clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Games as a service need to find out how to keep players engaged

Loot boxes, log-in bonuses, battle passes, skins, and more dominated the conversation in 2018

World of Warcraft - adventurers attack a storm drake. Blizzard Entertainment

2018 was the year a few games consumed a majority of my time. I spent entire months in different online sandboxes: juggling new patches, learning various opaque systems and trying to keep a calendar that would let me get all of the time-limited cosmetics and rewards. This is the new normal, as the list of games as a service continues to grow with each passing quarter.

And as games as a service continue to come out and expand, the merit to the concept is clear. Titles like Rainbow Six: Siege that might have been abandoned after a poor launch came roaring back and are far better off for the additional development. Sea of Thieves is like nothing else in gaming right now, and following a launch many criticized as barren, the continual patches and events are a huge part of why it’s my personal Game of the Year. Overwatch is a constant presence in my life, with new heroes and events pulling me back in for a few games a week.

A big part of the conversation around games as a service is rewards. Rewards are what keep players coming back to the game. Rewards are usually discussed in a very tangible sense — new weapons, experience bonuses, cosmetics — and the distribution thereof. It’s worth questioning whether that’s a sustainable way to continue games as a service, or whether we need to look deeper at what can serve as a player reward.

Rainbow Six Siege - An operator prepares for a round of combat Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

Keeping the rewards train rolling

No two games as a service handle rewards the same ways. Developers use weekly events or seasons to release new content, create battle passes or seasonal events. The only thing games as a service agree on, across the board, is that stagnation is death. Like a shark, a game as service must keep moving. This will only become more true in 2019, when more games are released. After all, there are only so many hours in a day, and no title can claim a permanent piece of the pie.

Polygon spoke to Tony Flame, a game director at Treyarch, before the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Flame spoke about a mathematically designed system of in-game rewards, rolling out in-game mechanical bonuses and weapons in a drip feed best designed to satisfy players.

“It’s tough, because people want things immediately and want them now,” Flame told Polygon at Fan Expo 2018 in Toronto. “But if you get it now, they’re not special. We have to find a balance.”

It’s a constant push and pull to determine what feels good. World of Warcraft: Legion’s upgrade trees, artifacts and World Quests were largely celebrated during the expansion. Completing four of a selection of regional quests a day to get reputation and a random reward was considered a good deal across the board, and was lauded. In Battle for Azeroth, World Quests are much less popular. The system remains the same with the exception of the rewards, which are down across the boards. Now, fan feedback is that the activity is tedious, a boring grind.

It raises the question of whether that activity was always boring but considered necessary to progress, or whether rewards influence people’s enjoyment of an activity so heavily that the same mechanic can be so differently received in the space of two years. Give players nothing, and the treadmill of stick and carrot that powers so many online games becomes painfully clear. Give players everything, and they become bored. Either way, there’s a smorgasbord of competitors waiting to charm players who become disillusioned with their current ongoing game of choice.

World of Warcraft - a human paladin fights a demon in Suramar.
What was fun in Legion is rejected in Battle for Azeroth because of rewards.
Blizzard Entertainment

Content quality versus quantity

Rewards are such an important part of the conversation because content alone is no longer king. Part of the reason World of Warcraft reigned as king for so long is that no MMORPG could step to it; World of Warcraft had an impossibly large head start. Why play Warhammer Online or Wildstar when there's an MMO right there that you’ve already sunk time into, with years more content under its belt?

Online games are moving away from the World of Warcraft model, and Battle for Azeroth is proving that the game’s vast amount of content can be a liability as well as a benefit. There’s content, sure, but it’s all piecemeal, carefully quarantined into separate expansions. New expansions invalidate old quests. Yes, there’s 14 years of content there, but players have to ask themselves what they get out of that content. There are old armor sets and classy mounts, but ultimately, everything overwhelmingly favors the new continents of Zandalar and Kul Tiras.

Games like Fortnite and League of Legends have changed this up. Fortnite’s most popular mode is played on one map, but it’s one that is always changing. League of Legends takes place on one map as well, and it’s the champions and details that change. The map might sprout new helpful plants, or the dragons might evolve to provide different bonuses, but the meat of the game comes from the champions and their kit interactions, playing out endlessly over 40-minute bouts.

One of the titles that has changed the way I look at rewards and online gaming the most is Sea of Thieves, a title that was widely criticized at launch for a lack of content. While the developers have been rounding out the game from launch, there are no rewards in the traditional sense beyond cosmetics. Even doubloons, the end-game currency, simply unlock cosmetics and allows you to upgrade your reputations for ... more cosmetics.

Despite the lack of experience boosters, new weapon types or ability upgrades, Sea of Thieves has offered rewards in the ability to generate moments. Some of the ones I remember most fondly include playing a shanty with six friends, or chasing down a sloop and howling at them over the speaking horn.

That is the problem that Games as a Service must solve — it’s not items or gear score that captivate players in 2018, but the ability to make memories. By creating tools that enable that, like the ability to make a collaborative shanty or squad up in Fortnite’s ever-changing battleground. There’s no way to predict and develop that though; these moments are like capturing lightning in a bottle.

Still, as we move away from the MMORPG and MOBA model that dominated previous years, it becomes clear that it takes more than gear or big, shiny numbers to hook players in such a competitive marketplace, no matter how satisfying it is to acquire said gear or said numbers. Developers need the ability to make a game that not only feels like home, but also rewards players just for showing up and engaging in the simple act of play.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon