The Slow Death of Live-Service Games

Image Credit: Carl Raw via Unsplash

Are Live-Service Games heaving their last breath? Joshua McCormack lets us know.

The gaming industry is locked in a holding pattern. Scroll through the endless shuffles of titles on the eShop, and you’ll see it: a sea of remakes and remasters. Metroid, the Last of Us, Uncharted, the Witcher, Advance Wars, Dead Space … 

It’s a pie that every developer has cut themselves a piece of. And yes, against the meagre cost of a paint job and adding a few quality-of-life bells and whistles, they rake in substantial profits, but executives aren’t rolling those remake dollars into makeshift cigars. 

They’re commercial, not lucrative. A padding measure. Winter fat. A bulwark against their restless audience. And right now, the cold winds are blowing for Live Service Gaming and the studios, great and small, who pinned themselves, too late, to this withering sub-genre. But before we dissect the downfall of this once meteoric institution, a clarification: What is a Live Service Game? 

Live Service Games or Games As A Service (LSG/GAAS) are games built to offer consumers a regular stream of paid-for updates months and years after launch. Typical expansions include in-game cosmetics such as new skins and character costumes, fresh campaigns and season passes. 

These GAAS function less like traditional one-and-done titles, and more like quasi-streaming services. LSGs have existed in their crudest form for decades, but their formula was perfected in 2004’s World of Warcraft and catapulted into the stratosphere when Fortnite: Battle Royale burst onto the scene in 2017. And not being ones to sniff at mountains of profit, the industry dove headfirst into LSGs. Subsequent years saw the release of League of Legends, Sea of Thieves and Overwatch, to name a few. 

While shooter-style games are LSGs’ bread and butter, the sub-genre is a broad church which includes RPGs, Dungeon Crawlers, and mobile games like Candy Crush and Pokémon Go, but what unites them all is the crucial, and somewhat insidious, ingredient in their design: addiction. 

To succeed in these games necessitates a grind. Daily rewards and the much-maligned loot boxes are designed to hardwire your brain into checking back on a near-constant basis. If you want to climb the multiplayer ranks, you must sink hours into the game. And in so doing, a consumer’s reticence for shelving out for in-game purchases inevitably erodes. 

The dream scenario for studios: an infinite money-printing machine that swallows attention wholesale. Small wonder the industry can’t get enough of them. But, their greatest strength is also their Achilles Heel. Market Saturation. That’s the crux of the problem. Gear grinders thrive on players devoting vast amounts of their free time to one game; but, you can’t ask players to do that multiple times over. Why take the latest cookie-cutter shooter for a spin, when you can just fire up COD or Fortnite, whose mechanics you’re already familiar with? 

The dream scenario for studios: an infinite money-printing machine that swallows attention wholesale. Small wonder the industry can’t get enough of them. 

Anthem, an LSG looter-shooter published in 2019 lasted two years before Bioware pulled support; Babylon’s Fall, a Square Enix title that croaked inside a year; Rumbleverse, a free-to-play brawler from Epic Games, the studio behind Fortnite, lasted two hundred days. But if you're looking for the sub-genre’s most cataclysmic disaster, that crown of ignominy must go to Marvel’s Avengers

Released in August 2020, boasting the lucrative Marvel IP, inventive combat system from the man behind God of War’s attack design and the sprawling marketing campaign that could put a Hollywood studio to shame, Crystal Dynamic’s multi-year plan for the game crashed and burned after just three years at the market. 

And if that’s not enough evidence, look no further than Sony/Playstation, whose grand designs for live service shattered against hard reality. 

In 2022, Sony CFO Hiroki Totoki announced the company’s plans to launch 10 live service games by 2026. Bold, to be sure, but development problems struck these ambitions with heavy delays, slicing these aspirations in half. Beyond that, two of their most prominent in-development titles, the LSG Last of Us and DC’s Suicide Squad met with disaster. The former, after years in development hell, was shelved indefinitely, and the latter was delayed into 2024, in the wake of massive fan backlash to its LS elements – originally, it was slated to release in 2022. 

Market saturation. Growing distaste for games riddled with microtransactions. Rising development costs. The cooling of the Battle Royale boom. There are a myriad of contributing factors, but one thing’s clear: consumer tastes are about to migrate toward something new, and as is the eternal case of the gaming industry, developers will be left scrambling after the trend.