EA’s recent announcement that it was shuttering Visceral and “pivoting” (ugh) the Amy Hennig-fronted narrative-centric single-player Star Wars project it had been working on probably didn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
It did, however, rekindle a discussion that last cropped up back in 2010 — once again involving Visceral, interestingly enough, this time with regard to the addition of multiplayer to Dead Space — when EA Games’ Frank Gibeau commented that he believed “fire-and-forget, packaged goods only, single-player, 25-hours-and you’re out” experiences were “finished” and that “online is where the innovation, and the action, is at”.
The “pivoting” of the new Star Wars project is based on many of the same principles as Gibeau’s arguments from 2010: indeed, EA’s executive vice-president Patrick Söderlund claimed that the decision was due to a perceived need to “deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come” — or, to put it another way, the oft-mooted idea of “games as a service”.
I don’t want that. And I’m certain I’m not the only one.
Companies like EA have been gradually moving towards this business model over the course of the last couple of console generations. As the ideas of bite-size downloadable content, microtransactions, loot boxes, premium currency and other forms of ongoing, no-limits monetisation have become more widespread — thanks in part to mobile gaming bringing these concepts to the mainstream — the larger publishers of the world have been seeking the best ways to keep players invested in their games over the long term, with “invested” preferably meaning “continually paying money”.
The reason for this is primarily the fact that it is not cheap to make a triple-A blockbuster these days, and so it is perceived that it is not a good return on this investment to create something that will be over and done with in a finite amount of time. The holy grail for these publishers is a game that players will buy and continue to play for the rest of eternity, regularly paying additional money into it for new content, new weapons, ways to get a head start on their competition, cosmetic items for bragging rights and all manner of other things. The idea of a game as a platform — an ongoing service — rather than a self-contained work in its own right.
Core to this philosophy is the distinction between games as a work of art and games as a commercial product. The two concepts can certainly overlap, but it’s become increasingly clear that the big publishers of the world are most interested in the latter aspect at the expense of the former, because this allows them a better chance of making back the money they initially invested in a product.
And, it appears, a lot of consumers are surprisingly on board with it too, as executives such as Söderlund are always keen to emphasise that many such decisions are supposedly based on analysis of “market trends”. And it’s plausible; while many of us may find such practices distasteful, it’s doubtful that microtransactions, free to play and the like would have stuck around if at least some people weren’t engaging with them and making them worthwhile.
A fundamental thing to consider is the reason people play games. Those most willing to invest in a “game as a service” tend to treat the things they play like a sport. Games are something these people engage with on a regular basis, whether it’s to improve their skills, test themselves against rivals or simply as an occasional hobby. Many have no particular end goal; games are simply something to do, perhaps as a complement to other activities.
You don’t play something like the presently popular and multiplayer-only PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds to “finish” it because that’s simply not possible; you play it for the experience of having a match, perhaps even to win it, but you’re not “done” with the game once you’ve played or won it once. Potentially you could never be “done” with it, so long as there are servers and players available to indulge you. The same is true for the multiplayer components — now typically the main focus — of many popular triple-A games like Call of Duty, Battlefield and FIFA.
That’s all very well and good, of course, but there’s at least one other type of player out there that isn’t acknowledged by this approach: the sort of person who comes to games for an engaging, solitary experience that allows them to tune out from the real world for a while and instead immerse themselves in a fantasy of some description, be it relatively mundane or completely impossible in the real world.
This type of player — a group in which I count myself, if that was not already extremely obvious — seeks something different from their games. They don’t want something that potentially lasts forever and has no end goal. They don’t want to interact with or make their experience in any way dependent on other people. They want something with some “meaning” to it, perhaps in the form of narrative, or perhaps through tiered challenges that allow them to gradually demonstrate their mastery over the game’s mechanics and eventually defeat them completely. These players most definitely do not want to be reminded at every opportunity that what they are engaging with is an attempt to “monetise” them as users; they want to be fully immersed in the experience in much the same way you can be immersed in a good book, film or piece of music.
Japanese developers are no strangers to the concept of “games as a service”, as anyone who has spent any time with the likes of Granblue Fantasy, Fate/Grand Order or Final Fantasy XIV will tell you. Interestingly, though, these games still tend to be designed with a somewhat traditional structure to them; while Final Fantasy XIV is added to with content patches every three months, for example, it is possible to “finish” it by reaching the end of its story, at which point the credits roll and, if you so desire, you could simply set it aside confident that you’ve had a satisfying experience with a clear conclusion. The same is also true for Granblue and Fate.
These titles aside, much more widespread among Japanese developers is the idea of the self-contained game that stands by itself with a clear beginning, middle and end.
Almost everything covered on MoeGamer to date — with the obvious exception of the titles just mentioned — falls into this category. Even in the cases where the games themselves are complemented by DLC, they’re still designed to “end” rather than last as long as possible, with much of the additional content available typically providing ways to customise your experience — through character costumes, for example — rather than actually extending the game in most instances.
Because honestly, who wants a single game to last for as long as possible, potentially forever? While there are many games in which I very much enjoy spending time with the cast, there are precisely none where I found myself wishing that the game was of infinite length; that would just be boring to me. Your mileage may, of course, vary, but to me, an experience without a clear end point — a point at which you can say “I have beaten this game” or simply “this story is over” — inevitably feels somewhat hollow, even pointless.
I love reaching the end of narrative-driven games, particularly if they have a good finale; it’s satisfying in its own right, but it also makes me happy to know that I have seen the creators’ vision through from start to finish, and can draw my own conclusions about what their intentions were with the work — artistically, mechanically and in terms of the narrative. Seeing the credits roll on something particularly affecting or spectacular genuinely makes me want to get up and applaud the people responsible; I tend to restrain myself from actually doing so lest I get strange glances from my wife and cats, but the sentiment is still there!
The concept of “games as a service” bumps its head against this particular type of experience rather heavily, as we’ve seen most recently with Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XV. By the time the game was getting substantial MMO-style content updates, seasonal events and premium DLC, I had already sunk more than 100 hours into playing its narrative through to completion and, by that time, I was satisfied with the experience I’d had. I had no real desire to go back, though I did, I might add, check out Episode Gladiolus more out of curiosity than anything else.
The concept is also fundamentally incompatible with the idea of archiving games for future generations; something that I feel is increasingly important as the drive to an “all-digital” future proceeds. If a game is constantly changing and being added to over time, how and when do you archive it to look back on at a later date? Moreover, if a game has a significant online component, how can you preserve that experience? Can you even preserve that experience? (Judging by the MMORPGs that have died to date… not really, with a couple of notable exceptions that have been kept alive by fan efforts.)
By making a game into an ongoing “service” rather than a self-contained creative work, you are not only placing an “expiry date” on that game, you’re preventing future generations from being able to access and analyse it from a historical perspective; you’re effectively saying that it’s not worth preserving beyond a certain point, that it’s ultimately transient, unimportant, disposable.
I’ve had too many emotionally engaging, affecting, life-affirming and otherwise genuinely meaningful experiences with self-contained single-player games and visual novels to ever be able to think of them as transient, unimportant or disposable. It’s for that reason that I’ll never be able to get completely on board with the idea of “games as a service”, even as I acknowledge there’s apparently a place and demand for this type of product — and why I’m extremely grateful that the creators of the games I love the most appear to feel the same way.
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