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"Entertainment as a Service": To Change, or not to Change?

Valve Software boasts "entertainment as a service"; developers actively engaging the customer base with on-going game updates and support. At what point do you change the fundamentals of the original game? Will the customer be receptive to the changes?

Jake Romigh, Blogger

April 28, 2009

6 Min Read

A Look at "Entertainment as a Service"

Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve Software, has a wonderful philosophy regarding the release of his company's games: entertainment should be a service.  The philosophy is simple: a game developer should not release a piece of software and only seldom provide additional support.  Rather, the developer should provide on-going support for the product, not only in the usual ways of bug-fixes and compatibility support, but they should also promise to keep updating the product.  This not only keeps the product fresh and commercially valuable as time passes, but it helps foster trust in the consumer.  The consumer knows that this company cares for the product, and any flaws in the product will not go unchecked.

This is great for the consumer, especially in this economy, when $50 might not be that easy to find for a branch new game. Instead of playing through the game once (or X number of times, if the game allows multiple varied playthroughs) and packing the game away, the buyer knows that the game will continue to change as the developer releases updates.  This provides more value for the purchase than a release that will only get the modest bug fixes.

This raises interesting questions: at what point do game updates fundamentally change the game for the player, and will the player want to play with these changes or prefer to play the game pre-update?  I'm not speaking of whether the game updates change the game for better or for worse (although that certainly can apply), but just causes the game to be played noticeably different.

Reluctant to Change

As I'm sure every game developer knows, gamers can be resistant to change.  At the time of this writing, there are still rumblings of Bethsada's Fallout 3 changes from the original 2 games.  An example of updates in the same game causing friction would be any update in an MMO which attempts to rebalance the skills and classes of the game.  If one were to look at any initial release of an MMO and the most recent, you could tell that it would range from a similar experience, in the case of an MMO in early stages, to a drastically different game, in the case of World of Warcraft with all of its expansions.

What are the effects of these updates on the early adopters?  I think you'll find that the community will be split: one side will grumble about "the good ol' days", where the other will cheer on the updates as "keeping the game playable".

"Eating Your Own Dog Food"

Now, I'd like to focus on a game very relvant to the topic at hand: Valve Software's own Team Fortress 2, a class-based multiplayer shooter.  Initially, the game consisted of 9 classes and 7 maps (which has multiple versions to the same map, which brought the total higher).  Each class has a specific set of weapons to chose from, where some classes had specialize weaponry and items specific to that class. For instance, the Engineer class had a Shotgun, Pistol, and Wrench for melee, but also had build tools to make sentry guns, ammo/health dispensers, and teleporters.

Flash forward to today's Team Fortress 2 on PC.  (Xbox360 and Playstation 3 owners have not gotten the following changes as of yet.)  Valve is currently in the middle of providing map updates, which drastically change game play from simple capturing points and flags, to pushing bombs to capture points and arena deathmatch.   They are also providing class updates and achievements, which can change the way classes play.  For instance, the Heavy class, initially equipped with a standard minigun and shotgun, can now wield a movement-slowing minigun and healing 'sandvich'.  (Why 'sandvich'?  The Heavy is VERY Russian.) 

What Happened to the Original Purchase?

Once again, it is not the place to decide if this is better or worse.  What can be said, though, is that these updates have drastically changed the game from what it initially was released as.  Gameplay is now more complex; the player must ask him/herself many more questions during the game with regards to the updates: What unlockable weapons should I use on this map?  Should I rush the scout, or try to avoid the stun of an unlockable weapon he might be wielding?  Do I chase the Heavy down because he might heal, or get health myself?

Team Fortress 2 has changed a lot over the course of its history.  Initial buyers of the PC release who prefer the original playstyle may be out of luck.  The original game was easy to grasp, but the added depth with releases might not be what the initial buyers were looking for, and that's not all that will be added by Valve in the upcoming game patches.  Valve plans to add random weapon drops for players to find, so that every opponent will be a varied match. 

I am not stating that this is a good or bad gamestyle to play; I am saying that it is different that the original product.  Early adopters who enjoy this gameplay are in for a treat, while others who preferred a simpler class system might not be so lucky.  By providing these updates, is Valve truly providing a service for the latter group of people?  This is especially relevant for Team Fortress 2, as updates are required or the game will be incompatible with any online game server.  Also, with Steam's continuous updates of games, the initial Team Fortress 2 is not available to download; only the current release can be installed.

The Questions of the Matter

The questions of the matter, as far as I can tell, are these:

  • When you buy a product, which is promised continuous updates, are you buying a piece of software, or are you buying the software as it will look at the "End of Life" date, which is an indeterminable product? 

  • When providing entertainment as a service, should you innovate on the original product, or should you only maintain the original release's style?  If the latter, what substance are you adding with your updates?

  • Should players be able to disable features of a game that are added with post-release patches, and how do you control that on the online multiplayer space?

I have my own thoughts, but I wanted to outline the issue with a minimal amount of personal feelings on the issue.  (To which I was successful, I can not be the judge.)  What do you think is the proper handling of the issue?

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