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What we can learn from the history of live service games

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With all of the talk around live service games and their varied implications, it’s worth considering what it might actually mean for live service to play a greater role in the future of gaming.

Much of the speculation is a result of the commercial and critical failure of recent major release Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, but live service games of a sort go back farther than that, all the way to the 90s.

The first live service games and MMORPGs

“Live service” is a flexible enough term that its definition can be cut different ways depending on one’s point of view, but it could certainly be argued that live service games extend back to the origin point of massively multiplayer role-playing games, or MMORPGs.

This role-playing game subgenre extends back to the release of Ultima Online, released in 1997. A follow-up to the long-running Ultima series of role-playing games, Ultima Online was able to draw in tens of thousands of paid monthly subscribers. The draw of bringing in additional monthly fees from players who had already paid an upfront cost for a game was clear, but so were the challenges associated with managing such a game.

Many attempts to recreate and build on the success of Ultima Online would follow. 1999’s Everquest was a major success in this regard, pushing past what Ultima Online had been able to achieve with its fully three-dimensional world. But the greatest success in this regard would not come until 2004, when developer Blizzard released World of Warcraft.

With monthly subscriptions covering the ongoing development cost of live content development while creating a nifty profit, World of Warcraft showed the full potential of this model. But the many games that fell by the wayside as World of Warcraft thrived showed the difficulty in making it work.

Live service games beyond WoW

To move past WoW, developers would need to forge new directions rather than recreate what had already been done. One great example of this is 2014’s Destiny, released by famed developer Bungie. The promise of loot and ever-evolving challenges was present in Destiny just as it had been in WoW, but the game’s structure was far different, creating a new avenue for success.

MOBAs such as League of Legends and Dota 2 represented other approaches to live service models, with free-to-play games that turned revenues based primarily on the proliferation and popularity of aesthetic in-game goods. Developers behind these games believed that strong gameplay could convince players to make optional financial commitments to these titles, and they were right.

This variety of opportunities soon tempted publishers who are always looking for new ways to create revenue in the gaming marketplace. The problem is that this may not always portend well for consumers.

What are the problems with live service games?

There are a few big potential problems with live service games. One is that the emphasis on live service options may reduce the quality of gameplay. This issue was particularly evident in the recent Suicide Squad game, which seemed to suffer for its live service model.

Another issue is that these games are almost always forced to be online. Diablo fans have notably taken issue with this need as Blizzard’s development priorities have changed over the years. While there are many high-speed internet options available, from increasing fiber competitors to traditional options like Spectrum internet, it’s still a potential barrier for players who just want to be able to play a game they’ve paid for.

These problems are real, and they’re unlikely to go away. But they’re also unlikely to discourage publishers from continuing to pursue live-service models for their games.

Even after the debacle that Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League proved to be, Warner Bros. executives have continued to push for more live-service games, making clear that this model of development isn’t going anywhere.

The good news for gamers is that, while live service games will continue to have a place in large development environments, there will continue to be many more games released that forgo this model. So for those not interested in participating in live service models, other options will continue to exist.

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Written by Jared Wynne

Jared Wynne has been covering gaming and esports for the past two decades. He's a former competitor in Counter-Strike, and still counts it among his favorite games along with RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Mass Effect. He studied journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, has been published at such outlets as The Daily Dot and The Esports Observer, and is the former Editor-in-Chief at WIN.gg. You can find him on Twitter / X at @JaredWynne.

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