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The Live-Service Game Bubble Looks Ready To Burst

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Amid a host of live-service games announcing their shutdowns, it's starting to feel like there's no safe middle ground between Fortnite and foreclosed.

Fortnite is several weeks into the first season of its fourth chapter. In real time, it's been going strong since the summer of 2017, and though Epic doesn't share player counts, by any available metric it seems to still be doing incredibly well. But in the live-service world, Fortnite's success feels increasingly rare. While there do exist other major successes in the pocket of the games industry where studios operate one game for years on end, many others are closing their proverbial doors for good, which is extremely scary both for players worried about gaming history and future developers concerned with the trends they may be tasked with chasing. Can live-service games survive modest successes, or must they all be as massive as Fortnite to make it?

This is not an investigative feature that can bring closure to some of these questions, I admit. Rather, I'm merely mourning the loss of yet more games that will soon be lost to time, including another of my all-time favorites. When Velan Studios took to social media to alert players that its PvP dodgeball game, Knockout City (KOC), would be closing forever in June, it genuinely ruined my night.

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Roughly one year after breaking away from EA to self-publish the game and reimagine its economy for a free-to-play world, it seems KOC's successes were not numerous enough to keep the game going. Kinda Funny's Blessing Adeoye Jr. put it best:

What actually are we doing? According to Velan, more than 12 million players jumped into Knockout City in its two years on the market. While that includes months in Xbox Game Pass and a year as a free-to-play game, it boggles the mind to think that even a fraction of those players who were buying into the game's Brawl Pass and optional cosmetics couldn't keep the game going. Most games would love to boast player counts of this sort, so for Knockout City, and games like it, to sink despite 12 million players giving it at least a try suggests development teams either have unrealistic expectations to meet or the in-game content for sale wasn't eye-catching enough.

Knockout City isn't the only one, either. In January alone, we saw the teams behind last fall's brawler-royale Rumbleverse, Apex Legends Mobile, CrossfireX, and even Marvel's Avengers announce closures that each feel premature when compared to their original visions. If Marvel can't survive, maybe there are deeper issues in play here.

Other high-profile shutdowns in recent years include EA's intended Destiny killer Anthem, ahead-of-its-time co-op shooter Evolve, and what I'd argue is Harmonix's best music game in an illustrious catalog, Fuser. No doubt it can be a good thing when a game comes to an end. Not every game needs to live on forever. But the problem is these games and many others are intended to, but due to what looks like an unstable market, far too many fail, even when they've found a passionate fanbase.

It's hard to quantify how costly and dangerous this can be for video game studios. We've seen some live-service games close only for their studios to follow, like when Motiga's MOBA Gigantic failed to survive a rough launch and the studio was soon shuttered by publisher Perfect World. But even in the best case of a game closing, where the developers' jobs are safe, the disappearance of these games is a devastating blow to game preservation. For many games, living beyond their server closures will be limited to YouTube videos and firsthand accounts from players who got to experience them.

We might even live in a post-Fortnite world someday, but it would seem to come on Epic's terms, not the competitiveness of the live-service market. So few can sit atop that mountain, but for Fortnite, Warzone, Rocket League, and a handful of others, it seems comparatively cozy. Again, I'm sadly without answers to these economic problems, and I come here only to lament the feeling that one of my favorite games (Fortnite) is indirectly and partly responsible for the closure of another (Knockout City).

Were Knockout City's goals too lofty, or is the live-service world just not sustainable for most who enter it?
Were Knockout City's goals too lofty, or is the live-service world just not sustainable for most who enter it?

Epic's battle royale has defined the live-service world for over half a decade, and it seems as though many other publishers are unable to predict how large of an audience they will be able to retain or make plans to sustain a game at those levels. They want to be the next Fortnite, but there's not enough room at the top. Each of these games is built on an economy that relentlessly vies for not just your money, but your time, too.

There must be at least some space to survive between industry-defining hits and games hemorrhaging money. From the outside, games like Sea of Thieves, Genshin Impact, Rainbow Six Siege, Warframe, and more seem to have built up communities that can keep them going strong. And yet, it feels like so many more come and go even with fans of their own tearfully seeing them off.

For there to be a way forward, game makers must be able to reliably predict the size and habits of its fanbase, and then pivot when that base expands or shrinks. Is this an unrealistic level of maneuverability in a volatile industry? Must it be that a live-service game dominates its genre, if not its industry, or else it has a shelf life of a few months or years before being effectively wiped from video game history? Where do we go from here? I don't know, and it's scary to consider that maybe no one else knows either.

Mark Delaney on Google+


Mark Delaney

Mark is an editor at GameSpot. He writes reviews, guides, and other articles, and focuses largely on the horror and sports genres in video games, TV, and movies.



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