Yearly iterations of your favourite franchise, unless it’s a licensed sports game, are dead. Games-as-a-service has emerged as the premier model, as studios are facing spiralling development costs, customers want to spend more time and money with a single product and the audience is less receptive to picking up every entry in a franchise year after year.
Shooters having a long tail is nothing new: look closely enough and you can still find servers for Team Fortress Classic (released in 1999), Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (2003) or even the multiplayer aspect of immersive sim Deus Ex (2000). However, now that modding is a dirty word and all of the servers, networking, patching and development are centralised with a developer or a dev-nominated live team, keeping a game running can cost serious cash.
So, how do developers manage it without armies of fans buying a shiny boxed copy of their game every October?
The answer is loot boxes and microtransactions, pushing players towards paying money in games they’re spending time with. While in a lot of cases this is merely a way to get cosmetics, they’re still an unpopular choice, with a February report from data outfit Qutee suggesting that only one per cent of gamers are in favour of microtransactions, while 22 per cent disagree with the model.
However, in a world where players are investing more in a single game, there’s no denying that it works, if you can do it right.
“I think the challenge with this [live games] model is trying to put a community in place that wants to get involved with your content, not always paying but keen to be involved with it,” says Joe Brammer, the studio lead for Battalion 1944 developer Bulkhead Interactive.
“The thing for us from the start with Battalion has always been a focus on concurrent players, not on financial success.”
Live games have caused the industry at large to start paying attention to the dark arts of user acquisition and the free-to-play concepts of whales, even though most studios are trying to take a much more ethical approach: offering content for those who pay, while those who would prefer not to pay are still taking part in the game.
It’s this desire to get out to as wide an audience as possible that saw Bulkhead sell Battalion 1944 for £11.39, compared to the £14.99 its original game, single-player puzzler The Turing Test, sold for. It might not seem like a big difference, but Brammer says when it comes to convincing players to pull the trigger, a few quid makes all the difference, although unfortunately that can also hit the studio’s finances, too.
“It’s such a low buy from where The Turing Test sat,” he says. “But that difference is massive when you sell this many units, so you can say ‘oh man, we’re down a few hundred thousand pounds here’, but we don’t really look at it like that when we collect ourselves again. It’s just a worry as you watch the numbers tick up.”
Brammer says the low buy-in, combined with its loot box system where players can buy War Chests, allows players to set their own value for the title.
“Players set the value for the game themselves,” Brammer suggests. “It’s £10 for the game, and if people don’t want skins, that’s absolutely fine, at least they’re in there playing the game. Then I’m happy, because just by playing the game players are making somebody else’s experience better.”
Rainbow Six Siege has taken a similar approach to its microtransactions. The game’s cosmetic shop and operators are open to purchases using both currency earnt in-game by playing, but also using a premium currency that can be bought for money. Most things are purchasable only using in-game credits, with the only real gameplay benefit to be had for real cash is that you look fly as hell in one of the game’s elite skins, special outfits that customise every aspect of an operator.
The game currently has a loot box system that spits out rewards only with the in-game earned currency or as a prize for winning matches, but the company has also recently attracted controversy after introducing its first ever paid loot box, the Outbreak collection.
“The way we look at microtransactions is super simple,” says Alexandre Remy, Rainbow Six Siege’s game director. “The one single rule that we need is that gameplay content should never be behind a paywall. Gameplay cannot be segregated, it is the one thing that everyone should have access to and we are keeping it that way 100 per cent.”
The Outbreak collection runs alongside a co-operative event of the same name. Remy describes the collection as something that’s available for players who want to access those items, but they’re not the main part of the Outbreak event.
“For the event, we have always talked about the collection being the gift shop after the rollercoaster, so [the items] are purely cosmetic, and only available for the duration of the event,” he says.
“I am feeling very empathetic, but at the same time I feel if we don’t break the golden rule of gameplay then I feel confident. I do not feel we are cheating anyone.”
However it’s not hard to find largely negative reactions to such microtransactions on gaming forums, but results suggest that they work. For example, Activision Blizzard revealed that it had revenues of a massive $2bn from non-mobile, in-app purchases during 2017.
Some microtransactions feel very anti-consumer, and Star Wars Battlefront II’s loot box progression system for multiplayer, or Metal Gear Survive’s additional save slots requiring real-world purchases definitely felt like they didn’t have consumers’ best interests at heart. However, take a few steps away from these, and many developers seem to suggest that microtransactions are actually more about doing right by players, instead of punishing them.
“Very early on we realised that we didn’t have to sell 20m units like Call of Duty to make a profit,” says Brammer. “We just had to sell a set figure, and we could let players coming in later buy into the game. The only focus for us was to make a really, really fun game and do what the community wants us to do.” He laughs: “Within reason, obviously. We want to to listen to our community and be super open, honest and accessible, then we know that players will like what we’re doing and, if they want to, continue to spend money on our game.”
Brammer points out that the money that goes into the game keeps team members working on the title, and that effectively players spending money on the game helps ensure extra content, whether that’s maps, cosmetics or even new modes.
“The current secret of live games is that you need your players, your concurrent numbers,” says Brammer. “It doesn’t really matter about just selling to them all the time. I think if they’re happy with what they have then they’ll happily give you money because they like the game and they want to see more of it.”
Halfway around the world, with the financial might of Ubisoft Montreal behind his game, Remy agrees.
“Most live games don’t start free, so we have some revenue from that,” he says. “But the core thing is to ensure we don’t breach the golden rule of letting money interfere with the core gameplay loop, and we treat our audience and our potential audience with respect and intelligence.”