Right on cue, the internet is ablaze with gamers decrying how franchises are ruined for the sake of milking consumers. Then the responses and justifications in return – game development at the AAA scale is an extremely expensive endeavour, marketing even more so, and continuing to produce content needs a steady revenue stream rather than one-off purchases.
And then it flops. Publishers put the blame for most of their decisions on developers, gamers follow suit, and another storied or once-promising studio gets a wave of lay-offs, or is even put in the dirt.
But what if this cycle could be short-circuited?
Sure, subscription models haven’t been seen in mainstream gaming for a very long time, but they remove a great deal of the issues for both sides. Ongoing subscriptions provide a relatively reliable stream of income. They cut out the perverse incentive that drives the creation of addictive gameplay loops, and their upfront nature make it clearer if there’s an attempt to pull a fast one on consumers – an outright price hike is far more visible than a slow creep of free content being watered down or monetised content being bulked up, or of paid material slowly becoming necessary.
The MMOs that preceded today’s live-service titles were often subscription-funded for the early years of the genre, but as they exploded in popularity they benefitted from the free-to-play model lowering the bar of entry and introducing swathes of new players. Some outliers remain (in particular, the giants World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV), with content-gated free trials that segue into subscriptions, though just how generous they are with their free offerings varies.
A more interesting example might instead be the convergent evolution seen in Bungie’s Destiny 2. Its season passes started off as just another set of unlockable items, currencies, and cosmetics tied to a repeatable gameplay activity, but over time they began to have increasing importance in the game. By the time 2022’s expansion The Witch Queen came about, they were practically compulsory; the storytelling that led up to the DLC’s campaign was all done in the most recent seasons and had unfolded over the course of seasonal activities, while in contrast the previous expansion’s plot had almost no bearing on it. If you wanted to know what was happening here-and-now in Bungie’s sprawling looter-shooter, you needed to buy the pass every single season.
Which, especially when the free-to-play portion of the game was so more barebones than many MMO free tirals, sounds remarkably like... well, a subscription.
None of this is to say that a huge wave of other games are choosing this route, and it's certainly not to say that they should be. Destiny 2 at its core is still a free-to-play game with microtransactions, and all the criticisms raised at the top of this article have been levelled at its own cosmetic store and grind, as well as the "sunsetting" of seasonal content that reaches its yearly expiry date. The ongoing-story seasonal system has been picked up by other titles – most notably Sea of Thieves – that don’t ask for a constant fee. Games such as Baldur’s Gate 3 and DLCs such as Cyberpunk 2077’s Phantom Liberty are both proof that one-time purchases of content are still alive and well, at least for standalone single-player adventures.
Still, AAA games are big business these days, and expensive business to boot; massive timelines and costs can break the backs of even legendary development teams if they miss a swing. Ongoing monetisation outside of individual sales to soften the feast-famine development cycle might be inevitable – but maybe ways that aren’t so dependent on predatory psychology would be a bit more palatable.