29 May 2012

Gaming: The Journey to Service Saturation

I’m going to start with a bit of a history lesson.

Back when I was a kid, we used to go to the games store and buy a cassette tape. We’d take it home, play it into the machine, and wait half an hour to play the game we just bought. Sometimes it’d work, sometimes it wouldn’t. Sometimes it would randomly crash, or the last few levels would be impossible. We also had no internet, which meant no patches. We had a tape, to enjoy or not, as we chose.

Today’s gaming industry is radically different. Gamers are spending incredible amounts of time in multi-player games of one form or another. We’re consuming downloadable content to extend the lifespan of games we’ve bought. We’re using networks to interact with each other, from console variants such as Xbox Live, through to publisher or developer related ones such as Steam and Battle.net.

Games are becoming increasingly reliant on this back-end network to deliver significant parts of the experience. While this transition from Gaming as a Product to Gaming as a Service has benefits for both sides, what risks does it pose? How do we critically appraise a game that’s heavily reliant on these service components? What is the importance of reputation? And what happens when this service-based industry reaches saturation point?

What is Gaming as a Service?

The easiest example of this is an MMO. In order to deliver the massively multiplayer experience, a large proportion of the game is hosted on the developer’s servers. You might make an upfront payment, subscribe for a monthly fee or dabble in microtransactions, and in return get a certain amount of usage.

The same is true of many other games that you’d not traditionally consider. With Battlefield 3, Call of Duty and many other titles, the goal is to encourage gamers to hang onto their copies of the game and encourage others to try them out, generating sales beyond launch week and reducing the number of copies that go into the pre-owned loop. Even though there’s no recurring cost beyond DLC, the games are still being sold with a significant portion provided as a service.

There are currently a variety of models used to support gaming as a service, with the MMO model being the most commonly understood. There are also streaming models such as those used by Gaikai and OnLive, and revenue protection models such as those used by many console games. When it works well, both the developer/publisher and gamer get something out of the deal.

Scoring the Service

As games have started to include significant online components, the remit of game design has become much broader. One the one hand you have game systems such as combat, movement, player interaction and all those other ludology elements. Meanwhile, on the other, there’s the system architecture, game engine, networking infrastructure and other back-end elements that support the delivery of that game.

It’s the fusion of these two elements that creates the overall service we receive. A game can have some interesting mechanics, great art style and superb narration, yet still be disappointing because of poor game architecture. But how should we critically review a game that’s artistically sound, yet hindered by a platform that’s not performing as well as we demand?

I’m going to use Diablo III as a bit of an example here as it’s still fresh in our minds, but the same principles apply to other games delivered as a service. Some places, such as Joystiq (review by Mike Schramm), purely rate the game on if it’s worth our time to play, largely discarding service elements and focusing heavily on the entertainment value delivered. Others like Polygon (review by Arthur Gies) take it on a case by case basis, arguing that based on Blizzard’s track record that launch-day problems would be resolved.

There’s also other extremes. IGN (review by Anthony Gallegos) made no mention of the service based components, what they delivered or how they performed. By contrast, PC Gamer (review by Tom Francis) calls attention to the issue and the limitations caused by it early on in the review.

Across all reviews listed on MetaCritic for Diablo III, there’s a range of opinions from critics on how central the delivery of the service is to the game. Just like with other elements, different critics and outlets have differing opinions on how relevant this aspect is to the overall score. Some, such as a profanity-laden rant from Jim Sterling, call out the service delivery aspect and its negative impact on the playing experience in an individual article.

I think we’re also seeing reviews based on reputation. Blizzard is known for building reliable, stable gaming services in the form of World of Warcraft and Starcraft II, and some reviewers referenced this reputation when describing the launch-week issues. Eurogamer (review by Oli Welsh) compared the launch to MMOs such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, suggesting that Blizzard should have done more work around protecting the quality of service delivered.

Game Service Architecture, Delivery and Support

The big thing about moving towards gaming as a service is the support model that’s provided with it. While it’s clear that critics and fans are prepared to forgive short term drops in service quality, we are much less likely to forgive poor support. Unfortunately developers, publishers and platform owners are only beginning to wake up to what’s involved with supporting an army of gamers.

It’s possible to compare the level of service support we get from a games developer or publisher, with other service industries such as banking, insurance or mobile phone service. With each of these service sectors you’ve reached saturation – there are very few people who don’t have a bank account or mobile phone, meaning the only way you can attract new customers is by offering better service (interest rate, terms, etc), better support, or both.

The same will eventually happen to gaming, where it becomes harder for console owners and publishers to create new gaming audiences. We’ve moved on leaps and bounds with the advent of casual gaming and smartphones, but eventually there’s going to be a point where it’s impossible to cram any more game down gamers’ throats.

I don’t think we’ll see gaming become a full commodity or utility, but I do think that we’re already starting to go slightly down that path. To use the Diablo III analogy again, do you pick the expensive but highly polished hack and slash from Blizzard, or the slightly rougher but significantly cheaper Torchlight 2? Do Blizzard/Activision offer you better support than Runic/Steam? Are you a fan of one or the other? Do either of them have a reputation for particular levels of service quality?

It’s also clear that developers are looking for ways to be disruptive in order to gain traction. NCSoft/ArenaNet’s approach with Guild Wars 2 is deliberately designed to lure players away from competitors like World of Warcraft by introducing a significantly changed approach to the fantasy MMO, together with a pricing model with a much lower upkeep barrier. It’s likely that developers looking to dominate other gaming genres are looking at the overall service mix for their new titles with the intent of being as disruptive as possible to gain market share.

Tales such as this, where players receive sub-standard support, are going to become increasingly significant. We’re reluctant to invest time and effort in playing a game and developing characters or ranking within that game, if there’s an elevated element of risk associated with it. Although these are great opportunities to turn gamers into fans, it’s also a chance that without action it’ll turn gamers into flight risks looking elsewhere for fun. This isn’t a big deal in a market with a clear dominant leader, but is likely to become more problematic as the gaming market evolves. Just ask the telcos.

The Evolving Gaming Marketplace

Over the next five to ten years, we’re likely to see a number of changes in the way gaming as a service is delivered to us, both in terms of consolidation and platformization (such as Battle.net 2.0 and Origin), but also in the development of disruptive models. As Jim Sterling so passionately proclaims, it’s going to be up to us as gamers to make it clear how we want this to evolve.

I’m personally not clear how things are going to shape out. Will we see a rush to the cheapest price, as publishers slash prices in order to increase market share? Or will we see them look to improve service quality and service support so that every dealing we have with them is a joy instead of a joke? It could go either way.

Either way, turbulent waters lie ahead for all of us. The only thing is this: accept the status quo at your peril. That goes for gamers and publishers alike.

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