Our good superhero friends, Thor, Hulk and the rest of the gang, may be masters of the cinema box office, but the Avengers have failed to make much of a splash in the gaming world this year.
Is it time to admit the industry is exhausted with the MMO-lite?
The latest news from Square Enix suggests that their big-budget Marvel’s Avengers title has failed dismally at even recouping its apparently very high development costs. Numbers bandied about are unclear, since Square Enix has not officially reported sales figures, but a recent quarterly review suggests that the game cost between US$170–190m, and its failure, therefore, means a loss of about US$50–60m for developer Crystal Dynamic’s live service game.
In the ever-snowballing, troubled history of the live service/shared world/Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO)-lite genre Marvel’s Avengers merely stands as the latest testament to failure. This may be the necessary straw-breaking-the-camel’s-back moment for the games industry to finally ask whether it needs, or even wants, games like this.
What is an MMO-lite?
Okay, before we can delve into the failures of this genre, we have to establish exactly what we’re talking about in the first place. These games, rather annoyingly, tend to defy any sort of single classification, although we all know them when we see them.
Exhibit A. Let’s place Marvel’s Avengers in a list of like games: The Division, Destiny, Anthem, Warframe,Marvel’s Avengers. We understand these games to be of the exact same ilk. They are live service games in which players move through an online, shared world and play for increasingly rare blue-, purple-, and, typically, yellow-level gear to increase their characters’ stats. They have hub worlds with vendors to speak to and in which to jump around aimlessly with other players, and the games tend to be, above all, about replaying the same activities to grind out more XP, items, weapons, etc. Coupled with a slew of microtransactions and loot boxes, these titles start to resemble a watered-down version of an MMO, like World of Warcraft, despite how much they may protest to the contrary.
The MMO-lite genre—as we will henceforth call it, purely for simplicity’s sake—evolved mostly from Destiny, since Bungie’s Looter Shooter was the first to, at the very least, popularize the model for consoles. The free-to-play Warframe was released a year earlier on Windows, but Destiny has undoubtedly been the prime referent subsequent iterations, like Ubisoft’s The Division, have used as a model.
The draw to these games tends to be the ever-long quest for the games’ best gear and weapons and the grind of difficult endgame content to get to these exotic items. Because of this, the game is never really done, per se, since, as a live service, the developers are always adding new content to keep the player base engaged. If they don’t, or if the player base fails to remain engaged, well, then, guess what? The game falls by the wayside pretty quickly.
And this really is the biggest criticism of these MMO-lite games. It takes enormous effort on the developers’ part to keep the games consistently worth playing. For this reason, the genre has already seen so many troubles in its, so far, short history.
A bad track record
Let’s return to that earlier list of games. As mentioned, Marvel’s Avengers has proven to be a massive flop, making it 2020’s version of Bioware’s 2019 crashing failure, Anthem.
Anthem was to be EA’s answer to Destiny, but its results were nothing short of a catastrophe. It was very poor technically, with an outrageous number of long loading screens just for moving into small areas. In a game that is supposed to be an ever-moving online world, that is presumably the last thing you want—your friends could be diving into action, while you’re still reading tooltips as a bar inches slowly across the screen. However, as it is, you wouldn’t have had to worry too much about your friends getting ahead of you, since Anthem was largely ignored by the gaming world. EA’s sales fell far short of the six-million-copy goal, and the live service failed to retain audience engagement. An early player base drop-off prompted Bioware to vow to overhaul the game completely. However, this proposed Anthem 2.0 still appears to be a muddling puzzle to bring together, with recent splits at Bioware throwing further doubt on whether we will ever see the dream franchise EA originally envisioned.
Funnily enough, if Anthem was intended to be EA’s Destiny, then they got the troubled launch part exactly right, since Bungie’s original Looter Shooter itself had a stumbling start, too. Destiny came into the world with a lot of excitement since it was to be the first of Bungie’s projects since Halo and their split from Microsoft. An early beta helped drum up further hype as its brief glimpse showcased, once again, that Bungie knows exactly how to make a Shooter fun and satisfying to play.
So, when it did come out, Destiny initially survived by its tight shooting mechanics and excellent technical strength, but it soon became apparent that, when it came to content expansion, Bungie had dropped the ball. Even though Activision proclaimed the massive success of its record-breaking launch, the player base dwindled away not too long after; the story proved short and uninspired, and the endgame content was of little value.
What followed for Destiny perhaps offers some hope for EA’s Anthem 2.0 plans, as Destiny has subsequently fluttered up and down with every new downloadable content (DLC) update. The third expansion for Destiny—The Taken King—reworked the game quite substantially and managed to successfully drive new life into the franchise with a flood of players returning. By the time Bungie’s sequel launched, Destiny was on the right path again, and so Destiny 2 was received with the same verve and excitement as its predecessor.
However, history was doomed to repeat itself as, once more, a solid launch was let down by another struggle with player engagement. Destiny 2 has subsequently followed much the same path as the original, with a constant yo-yoing of success and failure between every new update and system overhaul designed to bring players back. Add to the mix a number of behind-the-scenes troubles with Bungie splitting from its parent publisher Activision to go independent while also making its game free to play with microtransaction options, and you have a franchise history that can be described as tempestuous at best.
Ubisoft’s The Division franchise tells such an eerily similar story that we might start to suspect there may be some impassable stumbling block to the MMO-lite model.
The Division started with a massive launch—mostly due to an aggressive marketing strategy—but it was criticized for a number of early server issues, its early postgame content, and its vacuum of activities. Still, it has gone on to have a smaller, die-hard player base fuelling its post-launch updates. The Division’s yo-yoing has not been quite as dramatic as Destiny’s, which I guess could be viewed as either good or bad as either an uninterested gaming audience or just a quietly content player base.
Whatever the case may be, it is arguable whether The Division has stood up against the live service test and can be considered an unequivocal success.
Studios take note
Marvel’s Avengers is just another drop in the ocean of troubled live service/MMO-lite games. Though the problems with Marvel’s Avengers extend far beyond its live service aspects, as it is generally just a poorly-made game with a multitude of bugs and uninspired gameplay, there is more evidence to suggest that its MMO-lite model is far more trouble than it is worth for studios.
As we’ve seen, there are very few examples of an MMO-lite being granted a clean run because the space between those goalposts is so extremely thin it’s like passing through the eye of a needle. And yet, because games like Destiny and The Division boasted such large early numbers, other studios appear to feel indebted to rush to try the same tactic. But even the best installments in this genre have had their share of troubles, so, with Destiny as their current aspirational model, new entrants are, at best, striving for a future of numerous overhauls and large-scale player drop-offs. If that is the current best-case scenario, then why is this model even worth considering?
Of course, the dream for studios is that their franchises can keep going for at least a decade to come, while still milking the player base at every update and loot box opportunity. However, it takes a lot of challenging investment to get there, and, as we’ve seen with franchise starters in 2019 and 2020, you’re more than likely to fall flat on your face at the first step.
On the face of it, an Avengers game should be massive. The biggest movie franchise in history and the chance to play as your favourite superheroes? It should be a money-printer! Especially if you also consider that Insomniac Games pulled it off with Spider-Man, Marvel’s Avengers failings become all the more baffling. But Square Enix’s insistence on following the live service/MMO-lite trend has led to their downfall here, and, if other studios are not watching carefully, then they may be prone to doing the same.
Until such time that a game can definitively prove that the MMO-lite is a viable, worthwhile genre, then it is, perhaps, time for the games industry to give the model a much-needed rest. However, I doubt it will.