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The Five Stages of Video Game Announcement Grief

Avengers characters looking sad.
Square Enix

Remember when video game announcements were fun? I’ve found myself watching new game announcements closely, looking for signs that this game uses a “freemium” or pay to win model that has a ton of microtransactions added on (sometimes in addition to a purchase price), or a live service grind-a-thon designed to regurgitate content for years and sucker players into buying loot boxes or battle passes.

It’s exhausting. following the news for PC gaming and playing on the Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch is now a minefield of monetization. There are still a few high-profile titles that want to stick to the classic formula, pay once and get the whole experience. The Last of Us 2  on PlayStation 4,  is a good example. But they’re becoming the exception.

More often I see something that looks initially promising, like Marvel’s Avengers, only to realize over the months between announcement and release that this is another live service. A game that publishers want to build once, then update with tiny revisions, trying to get you to pay a little extra for it each time. They’re coming in different flavors now, but all with the same goal: minimize the ratio of development cost to long-tail revenue earned. An infinite L-curve is the desired result.

So to categorize these feelings, I’ve developed what I call the Five Stages of Video Game Announcement Grief. No, it’s not original. I’m not even claiming that it’s helpful. But on the principle that a burden shared is a burden halved, I’ve decided to share it with you.

No need to thank me.

Stage One: Excitement

What’s that? A new game in your favorite series? Maybe a new intellectual property from a developer that you’ve loved for years? Or just a new something that looks cool and interesting, a game that’s different and captivating in an exciting way?

Still from a Fallout 76 commercial

It might be a new Fallout game! Or a revitalized classic, like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Crash Team Racing! It might be something from a legendary developer, introduced in a breathless reveal as an undeniable milestone of a generation, like Bioware’s Destiny Anthem.

Wonderful! The video game industry needs innovation, as both PC and console gamers crave novelty (or at least claim that they do). Surely this exciting new announcement—maybe at E3, or GDC, or a smaller event like a Nintendo Direct—means you have something nice to look forward to while you play your favorite games for the third or fourth time through.

Stage Two: Suspicion

But wait. There’s something sinister in the air. Why is the developer claiming that they’re going to support this game for 10 years or more? Even most of the best multiplayer games don’t last that long in terms of active development. Why would a game company even want to make the same game for a decade anyway?

Then you see it. A focus on multiplayer or co-op in a game that doesn’t really need it. A new format—say, a persistent online world like Fallout 76 or a shooter-looter where you’re expected to grind with a party. A system of online competition injected into a game that’s all about story—capturing and fighting Tolkien’s orcs as if they were Pokemon, for example. What’s that doing there, and why is it so prominently featured in this gameplay announcement?

Avengers cosmetic upgrades
Square Enix

Why is everything quantified, with RPG-style progression in a game series that used to rely on more pure action? What’s with the tons and tons of cosmetics, broken up into a dozen different subcategories, including things like interface tweaks and hats that only other players ever see? Why has this sports franchise that’s been running for decades suddenly turned into a management simulator, where you have to buy your players with fake money using in-game currency (bought with real money) that feels suspiciously like gambling?

Why does this game suddenly seem less like the game it’s supposed to be, and more like … well, more like every other game tentpole game coming out of the AAA industry?

Stage Three: Anger

Money. The answer is, almost exclusively, money.

Assassin’s Creed turned from an action game with instant assassinations to an action-RPG with upgradable gear and bullet sponge enemies. Fallout 76 tried to turn a series famously dedicated to single player—where loneliness was part of the game’s very setting—into an empty map for online multiplayer and a recurring charge. Bioware shifted from making engaging single-player RPGs to building an obvious and unappealing clone of Destiny. All in the service of chasing a “live” model that needs players to pay again and again to get the latest piecemeal content. After all, a similar structure has worked in mobile games for years.

Rocket League cosmetic purchases.

That’s why so many games now have a Fortnite-style battle pass, where an infinity of quantified loot can be more efficiently obtained with ten bucks every other month? These systems even being injected into older (but still popular) games, like Rocket League.

Game developers and publishers have seen a few examples of success in established mega-games—Fortnite, FIFA, Overwatch, DOTA, Destiny—and tried to apply the same patterns and formulas to more or less every game. Even games that have no real business accommodating them, like Grand Theft Auto or Ghost Recon.

If that doesn’t make you angry, either you’re too young to remember when this wasn’t the status quo, or you’re rich enough that buying your games in pieces for years at a time isn’t something that impacts your budget. In either case, publishers absolutely love you.

Stage Four: Disappointment

Ten years ago, a game like Marvel’s Avengers would come out and be more or less finished, possibly with a DLC package added on a month or two later. Once the game had been completed, perhaps ported to another game console or PC or repackaged in a Game of the Year Edition, the developers would move on. Maybe they’d make a sequel, or apply what they’d learned to something new.

image from Anthem

It wouldn’t come out with years and years of character upgrades planned, each one attached to a $10 battle pass for unlocking all of the extra goodies. It wouldn’t be built as a conceptual frame onto which more content would later be nailed, like Anthem or Evolve. It wouldn’t be the barest hint of an interactive medium that asks you to buy the rest of it in pieces. It wouldn’t be designed as an interactive roadmap for profit instead of experience.

It would just be a game. A game that you paid for and then played and then were finished with—or not, if you really wanted to dig into it. But the choice was made by the player, not by an executive demanding that their company build the next multi-billion-dollar sensation by resurrecting the corpse of the last one.

Stage Five: Resignation

We’re in the era of the live service game, friends. There are exceptions to this, of course, mostly coming from smaller developers and indies (with a few happy exceptions like Ghost of Tsushima). But for any game big enough to be advertised during an NFL broadcast, you can expect to pay sixty (or seventy) dollars for a fairly spare experience, chopped up so that you can pay for the rest of the pieces one at a time.

Ghost Recon in-app purchases

It wasn’t always like this, no, but there’s no indication that the trend will reverse anytime soon. A generation of mobile gamers is now old enough to afford and enjoy more rich games  (in both the literal and figurative sense) on the PC and consoles. The idea of paying small bits of money for the kind of rewards that used to be built into games has been cemented into the brains of a lot of players. Gamers who paid an extra dollar to unlock a few lives in Candy Crush last decade see no fundamental problem in paying an extra ten dollars to get a “battle pass” now.

It’s not everyone—if you clicked on this article, it’s probably not you. But it’s a large enough chunk of players that publishers are absolutely frothing to get those potential dollars, and building games with 100 million dollar budgets around them. After seeing what happened to Fallout 76, and even to Fallout 4 to some extent, I’m looking forward to hearing more about The Elder Scrolls VI with equal parts anticipation and dread.

I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop on TESV6. 

There are still plenty of indie games that are a complete experience, right out of the box, and remain so. You can find dozens of them released every year. And they’re great, especially if you’re not the kind of gamer who craves that big shiny 3D action experience. But any game that gets big enough will be sought out by someone bigger—like Microsoft gobbled up Minecraft, like Epic gobbled up Rocket League.

The usual refrain at this point is “vote with your wallet.” But to be honest, that isn’t really a solution. Enough people have been conditioned to keep paying for games that it simply won’t change any time soon. Not every live service game that swings for the fences of infinite profit will succeed. But enough of them will be successful, to a large enough degree, that this pattern will stay etched in the industry for years to come.

That’s the industry we live with. You can try to avoid it, and even succeed for a while. But eventually it’ll claim your favorite franchise or developer, and throw it onto the live service altar. Your choices are to pay the tithe (and keep paying and paying) or find something else to play. Again.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »