The dawn of the 8th generation of consoles brought with it new and innovative ideas and games. The most exciting yet divisive of these ideas was the Live Service model. Also known as Games as a Service, this model did away with the traditional singular release of a game, instead moving towards a more organic lifespan over the course of years.
While MMOs like World of Warcraft popularized this concept back in the mid to late 2000s, the 8th generation of consoles allowed for this model to be a more achievable feat for developers. Games such as Destiny, Rainbow Six Siege or Fortnite have been going strong for years, constantly receiving new content, updates, events and expansions that keep these games fresh and exciting. This model wasn’t just an innovative new frontier for games but also a profitable one.
So profitable in fact, it started a trend. Regardless of if the title needed to be or not, Live Service games were coming out of the woodwork towards the end of the 2010s. Games like Warframe, Fallout 76, Anthem, Genshin Impact, The Division, Overwatch, Apex Legends, Star Wars Battlefront, Outriders and more were constantly trying to capture that lightning in a bottle. One of those titles is the subject of this piece, Square Enix’s ill fated Avengers game.
Avengers: Some Assembly Required
On paper, a big budget Avengers title helmed by Tomb Raider vets Crystal Dynamics should be a home run. A typical single player release could have resulted in said home run but that was not the direction that Square Enix and/or Crystal Dynamics decided to take. Instead, Marvel’s Avengers would look to capitalize on the Live Service model. The result was a mixed bag. The similarities between Destiny and Marvel’s Avengers are staggering. Everything from the gear system to the hubs and vendors to the UI screams Destiny.
While Destiny is a great foundation to start with, it’s clear Avengers was using it more as a template with a Marvel paint job. While there’s a myriad of reasons why Avengers failed, the end result was the same. Crystal Dynamics plans on ending active development and the game is to be delisted from digital storefronts on September 30th, 2023. Regardless of the quality of the product or the enjoyment from its fan base, it was clear Marvel’s Avengers was at odds with its identity and the failure to embrace something unique was partially responsible for its downfall.
Avengers was not the first game to chase trends and fail and it certainly won’t be the last. Law Breakers tried and failed to muscle in on Overwatch’s territory. Paragon looked to ape some of DOTA or League of Legends popularity. No game is guaranteed to succeed, that goes double for Live Service games. Sometimes they’re able to recover and bounce back from less than stellar launches. Fallout 76 proves that anything is possible. More often than not, Live Service games that fail right out the gate all end the same. Anthem, Crucible, Babylon’s Fall, Radical Heights, Evolve, Battleborn. All defunct.
That’s the risk any game runs when being greenlit but Live Service games are especially volatile. Succeed and be profitable for years, fail and be erased from existence, never to be played again. For Square Enix, the downfall of Avengers must have been a hard pill to swallow both economically and reputation-wise. It must sting extra badly when directly compared to another Square Enix Marvel release no less than a year later.
I am Groot!
The Guardians of the Galaxy game was one of the surprise hits of 2021. Developed by Eidos Montreal of Deus Ex fame, Guardians is a narrative focused, character driven, linear, action adventure game. What would have been a drop in the bucket a decade ago stood out in a sea of Live Service and open world games. Upon its reveal, many were concerned that the Guardians would suffer a similar fate to Avengers. It certainly could have.
One could envision a Live Service game structured similar to Destiny. One where the Guardians travel the galaxy fighting enemies, collecting loot, upgrading gear and participating in raids. There’s a bevy of Marvel characters to choose from that could’ve been drip fed to the player base in a similar fashion to Avengers. Each character could have their own playstyle and skins to buy from the in-game shop. Considering Square Enix thought the Live Service model would somehow fit an Avengers game, it’s not too far-fetched to assume they’d copy and paste the same mechanics and systems into another one of their Marvel projects.
Whether it was the writing on the wall in mid development of Avengers or Eidos Montreal sticking to their guns, the end result was far and away an improvement on the former. Guardians showcased exactly how most thought the Avengers game would play, making the Live Service angle look much worse by comparison. The stark contrast between Marvel’s Avengers and Guardians of The Galaxy reignited the debate on Live Service games and their effect on the games industry as a whole.
Thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel is one of the most popular and well known brands on the planet in the past decade. The success of the MCU has directly translated to the video game realm. Insomniac’s Spiderman was heralded as one of the best superhero games ever made. Marvel Ultimate Alliance made a triumphant return with its 3rd entry, The Black Order, and surpassed over 1 million units sold. Projects like Spiderman 2, Black Panther, Captain America and Wolverine titles are being greenlit at a rapid pace.
Needless to say, if it has Marvel on it, it’s going to be popular. Avengers failed in spite of that popularity which shifts the blame directly to the game itself. The elephant in the room that needs to be addressed is the style of each of the previously mentioned games as compared to Avengers. There’s little doubt that if Marvel’s Avengers released as a traditional Single Player brawler with online co-op that it would’ve met a much different fate. Avengers is a great example of the Live Service model being forced on a game when it didn’t need to be.
Square Peg Meet Round Hole
There are plenty of examples of this happening across the industry. Wolfenstein: Youngblood, Fallout 76, Battlefield 2042, Gears 5, Ghost Recon Breakpoint. In many circumstances, these titles would’ve been better experiences as traditional releases. With the Live Service model being a driving force behind the development of these games, it causes two issues.
Issue number one is their actual releases. A common thread with most Live Service games is a botched launch. Whether it’s lack of content, bugs, glitches or server issues, more times than not a Live Service game starts off on the wrong foot. Luckily, many of these launches are able to course-correct just enough to stave off any drop in player count. Regardless, releasing any game in this state is a big problem that directly stems from the Live Service model. Issue one is directly related to issue number two, a constant online connection.
Many Live Service games are online only experiences even when it makes little sense to be that way. Because of this, these titles are being patched and updated constantly. While this is par for the course for titles meant to last years, this can be used as a crutch. Instead of releasing a competent title first and updating it down the road, games are pushed out to meet arbitrary deadlines regardless of if they’re finished or not. Despite his genius, Miyamoto’s quote about a rushed game being bad forever doesn’t ring as true now as it did back then. Why delay a game when it can be fixed later?
The obvious problem with this is that certain titles never recover. Evolve is a great example. Promising to be the second coming of Left 4 Dead, Evolve was one of the most hyped games of 2015. What launched, while a fun game in bursts, lacked the meaningful content to facilitate the replayability audiences were looking for. The kicker was that most of that content was locked behind a shop touting ridiculous prices. The title floundered for a few years, then attempted a Free To Play version before quietly dying a sad death.
This snowballs into an even larger problem, that being completely dead games. While the list of failed games over the years is lengthy, the vast majority are still available to play in one capacity or another. The same can’t be said for most Live Service titles. While not as large comparatively, the graveyard of Live Service games hits much harder especially when it comes to game preservation. Single Player titles stumble on the same hurdles as Live Service games but still exist offline. Titles like Cyberpunk 2077 or No Man’s Sky were able to survive their rough launches and grow into competent, sometimes fantastic games.
But Live Service games don’t usually have that luxury simply because they exist entirely online. Games like Battleborn, the previously mentioned Evolve and soon Marvel’s Avengers are lost to time, never to be played again. The list grows as this article is being written as games like Back 4 Blood, Rumbleverse and CrossfireX are all being taken offline within the next few months. Even games that were successful like Overwatch have been delisted and are unplayable forever. Regardless of the quality or success of the title, the Live Service model has a lifespan and it’s usually short.
The Good, The Bad and Square Enix
The debate between online and offline games will go on forever. The majority of the argument is subjective and personal. For better or for worse, the Live Service genre has had the most impact on gaming in recent memory. The popularity and innovation behind games like Destiny, Fortnite and Warframe is truly special and is unique to gaming. Whole worlds that constantly evolve and change over years of storytelling, growth and development is something that sets gaming apart from other mediums.
At this point in the genre’s lifespan, the negatives are outweighing the positives. Even so, that doesn’t mean Live Service games should fall by the wayside. The volatility of the genre should call for more care to be taken for each release, something Square Enix hasn’t quite learned yet. Platinum Games’ Babylon’s Fall as well as Final Fantasy VII‘s Battle Royale spinoff The First Soldier have met the same fate as Marvel’s Avengers will meet in September. Outriders, one of the more successful Live Service ventures from Square Enix, failed to break even for years until it’s massive Worldslayer expansion. And despite it’s recent success, even Final Fantasy XVI was so bad at launch, it had to be entirely scrapped and relaunched in order to salvage it.
The Live Service genre is like playing the lottery for publishers. In most instances, the risks outweigh the rewards. To be truly successful in the Live Service genre, it takes more than forcing a gameplay style or Intellectual Property into a model that doesn’t mesh. When it clicks, it can produce some of the most innovative titles of the last decade. But it has missed far more often than it hasn’t, leading to audience fatigue and apathy towards any new title that comes out. Just look at the outcry about Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League’s use of a battle pass system.
The public perception of Live Service games has turned sour over the years after gamers have been subjected to release after release that are all affected by the same issues. Marvel’s Avengers was a perfect storm of all of the issues that plague this model. It tried to profit off of brand name recognition. The game was forced into the model where it didn’t belong. The launch was embarrassing with online functionality being non-existence for weeks. Despite that, it was riddled with overpriced cosmetics. All of these issues made it abundantly inferior to other titles who shared its genre.
Companies like Ubisoft, EA and especially Square Enix as of late seem to be wading through the experimental waters of this model. They seem willing to pump out titles like Knockout City, Riders Republic or Babylon’s Fall with the pursuit of profit over gameplay and enjoyment. As long as the model is successful for a handful of titles, there will always be games that try to snag a piece of that pie. Sometimes that leads to mild success. But more often than not, gamers are left to wonder what could’ve been of a game with potential that was forced down a path it didn’t belong on.