Should you prefer, there is an audio version using this article as a script. Voiced by yours truly.
It is available on Spreaker > here <
It is a bit of an experiment on my part, any feedback on this would be greatly appreciated!
Going through Kevin Kelly’s theory, of the 12 inevitable tech forces that will shape our future, I was curious about how this might apply to the video games industry. In the first chapter of his book, The Inevitable, he speaks about this idea of “becoming”. A contradictory sounding state of constant evolution. Moving from fixed products to always upgrading services and subscriptions.
He opens up the chapter by stating how “…everything, without exception, requires additional energy and order to maintain itself”. I think he is right when he states that “…code corrodes…“. Us humans are never content for very long, and then we hunger for the feeling of progress. For example, video games need to be updated to run on newer systems. If not it might rust, cease up and - one day - stop working.
Everything is so interconnected now, “…upgrade this, then suddenly you need to upgrade that“. He aptly likened the current need for incremental upgrades to personal hygiene, “…you do it regularly to keep your tech healthy”. I believe he is right, it is inevitable that fixed products become services, but how will this affect the video game industry?
The platforms that a game releases on is the factor that influences the design of a game the most, because it is the first point of contact for the customer. Determining when, where and who is playing because of its price, availability, portability, filters, features, etc. The business model of a platform in turn influences the business model of the games on it.
Not long ago, Google announced their new gaming platform called ‘Stadia’. A streaming centric platform which can be accessed through nearly every device you own that has a screen and, in the future, possibly even devices that don’t. Although in a later chapter, Kevin Kelly does put forth his theory of Screening, where by everything will eventually have a screen on it, but that is a whole other discussion.
Stadia is proclaiming that you, the consumer, never need to upgrade hardware or software ever again because all of that is taken care of on the server’s side. Not a whole lot is known about the platform’s business model just yet. It could work much like their Play Store on Android, with free to access to the service and ‘Free To Play’ games but Google gets a cut of any item purchased or rented on the platform. There is a lot of discord around the potential that it could have a subscription model that, like Xbox Game Pass, gives you access to the entire library of games on the service.
I suspect it will be a hybrid. Free to access the service and play ‘Free To Play’ games, you purchase individual items but you can also pay for a subscription that grants you access to more features (e.g higher quality streams to your device and more options for broadcasting to YouTube) and a seperate or bundled subscription that gives you access to a limited and regularly changing list of games.
On an episode of the Dude Soup podcast following this announcement, Alanah Pearce predicted that Stadia (especially if it charges a subscription that grants access to every game on the service) would disrupt the current trend of lifestyle games. That being individual games you are expected to play as part of your routine and attempt to be a content delivery platform onto themselves. She suggests that this could incentivise many games to take on a similar business model to a lot the mobile market. Referring to more short form experiences. Likewise, on a similarly timed episode of the Game Informer podcast, Kyle Hilliard expressed concern that people won’t really get to love a game because it will be too easy to move onto something else. I think those are reasonable concerns but I don’t believe this will become the norm, although there certainly will be growing pains.
Before I go any further, I should stress that I am but an individual and I have, what I imagine is, a rare perspective on video games compared to the breadth of the game buying public. I am just after finishing up four years of studying in a Game Art & Design degree programme. So I invite you to share your thoughts with me, I am very curious to hear what others have to say! (@RichToTheArdYo on Twitter or in the comments further down)
I have a PlayStation Plus subscription that enable me to play PlayStation games online, but it also gifts me at least two entire games a month. I don’t actually play most of them but every now and again - and maybe I am the exception here - I do try out a game that I probably otherwise wouldn’t have bought. Sometimes I find that I really, really like it and then I buy some DLC to expand on what I liked and as a show of support.
Maybe easy and instant access to a wide range of games will not devalue every game but, will instead enable people to find those games that they enjoy but wouldn’t have realised otherwise.
That’s a little simplistic and probably over optimistic. On the flip side, the games that would have excited me previously don’t have that same effect due to the sheer amount of well made unplayed titles in my playstation library. This is not helped by the user interface of the PlayStation 4, which allows me to filter my games library to see every game at once or just the games I got through PlayStation Plus but it won’t allow me to only see the games that I deliberately purchased. That alone seems to harm the perceived value of purchasable games for me. They no longer stand out once I purchase them and they are more easily lost in the crowd, so why invest? To be fair, it is worth noting that I have been tirelessly working to complete my degree, and that too has diminished the perceived value of games for me because I simply didn’t have time.
My point there is do attempt to demonstrate how much power the platform has over your experience, and the surprisingly large impact of such small design details.
I do have to ask myself, what makes me excited for a game in the first place? To keep things simple, well, it’s probably the promise of an experience delivered through carefully constructed marketing materials. When I get a recommendation for a game, from a friend or online personality I follow, I might be curious but I typically don’t feel excited until I play the game for a bit or watch a well edited trailer. Probably because I cannot get a feel for the game otherwise. Generally speaking, that dynamic won’t disappear completely but we are seeing ever increasing importance placed on post launch support which will have an effect on marketing.
Not long ago Valve revealed their plans for a new redesign of their PC distribution platform, Steam. Which includes new features such as the home screen that prominently displays your recently played games and a list of recently updated games below that. On a platform level, this encourages playing the same games for longer, returning to older games more often and, for better and for worse, encourages more games to adopt a live service strategy.
Theoretically this means that the consumer gets more of what they like but, as we have seen several times in even the last twelve months, it encourages a practice of releasing an unfinished game experience to consumers because it can be finished later and people will return when it is good. A lot of this is because of growing pains as studios restructure and adapt their tools to support post launch content. However, something else to consider as a consumer is that, live service games are not typically designed to ever be finished. I would liken it to watching a TV show instead of a movie. Admittedly that line has become blurry in recent years.
As the Motley Fool reported in a 2019 earnings call for Electronic Arts (EA), CEO Andrew Willson stated, “our entire marketing organization now is moving out of presentation mode and into conversation mode and change in how we interact with players over time.”
EA is intending to adopt a soft launch approach. This potentially means that their games could be marketed as exactly what they are, a more bare bones products initially that is sold at a lower price. Instead of being marketed as complete experiences, when that wasn’t the case, and sold at full price. A lot of my personal frustration with such titles in the past was actually how it was framed by its marketing and pricing. Setting the appropriate expectations is very important.
For game companies this is a much safer bet. You no longer get only one chance to impress, you can get more use out of a game after launch and the need for post launch support could ensure that employee jobs are more stable. For consumers this could make it so that games are cheaper but less exciting on day one. That is probably a good thing as it will cultivate a more level headed approach to investing in a game and that would hopefully encourage games to get better and better.
Going back to Kevin Kelly, he also touches on the Prosumers and the idea of leveraging the audience to create content. As an interactive medium, this is a big topic to cover for video games. That could cover Youtubers, Streamers, Modders, access to powerful developer tools like Unity or even games and modes where the player can build their own levels. Staying somewhat on topic with what I already discussed, how do Prosumers fit into the live service business model?
An aspect to the soft launch approach is to foster evangelists in your audience. A live service game will never be finished in the strictest sense of the word, so I imagine it's marketing budget has to be spread out more. Without that one definitive day where the product can be declared to be done, I would think that it is more difficult for the marketing team to persuade people to hop on at any one point in time. That is where your friend’s recommendation comes in and this will become part of a game’s marketing strategy.
I’m paraphrasing here but, during a talk titled Designing ‘Path of Exile’ to Be Played Forever at the Games Developers Conference (GDC) in 2019, Chris Wilson spoke about the importance of accepting that players will leave your game eventually but that they can return if you release sizable new content at a predictable rate. He mentioned how he got this advice from the streamer, Kripparrian, who figured that a live service game is not so different from the business of live streaming.
I believe he has a point. You can increase your organic traffic by encouraging habits, getting your audience to say ‘oh it’s the first day of the month, that means there’s a new content’. Regular content also means that more people will be paying attention to the game in the media or on your website even if they are not currently engaged with the game itself. They might be done with the current content but eagerly await the next.
Wrapping up this think piece, Kevin Kelly notes how everyone will always be a ‘newbie’. A humbling notion worth keeping in mind. Coupled with the increasing prevalence of algorithmically chose content, it is easy to find ourselves in isolated ecco chambers, unaware of the sheer magnitude of change around us. There is no ‘THE internet’, there is only MY internet and YOUR Internet.
It’s easy to get caught up in the current but, by ourselves, each individual actually knows very little and so I would hope that we can all be patient with each other in this ever changing world.
We shall ‘shlater’,