Games have always been happy to experiment when it comes to revenue streams. They started with pure retail sales, but then DLC came along, subscription models worked for MMOs, episodic content still has its place, while microtransactions are very much in vogue - both on console and mobile titles.
The truth is that most publishers are still mixing-and-matching all of the above, often within a single title. Whichever way you go, though, you need to have people playing your game, preferably regularly, preferably with their friends. In short, what almost every game really wants is an engaged group of players. A long-running community who are happy to keep paying to keep the game fresh.
Modern games are being designed from the ground up to generate just such a community. Such titles are often referred to as ‘games as a service’ or simply ‘live’ games. And live games are becoming increasingly common, across a myriad of genres, such as Ubisoft’s own open-world winter sports title Steep.
So just how do you go about making and publishing a game with the best chance of generating such a community? We talked to Anne Blondel, Ubisoft’s VP of live operations, to find out. First off, we asked how she would summarise a ‘game as a service’ or ‘live’ game?
“It’s a way for Ubisoft to keep its promise to gamers to have them engaged in the long-term, to provide them long-lasting entertainment on a longer time frame than we used to when we were more or less doing more fire-and-forget games,” Blondel says.
“Live is a section of a game as a service, but the reason I use game as a service is for people internally within Ubisoft to understand that we are super good at doing triple-A games and we need to get super good at doing triple-A services as well. Because if we want to be there for the long-run with gamers, this is what we have to do: provide them with a great game and then content all the way.
“When I say content, it’s not about DLC only, it’s about events, it’s about patches, it’s about updates, it’s about fixes... when we say we are here to stay with players, we mean it and we show it that way.”
Ubisoft has shown that to be the case. Rainbow Six Siege didn’t fare well commercially on release, but the company has improved the title with patches and additional content and now the playbase is now looking highly robust, with the publisher saying it has 10m registered players. Ubisoft has announced a second year of content for that title, but it wouldn’t have simply abandoned the game even if that hadn’t been the case, as asked about the lifespan and what would shut the servers down for good.
“So far, it’s very theoretical. Fingers crossed, we haven’t been in that situation with one of our triple-A games,” Blondel says. “We have done free-to-play games and we have had to stop some of them. Actually, we were in soft sunset for some of them and that means that we are there for the gamers, we are still there because we’re obviously not going to switch off and say: ‘Thank you very much for everything, you can go to somewhere else’. No, we have an engagement and a promise to keep with the gamer.”
The Division was another title that struggled after launch, mainly to live up to its massive pre-release hype - much like Destiny did. Ubisoft showed impressive resolve and flexibility, putting back DLC content to work on a huge game-balancing update.
“We have had a bit of trouble with that,” Blondel admits. “For us, we made a promise when we launched that game that we were there to stay. It was super important for us that we came back with Patch 1.04 because it would be best for gamers. Yes, it means we had to push back DLC releases. People were disappointed but when they realised it was best for them, they acknowledged it and they loved it. It would have been easy for us to say ‘okay, we have done x many sales, let’s move on’. But no, we made a promise, we wanted to keep that promise. We’re recently released the Survival DLC, so we’ll see. We’re getting back there.”
With such titles designed from the ground up to run and run, the last thing you want is to break up your community. The initial game evolves over years, therefore, without the potential friction points of a new title, does that spell the end for sequels?
“So far, there is no plan for that,” Blondel says. “But if we were to look at providing more content, it would be much more like we did with The Crew, it would be extra content linked to the feedback we are getting from the community. It wouldn’t be like: ‘Yeah, let’s do a No.2 because in one year we need to be there with extra content’.
“I think when you do a live game, it’s more about being vertical then horizontal. It’s more about pushing the envelope as much as you can of what you have been providing gamers with rather than trying to add extra content which could drastically change the core experience of the game.
“I’m not saying that’s not going to happen, but for a game like The Crew it would have been a pity to change them. Two years after [launch] people are still craving to have Calling All Units, which launched this week, same for Rainbow Six, we just announced we are going to do a Year Two. With The Division, we are finishing up Year One and people are coming back thanks to patch 1.04.”
“It’s a different approach, a different way of consuming games. It really depends on how gamers feel about the relationship they want with the game.”
Does that mean that the traditional DLC pack is even showing its age then? Blondel replies: “DLC is the tip of the iceberg and games as a service is much more than DLC. It’s about hot fixes, patches, even services, chosen instruments given away to the community so they can make the game even more their game and stuff like that. DLC is a little part of it. We’re very used to DLC because this is what we used to be doing in the past for fire-and-forget games, so it’s part of the process of the live games, but it’s not everything. As I said, it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
When games become services you need to get a lot more data from them. That way you can analyse your player base en masse and work out what’s working, and not working, for them. We wondered if Ubisoft’s back end technology was up to the task, if it was providing the teams with the data they needed?
“Technology has always been a strength for Ubisoft, not to brag, but that’s something we have shown in all of our different games,” Blondel says. “We have good [data] tracking systems - that’s a way for us to listen differently to gamers’ feedback because obviously when they express themselves on forums, it’s when they are at their most passionate. It’s super important for us to balance by looking at what gamers are really, truly doing. This way we can understand better what they are really looking for.
“Data analysts are becoming bigger and bigger within the industry. But it’s more in terms of knowing the gamers better. We have a much closer relationship with gamers now. When you start playing Rainbow Six as a gamer, our development team, our live team knows what you are doing.
“It’s not Big Brother, we can see that people love this, maybe they’ll love that – looking at the relationship to see what kind of things we should be providing so the relationship gets even tighter.”
Running a live game then is becoming a lot more like running a website. Blondel describes the dashboard they have at Ubisoft to see live player numbers: “We actually have a screen with a number of servers – everyone comes over and looks at the number. The best thing is when the dev team is experiencing a closed alpha or beta for a very first time, you can see everyone who is not interested in how the game ‘works’ so to speak asking what they did in terms of servers.”
In terms of staffing, a live game will need a team that can last for years, both keeping to its original design while also innovating with the needs of its players. We wondered how Ubisoft managed this tricky HR balancing act.
“For us it’s super important that the core team is the same,” Blondel explains.
“It’s part of the creative vision. It starts right from the conception of the game, we decide whether we want to do a fire-and-forget, or do we want to be there for five to ten years. It really changes the way you develop it and the core team has to be conception, pre-production, production and post-launch.”
Traditionally, senior development and management personnel might be moved off onto the sequel or a new franchise, while others kept the game supplied with DLC and updates. But this now looks to be changing.
“Yes, that’s a change for us because we want to make sure that every time we commit to do a Year One, Year Two, Year Three, it’s still in-line with the promise we made to gamers from the box release. It’s only the core team which can guarantee that it’s going to be the same experience all the way.”
"DLC is the tip of the iceberg and games as a service is much more than DLC. It’s about chosen instruments given to the community so they can make the game even more their game."
Anne Blondel, Ubisoft
Live games are the talk of the town right now, The concept ties into other online services and the success of massive mobile titles, but will all big releases be live games one day?
“It really depends on the genre of the game and what they are looking for,” Blondel says. “You can like something that has a beginning and an end, and you have a wrap up to the story and you’re fine. And on the side you can have something like Rainbow Six, which is more competitive and you go into it and play and leave it for a while, then you go back and so-on and so-forth.”
Is the industry making that difference, between one-shot and live game, clear to consumers? Expectations vary considerably between one game and the other, yet it’s very hard to tell from the box whether it’s a discrete, complete experience, or a long-running one.
“We are getting better at expressing it to gamers,” Blondel says. “And we are getting better at showing it to gamers. Announcing DLC before the game comes out, betas before launch and when we are providing gamers with events, things that are happening just to make the game even more lively, and the same game but different every time they log onto the game are great hints for gamers to understand where we’re going to go,” Blondel says in defence of Ubisoft’s approach.
“It’s true, we need to make it super clear whether it’s one shot, or whether it’s a longer shot, which is great too. Right now, it doesn’t mean we are making one disappear at the profit of the other one. It’s just that we know that gamers consume their games in different ways and we want to make sure we have different offers for different types of gamers.”
Given the recent pain of publishers at retail it’s tempting to look at live games as part of the problem. If there are more long-running, highly-engaging titles out there, then what is driving gamers to buy new games. Was this something Ubisoft was concerned about?
“We are in a transition now. As far as Ubisoft is concerned, we are targeting more live games to more genres,” Blondel explains. “So yes, if we keep [gamers] entertained on Rainbow Six, it’s not preventing them from going to The Division because they offer something different. The same applies to The Crew, same for Steep. So far, I would say there’s no cannibalisation on our own portfolio, but, yes, that’s a risk if other publishers keep delivering sequels when we are now into a longer time frame relationship with gamers.”
It’s possible that publishers are now providing too much for gamers to do online. Unleashing many Minecrafts on the gaming public, who will rarely see the need to buy a new title ever again. It’s certainly cause for concern. Some have suggested this is gaming moving to the mobile model, but this feels like a far more generous model to us, not one that requires huge advertising budgets in order to maintain player numbers.
"As far as Ubisoft is concerned,
we are targeting more live games to more genres."
Anne Blondel, Ubisoft
It’s more likely that consumers are adjusting to a new gaming landscape and they’ll get used to switching between a handful of live games over the space of a year, rather than gorging themselves upon one title. It’s different from what came before but such online communities are still spending, look at the digital sales data for FIFA and GTA Online, they’re just spending differently.
We asked Blondel whether the company had considered repackaging the boxed copy of a game, to make it clear it has an established online community and regular updates, not just an aging and abandoned title.
“Retail is still super important for us,” she says.
“It’s a matter of providing gamers with what they want, where they want to buy it. Some people are still not comfortable with going digital, so it’s super important we go with retail still. It’s a good idea, and we have to make sure that the packaging is very different. We make sure we have patch notes and state-of-the-game [announcements] and streaming and such, so people understand that the game is not what it used to be when it first came out.
“When you have a live game, word of mouth is super strong as well. it advocates other players.”
So hopefully that word of mouth drives retail sales of the game as well as digital spending, it’s certainly worked with GTA V, which still sells strongly, despite originally being a last-gen title, as its community for GTA Online is so strong and vocal. Maybe GTA is the ultimate poster-child for ‘games a service’, a generous package that doesn’t abandon strong retail and Day One sales in pursuit of longevity.