After what looked like a wildly successful launch a few months ago, EA and Respawn’s Apex Legends has been struggling. Twitch viewership has plunged more than 80 percent from the game’s highs, and other metrics, like post volume on Apex subreddits and views for Apex-related YouTube videos, have also declined sharply. It seems like many of the 50 million users who tried Respawn’s battle royale are no longer playing regularly.
This is remarkable, because Apex Legends has a Metascore of 89 and is almost universally considered to be a very good game.
When EA canceled Visceral Games’ in-progress Star Wars title and disbanded the studio in 2017, some commentators argued that AAA single-player titles were no longer an economically viable business in the current marketplace, and that the future of gaming was in live services, which can provide constant revenue from players over an extended period of time.
I argued at the time that there was still a market for single-player games, but that they need to be really good to succeed in an increasingly competitive marketplace. There is no room for mediocrity in story-based games anymore. If you want to sell games, you better make something excellent.
At the same time, major games like Fallout 76 and Anthem, which were expected to bring top-tier game studios like Bethesda and BioWare into the live service market, had a much rougher time. The key lesson of 2018 was that the challenges faced by AAA single-player games in the current market also impact live-service games.
In fact, the market is likely more challenging for new live-service games like Anthem and even the upcoming Borderlands 3 than it is for single-player titles, because new online games compete directly with existing ones such Fortnite and The Division 2. There’s always a market for good single-player games, but the publishers of very good live services can still fail if they can’t convince people to quit an established title and play their game instead.
Winner takes all
2018 was a fantastic year for games for a number of reasons, but the year’s biggest story was Fortnite, at least from a business perspective. Epic’s battle royale took in an estimated $2.4 billion, revenue that likely far surpassed that of established titles like League of Legends and Overwatch.
In part, those numbers were achieved by Fortnite’s ability to find new audiences that existing games weren’t reaching. Fortnite attracts a younger demographic than other “core” games, and it’s playable on PC, console, and on mobile, while League is PC-only, and Overwatch and Apex are only available on PC or console.
But a lot of Fortnite’s success came at the expense of other games. While Epic was having a banner year, things were a lot leaner elsewhere.
After Destiny 2’s rough launch in 2017, Bungie released the Forsaken expansion in September 2018 to widespread accolades. But despite having more content and activities than at any point in the history of the franchise, Destiny 2 struggled to retain players, leading, at least partially, to developer Bungie’s split from publisher Activision.
Although Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 was the long-running franchise’s best-reviewed game in several years, its sales missed Activision’s expectations, and the company’s stock plunged after the game’s launch. Battlefield 5, meanwhile, sold a million fewer copies than publisher EA expected. Both EA and Activision have since laid off workers.
Struggles elsewhere in the industry can’t be entirely attributed to Fortnite. Red Dead Redemption 2’s monster sales likely cut into other console titles during the holiday shopping season, and on a quarterly earnings call, EA CEO Andrew Wilson blamed Battlefield 5’s sales miss on poor marketing and a decision to delay the game. This isn’t a direct cause-and-effect situation; it’s more about the general environment into which these games get released. Right now, that environment is cutthroat.
But Epic has developed a brutally efficient system for holding onto Fortnite players: the Battle Pass. Every 10 weeks, Epic releases a new $10 package of content with a new set of challenges and a new set of rewards. Unlocking all the goodies takes between 75 and 150 hours of play, and if you don’t have enough time to earn everything, you can pay to unlock the tiers. If you don’t complete the pass by either grinding it out or swiping your credit card, most of content on the pass expires and you can no longer earn the loot you didn’t get.
To finish the pass, players may have to dedicate at least an hour per day to the game. That means most players do not have enough time to complete their Fortnite Battle Pass and also engage meaningfully with another live-service title.
Epic demonstrated just how strong the draw of its Battle Pass content was in February 2019. Apex Legends had just launched to widespread acclaim and was topping the Twitch charts in stream viewers, aided by sponsorship deals in which EA paid top streamers to play the game. Then Epic announced that it would give players its Season 8 pass for free if they completed a set of “overtime challenges.”
Fortnite’s new Battle Pass season began with a lineup of cool skins, while Apex launched its own Battle Pass with a set of disappointing rewards. Many players who were engaging with Apex went back to Fortnite, and Apex has been struggling ever since.
Players are also complaining that Respawn is not releasing content for Apex at a pace that matches Fortnite’s. In response to criticism of the game’s lack of new content, the Respawn team said that it intends to continue following its “seasonal release cadence,” and will not be releasing patches more often.
Meanwhile, Epic continues to patch Fortnite regularly, shaking up its weapons balance, adding new weapons or vehicles, running events like its Avengers: Endgame tie-in, and making major changes to its game map. Respawn’s strategy may seem sound, and may help the development team avoid burnout and crunch, but every patch Epic releases is a reason for players to go back to Fortnite to check out what’s new.
Who can compete?
Every publisher would love to have a live-service game with an enthusiastic, devoted base of players who will spend a bunch of money on skins and other cosmetics over a period of years.
But because of the time investment and commitment that live services require from players, these games are more or less mutually exclusive. Maybe some players who are into Fortnite will also play a game like Overwatch or League casually, but if you’re engaged with the Battle Pass, you’ve got limited time left to devote to other games.
A new online game needs to be very good if it even wants a shot at survival. But even good games have to overcome the high levels of investment — both in time cultivating a skill set and, often, in money invested in cosmetics or extra characters — that players have sunk into the existing games. It’s a much different rhythm from single-player titles, which people expect to play for a limited amount of time before moving onto the next story-based experience.
If a live-service game hopes to succeed in this crowded and extremely competitive marketplace, its developer needs to know who its audience is. Either it has to find and engage players who aren’t currently playing another live-service game, or it has to wrest an audience away from an existing title. Apex is really good, but without cool rewards for playing and a steady flow of new content, Respawn is having trouble getting people to play their game instead of Fortnite, which offers varied skins in its Battle Pass and weekly content drops. What can games like Apex do to woo those players away from Fortnite? That’s the question that no one has a good answer to, although Respawn says it has heard player complaints about the season 1 Battle Pass and appears to be recalibrating appropriately.
And when a game isn’t really good, the results are dire. Six months after release, only the most dedicated players remain engaged with Fallout 76, organizing their own role-playing activities to make up for the game’s lack of content. The large, engaged community that Bethesda hoped would buy $20 Santa Claus costumes never seemed to materialize. Maybe battle royale will help?
BioWare’s long-anticipated but poorly reviewed multiplayer loot shooter Anthem was being sold at a discount less than two weeks after its launch. The studio was forced to announce that it remained committed to the game after key development personnel tweeted that they were working on Dragon Age 4 instead of future Anthem content. In early April, Kotaku published an embarrassing expose about what had gone wrong during the game’s development, and by May, an angry Reddit post declaring the game to be dead garnered over 8,000 upvotes.
It seems easy to think of these games as mediocre experiences that flopped, but back in 2014, the original Destiny launched in a similarly incomplete state, offering only a short, incoherent campaign and sparse patrol zones, and received similarly poor reviews. One of the most rewarding endgame activities at launch was firing blindly into a hole in the ground.
But Bungie had earned a lot of goodwill as the developer of the beloved Halo games, and Destiny’s mechanics and gunplay were solid. So players hung around to see the team build out and expand the game into something worthwhile. The difference is that in 2014, there was nothing else quite like Destiny on consoles, and there were few other popular games encouraging players to spend time in them daily to earn persistent rewards.
These days, new loot-based games like Anthem are competing with a mature Destiny 2, as well as with Fortnite and Apex and Overwatch and The Division 2. Game makers can no longer afford to launch titles in a flawed or incomplete state. They can no longer afford to make players wait months between major content drops. Players don’t have patience anymore, because there are too many other things to do. New games have to hit the ground running, or they will hit the ground with a splat.
Live service games are riskier than single-player titles
Because live services make significant demands on players’ time for months or even years, the choice to play one is a choice, for most players, not to play any others. Playing God of War doesn’t preclude you from also playing Spider-Man, because you can finish those games and then move on to the next thing. They’re designed to be finite experiences — stories that end — rather than hobbies unto themselves that can consume as much time and money as players can pour into them.
Players no longer have time for mediocre single-player games, but they really don’t have time for even very good live-service games unless they give up the ones they’re already playing. Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War were so successful in 2018 at least partially because they could coexist with Fortnite. Fallout 76, Anthem, and Apex Legends are struggling because they have to compete with it.
If you make a live service that’s almost as good as Fortnite, you can’t get Fortnite players, because they’re still playing Fortnite. Single-player games may be a risk in the marketplace, but there is a path to success for them. In live services, you have to kill the king if you want to be the king (or find an entirely new kingdom). Eventually, someone will take the crown and the billions of dollars in revenue that come with it, and that’s why everybody is chasing it.
League of Legends overshadowed World of Warcraft, both in terms of players and cultural impact, and now Fortnite seems to be doing the same to League, particularly among younger audiences. But those victors climbed over the carcasses of dozens of failed pretenders on their way to the top. And they certainly keep players from other online games now.
There is no easy money in video games, and there hasn’t been for years. But the market can support more AAA single-player games than we’re currently seeing, and it can’t support as many online games as we’re getting. There’s also the tension that lies between creating a game that requires constant updates to thrive and keep its audience, and figuring out how to keep the people making it from entering into a state of near-perpetual crunch.
Unfortunately, we may see more failed games and layoffs before publishers and developers figure that out.