Playing the Long Game

Player Retention Vs The Live Service Business Model. Will AB and Diablo 4 succeed in the long term?
Tom Pickard
July 7, 2023

Player Retention Vs The Live Service Business Model

Here at Clock we live and breathe games. We work with multiple gaming clients globally, and in order to ‘get’ both the culture and industry you have to be a gamer yourself.

One of the largest releases of the year, and certainly for the company releasing it (Activision Blizzard) of the decade, is Diablo 4 - something many of us have been playing extensively since its release in early June.

Diablo is a franchise that started off an entire genre back in 1996 with the release of Diablo 1 - that of the ‘ARPG’ or Action Role Playing Game, distinctive for its hack and slash mechanics and fast paced combat with incremental character and equipment upgrades.

What makes Diablo 4 fascinating to talk about is how it demonstrates the industry's real focus on ‘Live Service’ titles, and how that can be a massive headache for companies.

It’s been clear ever since the first announcement of Diablo 4 that the game would have live service elements, but what's been even more clear is the sheer determination, bordering on desperation some times, for Diablo 4 to ‘work’.  

We at Clock believe that gone are the days when you can just make a good game, there are tones of good games released every day on all of the major platforms, most of them are overlooked - a case in point would be Among Us, the game which shot to fame during the pandemic with players like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez making their streaming debut on it. This was a good game released to no fanfare at all and went unnoticed for years before it had its time to shine.

So it's not enough to just make a good game, and Activision Blizzard needed a success story, especially in the wake of Diablo 3, a game which received substantial criticism at the time - although it is worth noting that Diablo 3 was and still remains one of the best selling PC games of all time - the mixed reception to some of its live service mechanics like the ‘Real Money Auction House’ dented a franchises reputation in ways which would cause worry for a studio trying to release a new game in the same franchise.

The Live Service model is one of risk. It costs a lot to build the game, and it costs an amount of money relative to the player base to run the infrastructure (something we have deep experience with). The expected gain is not in the sticker price for the game (if there even is one, with most games although not Diablo 4 being ‘free to play’) but in the long term price players will play to engage with new content, events, battlepasses, cosmetics and whatever else can be monetised.

The fundamental problem we work with our clients on is the way in which players are tired of the model. There is fatigue in hitting daily quests for the sake of battle pass points, there is frustration at the level of grind needed to ensure you get all of the drops for some unique item required to unlock the top of a progression path thats needed to get the highest tier reward for a ladder season. 

But more than that, players are cautious of the model. Too many people have been burnt by their favourite Live Service game going offline or having the economy changed in order to place profit over fun.

Diablo 4 as a game is great, we are having lots of fun with it. The funny thing is, it feels like a finished game on release, which is not usually the case with these Live Service titles - usually a studio will shove them out in order to start recouping the money they have already invested as quickly as they can, with the promise to finish the game and add more ‘endgame’ or ‘champions’ or whatever the growth mechanic is for the particular game and genre they are within.

The game is not perfect by any means, there is a real lul at level 55-70 which becomes a real grind, and the endgame content is really repetitive. This is illustrative of a problem. We are sat here writing this, with, in our minds, the view that AB will save us. They are going to release some new end game content right? They are going to patch in better side quests rather than the absolutely horrible fetch quests littered throughout the game, right? Surely they won’t just take our money and run, right?

But the core question remains, did this really need to be a live service game? I’m sure the answer for AB is yes, but not because that's how you provide a ‘Diablo Experience’ but because that's how you make tons of money from the franchise.

Diablo 1 and 2, the titles that were the fundamental building blocks for the success of future titles had no live service elements, with Diablo 2 still being online today with regular ladder seasons - even though it was released in the year 2000, 23 years later is still there and people still play it, and it does not have any of the usual incentives, you bought it once in 2000 and you can still play it now. Our question is, what will AB do in order to keep Diablo 4 online for 23 years or more, we suspect it won’t be there, and the moment it stops making money in the ways they want, it will be closed down.

And therein lies the problem, what about all of the people who poured money into their characters every season, completed the battle pass, bought the cosmetics and want to have their friends round for a lan party in 20 years time. These players were and are worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars, and those same players are the ones that won’t be able to access any of the content they purchased If AB don’t support the game, they can’t play it. The Live Service model will prohibit it. Diablo 2 has a lan mode which can be played anywhere, Diablo 4 will just stop working entirely if AB turns it off.

This risk is one we hear more and more players talking about. Do I spend time and ‘invest’ - a word people often use about gaming these days - their time and money - into a game which may or may not have future content that i like.

The whole Live Service model makes people feel like they are investing time rather than relaxing if it is not crafted correctly. This shifts the expectations of players from ‘one and done’ - did i or did i not enjoy that game enough relative to the price i paid for the time i played it - to one of entitlement - I deserve better quality updates and time.

This is the opposite of what a studio wants and why most go down the route of live service in the first place - they want to put all of the effort in up front, make the initial investment back as soon as possible and then reduce the team working on the title to as small a number as possible in order to maximise the long tail profit. 

In this way, the needs and wants of the customer (player) are completely at odds with that of the company making the game.

So, will AB and Diablo 4 succeed in the long term? The release has certainly been received well critically as well as by players and fans, the question is, can they keep it up and prove that this is for the long term not just for this summer. We certainly bought into the game in the hopes that things like the battle pass and the endgame as well as sidequests will be substantially improved. 

At the moment we would rate it 9/10. This could easily be a 5/10 if the promised content does not materialise - and this is why live action games are so slippery and so hard to work with - they create the gamblers fallacy by design to lock players in which can leave people feeling bitter, resentful and damage reputations in a big way, especially if the quality of content and updates tails off while the game ages out, to its eventual death.

At Clock we help our clients not only technically, but by working through industry challenges like this in order to make sure players love the games, love the experience, and most of all, don’t have any feel bad moments for the brands we work with.

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