The Never-Ending Story

How live-service games upended the creative process, from writing to development.

Written by Kerry Halladay
Published on Jan. 31, 2022
The Never-Ending Story

By necessity, video games used to be products only available to players first through arcades, then later as boxes on shelves.

Most games were just too big to be delivered to players in any other way than on a disk or cartridge. This was true even after personal computers started to dot households and gaming consoles began attaching to TVs. Early examples of online gaming via local area networks (known as LAN parties) first showed up in 1993, digital games distribution platforms like Battle.net appeared in the late nineties and Sega Dreamcast — the first internet-enabled console — came out in 2000. 

But average internet connections were just too slow for an enjoyable experience.

No one wanted to tie up the phone line for hours (or days) or run up overage fees in the days of dial-up and pay-by-time-used internet pricing. It was much quicker and easier to just buy or rent a game from a store. (Maybe even cheaper too, depending on your internet plan.)

Then, in 2010, the average consumer connection speeds started to take off. Increasing connectivity allowed the digital delivery of games to proliferate. When games could be purchased, played, fixed and updated online, at any time, the stage was set for the software-as-a-service model to be applied to video games. 

But there is more to games as a service than mere digital delivery. 

How Games as a Service Has Changed Game Creation

Games as a service is a player-centric business model in video game production that involves a strategy of long-term content updates. This contrasts with games as a product, where both the production process and stories are finite. Given the continuous nature of the content, writing for GaaS is more like writing for TV. GaaS developers seek to engage players so they keep playing, sometimes for years. Because new content often relies on player feedback, both direct and indirect, GaaS developers often see players as partners in content creation.

 

So What Is ‘Games as a Service’ Anyway?

GaaS is a business model that applies the software-as-a-service model to video games. Games made on this model are often called service games or live-service games. 

In a 2021 study published in the Journal of New Media & Society, researchers Louis-Etienne Dubois and Johanna Weststar define a live-service game as one with a long-term strategy of ongoing content creation that engages players.

Engaged players are key to the GaaS model. From a business perspective, a live-service game has the potential for recurring revenues generated through long-term player retention. Game studios incentivize players to regularly purchase something within the game through continuous release of new content.

These efforts at player retention have given GaaS games a suite of common traits: 

  • Free to play: Unlike in the games-as-a-product model where players must buy the game, GaaS games often have no barrier to play. This is because many small mobile games and browser games are free to play. (Even wildly popular games like Fortnite use this model.)

  • Microtransactions or in-app purchases: Service games often offer players in-app purchases. This can be skill buffs, skins or other customization items to improve their gameplay or enjoyment of the game. 

  • Multiplayer or other player interaction: Most live-service games rely on the gamer community and player interactions. This can be the very direct player-versus-player combat offered by games like World of Warcraft or social-media interaction elements (in)famously pioneered by FarmVille.

  • Ongoing support and content creation: Developers maintain and update the game for technical needs through patches, hotfixes and security updates like any software as a service. They also create new content including storylines, characters and more. This semi-constant stream of new content is often sold to players through microtransactions.

Live-service games can have some, all or (admittedly, rarely) none of these elements. For example, the award-winning Overwatch by Blizzard was launched in 2016 and has continued to grow its player base ever since, with over 60 million downloads as of late 2021. While it is not free to play — prospective players must buy the game on one of four different platforms for anywhere from $19.99 to $59.99 — it does include updating content and upgrades that players can buy in the form of loot boxes. The gameplay is entirely player to player with teams of up to six competing against each other.

Or take the mobile game Merge Dragons! by Zynga, which also came out in 2016. This free-to-play puzzle game has been downloaded over 10 million times on the Google Play store. It features regular weekend special events and in-app purchases ranging from 99 cents to $99.99. While most in-app purchases are standard options (like loot boxes), some are event-unique or are offered real-time based on player behavior (if you obtain a rare or high-level item, for instance, a pop-up will prompt you to buy another). 

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Shifting From Product to Service Has Changed the Game Creation Process

Like almost all as-a-product items, the revenue stream for traditional games comes primarily from the sale of the game itself. After that, the studio is off to the next project. Since these games are not generally updated or changed after release, the player experience is finite. Players might replay the game, but it will be the same.

The production process for traditional games is similarly finite. Once a traditional game ships, the production team moves on.

Not so with live-service games.

In a 2012 blog post, Kari Silvennoinen, head of business intelligence at Ubisoft RedLynx, predicted the shift from games as a product to GaaS would have a huge impact on how publishers and studios operate.

And that’s been the case. Rather than the linear production process of a traditional game, with its discrete stages — design and prototype, pre-production, production, testing, distribution and retail — that end at game launch, live-service games emphasize post-launch activities.

“Releasing a game to market is no longer the end but rather the beginning of ongoing service operations in which regular content updates, game optimization, support and community management are key to enduring success,” write Dubois and Weststar in the 2021 study.

These new activities mean a different production team makeup is needed for live-service games. These can include data analysts, community managers and digital marketers working alongside traditional content creators.

 

Writing for the Never-Ending Stories of Live-Service Games

The impact of the shift to GaaS on game production is especially tangible on traditional content creators, particularly in how plot-driven video games are written. 

“The narrative design for games has changed quite drastically as we moved from a single product on the shelves that you purchase to the games-as-a-service model,” André Thomas, director of the LIVE Lab at Texas A&M University and CEO of educational games spinoff company Triseum, told Built In. 

It’s basically like the difference between writing for movies compared to writing for TV, he said. Like traditional games, movies have a self-contained story that is (ideally) conceived fully before production starts. There’s rising action, conflict, and eventually, resolution and closure. Once it’s written, it’s done. Traditional games are like that too. Developers working on the narrative know the game will end and what that ending will be when they start working. Even if there are game sequels or DLC expansions, those stories are also self-contained with a beginning and an end that can be played by themselves.

Live-service games, on the other hand, are written more like episodic TV, said Thomas, who has worked on games and movies, including Madden NFL and Men In Black. In both cases, the creative teams go into the project with a general story concept or plot that will drive the overall story and an understanding that new subplots will be developed in the future. Most times, they don’t know when the show (or service game) will end and must write accordingly.

TV writers, Thomas pointed out, write strategically to engage their audience and keep them coming back next week for the next episode. The same is true for live-service games where the goal is to keep players coming back, sometimes for years.

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Game Writing: A Unique Creative Process

Analogies between the narrative creation process for plot-driven video games — whether traditional or live service — and TV or movies can only go so far, however. Video games are unique among entertainment media because of their interactivity.

“Unlike television or movies, where the viewer cannot change — the viewer literally has to follow what the director is showing and telling us — in a game, I can do whatever I want,” Thomas said. “As you create the story, even in a game as a service, you’ve got to anticipate all the possible things a player could do and somehow still create a comprehensive story and a little bit of subplot and so on.”

The unique interactive nature of games means the creative process (and the team) behind them is different. 

“As you create the story, even in a game as a service, you’ve got to anticipate all the possible things a player could do and somehow still create a comprehensive story and a little bit of subplot and so on.”

For example, while movies overwhelmingly credit only one screenwriter whose script sets the story for the movie, game narratives are designed by a large team that often includes project directors, game designers, narrative designers and game writers. Each position plays a very different role in the overall writing process for video games. Because of this highly collaborative process, it’s more accurate to talk about “narrative creation” and “game developers” as opposed to a game’s story and its writers.

Once the narrative creation process is done — not that it ever really is in a live-service game — the developers have something far different than what you might see with TV or a movie. 

“They are technical documents with hundreds of pages of visual description, flow charts, branching dialogue, cut scenes, etc.,” Ken Miyamoto, TV and movie screenwriter and script reader for Sony, wrote in a 2021 blog post for ScreenCraft. The focus of the game script is on possible player action and goals because, ultimately, even a plot-driven video game’s narrative is subservient to gameplay. 

 

GaaS Means Different Game Stories and Different Game Writers

The narratives of all plot-driven games are developed with the player in mind, but the player-centric nature of live-service games has a massive impact on how game developers work.

Live-service games often launch with a small core of content and then expand later. This is not just developer-planned content, but is based heavily on player feedback. This can be direct (integrated in-game bug-reporting or suggestion systems), indirect (what are the players saying about the game in community forums?) or via data collected on player activity within the game (did players flock to the new expansion or pay for the new skin?). 

According to the 2021 study by Dubois and Weststar, this integration of player feedback has resulted in GaaS game developers having a relationship with players that traditional game developers don’t. Rather than being insulated from the player community, live-service game developers are directly accountable to players.

“It’s different and changes the reality of those in development,” one developer interviewed for the study said. The creative process of GaaS development teams is at times completely exposed to the players and centered around service to the player community. In some cases, GaaS developers reported feeling closer professionally to players than to traditional game developer colleagues.

The study found this different mindset on developer-player interaction has also changed GaaS game developers’ technical and artistic approach to their work compared to traditional games developers. Focusing on stability and functionality of the game (like a good gameplay experience) rather than complex or demanding graphics is one example. Having clean and well-documented code, so that potential future developers can easily understand the interdependence of game elements, is another.

Since GaaS game developers are more directly answerable to players, there is a strong motivation to deliver good quality technically and artistically. The researchers summarized it as a more conservative, risk-averse approach to game development since anything that causes player dissatisfaction will come back to haunt them.

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Is Focusing on the Player the Future of Games?

This centering of player experience and feedback among live-service game developers will likely put them in good stead as video games continue to evolve.

Silvennoinen, in a 2019 blog post, projected the future of gaming as a different sort of GaaP: “games as a platform.” Beyond player input into game development or the ability to create user-generated content, Silvennoinen sees games as a platform where players or other third parties can create and — most importantly — monetize content. Second Life is an early example of this. Launched in 2003, it allows players to buy land and create and sell items to other players for real money within the game. Roblox has similarly made it possible for players to monetize their in-game creations

But Silvennoinen sees games as a platform as more than just player-to-player marketplaces. Pointing to the growing trend of some expansive service games to host live concerts as an example, Silvennoinen expects the path to games as a platform lies in larger-scale partnerships. 

Events like Minecraft’s Coalchella, Fire Festival and Block by Blockwest featured third-party groups organizing — and literally building the venue — in game. Dedicated servers were also set up for the Minecraft concerts and, in the case of Coalchella, more-than-expected participants created lag and server crashes that required live support.

Fortnite’s Marshmello in-game concert serves as another example: Tens of thousands of instances were needed to accommodate the nearly 11 million players who participated. The physics of the game was even changed for the duration of the concert so players could not use weapons during the performance.  

As we move more into the metaverse where games are social networks as much as they are games — places to be rather than things to do — the way studios and developers make games will change. Just like the shift from traditional to service games, the path to games as a platform could mean studios give up even more control over the end product in exchange for ongoing revenue opportunities, and game development teams and their work could change even more as outside collaboration becomes a greater focus.

Expect to see even more engagement and collaboration with players, further blurring the line between the creation and consumer sides of video games.

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