Recently, I stumbled across a series of tweets and opinions that got me thinking about the state of games. The topic of excessive monetization as seen in Babylon’s Fall as well as greedy marketing, false advertising, Gacha mechanics and other gambling-adjacent systems (see Diablo Immortal), etc. are kind of in the talks right now and a lot of people are giving their opinions on the matter.
I mainly wanted to talk about monetization today, “Games as a Service”, as well as the state of the gaming industry and Triple-A titles that are forgotten within a month already and that ultimately flop because of a plethora of reasons – with a bunch of side notes from a Twitter thread (published by Xalavier Nelson Jr. aka WritNelson from Strange Scaffold) that inspired this post. Before that, though, I’d want to also mention that this is just a collection of some of my thoughts on the matter and less of an analysis. The idea is that I talk about observations – and I will try my best to take all of these observations and thoughts to then come to a conclusion to the titular question at the end of the post… but this post isn’t supposed to form your opinion or convince you to eat the rich or whatever. Rather, I’m interested in hearing people’s thoughts on the matter, so feel free to let me know your thoughts below after you read my post!
Long Post Ahead!
This one is a long one, so grab something to drink and feel free to take your time. I hope you enjoy my thoughts on the matter.
Note: The screenshots are taken from various games’ presskits by the way. In order of appearance (links are to posts written on these games): Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, League of Legends, Babylon’s Fall, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, Vampire Survivors, Stardew Valley, Dead by Daylight, Cyberpunk 2077, STRAY, Monster Hunter World, Monster Hunter Rise, Loop Hero, Moonlighter, Hardspace: Shipbreaker. The header image is from Attack on Titan’s final season (part 2).
Why do I talk about this?
So, the prompt for this post and what got me thinking about the topic was this tweet by Mat Piscatella, an executive director & video game industry advisor, who tweeted out yesterday saying that “the slowdown in big, mass-market-friendly new premium game releases has become a significant market challenge over the last few months.” According to Piscatella, the demand is there for big new releases but it’s not being satiated – which is something that Xalavier Nelson Jr. from Strange Scaffold quote-tweeted, saying that “we did this to ourselves” (link to thread). “We” in this case is mostly the developers and studios behind these big new premium game releases – but obviously “we” as consumers are also partially at fault. Xalavier goes on to say that we get fewer new games because budgets rise and become unsustainable (if I understood that right).
A lot of newer releases have to go for “live service” models, like Babylon’s Fall, for instance, a title that I wrote about yesterday – because they have to sacrifice something in order to push out the game earlier. Only “a fraction of the industry has the infrastructure to make games of that size”, meaning that the amount of time to develop content and the amount of polish required to push out a finished project is enormous, so much actually that games are released (in my opinion) in an unfinished state with more updates and more content being added as time goes on. The concept of “Live Service” is about releasing a product and then adding more content as time goes on.
While this works for Free-to-Play titles like a charm, it’s not something that is sustainable for big paid releases. As a player, buying a game for a lot of money, only to get a fraction of the promised content is frankly… unheard of. It’s like buying a burger and all you get is two buns with a slice of tomato in the middle. You invested money into this unfinished burger and you’ll get your patty in a few hours, your salad after that, the sauce comes tomorrow and so on. Surely, the analogy doesn’t hold up quite as well as you won’t enjoy the sauce alone…
But in my opinion, games often feel that way when they’re released with the intention of adding the promised features as time goes on instead of on release. Live Service doesn’t work for paid titles, in my opinion, because it’s unsustainable. New content released for these games has to be incredibly good to be able to reignite your passion for said game. If Babylon’s Fall, for instance, added new quests monthly and major features every few months, it’d be fine. But the fact that the first new “Season” that was added to the game only added a fraction of what was initially shown in trailers, feels underwhelming and only further cements the Death of that Game – on top of it having some major flaws.
Big Budgets are Unsustainable
Because of how big the budgets are, you can’t just release a console exclusive anymore either, according to Xalavier. Games can’t “justify the costs” if only a fraction of players will be able to play them in the end. Hence, ports are almost required for any successful game and because of that, many games are dismissed by default. In recent years, there has been a slowdown in how many games are released each year. Of course, there has been an increase in Indie games being released (here’s a post by Jeff Vogel) but according to Xalavier, “(on the Indie side,) the amount of time needed for biz dev, confirming platform arrangements, porting to multiple consoles, and localizing can add up to a year+ to the timeline, […] exacerbating the cycle.” According to Jeff Vogel (Indie Dev Veteran, Founder of Spiderweb Software), Indie Games nowadays are “dripping with money”.
Recently a former employee of an Indie publisher told me that they mostly worked with developers that required help with the marketing aspect, “typically that being social media marketing, community management, and influencer relations” as well as “store page presence, help with platform partners, PR, and localization”. That’s a lot of things that we as consumers wouldn’t necessarily consider in terms of what goes into game dev. While it is true that the production value of the most-wishlisted Indie games in recent years has increased, a lot of the funding has to come from investors (e.g. EGS) and publishers (Annapurna, Devolver, etc.) or at least a lot of the help with certain aspects has to come from there.
To a degree, you kind of have to put in the production value to have any sort of success or else your game may never get noticed. Alas, you also are kind of required to have ports ready for multiple platforms as well as cross-save functionality, cross-play, localization, possibly even voice acting – and the list of features goes on – or else you may not even make back the money you put into the development in the first place.
From Big Studios to Small Studios
There are somewhat minimalistic games out there like Vampire Survivors and Loop Hero, for instance, that suddenly rose to unrivalled popularity… but in the end, we as consumers may not know how much money actually goes into one specific title, not to mention the amount of time and work that goes into making, marketing and promoting them. I mean, titles like Owlboy being redone and remade over and over again before they get released isn’t a rare occurrence. Heck, Owlboy ended up amassing a development time of ten years (Guardian article on that)… So, that’s “just” Indie Development. Small teams, small budgets, but lots of passion and innovation. A lot of people may work on a game in their free time but it takes a lot of time to get there…
If you have the resources, it may be done faster or may have more production value but those resources (primarily, manpower, experience and funds) are heavily reliant on getting a good deal with publishers, investors, or even something along the lines of a Kickstarter. I’m glad that Epic Games and Xbox GamePass exist as Epic Games offers developers a chance at funding their game well (at the cost of exclusivity) while Microsoft’s GamePass enables developers to get a guaranteed amount of money per download or set amount of money that further incentivises developers to take risks and go above and beyond.
While that’s a good thing, though, it also means that budgets for “good” Indies often end up bigger than expected, although nowhere near the cost of modern “premium”/”AAA” titles. How much a game cost to get to the point where we play it is something that we as consumers often don’t consider when it comes to how much we’re willing to pay for them. More on that later.
Loot Boxes, NFT scams, and other forms of predatory monetization
Let’s hop back to “premium” titles and Triple-A studios. One can only imagine why developers and big studios had to resort to excessive monetization and live service models in recent years due to the amount of work that goes into making games. It at some point started with “loot boxes” that essentially came down to randomized cosmetic unlocks. It may have started with Team Fortress 2 and FIFA or maybe even at a point before that – and soon, loot boxes would be everywhere. Instead of purchasing a skin for an amount of money, you’d purchase a box that gives you a chance at getting a random skin or cosmetic.
Of course, there are also microtransactions that enabled this model in the first place with cash currency purchases always leaving you with “a little extra” that is not enough to get an extra purchase, meaning that you’ll now have to buy more cash currency to get to an extra skin or whatever. Once you’ve purchased cash currency once, you’re more likely, after all, to purchase it again… and when loot boxes were less popular because of the gambling aspect, battle passes rose to popularity, giving casuals rewards to work towards while also enticing them to buy Exp Boosts and the Premium Pass for even more rewards in any amount of time. It’s devious!
And well, then there were the whole NFTs and Block-Chain-Thingies and other scams that got introduced into a plethora of games, including Dead by Daylight (Article from Hitc), that essentially boil down to “you buy this cosmetic from us and you can then trade that cosmetic with others, effectively increasing its value, although we will cash in on you buying or selling that cosmetic to others” and “don’t worry, we don’t know what this means either”.
With the emergence of “whales”, some prices for cosmetics are frankly… absurd. But if you don’t like it, you don’t have to buy it, right? Valorant skins apparently cost hundreds of dollars and people are willing to pay for that. Jeff Vogel has a post on that with some valid points. It’s a free game and the skins are purely cosmetic, so what harm is there in allowing people to pay for these, especially if they put little cute fishies onto your favourite firearm.
Anyway, from skins to excessive monetization: Gambling in games, loot boxes, microtransactions, pay-to-win, paid cosmetics in paid games, NFTs, ads, Live Service models, game passes, Expansion/Booster packs and the rise of other means to make as much money as possible out of any given release is only the consequence of developers reaching for the stars and trying to one-up each other by increasing the budgets for each given release.
If you don’t require 100k for your game but rather 400k, you have to port it to as many platforms as possible in as many languages as possible and essentially make it a hit. Making it a hit, however, is hard because you’re not guaranteed to get people to play your game… Hence, you need to make as much money as possible while people are there already.
On that note, you need to hook people and get them excited, meaning you release big trailers, big campaigns, billboards, and other advertisements, building up the hype. When you release the game for 70+ bucks, you’ll give people the option to pay you some of that money back. Clearly, you have to build up hype but if it’s “too much hype”, you end up creating expectations that are just not feasible – which is also why so many games fail in the process. Games become unsustainable. Budgets are too big for new releases.
As inflation happens, games will cost a lot more, too, meaning that fewer people can afford them and there will be even bigger losses for huge studios, further feeding into this devil’s cycle. It’s not about the budget but rather about the quality and quantity. AAA Devs also often overpromise on games with the excuse that more content is added as time goes on, often “accidentally” (let’s assume positive intent/good faith) falsely advertising a game – essentially, selling you a burger without a patty in the hopes that you’ll forgive them.
With Indie Games, you’ll always hear the “this game is too expensive” argument from people that – as Jeff said – probably would have pirated the game… if they didn’t feel guilty for it… So they create this argument that a game is too expensive.
The Big Picture
What I’m trying to get at is that there is a problem that is killing the gaming industry: Unsustainable Design and Budgets that are too big. I agree with Xalavier’s and Mat’s opinion that the demand for games is not being met. There are fewer big releases and even the ones that do appear, often end up being forgotten after a month or two. Before writing this post, I tried to think back at the last big release that wasn’t Elden Ring… and I mean… we get “Stray” soon… and Cult of the Lamb… but as for “big” releases, there’s just Babylon’s Fall and Horizon: Forbidden West, right?
According to Google, there were also Sifu (oh, right!), Evil Dead (right…), Dying Light 2 (forgot about that!), and uh… Yeah. Soon, STRAY releases, the cyberpunk game where you’re a cat, as well as the remake of Destroy All Humans 2.
My point is that new big releases are just not that frequent anymore, mostly because of this devil’s cycle of overfunding, overpromising and underdelivering. Because one release failed to launch properly, the next release gets a bigger budget and needs to become a hit. Live Service models have become the new standard for a lot of “premium”/AAA titles and big studios like Square Enix don’t realise that they’re just not the way to go.
Luckily, it’s just “a lot of titles” and not “all of”, I guess, so games aren’t dying as a whole. Premium Games require up-front monetization to become sustainable but they ultimately fail to do so because the budgets just are way too huge to ever justify the time and effort that goes into it.
As a good example, Monster Hunter World was the first Main-MH-Game that was released on PC as well. I loved it. It was great and got me hooked. The initial price was possible even “too low” due to the amount of content there is. The expansion for it, Iceborne, added so much more content to the game, essentially doubling the number of hours you could put into it, if not even tripling it. There also have been patches, events, and cosmetics as time goes on but the developers didn’t add battle passes, NFTs or loot boxes into the mix. Instead, you can buy cosmetics if you want to but you don’t have to.
You can purchase Character Edit Vouchers or Hairstyles, figures, and emotes/stickers for relatively low prices. They’re completely optional but it’s not excessive. I love how Monster Hunter World (and Monster Hunter Rise) did this and I hope that other big studios will take a look at CAPCOM and take notes in the future.
What needs to change?
What do we need to do to stop this cycle? There is a demand for big games but because of the way things are slowing down, that demand is not met. It’s a double-edged sword as bigger demand means that games can be priced higher. More demand also means that people will be more likely to check out mobile and Indie games for a quick fix, although that comes with its own problems. Jeff Vogel wrote a good piece on that, detailing how mobile games are riddled with an incredibly big amount of ads nowadays, and I recommend checking that out!
While we’re talking about Jeff Vogel, I also recommend checking out his post on video game prices and why certain games cost a certain amount… as well as why we are afraid to “feel dumb”. On that note, a while ago, the AggroChat crew talked about “Ethically Funding Games” and I highly recommend checking out that post there as well as their podcast episode on the topic (#393)!
There is this fine line between demand and supply that kind of determines how much money we’re willing to pay for a specific title. “Big budget = big price” and “Indie = small price” is kind of the general consensus here, oddly enough. I know for a fact that I didn’t want to pay a lot for RimWorld when it first released because I wasn’t sure if I’d like it… but in the end, I bought it at near full price and never regretted it. Stardew Valley is another example of an underpriced game.
If I had the opportunity to, I’d love to buy some sort of DLC just to give the developer more of my money – just like how V Rising lets you support the development by making an optional purchase of cosmetics in the form of DLCs. Sites like itch.io allow you to “name your own price”.
I often end up getting a game for free or for a dollar on Itch.io – afterwards, I buy the game for five bucks or ten bucks. I believe that if you give people the option to pay you how much they think a game is worth, people will support you… But of course, not everyone’s like that and there are plenty of people that will just take the game for free and never touch it again or even consider giving you more money than zero. If you price your game somewhat low and then give people the option to pay more, that’s certainly a lot healthier than selling a patty-less burger and then expecting people to be patient enough to wait for more content.
There is also Early Access – a system that arguably does the same thing. You buy a game that is possibly riddled with bugs but because you buy it in EA, you’ll get to play it and help the development of the game by funding it as it’s developed. Naturally, a fully released game costs more, so you as a player get a better deal… while the developers have a better chance of getting their game to the 1.0 release.
To sum it all up, I believe that we as players need to question how much we’re willing to pay for one game as opposed to another. We need to also consider whether we as consumers want to support tactics like excessive monetization, “live service” scams and borderline gambling in the form of loot boxes. We need to consider the options available to us.
Buying games at a sale on Epic Games, for example, is a great way to support the devs because Epic Games has deep pockets and they pay the difference. I believe that there’s no perfect way of ethically funding games and/or solving the issues that brought us this situation in the first place – but there is obviously an argument to be made that we each can try and boycott big, questionable releases while we support small gems that are underrated.
We as players can support the dev cycle of games by helping out in Q&A, recommending games to others, going the extra mile when there’s a “name your own price” deal, or buying choosing what model we support over another. Instead of supporting yet another remake, why not support a new release that will give you new content? Instead of supporting a “live service” game, why not go for a title with an up-front cost that will get expansions in the future? Instead of supporting questionable developers, why not make a difference by supporting the good guys?
I know that I talked about a lot of different things here and that this whole topic is too complex to just talk about in one post… but I tried… and I wanted to share my thoughts on the matter.
If you wanna share your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment or reply or message me directly. Do you think that one can ethically fund games? Let me know! And thanks for making it all the way to the end of the post here. You’re a champ. This post took me way too long to write up and edit… But it was worth it. I had fun. I hope you enjoyed yourself, too. Have a good one!