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DRM. Always-online. Pre-order/day-1 bonuses. DLC. Microtransactions. Season passes. On-disc DLC. Second season passes.
All of these wicked ingredients have helped concoct a messy brew, currently being called: “games as a service”. This AAA game-making studio machine idea dictates that games, to justify their money’s worth, are no longer just buy-and-play experiences, but living and breathing storefront-like organisms that demand constant attention, like some off-brand mutated Tamagotchi.
The aforementioned keywords, for many, represent the worst consumerist practices in the video game industry right now, and for good reason. While not all of them truly combine to form the idea of games as a service, they all contribute to it.
This plague is well-known in the realm of MMOs and other online games and, as far as single-player goes, we’ve been let down by these practices time and time and time and time (this one is crucial) again. It’s reached the point where just the mention of the heartless ways big-name game studios perceive consumers has become memetic; entirely a sad joke.
A shining example of this practice being executed horribly in a single-player experience is Square Enix’s recent Final Fantasy XV. A game with as tumultuous a development history as FFXV already had a lot going against it, especially when, after the departure of the game’s original director and creative lead Tetsuya Normura, the game only aesthetically resembles what was promised 11 years back.
I won’t mince words. On release, Final Fantasy XV was probably one of the worst gaming experiences I’ve had in recent memory. From a laughably bad “story”, for lack of a better word, to an absolutely inane and child-like combat system, the game came off as an incomplete, half-baked, and haphazardly bullet-point listed take on what a room full of suits think should be classified as a “modern gaming franchise experience”.
Turns out, outside of shilling their property for a re-skin licensed mobile game that I won’t stop seeing ads about until the day that I die within every single app on my phone, the plan was to treat the actual game itself like a service, with story and gameplay elements added on later as the player (supposedly) grew with the characters and the world, as well as episodic story DLC. You have to pay for the most juicy bits, of course, and even when you don’t, you have to replay the damn thing to be able to experience what should’ve been there to begin with.
It’s disheartening, but a few developers have discovered a better recipe for a game that can thrive off of this system for all of the right reasons. A better, if not the best example, started out under Square Enix’s banner, to boot.
IO Interactive’s 2016 addition to the Hitman series, simply titled Hitman (which can be now classified as an indie title, as the developer has retained the rights from Square Enix), proves that the concept of a single-player game “as a service” isn’t inherently ill-conceived. In fact, if done right, it can be something unlike anything else anchored to the traditional idea of, I don’t know, “games as a game”.
Hitman does a lot of things right in its approach. The technical execution may not differ from other attempts at “games as a service”, but the game provides additional content in a way where it makes natural sense when coupled with both gameplay and the game’s world. It especially helps that Hitman is a silly and fun murderous romp through a story that could take place in the same fictional universe as The Sims.
So, how does it work? Well, to keep it brief, Hitman, returning Agent 47 as the man who hits, consists of seasons with episodes, much like a TV show. Episodes were initially released sequentially over a period of time to make up what is now the entirety of Season 1.
Each episode, or global location, in Hitman is broken into one main mission and then several non-canonical missions with a variety of contracts (i.e. people you gotta kill), and a variety of challenges that encourage you to go out of your way to explore and seek new ways to accomplish your goal. You know, like dropping a toilet on someone’s head or somehow stealthily offing someone with a really loud shotgun.
These missions, beyond the main one, aren’t tied to any convoluted overarching story, just the gameplay. Ignoring the consequences brought by any fixed story-based reality that the game would’ve otherwise adhered to, the game’s freedom here encourages you to do some really goofy stuff, and this freedom is exploited really well.
So, you have maps with seemingly endless possibilities as to how you can execute your targets, but by offering a wide array of missions with specific challenges within them (e.g. kill the target with a frying pan dressed as an astronaut), it all becomes cohesive.
There’s also the implementation of Elusive Targets; contracts that appear only for a short period of time (in real-life time) in specific areas as part of events that then disappear forever. These are truly a cool and well-executed concept. They feel like curious limited events, carefully planned instead of slapped together for $4.99 a pop.
That’s not saying that these loot-box-type DLC things don’t or can’t exist for Hitman (it does), just that the extra content is just that: extra. The whole of the Hitman game (or “service”) feels like a living, breathing experience, something which seems to be an aim with this format from big-name studios.
Here, the major difference is that it compliments how the game should be approached both in terms of gameplay and how you spend your time playing it.
This meaningful, catered experience is a good example of how the idea of games as a service isn’t a bad one, just that its implementation and studios’ perceived need for it in every title, makes it bad. Hitman opts to use a DRM-ish service-y format to the benefit of the players. It works because the format was purposefully designed as part of the product. They didn’t leave anything out, or make it feel that way. They just keep adding more.
Many consumers have lost faith in big-name studios’ ability to see merit in this format beyond a quick cash-grab vehicle; a vehicle which undermines, and is in constant conflict with, core gameplay elements.
If IO Interactive can combat that notion, and strive, and succeed, at making this concept work with Hitman, then it’s possible for others to do this concept right, as well. What’s not possible, though, is expecting every single game to adopt this format, or to use this format as an end-all measurement to a game’s success.
With Hitman’s Season 2 hopefully right around the corner, following the feature-packed paid expansion to Season 1 (which comes out next week), here’s to seeing if this practice can be shown to be done right once again. Personally, I think it can, and shall.