For Their Own Sake, Single Player Studios Need to Stop Chasing the Live Service Trend

From Rocksteady and BioWare to Crystal Dynamics and many others, the live service trend has proven to be a deadly trap for a number of beloved single player studios- when will the industry learn?

Posted By | On 11th, Feb. 2024

For Their Own Sake, Single Player Studios Need to Stop Chasing the Live Service Trend

Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League has been on the receiving end of what has seemed like overwhelming criticism following its launch. Though the open world looter shooter has received some reserved praise for things like its visuals and the quality of its cutscenes, nearly every other important part of the experience has been criticized, from the open world to the repetitive mission design, from the paper-thin live service offerings to the poorly implemented loot mechanics, from some of the narrative decisions it makes to the very fact that it’s designed as a live service experience.

That last one, in fact, has been a particularly strong sentiment- and it’s not an unfamiliar one by any means. More than anything, more than all of the issues that the game has launched with, the thing about Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League that has been most upsetting to a large number of players is the fact that this is a Rocksteady game. With the Batman: Arkham trilogy, Rocksteady Studios delivered three stellar, excellently-designed, perfectly authored single player experiences, setting new standards for superhero games and licensed games that most still fail to meet to this day.

To see Rocksteady itself falling so woefully low of the standards it set itself has been shocking. The developer says it plans on releasing significant content updates for plenty of time to come, with a year 1 roadmap having already been laid out. Whether or not that will have any meaningful impact on the game, its quality, and how it’s performing remains to be seen- for now, all signs point to no. And it’s fair to say that the overwhelming bulk of the blame for this failure lies with the plain and simple fact that Suicide Squad is designed, first and foremost, as an ongoing multiplayer experience that can operate as a persistent revenue stream for Warner Bros. And really, Rocksteady is far from the first once-excellent single player-focused studio to fall victim to that mentality. More than a few such studios have attempted to chase the live service trend, and with almost no exceptions, pretty much none of them have succeeded in any meaningful way.

In 2020, for instance, when it was still under Square Enix’s ownership, Crystal Dynamics came out with Marvel’s Avengers. After having made its name as a studio known for crafting excellent, linear, story-driven single player experiences, under directions from its parent company, the studio decided to take a massive superhero property that would have been ripe for a promising single player experience, and instead decided to turn it into a live service loot-driven game. The similarities between the Avengers and Suicide Squad situations are almost uncanny, honestly, and it went about as well as most of us had anticipated.

Marvel’s Avengers bombed in nearly every way possible. It was a bland, repetitive experience that offered little to no reason for players to want to keep playing it over a prolonged period of time. Other than a decent campaign, the game had very few redeeming qualities, which, unsurprisingly, led to widespread backlash and lukewarm reception (some would argue even that’s a charitable description), which in turn was reflected in poor sales and consistently low player engagement numbers. Marvel’s Avengers died a quick death a little over two years after launch, and when that happened, no one was surprised. When Crystal Dynamics confirmed later that with its next project, a new Tomb Raider game, it was going to go back to making a story-driven single player experience, once again, no one was surprised- but we were all massively revealed, to say the very least.

marvel's avengers image

Before that, we had BioWare, another beloved studio known for its genre-defining single player games that decided to chase the live service looter shooter trend by delivering what may very well be one of the worst live service looter shooters ever made (a dubious crown that there’s a shocking amount of competition for, with Suicide Squad being the most recent – and perhaps the most prominent – contender). Absolutely nothing about Anthem worked- not only did it fail at being a good BioWare game, it also failed at the things that it was trying to be. With next to no redeeming qualities (with the exception of its flying mechanics, maybe), Anthem also died an unsurprisingly quick death.

Even when BioWare insisted for a stretch that it was working on a major overhaul of the game dubbed Anthem Next, there was little to no confidence anywhere that that would ever actually materialize, or if it did, that it would reverse the game’s fortunes in any meaningful way. Of course, those plans ended up getting shelved, and BioWare has now very concretely pivoted back to being a single player-only studio, to the point where not only both of its major upcoming games are solo experiences, but it has also completely handed off all future development of its long-running MMORPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic, to an external studio. If only someone had told BioWare that chasing the live service trend would lead to nothing good, right? They’d have saved themselves the decade that they ended up wasting on and around Anthem.

Another recent example is Redfall. With the likes of Dishonored and Prey under its belt, Arkane Studios established itself as probably the best developer of immersive sims in the industry, so to see a game as shockingly bad as Redfall from a studio with that kind of pedigree was, to put it mildly, a bit of a shock. Much like Anthem, not only was Redfall not good at being the kind of experience that its developer had built its reputation on, it also failed to be good at the new thing that it was trying to be- and spectacularly so. Since it came out, there has been some talk that Arkane intends to stick it out and continue supporting the game, but nearly a year on from the game’s launch, that has amounted to a whole lot of nothing. As it stands, it’s looking like Redfall isn’t going to make any kind of a recovery.

anthem

Really, it’s been a soul-crushing pattern in the industry these last few years, where industry-leading studios known for their painstakingly hand-crafted single player experiences end up joining the sickening live service gold rush. Invariably, the end result ends up being a soulless game designed around cookie cutter, repetitive, boring content, all of which fails to capture anything that the studios once used to be so widely beloved for. And to be clear, that’s not because it’s inherently impossible to make a good live service game- from Destiny to Fortnite to The Division, we’ve had plenty of examples of games that have managed to get it right (well, for the most part). But you know what the biggest difference is with those games? They were developed by studios that were experts at delivering and maintaining ongoing multiplayer experiences, not by studios who suddenly had to do a 180-pivot and develop something they were completely unfamiliar with, all in the hopes of making more money.

Have there been any exceptions? Shockingly few, and honestly, none without caveats. Rare has managed to successful to transition from being a single player developer to a live service studio with Sea of Thieves, but as great as that game is now, it had to go through some serious growing pains for a while after launch. Maybe you could count Fallout 76? It’s certainly in a much better state now than it once was, it receives consistent support and content additions, and it has a fairly sizeable and engaged playerbase- but we all remember the absolute disaster that was its launch, and even in its current state, the game has its fair share of issues.

Studios wanting to experiment and try new things should never be discouraged, of course- if not for studios wanting to try new things, the likes of BioWare, Arkane, Rocksteady, and Crystal Dynamics wouldn’t have become the juggernauts they are in the first place. But at this point, it’s become painfully clear (it has been for a while, in fact) that this live service push doesn’t come from a place of wanting to be creatively experimental. These pivots are driven first and foremost by financial reasons- which isn’t shocking. These are all profit-driven businesses, after all. But in chasing that pot of gold, these studios end up shedding everything that they did that got them to their lofty perches in the industry, while also failing to pick up the new skills they need to deliver the sort of experience they’re now looking to make. Almost every single time, in such a scenario, there are never any winners.

redfall

Will the industry learn? We can only hope. Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League is another in a long list of prominent cautionary tales, but so far, developers and publishers haven’t taken note. We can only hope that this proves to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.


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