Once upon a time, Shigeru Miyamoto famously said, “A delayed game is eventually good. A bad game is bad forever.” It’s a statement that felt like it would never fall out of fashion, until it did. Modern games are never finished. Bad games become good. Good games become bad. Games of all stripes add social components, microtransactions, and events. On this week’s episode of the Splitscreen podcast, we talk about live service games, how they’ve taken over the industry, and how their dominance might finally be receding—a little bit.
To kick off the episode, Ash Parrish, Mike Fahey, and I dig into the roots of live service games. MMOs, mobile games, social games, Microsoft’s popularization of microtransactions, EA’s “Project Ten Dollar,” Team Fortress 2's hats, League of Legends—all of these things and more informed the gaming industry and each other, resulting in the slew of forever games we see today.
Then we talk about the service games we enjoy, which nonetheless leave us feeling conflicted. Whether it’s Destiny’s cavalcade of Stuff (TM), WoW’s incrementally updated current iteration, Genshin Impact’s mix of sublime adventuring and endless stress, or Avengers’ everything, no live game is without its asterisks. Lastly, we talk about how the industry’s prevailing winds might be shifting away from live games—or at least the insistence that everything has to be a service.
Get the MP3 here, and check out an excerpt below.
Nathan: To begin, I want the two of you to travel all the way back to last year. Think about the biggest games that came out last year—the ones people talked about the most.
Ash: Hades, Animal Crossing. Those are the two biggest ones that stand out to me. What else did we do last year? Maybe Spider-Man: Miles Morales?
Nathan: You’re getting close, but there are a couple big ones you’ve omitted. One of them, we did two entire podcast episodes about.
Nathan: There we go. And then one we’ve talked about on here before. It features a bad dad.
Ash: Oh, The Last of Us II?
Nathan: Correct. So now note that almost everything you mentioned was more or less a single-player game.
Ash: Isn’t that usually the case, though? Like, the big games are the single-player games. They’re big because we talk about them because of the story or whatever, or the story around them being made. But the bigger games that year are always your Call of Dutys and other service-based games. We don’t talk about them that much because they’re always there, doing shit. Like your GTA Onlines and things like that.
Nathan: Right, but the games you just mentioned are major publishers’ attempts at service elements. Like back in the day you had Grand Theft Auto just coming out as a boxed game without a multiplayer mode, and then they added one, and it took on a life of its own. So then as a result of things like that, you had a lot of people making single-player games feel the need to add service elements themselves. But what you’ll note about games like Last of Us and Cyberpunk is that they don’t have this contrived service element. Cyberpunk was eventually going to do one, but they seem to be reconsidering that now.
I think that last year, you had a lot of games eschew that service model. Even before that, Jedi: Fallen Order did really well, and that’s fed into—
Ash: The Dragon Age news, yeah.
Nathan: Right, EA is just going to go single-player for the new Dragon Age.
You can’t see this because it’s a podcast, but Ash is doing little prayer hands.
Ash: I’m thanking god. Thank you, Andraste, for your bountiful gifts.
Nathan: But anyway, Dragon Age is gonna be single-player in part because Jedi: Fallen Order sold really well, and also in part because Anthem bombed. EA tried to do a big service game, and it didn’t work out at all, and they gave up on it recently.
Ash: Poor Anthem.
Nathan: I think you’re seeing that in general, though. One of the things about service games is that they are theoretically forever games. You can only have so many popular games that people play forever before they’re like, “Well, I’ve got one or two. I don’t need another.” Also, Anthem was very barebones. I think the idea underlying it was the same that a lot of service games have tried to embrace, which is “We’re gonna come out, not gonna have that much, and hope people stick around for the long haul.”
But increasingly that doesn’t seem to work. Anthem didn’t work out. Neither did Artifact, by Valve. There are still games that try that—Fallout 76 is a good example—but kind of hilariously, Fallout 76 proceeded to evolve into kind of a single-player game. Or more of one, anyway. It added NPCs, it added more standard Fallout-style quests. Just basically said, “Oh, people don’t want this to be a typical service game.” What a shock.
Ash: But it’s still a service game.
Nathan: It is, but it’s one that’s more single-player in nature.
Ash: I wonder if these games would be received better if their publishers didn’t need them to be so wildly fucking successful? I think there’s a really good game in Anthem. I played it for a little bit, and I really enjoyed flying around in suits and stuff like that. There’s something there, but because it’s not the big-ass, successful thing EA wanted it to be, it’s gonna get maybe-not-unfairly mercy killed. I don’t know.
I guess a lot of developers are also like “Even if we do it poorly, we have all these examples of other service games that were able to right the ship.” And EA was like “We are EA. We have 11 billionfinity dollars. We can do it, too.” But it just didn’t work out.
Nathan: I think what you’re getting at here is that the biggest victim of all of service games...is Iron Man. Both the Avengers game and Anthem were basically Iron Man simulators, and they just crashed and burned. Iron Man is the real victim here, and that’s just tragic.
Fahey: But one of the most lauded superhero games of recent years? Single-player Iron Man VR. There you go.
Ash: We’ve come full circle.
Nathan: But it’s especially interesting because you had EA back in 2010 saying single-player games were “finished,” and now here they are pivoting back to them. And in 2011, Valve said that Portal 2 would be its last “isolated single-player game experience,” but they made Half-Life: Alyx last year, and they’re making more single-player games as we speak. So the tide is turning in some ways.
The ultimate example of literally everything we’ve talked about is Cyberpunk. On one hand, it came out as a single-player focused game. On the flipside, it launched in a barebones state and is now updating to be what it was supposed to be. So it’s doing that thing, too. And then maybe it’s gonna get a multiplayer component that’s more service-y. Who knows! It’s everything. It’s nothing. It’s Cyberpunk.
For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also, if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or to suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!