Games-as-a-service refers to a monetization model in which the game is developed and released as a continually evolving service, rather than a one-time product. The game receives ongoing support from developers over years, and generates revenue through subscriptions or in-game purchases.
This business model has become the new standard for AAA gaming studios. Some games are even released for free to capture the largest player base possible, despite potentially operating at an initial loss.
Understanding your market is key before choosing to invest resources into creating new content
However, over time, many gamers have become familiar with predatory pay-to-win mechanics and loot box gambling. Many players have grown weary of companies that favor high-spending players, or 'whales,' over their free-to-play audience.
Meanwhile companies undergo crunch cycles to release an unfinished product that doesn't live up to the hype, and players can't help but feel that it's just another case of game studios squeezing cash from players without the quality gaming experience to justify it.
So what is the optimal way to release a live service game in this era, where players question the longevity of GaaS titles, and quality experiences don’t necessarily live long before getting shuttered? This article is intended to spotlight the keys to seemingly obvious strategies which most GaaS titles miss or could improve with implementing. Here are the four major strategies we cover:
1. Content is king
Smaller patches and season updates are the bread and butter of a service game. A good balance of longform or seasonal events, dailies (quests typically available for no longer than 24 hours), and battle passes will keep users engaged and surprise them every once in a while.
Content updates are a way to recapture and retain players from other titles they’ve moved on to. It’s not a failure of a studio or game when players check out from a game periodically – the cadence of updates helps with bringing them back.
World of Warcraft released WoW Classic in 2019, allowing players to experience the original version of the game as it was at launch in 2004. WoW subscriber revenue went up 223% as the franchise successfully re-engaged many players who had stopped playing the game and renewed interest even in the game’s latest updates and expansions.
Another game that further illustrates the importance of focusing on high quality content is No Man’s Sky. While during the initial release developer Hello Games faced backlash for not being able to deliver upon promises, the studio transparently continued to release major updates and expansions, winning back many players' trust and respect.The game finally went from being rated overwhelmingly negative to mostly positive on Steam, five years after release.
The gameplay loop of a live service game is its lifeblood. Without a fun, engaging, and fulfilling gameplay loop, it’s much more difficult to retain long term, committed players. One example of a well-designed, strong gameplay loop which continues to keep its community active is Genshin Impact's Spiral Abyss, a post-game battle tower challenge which changes every two weeks, encouraging players to achieve greater heights in-game once their scores reset.
As a game goes through its lifecycle, dedicate time to developing QoL improvements, new (wanted) features, and add polish to any unfinished aspects of the game. Don’t ignore key, critical concerns that large portions of the playerbase have. Try to understand what the core problem spurring their critiques is, and be transparent and communicative about how the team is tackling it. Transparency and honesty with a playerbase go a long way in building trust, which positively translates to an increase in long term players.
2. Harness the social ecosystems of your community
Creating a GaaS title means maintaining a commitment to your playerbase, who often become personally involved and invested in the game’s universe and well-being.
Developers have direct access to player feedback through social media, player surveys, and tracking marketing efforts. Players also generally consider game creators responsible for communicating updates on the state of their game; there's often both a passive expectation and desire to be kept in the loop through in-game updates.
This open and transparent communication is an important part of building trust and loyalty among the playerbase. Developers should pay attention to the demands of their community, even if they don’t give in all the time. Many games, like Apex Legends and Path of Exile, have active, regular updates from developers where they discuss upcoming content and changes.
Transparency and honesty with a playerbase go a long way in building trust, which positively translates to an increase in long term players
Understanding your market is key before choosing to invest resources into creating new content. This requires identifying your target audience, actively gathering data, and monitoring feedback. Just like how successful product development hinges on the principles of user-centered design, the most profitable games tend to iterate based on player feedback. Many games like Genshin Impact regularly collect and implement player feedback, rewarding players with in-game currency for filling out surveys.
Overall, building a strong community for a game requires a commitment to effective communication, transparency, and honesty. By focusing on these aspects, developers can create a dedicated and engaged player base that is invested in the game's success.
Developers should also pay attention to the conversations online, as well as content creators, who can create an engaged community around the game. Positively recognizing the user-generated content around your IP is a great way to build a relationship with your community.
Content creators also help drive creativity and innovation in the game, ensuring a game stays part of the conversation. Positive reviews and great engagement on social media like Twitch all provide social proof that your game is a worthwhile investment to new players.
3. The game balancing act between hardcore and casual
Games need to be enjoyable by both the seasoned gaming vet and the average player. It is necessary to be dynamic with game balance to ensure that general players have a path to reach high-skill play. If the gap is too large the game can be too frustrating for new players to mass adopt.
Balancing your game boils down to understanding your community – that is why they play the game and how they play it. It’s important to stratify your player base by demographics like hardcore and casual, as well as the modern addition of the content creator demographic.
Balancing your game boils down to understanding your community – that is why they play the game and how they play it
Understand the layers of your community, because exclusively catering to one specific portion of the playerbase may alienate others.
A game with a super vibrant community may suffer from changes geared toward high-skill competitiveness (Fall Guys, Genshin Impact, mainline Pokémon games). On the flip side, a game with a deep competitive community will balk at changes that lower the skill floor of the game (Counter-Strike, Escape from Tarkov, Apex Legends).
Segmenting changes based on game type or game mode can help reduce pushback from different demographics in a game’s general playerbase, like when Fortnite created its 'No Build' mode, or how most games offer separate ranked and normal queues.
Games with low skill floors and high skill caps allow for larger player bases (Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Valorant, Fortnite). You also need a healthy playerbase foundation in order to bring in new players. Finding a healthy balance between the needs of all of these parties is key to finding the biggest audience for your game.
4. Don’t force an esports status if it doesn’t fit
GaaS games often include competitive gameplay elements, such as leaderboards and rankings, which can motivate players to improve their skills and compete against one another. This can help build a passionate and dedicated player base that is invested in the game's success.
However catering to a highly competitive player base tends to fall short. The industry is over-saturated with high quality GaaS titles, so it’s hard to vie for people’s loyalties when perfecting an esport is already a full time job.
However fun should come first, and esports infrastructure second, if there is an organic demand and interest from the community. Fans will care about the competitive scene only if the core experience is fun; when that’s achieved, a wider audience will understand the complexity of the skill they’re watching.
Fans will care about the competitive scene only if the core experience is fun
Building an esports scene requires a significant investment of time, money, and resources. It may end up unsustainable for a given title, and a weak league can damage the game’s reputation.
The key to a good GaaS strategy is building a long-term, healthy relationship with your player base and treating them with respect by making the best decisions for your game. This involves listening to player feedback, and being transparent about updates and changes to the game.
Content is the most critical component of a successful GaaS game. Providing regular updates, expansions, and inclusive new content can help keep as many players as possible engaged and excited about the game.
While it's important to note industry trends and what other successful games are doing, it's also essential to focus on the unique strengths and vision of your game.
Yane An works as a creative solutions coordinator at analytical marketing partner Gamesight.