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Tooling is still a problem for studios building live service games

While numerous tech vendors have clearly identified the need among developers for accessible, usable, and affordable tools, progress has been incremental at best.

Liam Deane, Principal Analyst, Games Tech

June 28, 2023

5 Min Read
Redfall screenshot, featuring the game's run down city
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Pressure to build live service games is growing

Arkane Studios’ Redfall was meant to be one of the biggest game launches of 2023. Unfortunately, it released last month plagued with design and technical issues and was widely panned. Given Arkane’s impressive record over the last decade, it’s no surprise hopes for Redfall were high. But the studio’s decision (perhaps under pressure from Microsoft, which acquired Arkane during Redfall’s development) to switch from the immersive sim genre where it built its name to co-op multiplayer shooter clearly reflects a growing desire to capitalize on live service business models.

Live service games already dominate the mobile games market and are obviously gaining traction on PC and console too. Traditional upfront game purchases now account for just 11% of total games market revenue, and falling. This is creating obvious pressure across the industry to pivot towards the live service model. Sony’s recently revealed plans for four new live service games, and Sega’s search for a live service “super game” to revolutionize its business, are just two recent examples of traditional AAA publishers trying to build a live service future.

Full game sales represent a rapidly diminishing share of games market revenue

But Redfall’s struggles are a reminder that pulling off this pivot is easier said than done. At a design level, creating a compelling live service game is very different to building a single-player one, with the need for sustained engagement taking precedence over crafting contained experiences. There are cultural challenges too—Arkane reportedly struggled to hire experienced multiplayer developers because it mostly attracted candidates interested in working on its trademark immersive sims. And while having a wealthy backer like Microsoft clearly helps in some ways, it also brings pressure to release.

But what shouldn’t be forgotten is the sheer technical difficulty of building a live service game. The Redfall case is again instructive: for all the game’s shortcomings, criticism was dominated by the game’s poor performance. Not all of the technical deficiencies were directly related to multiplayer elements. The switch from Arkane’s own engine to Unreal Engine 4 was clearly a big factor, though this decision may itself have been motivated by concerns about the suitability of Arkane’s previous engine for a full-blown multiplayer game. More broadly, there can be little doubt that the effort involved in building a first live service title diverted attention from polishing other elements of the game.

Live service games are hugely technically complex

The complexity of building a live service game becomes clear when you consider the sheer number of different elements involved, including game servers, accounts and authentication, matchmaking, chat and voice, reporting and moderation, leaderboards and soci

al features, anti-cheat, and more besides. Then consider what’s required to sustain a live service game over time, from systems for managing and implementing a constant stream of updates and new content, to data collection and analytics to measure and maintain player engagement. And all of this needs to be hosted and run from somewhere, whether that’s private servers, public cloud, or some kind of hybrid solution.

For studios starting from scratch, bootstrapping a custom architecture into existence is a mammoth task. As a result, there is a strong incentive to find ready-made tools to simplify and expedite the process. One option is to look to specialized “backend-as-a-service” vendors. A number of startups such as Accelbyte, Beamable, and Pragma, have built platforms geared towards the problem of getting a live service backend architecture in place. Most of these platforms are relatively new, however, and have yet to really prove themselves at the top end of the market.

They also face stiff competition, particularly from Unity and Unreal Engine, which each also offer a range of backend tools. Though both Unity and Epic officially offer most of these tools on an engine-agnostic, in practice, each company’s tools tend to integrate most easily with their own engine, making them attractive to the growing share of game developers relying on Unity or Unreal, but also bringing a big risk of making your tech stack almost entirely dependent on a single vendor.

Omdia Market Radar: Cloud Platforms for Games vendor overview

Similarly, most game studios have an existing relationship with one or more cloud platforms. Omdia’s recently published a report analyzing how these platforms, too, are stepping into the role of providing backend architecture for game studios in the live service space, with AWS and Microsoft Azure in particular emerging as major players. Nonetheless, the dizzying complexity and, often, high cost of cloud platforms remains a barrier to entry, especially for smaller studios.

Tech vendors still haven’t solved the problem

Arkane was far from the first studio to fail to stick the landing when building a live service game, and certainly won’t be the last. The inherent difficulty of finding and retaining an audience ensures that most live service games fail. But while technical solidity is no guarantee of success, it is the minimum requirement for any game trying to break through in a fiercely competitive market. It is an area where developers need all the help they can get, a point that is by now so widely recognized that the challenge for developers is less in accessing solutions than in choosing between a bewildering array of options.

Nonetheless, while numerous tech vendors have clearly identified the need among developers for accessible, usable, and affordable tools, progress has been incremental at best. This is far from a new problem: as topics in game development go, backend tooling lacks the buzzy novelty of AI and Web3. But despite the familiarity of the issue, the solutions on offer remain fragmented, and no real go-to platform has yet emerged—in some ways resembling the situation before the rise of Unity and Unreal as industry-standard platforms lowered the barrier to entry for core design tools. Like it or not, more and more developers are going to try their hand at live service games, and, as it stands, most will still struggle to find the right tools for the job.

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About the Author(s)

Liam Deane

Principal Analyst, Games Tech, Omdia

Liam leads Omdia’s games tech coverage with his research focusing on the technology and services that power the video games market, and exploring the B2B value chain connecting games development to service providers to consumers.

Prior to joining Omdia, Liam worked at Irdeto, a digital platform security company and owner of Denuvo, a leading provider of security technology to the games industry, where he advised senior management and product teams on market trends and strategy. Before that, he worked as an analyst covering the video games and broader digital media market at Ovum, one of Omdia’s predecessors. Liam holds a master’s degree in philosophy from UCL, and with a background spanning both analyst research and first-hand industry experience, Liam has a unique blend of experience informing his work analyzing the complex games industry ecosystem.

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