Power to the People
How Games as a Service is changing the gaming industry
I hate to break it to you, guys and gals, but it’s not 1985 anymore. It’s not 1997. It’s not even 2010, much as it feels like that was only yesterday. Things have changed in mainstream gaming, and the simple fact is, when it comes to video games in 2019, the needle has swung massively in an unexpected direction.
Whereas with Mario in ‘85, Final Fantasy VII in ‘97, and Call of Duty: Black Ops in 2010 you bought the game (and maybe a map pack or two in the case of CODBLOPS), played the game, and moved on, in 2019 we’re increasingly seeing publishers adopt the model known as games as a service (GaaS). In this brave new world, players don’t just get a fire-and-forget product shipped to them, updated a handful of times, and with the odd added trinket thrown in for good measure: they are instead offered a full, supported experience with a wealth of new elements, frequent updates, and periodic refreshes of the core content. Players are active in discussion and engage directly with community managers to shape the evolution of a title. They discuss the game and watch each other playing games in order to formulate purchasing decisions (over a third of gamers will have watched a livestream of a game in the past month, and those who do watch are twice as likely to buy a game after seeing it in action).
The birth of GaaS
How did this move come about? As with all great trends, it began away from the mainstream, in the niche (though growing) corners of gaming: massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. The advent of the MMO can be traced all the way back to the 80s and its multi-user dungeon experiences, but it wasn’t until 2004 that things really started to strike a chord with gamers – and publishers. World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s legendary fantasy MMO, has consistently held on to millions of subscribers since its early days, all paying a subscription fee each and every month.
Admittedly, World of Warcraft is near unrecognisable in its modern form, but that’s a result of 15 years of GaaS – consistent, incremental updates rendered changes one drip at a time. Named updates (or expansions) offered the chance for Blizzard to make larger changes at once. Even with the game’s success – it has made over $9 billion in its lifetime – it still took other publishers some time to really figure it all out. Surely this was just a one-off; a result of a (large) niche being catered for, and nothing else?
Well yes it did take a while. But in the last few years we’ve seen ever-more titles released that adopt the GaaS model. Initially the move came on mobile, with the ubiquitous nature of smartphones lending itself to the ‘single game, often updated’ mantra. One of the biggest successes in the mobile GaaS space has been Clash of Clans, which launched in 2012 on iOS and the year after on Android. Developed by one of Waste’s key client partners at Finnish studio Supercell, Clash of Clans is an attack and defend base builder game where players can attack other bases individually or with friends (in Clans) in order to obtain resources to upgrade their own base and troops levels. It’s a straightforward, engaging strategy game that quickly captured the attention of millions of mobile gamers, entering the top five most downloaded apps shortly after its release, and remaining relevant ever since.
Evolution and relevance
How does something maintain relevance in a space as competitive as mobile gaming over a seven-year span? Iteration is a big part – Clash of Clans is on its 11th major revision at the time of writing – but another factor came into play with Clash: the smart use of social media, and bringing the community closer to the product than ever before. This didn’t mean simply talking to people and telling them about all the great things the game could offer, it also meant listening to the community. Gathering feedback on updates; introducing events and competitions; offering tips and tricks on how to get the most out of the game, as well as many other nuggets of Genuinely Useful Content.
This unique behaviour from Supercell set the template for best in class GaaS... well, service! With a community-driven focus, the studio was able to harness the very simple, often overlooked fact that games like Clash are, to its players, social networks themselves. Players would share their thoughts and insights on the game through social, forums, YouTube videos, and anywhere else an opinion can be shared – and rather than it being screamed pointlessly into the ether, Supercell listened. Marketing played its part too, by offering a message that understood players: coming at it like we do at Waste, from an embedded, knowledgeable perspective, helped to communicate effectively with players. Gamers are a cynical bunch – we’ve learned that the stats say around half of players feel marketing speaks ‘inauthentically’ about games.
With modern GaaS titles like Clash or Epic’s super-ultra hit Fortnite – even lesser-known GaaS successes like Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege, or the online segments of Grand Theft Auto V and Red Dead Redemption 2 – this embedded, knowledgeable approach is vital for success. Check the official forums on Twitter, Discord and Reddit – there’s always discussion about what the game needs to do to improve. It’s honest and open. Community managers don’t fob off or ignore: they engage, they discuss. There’s an ever-important sense of humour and friendliness to the tone of voice. And as a result, changes can come about based on direct community interactions.
This is at the very core of GaaS, but it’s more than just technical changes to the product: it’s a sense of belonging. Here at Waste we know that if your audience is listened to, it feels valued, it cares more, and it is more engaged. 85% of gamers find out about games they actually begin playing through social media and word of mouth. Around a third of gamers in total are playing a game while browsing on a second screen. 70% of gamers consider the social interaction the most important aspect of a game. Social matters. And the ability to offer not just convenience, but a chance for the audience to truly care and invest themselves wholly into an experience cannot be understated. It’s somewhere they can create memories. If the community truly feels like a group of like-minded individuals – and it usually needs a steady hand from community managers to do so – the players will make the game not just something they play, but a part of their life.
We might be looking at the world of gaming here, but these lessons can be expanded to cover the world outside, with plenty of other industries able to take advantage of the freemium model to create a community around their product. There is clearly more work to be done outside of gaming, but the lessons are there to be learned, and the results are clear for all to see – World of Warcraft, Clash of Clans, Fortnite: they’ve made tens of billions of dollars between them. All it takes is a love of the game’s community and a clear acknowledgment of the power of the community to make the game a success. (Of course, it also takes hard work, consistent updates, a good product, a bit of luck... and a few hundred other things.).
So is it all champagne and roses? Of course not. GaaS are prone to exploitation from less credulous publishers, with the received ‘wisdom’ being that these freemium models can be exploited over the long term to make players fork out on a consistent basis. Make them pay for their trinkets and offer them little in the way of consistent evolution and you might make a quick buck, but you won’t make a successful product. The backlash to these exploitative practices has made the GaaS model appear like a bit of a poisoned chalice in the world of hardcore gamers, with vociferous negativity surrounding the news that mega-publishers like EA and Activision are moving to more service-based models.
But the simple fact is, as Blizzard, Supercell, and Epic have all shown, if you make something good, if you hone it over time, if you listen to and genuinely engage with your players, if you don’t exploit them and instead run things like an extended digital family, you’ll be both respected and – dare I even say it – loved. It’s not 1985 anymore, but I’d argue it’s better than it’s ever been for those of us who love games.