It’s not uncommon for people to say they “need” something when they just want it, or vice versa. When it comes to games, however, you only really ever want to play them. Need, if we’re talking about it in the “Maslow’s hierarchy of” sense, does not generally enter the equation. Or at least, it shouldn’t. Live service games really test that idea.
Warframe, which just turned eight, recently put out its spaceship-focused “Call of the Tempestarii” update, which potentially sets the stage for a long-awaited, much-bigger story update later this year. I don’t even have a spaceship — known as a Railjack, in Warframe parlance — so I have a lot of lost ground to make up for. I got into Destiny late last year, but I honestly cannot tell you what’s going on in that game at the moment. I’ve already been away too long. The idea of getting back into it is nearly as daunting as the idea of getting into it was in the first place.
It’s even worse with games that my friends play. I recently got into Outriders, but I did so a couple weeks after my friends and co-workers, so I’m already woefully behind in terms of loot and level. There’s an intrinsic guilt to dragging a friend through a bunch of content they just played, even when they tell you it’s fine. I’ve also been dabbling in the granddaddy of modern service games, League of Legends, but the problem is, it’s not really a game for dabblers. My friends, who play casually, are already leagues better than me, and they don’t even play that often — just more than I do. While I was averaging one or two healthy sessions a week for a couple months, LoL has now slipped into my backlo(l)g.
What all these games have in common is an intrinsic pressure to keep up. Live service games ebb and flow, but once the boulder starts rolling, it never truly stops. Playing catch up, then, is an overwhelming prospect, because every day, the finish line gets a little further from the start. On one hand, it’s neat when these games evolve organically and generously; Warframe has this strange, incredible tangle of systems that shouldn’t work together but somehow do, which would not exist if it weren’t for the ambitious updates it’s received over time. Genshin Impact — not even a year old and already adding a huge new system in player housing — seems to be following in its footsteps, albeit at a pace that can’t be healthy for developers.
But live service games exist to suck you into their orbits and never let go. If you stop playing you might stop spending money, and as far as publishers are concerned that just won’t do. Even relatively innocuous games like Warframe include systems that encourage you to log in every day — sometimes with the promise of minor rewards, other times with the looming threat of missing out. The live service format, then, is engineered to make you feel even worse about your pile of shame than regular games already do. It’s not just that you’re losing a war of attrition with your game collection; you’re falling behind the games themselves. If you fall too far behind, that’s it: You’re basically out of the club. And if you’re playing with friends, it’s a club in a very real sense, given that all the exploitative monetisation systems in the world wouldn’t be worth jack if not for social bonds, which lend real significance to the items you’re buying.
That said, the sword cuts both ways. Live service games contain so much Stuff (TM) that once they’re in your backlog, they’re really in there. Days of “I’ll get back into it soon” become months become years. Many service games try to craft their tentpole updates such that they appeal to the die-est of the diehards and lapsed players, but I’ve yet to encounter one that consistently strikes a good balance. Put another way, I already had enough trouble getting into Destiny the first time, in the immediate aftermath of an update that vaporized tons of crucial story content in the name of streamlining. I’m not sure I’ll ever do it again.
But see, I say that, only to then eye the even more inscrutable Path of Exile, which just got a new update on the path toward its great-looking sequel, and Apex Legends, which is really starting to draw on Titanfall lore. Live service games, many of them free to play, have mastered the art of enticing. “Look at all these shiny new additions,” they say. “Why not give this one a download, too? What do you have to lose?” But each game added to your list of forever games is also another for your forever backlog — a simmering cauldron of stress you won’t be getting through anytime soon.