, in an effort to print money for long periods of time, you are going to end up lighting it on fire.
Suicide Squad is the best example of this. A Rocksteady Superman game, were one to exist, probably could have easily sold 15 million copies. Here, you have to convince people to pay $70 for a Suicide Squad game, a concept you cooked up so it could function as a looter shooter in the first place, then create a story that has no real ending, and must feed into live content. Then, as you’re making the game, and for an indefinite period of time after, you have to make other content, new characters, missions, loot, etc. And in this case, you’re not even selling that content, you’re selling cosmetics in the shop and cosmetic battle passes each season.
It’s a recipe for making both A) a game nobody asked for in the first place and B) something that is massively expensive to both produce and attempt to sustain. And if it fails to launch well (which seems to be the case with Suicide Squad) you have already committed to at least an extra year of content for something that is almost certainly not salvageable as a live game.
This live service delirium is making some studios act wildly out of character. Sony pushed its studios so hard toward live service it blew up spectacularly, with Naughty Dog’s TLOU Factions being cancelled, years of work and millions of dollars wasted, and caused them to literally put out a statement saying they would remain a single player studio, as if live service was some sort of disease they’d just expelled from their body.
It’s wild to me that a place like WB looks at a game like Hogwarts Legacy, one of the most successful non-sequel game launches of all time as a single-player, microtransaction-free experience and goes “but yes we should make more games in the Suicide Squad model.” Then you can shift your gaze a few degrees to look at the most explosively popular game of this year, Palworld, a game that yes, is “live” with online multiplayer and future updates, but there are no seasons, no microtransactions, you can easily play solo and have a great time. And it has gotten 19 million players in two weeks with a budget 2% the size of AAA blockbusters.
It feels to me like the answer to expensive single player games is not to chase after live service, but to figure out how to…make them less expensive, but still fun enough to sell. Throwing your lot in with live service is like playing Squid Game with the rest of the industry. You may have 500 attempts but because of the “you must commit to and keep paying for this for months or years” concept, only a scarce few will succeed and almost all will crash and burn. It is much, much easier for players to commit to a single player game you play over a few weeks or a month and then move on. And even those, when longer and requiring more playtime, are still potentially massive hits, like Baldur’s Gate 3, easy GOTY winner and a largely single player game still putting up hundreds of thousands of players daily on Steam when it was released in August.
Making any video game is hard. Making a live service game is becoming more like a death sentence in terms of investment. This is a dollars and cents thing. Companies have seen a few select live games do very well and think all their IP can now be turned into that. But they can’t. The industry won’t sustain it, the players won’t tolerate it. I would say this bubble is bursting, but that already happened. The corpses of Anthem, Avengers, Godfall, Outriders, Redfall weren’t enough to say that Suicide Squad would fail? We’ve been doing this for years and almost no one is making lightning strike here. Make good games. You cannot force players to like something or force an unrelated genre to fit into being a live service. It won’t work. It hasn’t worked. How many smash hit standalone games do we need to see and how many dead live services must we amass before publishers get the message?
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