Live service games are all the rage right now, and for good reason: they not only extend the life of an IP over time while devs work on big new sequels, but they make tons of cashflow via microtransactions. Companies like EA and Activision-Blizzard make billions every year from live games.
But making it big with live games takes a certain kind of finesse and know-how. It's all about monetizing the cyclic nature of engagement and in order to rake in tons of cash via recurring earnings, companies need to understand how to not only start the engagement wheel but keep it going with consistent maintenance.
In my "Why Fallout 76 may never be the game it should be" featured article, I went into great depth on how live service games work, and how Fallout 76 simply fails to achieve the right sequencing. Here's an example of the linear, yet cyclic formula used for live games:
Full game sales - These are both the point of entry to the live service game and a means of making guaranteed sales revenue. We see this in big games from EA, Ubisoft, Take-Two, etc. But once the game is bought, the real work begins. Fallout 76 may be failing in this regard due to the bad press, but we'll never know until figures are released.
Engagement - This is the most important part of any live game. How you engage your playerbase determines if your game lives or dies (or shambles along). Devs and live service teams must continually adapt to many different things, including shaping their worlds around player sentiments, balancing with tweaks and fixes, and rolling out new content that can be consumed. Right now Fallout 76's biggest problem is that players aren't engaged simply because the core experience isn't enjoyable. So Bethesda must adapt and change the core to make it more fun before engagement rolls in--then and only then will it see expanded play.
Monetization - Monetization is extremely important, but it's reliant upon engagement. You can't properly monetize unless you engage. This is the bread and butter for any big studio or games-maker these days: EA, Activision, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Take-Two, Square Enix, even Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo rely on monetizing engagement. But again, most gamers aren't going to spend money on optional cosmetic microtransactions if the core game isn't fun. If it's not fun, then they're not engaged and will quit and play something else, and once they do Fallout 76's monetization potential shrinks a little bit.
This is something Bethesda doesn't know how to do.
Fallout 76's design model is a clear example of putting the cart before the horse in this respect. Despite making all the right noises and planning future content, the game's engagement strategy is in upheaval for one simple reason: it's fun isn't accessible to everyone. Before a game can generate engagement it has to be fun, rewarding, and enjoyable to a degree that pushes interaction with other online players.
Fallout 76's weird merger of singleplayer elements with live-only multiplayer sentiments inhibits this significantly. Fallout games were built as offline, intimate, player-focused affairs and don't translate well to engagement-driven online shoot-and-loot action games.
But ultimately it's Bethesda's own design flaws that prevent Fallout 76 being any fun.
Rather than being an RPG interspersed with action elements and creative storytelling, as the previous Fallout games were, Fallout 76 is a frustratingly tedious management simulator. The game is entirely predicated on Fallout 4's survival mode which strips freedoms from the player in a bid to make things more challenging--but this was entirely optional in Fallout 4.
In Fallout 76 you're constantly having to deal with annoyances and manage things. Being overencumbered is massively frustrating, and you constantly need to eat and drink to avoid negative affects. The world feels hostile and puts you anywhere but the center of the experience; you feel like an interloper, someone who's simply not welcome on its irradiated surface.
Weapons and armor pieces break and need to be maintained. Crafting went from a nice little add-on to something that's just in the way and tiresome, especially given how skewed the weights are for all the loot you pick up. In Fallout 76 you're constantly scavenging everything around you, picking up tons of junk and gear to be salvaged into valuable crafting materials. But all of this stuff adds up so, so fast and just weighs you down, making the game feel rather tedious. A lot of the time I pass up junk now because I know it's just a catch 22: I need the stuff, but I don't want to waste time lugging it around, scrapping it, and generally dealing with it.
Fallout 76's weight problem isn't just material. It's also mental. It carries some serious baggage and that's part of its biggest problem.
This would be all well and good if it wasn't so damn badly implemented, if it didn't constantly impede your progress and make you always manage your gear, scrap your junk, and visit places just for the sake of dumping off your extra stuff. The gameplay loop is artificially designed to keep players playing as long as possible, but it's missing that critical point that every service game needs: fun.
Fun is the fuel for engagement. Games have to be fun in some way in order for people to keep playing them. Or else what's the point, right? With Fallout 76, Bethesda forgot to make the game fun and simply created something they wanted to make versus something that adheres to the logical path of live games (and video games in general).
Yes, live games need a "hook" or a "loop" to keep players invested. That usually manifests with gear or RPG progression level ups. Fallout 76 has these components but if nearly every aspect of the game feels like boring busy work then players simply won't play it.
And avoidance spells doom for any live game.
So rather than following the proper sequence, rather than taking each linear step at at time, Bethesda decided to monetize a game before its playerbase was properly engaged. Essentially the studio went for the cash grab way before it was clear that anyone would actually want to continue playing the game, let alone pay for extra content.
Here's more insight on the live service sequencing:
"It's absolutely imperative that developers consistently hit and maintain all three of these major pillars to continue the cycle of live gaming. Think of them as spokes in a wheel: if one spoke fails, the wheel gets shaky and doesn't turn as fast. If two fail and break then the wheel can simply stop turning.
"And all three of these--full game sales, engagement, and monetization--are all intimately connected in a way that's cyclic, mutualistic, but also linear. How and if each step progresses is reliant upon the step that precedes it.
"Full game sales are the gateway, engagement is the core, and monetization is the main driving force that funds new content and then feeds back into full game sales. The more fun and engaging the content is, the more gamers will actually play (engagement) and possibly even pay for in-game items (monetization), and positive press and organic word of mouth will fuel more full game sales."
Fallout 76's monetization was available at launch. This was a mistake. This game shouldn't have had any sort of microtransactions for months after launch simply so players could be engaged first and monetized second. Bethesda could've gotten away with launch mTX if the game was actually fun and had certain depth mechanics fans know and love, but now it's having to play catch-up on so many different fronts.
Instead of maintaining, Bethesda is having to go back and fix what should've been there from the start. Instead of planning for the future, it's having to spend more effort on fixing the present. As such, the studio has disrupted the critical timeline of service games, which requires developers focusing on both the past, present and future at the same time.
What's even more weird is how Fallout 76 is monetized.
The game has optional cosmetic microtransactions that are sold in the Atomic Shop, a digital storefront that peddles in-game goods. These range from weapon skins, outfits, icons, poses, and even decorations for your home. These items are purchased with a currency called Atoms, which can be earned slowly in-game by completing various challenges or bought with real money.
Now it's not necessarily strange that Fallout 76 has cosmetic monetization. What's strange is that Bethesda chose this route to avoid the dreaded lootbox-style controversies that accompany live games who sell game-affecting items for real money. This move would've actually matched Fallout 76's current state a lot better and provided more monetization cash upfront, but it'd be a PR nightmare (it's not like Fallout 76 isn't already a PR nightmare, though).
This move is confusing because players typically buy optional microtransactions to support the dev team. But microtransactions only work when a playerbase is optimally engaged with fun and rewarding content loops. This is extra true for Fallout 76's cosmetic monetization, simply because you can find all the gear sold in the Atomic Shop within the game itself. So who actually spends money on digital goods is doing it for one reason: they like the game and want to support the developers.
But they have to like the game first. They (and I mean they as in a mass-market audience) have to have fun in the game before they'll spend even more money on it. This is the critical step Bethesda is missing and it's unraveling Fallout 76's service plan.
As it stands, Fallout 76 needs a tremendous amount of work before it'll become a money-making live game.
The game was simply shipped too soon and needed many, many more phases of player testing before it came out. But because it's so far behind I'm worried that Fallout 76 may never become the game it should be, that interesting, dynamic and online-driven experience that expertly blends the best of singleplayer and multiplayer content with engaging NPCs and an ever-evolving world.
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