Gaming used to be a lot more straightforward. You go to a shop, buy the game, install it on the PC (or insert the disc or cartridge on the console), and play. They were a standalone experience, though developers sometimes released expansion packs and that was the extent of it. Then, you’d meet up with a friend who might or might not have the game and talk about it. If you were the generous sort, you can lend them the game.
It’s not like that anymore; some games need an online subscription. Others have all kinds of DLC and packs to improve the gaming experience. What’s more, microtransactions are in almost every game now. Loot boxes, boosters, and everything to make the game easier exist and are commonplace.
The trend for gaming became ‘games as a service‘ rather than ‘games as a product’.
Games as a Service
The GAAS trend gives players a teaser with a free version. Ostensibly, the free version is the complete game and one where the player has access to all the features. The catch is they have to spend time playing the game to get everything.
That can take hours, days, weeks, even months! That’s why they offer boosters so you can speed everything up and get to your goals quicker. In the case of some games, paying gives you more chances of ‘winning’ a sort of lottery in the game. Those are called ‘gacha’, named for the Japanese capsule toy vending machines where you never know what you’ll get.
Most of the popular games right now are gacha games. Genshin Impact is one, despite having the content and mechanics of a game that’s a product. It is primarily a single-player game despite the ability to team up with others. Currently, there isn’t much content you can do in co-op aside from helping or asking for help in domains or bosses.
There’s also Arknights, Azur Lane, Fate Grand Order, Epic 7, and even Pokemon Masters EX. If it’s a game that has a mechanic where you can get a character or item randomly from a pool of prizes, it’s a gacha game. These games are also characterized by regular updates to content or events.
If they’re not a gacha game, they have some kind of microtransaction going on in-game on top of having to pay for the game itself. The best example is New World. It costs about $40-50, and you can pay more for some cosmetic stuff if you want. Later, Amazon is planning to have some quality-of-life improvements available through microtransactions as well.
Games like Overwatch and Fortnite are the same, except Fortnite Battle Royale is free. Most of Epic’s profits ended up coming from the BR version more than the STW (Save The World) version, which actually came first.
Another version of games as a service is the requirement of having a subscription to play. The best examples of these are FFXIV and World of Warcraft; these games have been in operation for a few years now, and both need a subscription to play.
For these games, their free editions differ very much. FFXIV has expanded its free trial to the Heavensward expansion and up to level 60. Still, there are some restrictions such as not being able to join a company and not being able to trade among others.
For WoW, the free trial only goes up to 20, but then again they revamped the leveling and the new max level is 60. Well, that’s with the expansion. Without it, the cap is at 50. Of course, it won’t have the content from the most recent expansion as well as social features. WoW also pushes the ‘game as a service’ a bit more. For the full experience, you’ll need to buy both a subscription and the expansion. Meanwhile, FFXIV is a bit more lenient — you can just buy the Collector’s Edition to get everything you missed. If you get the Starter Edition, you’ll have to buy the Endwalker expansion (which also includes Stormblood and Shadowbringers). All packages have a 30-day play period where you don’t have to subscribe to play. When it ends, that’s the time when you’ll need it.
That said, most MMOs belong in the ‘games as a service’ category. As long as there are active players and they pay for the microtransactions, the developers will keep on updating and improving the game. The alternative is getting the game closed down, which has happened to various MMOs already.
Games As a Product
As a product, things are more straightforward. You pay once for the whole game, and you can play it again and again as long as it’s installed on your device. If it does get deleted, you can just reinstall it. Nowadays, there are several game storefronts you can use to consolidate all your games in. They are:
- Epic Games Store
- Uplay/Ubisoft Connect
Origin, Uplay, and Battle.net are proprietary storefronts, meaning they have a monopoly on the games of specific publishers. It’s EA for Origin, Ubisoft for Uplay, and Activision-Blizzard for Battle.net. Steam, Epic, and GoG are more varied and offer a wider range of games from various developers.
Some indie developers put their games in itch.io, as well as Steam. These two sites have more support for indie developers than others. Itch.io is friendlier than Steam though.
At any rate, these games have the whole package in one purchase. There may be additional content through DLC, but those are optional modes or additional stuff you don’t need to complete the game. The base game is plenty filling by itself, and the DLC (or expansion packs) is like icing on the cake.
It has also changed over time, though. If games were a meal, a game before would be a burger with condiments and its DLC would be the drink and some fries. Now, it’s more like you just get a patty between buns while the lettuce, tomato, cheese, and other condiments have to be paid for. Not altogether, mind, each one would need its own purchase. Then there’s the optional drink and fries.
While a burger patty between buns is still a burger nonetheless, it’s not a satisfying meal. What happened to give players a complete, satisfying game right out of release? Look at Cyberpunk 2077; it was unplayable for many players due to all the bugs and glitches. They had to wait for a patch that fixes things so they can play it properly.
There was also Star Wars Battlefront 2, with a dash of microtransactions mixed in. Other than that, there’s No Man’s Sky, as well as Anthem and Mass Effect: Andromeda. While these games had troubled releases because of differing circumstances, it doesn’t diminish the fact that these games disappointed people during their launch (with some still continuing to do so).
No Man’s Sky has risen to a more reputable reputation with a lot of patches and work done by the developer. There are rumors of an Anthem reboot, though BioWare is still focusing on Dragon Age 4 and a new Mass Effect game. SWBF2 also had some reworking of their microtransactions, and Cyberpunk 2077 is finally playable. Still, the reception has already soured due to the bad first impression.
Possible Reasons for a Shift in Gaming Trends
In some ways, microtransactions and providing games as a service is more profitable. With games as a product, everything hinges on product sales. The game can be good, but if it doesn’t fly off the shelves — metaphorical and literal — it will be branded as a failure.
As it turns out, during a big portion of the games as a product era, there was something that hindered the sale of games. It’s piracy, and boy did it ever change the way people played games forever. Pirates grabbed the game’s data and spread it around, giving people a cheaper (or even free) alternative than purchasing the game for retail price.
This gave the profits to the pirates rather than the developers, so the latter designed ways to keep pirates from doing that again. Around this time, certain DRM measures were implemented to prevent this from happening. It only slowed down pirates, but they didn’t stop.
Some of these measures even backfired on the developers. Due to some technical issues, players couldn’t play because the DRM server (which they needed to connect to online) went down. Other measures even slowed down the game it was supposed to protect. In the end, it was all for naught because pirates eventually broke through them.
Then came the proprietary storefronts. Steam was one of the first, a Valve-operated store starting up in 2003. It used to sell only Valve products but eventually expanded to third-party games. While Battle.net was already released back in 1996 for Diablo, it wasn’t a game distribution service until 2013. Before that, it was more of a social app, letting friends see each other when online and being able to chat with them. Uplay started in 2009, while Origin was released in 2011.
These storefronts finally cut down on piracy. Plus, there was a crackdown on torrent distribution sites, which were the main way of getting pirated stuff. But then again, if there’s a will, there’s a way, and pirates are still lurking in the background.
Games as a service are harder to pirate if you think about it. A majority of them are free, which leaves players free to download them whenever they want. Companies that specialize in this category get their profits from the microtransactions instead of the game’s sales.
Since these games also need the internet, it’s harder to pirate unless they can also fake the authentication. Usually, if you go the legal way, the license to play is linked to the account you used to register on the game. When pirating it, the server can detect that you don’t have the right authentication, leaving the game unplayable.
Then with the constant updates that these games have, the pirates have to keep on cracking every update it has. Otherwise, they can get stuck in the game, not progressing.
Games as a service have built-in anti-piracy features (though the gaming black market has its ways). That’s the most likely reason for the shift in gaming trends. More than that, if they play their cards right, players will happily keep on paying for the microtransactions to keep the game going.
In these times, the internet is the one thing everybody relies on. Aside from connecting friends and family, it’s also a source of entertainment. Game developers can’t help but take advantage of this and offer online-only games.
It’s not that one category is better or worse than the other. I just miss the times when I don’t need the internet to play a game, and experience it without having to pay for so many things. These days, it feels like you need a subscription for everything.
There’s PS+, Nintendo Online Services, and the various microtransactions and DLC of games. Also, when comparing game prices then and now, they’re more expensive. Some of them even have the microtransactions past that one-time purchase, like mentioned above.
Sure those are optional, but the blatant money-grubbing going on in the gaming industry is hard not to notice. I guess that’s business, though; things like player satisfaction and enjoyment have to be pushed aside in favor of profits. At least indie developers get a bit more attention now because they want to make the game for themselves and their players.
That’s something we should get more of.