In recent years, more games are starting to take up a new model for distributing post-launch content beyond what were once launch-and-forget events where a game would not get any support from the developer after the public got its hands on it except in special instances. Online functionality changed this by allowing the developer to push game updates to players upon hearing feedback from reviewers and consumers like you and me. Updates were not the only things added when the internet became a staple in gaming—multiplayer and paid add-on content came as well.
No longer were players forced to find ways to keep themselves occupied once their game progress reached 100%. They took up speed-running, ROM hacks, and variations of randomizers. Of course these practices continue today, but here, I will be focusing on official developer post-launch support. While MMORPGs could be considered “Games as a Service,” I will not be covering anything with a required monthly subscription price in this article. I am going to go deeper into ever-changing online games that require a one-time purchase or games that are F2P or “free to play.”
Post-release paid content used to come in the form of expansion packs in various prices and sizes. Sometimes a game would receive one expansion and others many. If a gamer wanted more, usually they would receive it.
This trend continues today, but in normally smaller bites called downloadable content, or “DLC.” We are given map packs ranging from two to five maps or sometimes a new weapon or mode, depending on the game and release schedule. Eventually, Rockstar changed the post-launch game with L.A. Noire’s Rockstar Pass. With this pass, you got to receive all of the content for the game that did not make it on the disc. Everything in one package with a little discount to it all to boot! Soon, other developers and publishers caught on to the idea and the Age of the Season Pass came into being.
Subsequently through 2011, multiple titles used the season pass or a similar format to release their content; examples include Gears of War 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Over the course of the following year every major game with multiplayer was selling season passes too—some with resounding sales success while some caught flack for this practice, such as Aliens: Colonial Marines (Though its negative reception was due more to the base game’s quality than anything). As this trend persisted, some games continued to give the same amount of content every time with their yearly releases like Call of Duty; others were considered disappointing for the perceived lack of content such as Evolve with its double season passes, the second of which launching only four months after the base game’s release.
While Evolve‘s gameplay was not a major point of contention, the extras around it were. When Evolve launched, forty-four paid skin packs were released alongside it ranging from $2.99 to $4.99 each (if memory serves correct; most of the content was de-listed from the digital stores, barring one hunter character and a monster skin.) Seeing as this was a fully-priced game, this pricing scheme became the straw that broke the camel’s back.
By 2015, 343 Industries announced that Halo 5 would be receiving multiple updates throughout the year after its release that October. This meant they were forgoing the season pass that was used for Halo 4‘s map packs. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege released that December with a season pass, but there was a twist. Every character that came in that season pass was unlock-able if you were to grind out in-game currency. Things were changing, the “Games as a Service” (GaaS) trend was rising.
The season pass model was merely the tip of this iceberg. In the fall of 2014, Bungie and Activision released the smash hit shared-world shooter Destiny. This was the most popular GaaS title on consoles as it made $325 million in revenue in its first five days on the market. Yes, Grand Theft Auto V made $1 billion in three days, but it did not launch with an online component for another two weeks.
Clearly Bungie did something right with their new franchise, and it showed. People were playing thousands of hours so they could try to be among the first to beat the new raids that came in most of the paid expansions. Every time there was something the players were unhappy about, Bungie would put it on the list and subsequently take care of those concerns in order of importance. Sometimes systems would be fixed in the major expansion. In reviews for Destiny‘s The Taken King expansion, it was cited that the loot drop system was fixed and felt more rewarding after it was previously called “stingy” after a year and two relatively lackluster expansions, The Taken King gave new life to a game that seemed to be getting stale. New enemies, loot, story missions, and raid drew players right back in. However, a challenger emerged six months later.
Tom Clancy’s The Division arrived in March 2016 to an 80 score on Metacritic. While lower than the 86 from The Taken King, it developed its own dedicated fans. Just like its sci-fi counterpart, The Division also launched with a season pass that promised content following its release. Suddenly, there seemed to be no time to play both games. At their core, they were the same. Both had shared worlds for players to interact in with promises of loot for defeating bad guys. However, due to their constantly changing nature, nobody could keep up with both and it felt like you had to purchase the level boosts just to keep up. This was just the beginning.
Suddenly, most new releases in gaming were focused more and more on online functions and less content in the base game. The cheeseburger you ordered suddenly seemed to have a nibble of meat and cheese in the bun, totally unsatisfactory. Star Wars Battlefront (2015) is a prime example of this. When it was released that November, it was praised for visuals and gameplay but criticized for its lack of variety. There was no real single-player campaign, and the few multiplayer maps that it came with got old quick. What made matters worse was that a season pass was included for new content. Once again, the camel’s back was about to be broken.
The players demanded change, they wanted their dollars to mean something. In 2017, EA answered. During their E3 conference that year, they announced Star Wars Battlefront II would be released that fall with no season pass. Every piece of new content would be completely free: every map, hero, and mode. They even put a single-player campaign in it that would also get new missions for free as well. Things were looking up until it launched. The game contained loot boxes and micro-transactions that drew heavy criticism for being unrewarding and grind-y. It was estimated that it would take 40 hours to unlock just one hero out of the many locked options. This game’s “service” stank to the high heavens.
On the other side of things, Fortnite Battle Royale introduced a paid Battle Pass with its Season 2 update. In this update, players could pay for the Battle Pass to receive in-game rewards for completing challenges. Since Battle Royale was a free game, nobody cared that there were micro-transactions for this pass and other cosmetics. Suddenly, almost as if overnight, Fortnite became the biggest game in the world. Epic Games was clearly on to something.
As each season ended; new features, weapons, and landscape changes to the map came to Fortnite. With each update, things would be broken and almost immediately fixed upon feedback from the fans. There was always something new to check out when you would dive back onto the island. While I concede that Fortnite does things well, I do not think they are doing it the best. Enter Rare’s Sea of Thieves.
Released in March of 2018, Sea of Thieves was bogged down by awful connectivity and other issues. The next day, Rare released a video on their YouTube detailing their plans to fix all of these issues. They outlined every issue they had heard about and what they were going to do about it. This trend continues every Wednesday—Joe Neate (executive producer) or another producer on the team will give an update to the fans about what progress is being made on the game. Every bug fix they find or hear about is addressed right to the fans. This is not the only thing being done right.
Every time a new feature was planned and the response was negative, Rare immediately changed or dropped it. Micro-transactions were planned three months after launch and immediately were scrapped after the players voiced their concerns. When the players were faced with the prospect of being charged by the Ferry of the Damned when they died, they let Rare know and the plan was scrapped. They have even delayed added content to fix issues with both the game and the possible bugs the expansions could introduce. Players’ suggestions are given serious consideration and added to the game based on demand for said feature.
When the players wanted more to do in the world, Rare gave more quest types and ways to play. A new emerging threat came in the form of the Megalodon and in a later update, volcanoes. Players wanted more ship custom options, and they were given. When three-man crews wanted a ship to play to their size, the developers gave them one. Every need that the community had was fulfilled. See a need, fill a need indeed!
Each new feature given was a new opportunity for the players to think of new ways to mess around. When the Speaking Trumpet was added in The Hungering Deep expansion, a player took it upon themselves to use this tool to Rick Roll the seas. What one sees as a mere communication device, another sees a practical joke waiting to happen. When the ability to trap snakes came, players used them to deter enemies from dropping/raising their anchors when the crew was busy elsewhere. Giant powder-kegs were combined with pistols and crows nests to sink ships with one shot. The tools that were given, had no rules attached. If you could imagine it, you could figure out a way to make it happen.
What has been viewed as an empty, repetitive experience before has become something more rich. While the game itself is not perfect by any means, the way the game has naturally evolved is due to the community and developer working in harmony. There is not just a Twitter or blog post telling you about what is happening—a person is looking at you telling you everything this is happening; no enigmatic presence is needed. Even more wonderful, the developer streams the game on a weekly basis to hang out and play the game with the community.
Developers are always doing their best to find a way to keep players interested in playing their games. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege is on its fourth year of updates. You can pay to unlock the new operators or grind out the unlocks. Destiny 2 has an Annual Pass to keep players invested with both paid and free content. But at the end of the day, it is rare to see a developer have so much public love and passion for their own game and have fun with their community. You can have a great presence on Twitter and Reddit, but it cannot beat having a smiling face greet you every week telling you about the fun you will have in the coming update.
If you want players to stick with you, do the Rare Thing. Be personal with your community, and show them how much you love them.