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Pushing Buttons: ‘Forever games’ like Diablo IV want to be the only thing you play

Aug 12, 2023

Live service games that try to monopolise attention put immense pressure on developers to keep pace with players

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One of the only announcements at this year’s Gamescom, an event replete with games to play but usually light on news (as Keith wrote in last week’s newsletter), was that the demon-killing, time-deleting action RPG Diablo IV’s second “season” would start on 17 October. That means new stuff for its 12 million players to do – vampiric powers feature heavily. But given that this game only came out in June and its first season of new content started in late July, it also means that its developers will have been working nonstop since its launch to get yet more game content ready to go.

I have often wondered how the makers of live service games – “forever games” that essentially wish to monopolise a player’s attention over an extended period of time, a still relatively new genre and business model that’s emerged in the last 10 years – manage these brutal schedules. Twenty years ago, studios would release a game and that would be it; 10 years ago, they’d be on the hook for a patch or maybe a downloadable expansion, but not such an endless stream of content. So I asked Diablo’s GM, Rod Fergusson – who has been running games teams for more than two decades, most famously with Epic Games on Gears of War – how they manage it.

“Twenty years ago, you’d ship a game, and no matter how hard it was to get that game out the door, you went on vacation and relaxed and kinda got over it,” he said, speaking in a tiny room on the Gamescom show floor in Cologne, Germany. “And, now, the industry and players are so consumptive of content that you launch and then they’re looking at you the next day going, what else you got? What else are you bringing?

“For a team to keep pace with players, firstly it must be bigger, and secondly you have to build it in a way that’s sustainable. We have an odd-season team and an even-season team, and then we even have a group focused just on what’s going on in the game right now. And we have an expansion team. This notion of leapfrogging teams where we’re always delivering something, we’re always shipping, is an interesting pace. You have to make sure that you’re not burning the candle at both ends.”

This way of doing things does come with advantages for the studios working on forever games: there’s more predictability and stability, and work to do for years and years after a game’s initial launch (assuming it doesn’t tank spectacularly, of course), in contrast to the expand-and-contract cycles of hirings and firings in game production in the past. But it does mean that an artist or coder or audio producer might be working on the same game for several years before it comes out, and then several years after – which, if it were me, might make me lose the will.

But, then, I’m a novelty seeker who rarely replays games or sticks with them for longer than a few months, let alone five years, and that’s not how millions of gamers today behave. Gaming as a whole used to be a hobby, “and we would be talking about how many credits we’ve seen this year”, says Fergusson, when I ask how much of Diablo’s player base are one-game players. “What we’re starting to see now is specific games being a lifestyle/hobby … People are expecting a much longer investment in a game. They want to have that lifestyle; I’m a Diablo player, a Destiny player, a Madden player.”

With that time investment, however, also comes a sense of entitlement from some players, something that developers have been grappling with since the advent of social media. The reams of instant feedback from players via The App Formerly Known As Twitter, Steam forums, Twitch streams and plenty else is a double-edged sword for the people who actually make games, and their poor community managers. Diablo IV’s hardcore players were not at all happy with some of the changes made to the game in its first season, for instance, and review-bombed the game en masse down to a 2.0 user score on Metacritic.

“Sometimes there’s no filter, or graciousness or politeness, it’s hard to navigate,” says Fergusson. “When you have the sense that Diablo is my game, you have a sense of ownership, you get very invested … we’re trying to manage expectations better, have more proactive comms so there are fewer surprises. We want to tell people what’s coming at least a week in advance, make sure they aren’t table-flipping.

“Sometimes in a game like Diablo, where you’re dealing with balance, you have to eat a salad once in a while, not just ice-cream. But then you have to tell players what’s coming, because if they’re expecting ice-cream they’ll be really mad if it’s vegetables. We have a long-term vision for the health of the game. It can’t just be about this moment. What’s it going to be like next year, or the year after?”

The difficulty with forever games is that studios have to try to cater to everyone, all at once; players who might have been playing Diablo for years or decades, alongside the new people brought in with every update or ad campaign. It was impossible to escape Diablo IV’s marketing blitz earlier this year – I saw a couple of wee auld men down the Byres Road puzzling over an ad that read “GLASGOW, WELCOME TO HELL” at a bus-stop (“That’s just insultin’!”). And newer players will by nature be less sensitised to the finer points of balancing, buffing and nerfing that can upset players with hundreds of hours of play under their characters’ ornate belts.

I’m not certain that pleasing both all of the time is possible, so the custodians of forever games have to make a value judgment: do you piss off the most committed 5% of your player base and hope that you gain enough new ones to replace them if they leave? Do you cater to your most engaged players and then discover that they’re not enough, by themselves, to keep your game alive? I’ve seen plenty of different approaches to this from different developers in my years covering games, and watched many angry YouTubers eviscerating patch notes in excruciating detail, displaying the kind of knowledge that you can only accrue if you genuinely love something. I’ve heard friends’ teen children insist that Fortnite isn’t anything like as good as it was at the beginning, for years … and yet still they play it.

Stewarding a game such as Diablo IV over the long term is not a job I envy; it’d probably be enough to make me hate it. Not so for Fergusson, though, who says he’s barely played anything else this year. “I use gaming to connect with my brother, who’s nine years older than me, and so we play cooperative stuff,” he tells me, which, for years, was Diablo. “When I fire up something like Zelda, I feel like it’s such a lonely world [by comparison] … he actually got his wife into Diablo as well, she’s a huge World of Warcraft player. But she won’t play with us!”

As a lifelong sufferer of thalassophobia, I usually avoid games that involve spending extended periods of time underwater, so I did wonder whether I’d be able to hack Under the Waves, a game about a deep-sea explorer working for an oil company and living on the ocean floor. But it feels a lot like playing a game set in space. It is atmospheric, lonely and quite beautiful. You spend your days exploring the murk in a little submarine or a diving suit; before long, you learn why you’ve chosen to spend time alone at the bottom of the sea, and a pretty upsetting story begins to unfold. But although the narrative is stressful, the gameplay isn’t, which is why I’m not too scared to play it: at no point have I had to punch a shark.

Available on: PS4/5, Xbox, PCEstimated playtime: 8-10 hours

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Keza MacDonald's weekly look at the world of gaming

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Early access for Starfield, Bethesda’s space role-playing opus, begins this weekend, and reviews will start going live late this week. Bethesda has not given us a review code – a few other UK outlets are in the same position – so we’ll have a verdict on the game closer to its 9 September launch.

Speaking of Starfield, someone who leaked hours’ worth of gameplay has been arrested in the US for allegedly stealing copies of the game before its release.

Remember that PlayStation 5 handheld streaming device that Sony announced a while back? It’s now called the PlayStation Portal – it’s launching later this year and it will retail for $200, reports the Verge. It has a few limitations – no Bluetooth, only Sony’s proprietary PlayStation Link tech, it doesn’t work with cloud-streamed PlayStation Plus games – but at that price it may prove tempting for PS5 owners wanting a Steam Deck-style experience.

Another wee retro console has been announced: the Atari 2600+, which plays any old Atari 2600/7800 cartridge and has HDMI output for modern TVs. It comes with 10 classic games including Adventure and Missile Command.

The lead writer of Red Dead Redemption has left Rockstar, the latest senior departure from the Grand Theft Auto developer in the past few years. GTA VI, which I expect we’ll be seeing more of soon, will be the product of a different set of lead creative minds than its predecessors.

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A question this week from reader Cordelia, who is clearly tough as all heck and deserves all our respect:

“On Friday 4 August, I beat Ganondorf in Tears of the Kingdom while wearing a Tens machine. Our baby boy was born on Sunday 6 August at 1.31am. There is a lot to be said for the distraction of such a great game and boss battle – it definitely helped me cope. TOTK was already a special game to me but now it will be even more special. Have any games seared into your memory because they helped you cope with something?”

Firstly, I can’t believe you beat Ganondorf while you were in labour. What a hero. While I was in labour, I watched 1990s episodes of The Simpsons while mooing until it was time to go to hospital. But over the long nights during the early weeks with my sons, I turned to video games to distract from the physical discomfort and emotional turmoil. Stardew Valley was my middle-of-the-night game first time around, and second time it was Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, with its seemingly endless ancient Greek cavorting. (I played that for more than 100 hours and never did finish it.)

Games are well-documented as escapes from breakups, or from grief – most longtime gamers will have a particular one that helped them through something. I heard from someone recently who played Tetris during cancer treatment and came to rely on it – and treasure it – as a way of sorting thoughts as well as puzzle pieces. Games promise a world where if we follow the rules and try hard enough, anything can be overcome – a comforting idea that particularly resonates when we’re making our way through hard times.

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on [email protected]

Don’t get Pushing Buttons delivered to your inbox? Sign up hereUnder the WavesAvailable on: Estimated playtime: Privacy Notice: Starfieldleaked hours’ worth of gameplayPlayStation PortalAtari 2600+GTA VICordeliaStardew ValleyAssassin’s Creed OdysseyTetris