Do you play any games that are services, like Facebook games, or free-to-play MMOs? Or, which is another way of thinking about this question, are all the games we are now playing effectively games-as-services, just some are more responsive to their players than others?
At Casual Connect this year, one of the concepts that really struck me as having found its place is games-as-services. Dan Cook of Lost Garden never shuts up about it these days, and with good reason! His new company Spry Fox are racking in the cash as an independent service provider of play. I admit to being more than a little jealous! Working on smaller, lighter games that go straight to a keen audience of players who then help participate in the development of both the community and the game – that’s an appealing situation for any game designer not hooked on the illusionary power trip that a game designer has absolute control over their games.
The social games revolution, in which free-to-play games are offered with additional functionality or benefits available for a fee, has radically transformed the digital economy, away from the lumbering dinosaur model of retail disks. Games on platforms other than the consoles are now 60% of the market for entertainment software (as Dan mentioned in the comments the other week), and investment in the social games space has gone insane. Zynga have now raised a billion dollars on the back of their success – never mind Series A ($10 million for Zynga) or Series B ($29 million for Zynga) venture capital, they’ve gone on to have Series C ($180 million for Zynga), D ($300 million) and E ($485 million!). I’ve never seen anything like it in the history of the games industry. Games-as-service are big money.
However, don’t think for a second that the consoles are out of the running – the number of successful titles may be falling, but revenues continue to rise. Besides, even the blockbuster games are effectively games-as-service now – you many not think of yourself as a subscriber, but if you are buying each Modern Warfare game you are paying $5 a month to Activision-Blizzard, just as every World of Warcraft addict is paying $10-15 a month to them. It’s telling that EA are scrabbling to convert their lucrative sports licenses into a games-as-service model. I can’t say I blame them – who wants to make less money when you can make more?
I heard a lot of “death of Consoles” stories at the IGDA Summit and Casual Connect – Dave Perry, he of Earthworm Jim fame, was particularly adamant that the next console cycle would be the last. I’m not convinced. Sony and Microsoft are competing for technical competence and no matter what the techheads say the PC market is a pure niche next to the power consoles with their promise of zero set-up and zero maintenance. As long as the gamer hobbyists want more powerful games engines, engine inertia will keep the console space alive. However, expect to see more and more of an effort to move towards games-as-service in this space, as Call of Duty’s premium content gambit reflects.
Trouble is, the consoles need retail to make their product work. You don’t get queues of people lining up around the block for the next online release because there’s no physical space for it to happen in, and without this you don’t make the news. News services want pictures to show, and there’s nothing to show when such-and-such a company’s server is overloaded by demand. The mass media, bricks-and-mortar retail, and console publishers form a tightly integrated market channel – one that doesn’t work if you remove retail from the equation. The challenge for consoles is how to continue to make all that hype work and still get in on the lucratice games-as-service gravy train. Expect a lot of failed experiments over the next two years.
There’s a downside to all the buzz about games-as-services – when players join into these kinds of communities, they trade in more diverse gaming habits for more intense play of fewer numbers of games. Ask World of Warcraft players how many different digital games they play… only as many as they can fit into the parts of their lives when they are cut off from their real habit. Although there are still players who are snacking at the gaming buffet, we are gradually drawing more and more players into more stable dining arrangements. There’s a lot of players to share, thankfully, but it’s never an infinite supply.
Right now, it’s a growth market as the industry finally accepts what I’ve been prophesying since I set up International Hobo: if we make our games more accessible, easier to learn, easier to play, more rewarding to stick with, we can reach a massive untapped market for games. That market is finally here. But how long before the growth is complete and we’re back to competing for attention… how many companies can survive in a games-as-service industry where individual games keep players for months, even years, at a time? We’re going to find out soon enough.
Do you play any games-as-services? Share your thoughts on this new gaming trend in the comments!