Your eyes sweep over the rippling tides as they ebb and flow into the distant horizon. You command your crew to set the sails due east to catch the wind, the elements respond in kind. Your vessel leaps forward, equally eager to reach the final leg of the voyage. The seas belong to Poseidon himself, but for today, he grants you safe passage. With each nautical mile, your destination becomes clear: A remote island. An ominous storm hangs high above, a mountain with caverns that form the portentous shape of a skull lurks at the center – as if chiseled by the devil eons ago. For most, whispers of worry would creep into the recesses of their mind, but you smile with glee. Skeletal warriors, ghosts, opposing crews, and the promise of treasure most likely inhabit this dreadful isle, but that’s precisely what drew you to this place, a digital promise of swashbuckling, carnage, and delightful pirate antics.
Rare’s Sea of Thieves entered the gaming landscape with high prospects. The expectation was for the game to be met with a resounding chorus of cheers, but shortly after launch, fans quickly responded with a collective “meh.” Yet, over time, something began to happen: the studio improved on the game incrementally. What was once a middling title struggling to keep a consistent player base now had enough appeal to keep hardcore fans remaining faithful and alienated fans returning to experience this new and improved Sea of Thieves. But this is just one example of a phenomenon that can only take place in a world where games as service have become the norm. A new gaming landscape has taken shape, one where production studios and distributors have committed themselves to play the long game (literally and figuratively). With regular updates, a game today can be nearly unrecognizable from what fans were met with upon launch. It may take months, even years, but games are improving, like a work of art that is never entirely done yet remains enjoyable throughout the process, nonetheless. The question remains: do players have the patience to wait for a game to reach a new pinnacle of excellence? More importantly, is it worth the wait?
Then and Now
Allow me a moment, if you will, to channel my inner elderly curmudgeon. As I lift my belt well above my belly button and ensure there’s no one’s traipsing upon my lawn, I think back to how the world of gaming has changed. For decades the cycle was simple: a game would hit store shelves and be received with mixed reception – it either becomes a whimpering blip on the sales charts or captures the attention of gamers with lauded fanfare. Fans would soak up everything a game had to offer; they would find the Easter eggs, swap ideas on boss fights, and maybe share a cheat code or two. Inevitably they would find themselves staring at end credits scrolling across their screen. The journey was over. Slowly but surely, players would look ahead to what’s next. What might the studio bring with the sequel? What new stories and ideas can we expect in the coming years? Admittedly, the model is outdated.
Today, games have more in common with your favorite television series. More massive and inclusive than ever before, it is now common for games to operate as “games as service,” updates to the initially released content and enhancements intended to improve upon the base game. Your new-fangled skins, new character additions, supplementary story missions, new game-plus modes, seasons, and quality of life enhancements all fall under this umbrella, bringing fans more of what they love. Although to play devil’s advocate, in many cases, the updates are built upon a revenue model, such as software as a service, but it can’t be denied: fans want more, and the studios are giving it to them.
For example, Grand Theft Auto V released in September 2013 and was massive. You can spend hundreds of hours immersed in the myriad forms of debauchery San Andreas has to offer, but there was far more waiting in the wings. Grand Theft Auto Online built a community of criminals and world-building that is nearly unrivaled. The list of improvements and new additions is daunting, to say the least:
- 2013: Beach Bum Update, Content Creator, Capture the Flag Mode, Holiday Gifts (festive theme)
- 2014: Valentine’s Day Massacre Special, Business update, High Life update, I’m Not a Hipster update, Independence Day Special, San Andreas Flight School Update, Last Team Standing Update, Festive Surprise
- 2015: Heists Update, Ill-Gotten Gains Pt. 1, Ill-Gotten Gains Pt. 2, Freemode events update, Lowriders, Halloween Surprise, Executives and other criminals, Festive Surprise 2015
- 2016: January Update, Be My Valentine, Lowriders: Custom Classics, Further Adventures in Finance and Felony, Cunning Stunts, Bikers, Import Export
- 2017: Cunning Stunts: Special Vehicle Circuit, Gunrunning, Smugglers run, The Doomsday Heist
- 2018: Southern San Andreas Super Sport Series, After Hours, Arena War
- 2019: GTA Online: The Diamond Casino & Resort
The expectation is for Rockstar to continue servicing its audience with new add-ons for some time, at least until the studio decides to shift focus to the latest iteration of the franchise. Red Dead Redemption 2 has followed suit as well — as a game of the year contender for 2018, the game offered an abundance of content but continued to flourish with its continued commitment to providing its community with new material to salivate over.
At first glance, it’s hard to find the flaw in the system; providing your fan base with more content seems to cater to their needs. But this is 2020, and the internet is the gift and the curse that gives on giving.
The Good, the Bad, and Everything In Between
The serialization of gaming appears wholly beneficial at first, but there are drawbacks. Players frustration with “unfinished games” for one. Granted, this may seem like fanboys and girls doing what they do best, harping on an opinion – whether positive or negative – ad nauseum, but there is some merit to the argument. Day one downloadable content (DLC) feels like a cheap grab for our wallets, especially while nine times out of ten, that content comes at a price, literally. Who can blame audiences for thinking, “why the hell didn’t you just put this into the game?” The new additions were in existence upon launch day, but the decision was made to have players shell out more money for the extra.
Now to play devil’s advocate. Games are expensive for the consumer for a reason: they are immense in scope in terms of both cost and the staff hours required to build a game from a simple concept to complete fruition. It is wholly understandable for consumers to cry foul of the exorbitant costs, but compared to games of yesteryear, modern games are a spectacle to behold. Nevertheless, players are savvy enough to recognize the difference between new output worthy of your dollar and when they’re being had. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was polarizing for this very reason. One major complaint kept rearing its ugly head: “the game is too short and unfinished.” If you dare dive into the rabbit hole of internet forums, namely Reddit, you’ll find a fan base as divided as staunch political parties.
The Waiting Game
But the question remains. Do gamers have the attention span to give a game time to grow? Your average player is inundated with new games and content to capture their attention week in and week out. Everything from AAA titles to indie darlings are contending for your time and your dollar. As fans, we are faithful to our most beloved franchises, but the saying “out of sight, out of mind” holds as much water in the gaming landscape as it does everyday life.
Granted, nostalgic gaming has its place among specific audiences. The success of miniature consoles and remastered collections are proof of this. But such titles feel new and fresh. More akin to recreating the success and excitement of the original title as opposed to letting something collect dust over time. How long is too long? It’s hard to recreate the initial hype surrounding a title in a sequel. Nine times out 10, the fans won’t wait. Whatever window you had to impress your target audience may be lost forever.
But hope remains…
The very thing that allows games to be considered “games as service,” the unstoppable, inexplicable, exponentially growing aspect of the world today that powers our lives in nearly every element can provide a sliver of hope for some games… technology. Social media, YouTube, podcasts, and any outlet with an audience who respects its opinions are changing the game (so to speak). But no title has made a 180 into fan’s hearts quite like No Man’s Sky. I first took notice of what No Man’s Sky was becoming while listening to a gaming podcast. Once they spoke highly of the new updates, I found myself curiously interested in what No Man’s Sky has become. But let’s start from the beginning.
No Man’s Sky was touted as being an epic, immersive, nigh unending trek into the depths of space and a limitless exploration of alien life. The problems began as the marketing for the game didn’t appear to be in line with what the game actually was. Promises were made and prospects were high despite the relatively small size of the team behind it. The hype train rolled on and fan’s expectations were through the roof. Even a AAA studio might struggle with the arduous task of living up to the title fans have painted in their mind’s eye. Sure enough, the game launched with middling reviews from critics and audiences alike. Not to say the team behind No Man’s Sky didn’t work hard on the title; after all, no one sets out to make a bad game. However, the imaginations of the players got away from them, and rightfully so. But time heals all wounds.
The studio never gave up on No Man’s Sky and continued work to expand on the base gameplay loop at launch while simultaneously providing quality of life improvements to the core title. No Man’s Sky has added multiplayer, made vast leaps and bounds in terms of visual quality, supports base-building and sharing, introduced character creation, customization and even emotes, and now includes a bevy of quests and stories to satiate any fan looking for a greater sense of accomplishment. But without a doubt, the most significant change to No Man’s Sky is to the algorithm that powers its infinite universe and the data it pulls. For the uninitiated, NMS is meant to have a procedurally generated universe, created worlds on the fly. The very core of the game has now been rehauled to better align with its initial promise. What’s not to love?
While this swing to the serialization has its disadvantages, it’s hard to refute that many games have benefited from a digital model that allows them to receive content packages and quality of life improvements months, sometimes even years after their original release. The only set back is the sheer number of games all vying for your time and money. No Man’s Sky’s resurgence to the forefront of gaming is a rare feat, an outlier among countless games left by the wayside.
Thankfully, the gaming community is active and growing ever more diverse by the day. If a game is exciting enough, fans will find it. Another healthy means of breathing new life into forgotten titles is the “Netflix for games” programs such as Xbox GamePass and PlayStation Now. Many titles that arrive on the subscription services can serve a purpose for benefitting a title. Some games have a new wave of DLC to arrive shortly, reminding players (new and old) to get in on the new content. Other games hit the service only months away from a sequel or new entry in the series, laying the foundation for a new fanbase to purchase the new title or lapsed fans to revisit these worlds of imagination. But most of all, video games that may have been overlooked are being discovered for the first time, allowing players to explore a title they may have otherwise missed.
Now more than ever, major studios are more reluctant to take risks on new content and IPs, but maybe, just maybe, if players can be patient (I know it isn’t easy), we can get more of these outside the box games that can change the landscape. Just give it some time and you might be surprised by what you get.