MMORPGs introduced the concept of games as a service almost two decades ago. It was and remains a straight-forward idea: pay $x/month, and we’ll run the servers that enable the online game to function as well as put some programmers and artists and designers to keep the game fresh by updating content in the game world. Subscribing to the game allows players to keep doing new things in a familiar environment, and allows the developer to reuse and expand on a proven engine and gameplay mechanics; win-win for everybody.
Sadly, that business model is all but dead. In part because the pricing model is so transparent, in part to the general devaluation of software along with increased production costs for massive games, and in part to market saturation and gamer fatigue, MMOs aren’t selling as full $60 games up front and subscriber bases have drastically fallen. There are now many more free-to-play online RPGs, using layers of monetization obfuscation to entice players to spend without feeling like they’re spending. Perhaps they are a necessary evil for developers to make enough money to cover the costs of development, but I’m still sad that the modern formula for success hinges around psychological shorthands for player addiction and engagement over enjoyable, standalone gameplay.
There is, however, a business model for games that still look to provide medium- to long-term updates and support, but only look to charge the full amount up front. Normally this is not a sustainable model of development; as predicted, both Microsoft and Sony are now charging a monthly subscription just to keep their multiplayer servers up and running, even if there are added tangental benefits (e.g., free games). Free updates and balance patches are expected for popular multiplayer games, though some series have made packaging yearly upgrades as full games into its own meme. Some other games take this path out of the necessity of building a fan base; NBA Live 2014 has become a service, with colossal patches post-release to make up for massive launch deficiencies.
Then there’s Blizzard.
Their massive success and quest for gameplay balance really has given their work a longevity that few other developers can hope to match. Their (presumably) final patch for Diablo 2 landed in late 2011 – 11 years after the Diablo 2 was first sold. Diablo 3, which was released almost 2 years ago, was itself received a steady stream of patches and updates, up to the 2.0 version released this past month when much of the item and loot systems have been overhauled, the leveling systems streamlined, and many of the skills tweaked and refined. It looks mostly the same and has many of the same core mechanics, but a shift in the systems contribute to a different and substantially better overall experience.
In Diablo’s case though, it was a combination of problematic gameplay elements, e.g., the real money Auction House, the need to sell the upcoming Reaper of Souls expansion, and the more holistic goal of preserving the quality associated with the Blizzard and Diablo brands. To those ends, I do admire the freedom and introspection of the Diablo team; they tried out some new ideas, had it go badly, but publicly admitted to the problems and followed through by continuously iterating on a running product and taking the monumental effort to migrate players to the new framework.
In trying to get people interested in Diablo again, taking the free service model may do just enough.