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The Soapbox: Games-as-a-service sucks for the consumer

Jef Reahard

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

If you pay close attention to game industry marketing-speak, you've probably heard of something called games-as-a-service.

It's an initiative that's been gaining momentum in recent years, as publishers and development houses look to increase revenue, strangle used game sales, and clamp down on both PC and console piracy. It's also championed by a few of our more clueless game "journalists," more often than not due to their (desire for a) cozy relationship with the aforementioned industry players.

Put simply, games-as-a-service seeks to change both the definition and the public perception of the phrase "video game" from a product that you buy to a service that you rent, thereby granting developers and publishers complete control over the end-user's experience. If that sounds somewhat nefarious, that's because it is. It's also something that MMORPGs have been doing for two decades.

Diablo III screenshot
Once upon a time, game developers made games, publishers published them, and consumers bought them for a one-off fee.

Some time ago, it was also fairly common for games to ship with functionality that greatly extended their useful lives. Things like the content creation toolsets in the Neverwinter Nights and Elder Scrolls series and the clan server and modding functionality in many FPS games added years of enjoyment onto those titles for millions of players, usually sans an extra fee beyond the original box cost.

Somewhere along the way, though, game devs and publishers decided that their particular brand of entertainment was worthy of recurring revenue. I guess it's harder to make a game than to produce a feature film, write a best-selling novel, or record a multi-platinum album, maybe?

The advent of digital downloads was thus a godsend to this mindset, and while it brought about certain consumer conveniences in terms of acquiring a game client and syncing it among multiple computers, it also brought about a new way for game-makers to control (and charge for) the ongoing post-purchase experience. This model followed on from MMORPGs, of course, and for games with ongoing server maintenance and pro content creation costs (i.e., MMORPGs), it certainly makes sense.

The problem is that once the greed-is-good types realized that they could wring recurring revenue out of single-player games, it opened the floodgates for gamemakers to start labeling all games as "services" instead of products.

Nowadays, every game out there has some sort of half-assed online component. And it's not because these components benefit the end user in any way (quite the contrary in many cases). It's because game companies have decided to launch an all-out marketing blitz on consumer common sense in order to convince us that paying monthly for Call of Duty isn't the dumbest idea in the history of dumb ideas.

Diablo III screenshot
And consumers are buying it hook, line, and sinker. Case in point is the online requirement for Blizzard's newly launched Diablo III. There's no denying the fact that Diablo III is a single-player game, and yet I see plenty of forum posts (and even a few game journos) defending Blizzard's decision to require an internet connection.

Fanboy blinders have a lot to do with this, of course, and Diablo III is by most accounts a great game. It's the same game that we played with Diablo and Diablo II, though, neither of which forced its users online, removed their ability to mod the game, and misrepresented those restrictions as value-added services.

The whole thing is pretty ironic because actual MMOs are being casualized to the point of becoming glorified Diablo clones, while Diablo itself has added a cash shop and re-branded itself as a service instead of a product (i.e., it's becoming an MMO).

id Software's Tim Willits summed up the larger game industry's position on games-as-a-service in an interview with Eurogamer last summer.
Diablo III will make everyone else accept the fact you have to be connected. If you have a juggernaut, you can make change. I'm all for that. If we could force people to always be connected when you play the game, and then have that be acceptable, awesome.

In the end, it's better for everybody. Imagine picking up a game and it's automatically updated. Or there's something new you didn't know about, and you didn't have to click away. It's all automatically there. But it does take juggernauts like [Diablo III] to make change.

I'm a big proponent of always connected. I'm always connected. Our fans are always connected. There will be a few people who will resent the fact you have to be online to play a single-player game. But it'll change.
Read that again and think hard about what he's really saying, folks. "Forcing people to be connected" and "have that be acceptable" means that he knows it's unacceptable. This is the language of someone who doesn't care what gamers want.

And Willits' rent-a-game utopia is the holy grail for all of these companies that are seeking to blur the lines of what is and is not an MMORPG. It's why lobby shooter clones like Call of Duty 47 are experimenting with levels, gear, paywalls, and tiered content access. You can expect more non-MMO multiplayer titles to follow suit. The same is also happening to single-player games.

Why do you suppose that BioWare made Knights of the Old Republic III into a quasi-MMO called Star Wars: The Old Republic instead of producing more of the single-player RPGs that the company is actually good at making? The game's design revolved entirely around moving the goalposts and changing the definition of both MMORPGs and games in general to generate recurring revenue.

Diablo III screenshot
I won't even get into things like Steam, Origin, OnLive, Gaikai, and other distribution platforms that force users to install third-party bloatware and remain connected 24/7 (and yes, I know and love GoG, it's the exception). And I won't get into the entirety of the social and mobile spaces, which are more about consumer psychology and metrics than they are about gaming.

The only aspect of the industry where games-as-a-service makes even a little bit of sense is when it comes to preventing piracy. At the end of the day, though, even that is a sham given the fact that a few honest developers (the guys responsible for GoG, in fact) have admitted that DRM simply doesn't work.

And folks, don't misunderstand me here. I'm not against recurring revenue business models when they're warranted. I've maintained multiple $15 per month subscriptions to three or four MMOs simultaneously for many years now. There's a huge difference between the value those services provide and the value provided by Diablo III or Call of Duty, though. And that difference is something that the gaming industry is desperately trying to obfuscate. Ultimately, MMO publishers should be commended for having the foresight to build recurring revenue into their business models as far back as the mid-1980s. It was a smart move, and unfortunately the non-MMO gaming industry is finally trying to catch up.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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