For These Games, a Release Date Is Just the Beginning

For These Games, a Release Date Is Just the Beginning

The release last week of The Final Shape, a long-awaited expansion to the multiplayer shooter Destiny 2, was billed as the epic conclusion to the “Light and Darkness” saga, a 10-year story arc that began with the release of the first Destiny. But the studio, Bungie, has made clear to the game’s fans that there are plenty of stand-alone stories to come.

This era of video gaming prioritizes marathon storytelling and vast, multi-chapter experiences. Games used to be released like movies, but many now roll out like TV shows, keeping an audience hooked with a steady flow of new episodes and seasons.

The live service model, in which players are offered a never-ending buffet of new maps, modes, weapons and more, has been prominent for at least a decade, allowing games like Fortnite Battle Royale and Apex Legends to become major hits. One of this year’s most popular games, the co-op sci-fi shooter Helldivers 2, engages its audience with a tantalizing drip-feed of narrative development, conveyed via game-altering quests and bitingly satirical orders.

The success of the live service model has led to a crowded marketplace, meaning that games like Helldivers 2 often rely on a unique approach to stand out. For studios invested in their titles, it’s not enough to have people playing now — the objective is to keep them playing for years to come.

Bungie and Arrowhead Game Studios, which made Helldivers 2, declined to comment about their games and the live service model. Aaron Keller, the director of Overwatch 2, the team shooter by Blizzard Entertainment, said that the demand for new content was sometimes influenced by what other games are doing.

“We also try to create new things because it serves the greatest cross-section of our players,” he said. “At the same time, because this is a business, we have competitors. You can get compared to some games that are also running a service, and they’re putting things out, and you don’t want to be perceived as a game that isn’t supporting your community as well as other ones do.”

Free-to-play titles were once largely dismissed as throwaway dross, associated with mobile games like Candy Crush. Because retail sales were a game’s primary revenue source, studios were incentivized to churn out sequels, which led to annual installments of Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.

But the industry’s approach to developing games has radically changed, in part because of the success of Warframe.

In 2012, the studio Digital Extremes, facing financial hardship, came up with an unusual proposition. It would develop a game from scratch in six months and put it out for free as a beta, asking people to pay only if they wanted to support it, via an optional “founder’s pack” that included in-game loot. The studio would seek feedback from players and regularly integrate their suggestions, honing the project continually.

Eleven years and countless updates since Digital Extremes released Warframe, the free-to-play sci-fi shooter continues to receive new single-player and multiplayer content on a steady basis. (Its next expansion, the Y2K-themed Warframe 1999, is set to be released this year.)

“It was a very experimental model,” said Rebecca Ford, the creative director of Warframe. “There wasn’t a lot like it at the time.”

Live service games are ambitious by definition, and success is by no means guaranteed. The shooter Anthem, which BioWare released in 2019, failed to attract the audience needed to survive and came to a premature end. Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, a co-op shooter by Rocksteady Studios, has gained little traction since its February release.

One of the biggest challenges with live service games, said Anna Donlon, an executive producer on the shooter Valorant, is to keep things fresh so that players find something compelling every time they log in.

“Historically, games were released as a boxed product, like a consumable piece of goods, and it would stay very static,” said Donlon, a senior vice president at Riot Games. “The games Riot develops are not consumable games. We’re not making narrative-focused games where you go through a story for 25 or 40 hours and then it ends. These are games that we want people playing for decades — for thousands of hours.”

As more and more games use the live service approach, players are recognizing that they have finite time to allocate. They may stop playing a game like Diablo IV or Halo Infinite for many months before returning when a content update catches their attention.

“I’m allergic to saying, ‘Oh, competition caused that valley, because such and such game came out with a similar update,’” said Ford, Warframe’s creative director. “But it’s like a show: If people don’t like one episode or one season, they might come back to check out the next one.”

Developing a long-term relationship with players can make live service games financially lucrative for studios, which typically sell cosmetic upgrades and other in-game collectibles to bankroll the project. The constant exhortations to spend real currency at in-game marketplaces — where new skins, characters, decals and emotes are advertised — can be off-putting. But at this point, gamers seem to be on board with the system.

“If updates arrive with a bunch of free content, but there’s an optional paid element that you don’t have to pay for, then players are super happy with that,” said Jen Rothery, a deputy editor covering live service games at IGN. “Especially if you have a younger player base without as much money to spend.”

Some studios have come to see those players as an important part of their audience — one that has been neglected for too long. In 2020, Activision put out Warzone, the first free-to-play iteration of its extremely popular shooter Call of Duty.

“It turned out that we had a barrier with price, and sometimes people weren’t able to play with our franchise across the globe,” said Michelle Bresaw, the head of live services marketing at Activision. “Laying out this free lane kind of opened up the funnel and brought more people into our ecosystem.”

Activision has been running Warzone concurrently alongside its paid Call of Duty offerings, including last year’s Modern Warfare III and the upcoming Black Ops 6. That hybrid model has shifted the focus toward live service, with the free-to-play and paid versions both regularly receiving new content.

The studio scours web forums and social media posts, pores over user data and conducts interviews with players to get a clear sense for what they want, said Josh Bridge, the head of live service design at Activision.

“More than a decade ago, we would look at every fall as Call of Duty time,” Bresaw said. “In this new evergreen world, it’s Call of Duty time year round.”

An interesting consequence of the live service model is that the constant enhancements and upgrades inherent to the format remove the need for a proper sequel — a rare thing in a medium overrun with them. A game like Warframe, already more than a decade old, could theoretically continue for another decade or more.

“I will work on Warframe until I am dragged off and told to walk the plank,” Ford said.

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