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What does the HITMAN franchise jumping on the life service model mean for gamers?

Despite a turbulent and chaotic 2022, the gaming landscape for 2023 is already beginning to take shape. In a blog post on 3 January, IO Interactive has announced that HITMAN 3 is going to become World of Assassination, a move that will see the 2021 hit absorb IO’s two previous instalments, effectively providing care to the franchise as a live service.

What is a live service game?

In case you don’t know, live service games (LSGs) are titles that keep on giving—ones that will continually pump out content over a long period of time to keep consumers engaged, and their wallets thin. Blizzard kicked things off with its subscription model for World of Warcraft, something very new in games back in 2004.  Since then, developers have figured out that if you continue to add content to a game and provide new things for players to buy with actual money in a cash shop, you can save on yearly and bi-yearly releases and still make a pretty sum of dough.

LSGs are often free and run well on older hardware too, helping them reach a wider audience. Players can then spend real-world money (or ‘grind’) to unlock cosmetics and upgrades which in turn creates a cycle of engagement through sunken cost and developer investment.

What does this mean for the franchise though? IO Interactive detailed in its blog post that this is a means to simplify the HITMAN purchasing process, a decision that is largely consumer friendly and also delivers on its promise to provide an “ever-expanding game that would evolve over time and be the foundation for future HITMAN games.”

So, as of 26 January 2023 HITMAN 1 and HITMAN 2 will no longer be available for individual purchase, and instead will be obtainable on HITMAN World of Assassination (formerly HITMAN 3) regardless of whether or not you already owned the first two games. In other words, this simply means that all titles, and their numerous paid downloadable content (DLC), will be available in one neat centralised place, and that new players will end up with more content for free.

IO Interactive is confident this is the right move forward—to be honest, it’s surprising it didn’t do this earlier. The HITMAN model makes perfect sense for live service. A hub for new missions and leaderboard stats for enthusiasts sounds like it will work well for the franchise. As of now however, it’s still unknown how IO Interactive plans to monetise its World of Assassination outside of additional missions. Can you really deck out Agent 47 in outlandish outfits and costumes given how integral stealth and disguise are to the series?

Why are live service games so popular?

Recent years have proven the free-to-play (F2P) LSG model to be an invaluable industry asset, these titles being the biggest reason that video games continue to dominate the entertainment complex. The infamous Fortnite started out as a paid game but quickly exploded in success due to the inclusion of its free battle royale mode, which saw the game transition to a live service model. It’s clear to see that there is an absurd amount of money to be made here.

LSGs make players feel good about spending money in the game too. The base product is often free, and the monetisation isn’t particularly expensive. Plus, there’s a guarantee from the developer that it plans to support the game for years to come. It’s an enticing investment to say the least—one that definitely prays on young people’s FOMO and a desire to flex in-game.

With HITMAN setting itself up for live service support—presumably a move to keep the series afloat while IO Interactive is busy working on its James Bond game—we can’t help but wonder what other AAA studios have been doing to meet this demand.

Riot Games’ controversial yet hugely successful 2020 Valorant is a LSG with options for players to buy cosmetic skins for their guns and special stickers to put around the map. Respawn Entertainment’s Apex Legends took the Fortnite approach with a battle pass—a season-long set of challenges that rewards players with skins, cosmetics and currency by levelling the pass up.

What’s interesting is the fact that gaming giant Ubisoft has also thrown its hat in, recently announcing that a live service Assassin’s Creed game is in the works, aptly titled Infinity. Ubisoft is evidently hoping to get a piece of the pie after the failure of its original 2020 attempt, Hyperscape.

This format of game is so prevalent today that there’s even a category in the Game Awards for ‘Best Ongoing Game’ with the Japanese massive multiplayer online game (MMO) Final Fantasy XIV taking home the award in November  2022.

Despite the successes of the LSG format, titans of the industry Call of Duty and FIFA continue to make inordinate amounts of money through annual releases. In these titles, there’s a plethora of ways you can spend your hard-earned cash, from skins and cosmetics in the former to player packs in the latter. There is no amount of improvement or adjustment in these titles that warrants a new release every single year, yet people don’t yet seem to mind the yearly £50 buy-in.

It’s clear that many players want to invest in the games they find themselves obsessed with, and although live service games often employ predatory manoeuvres to entice or even trick gamers into spending money, it’s interesting to see how the industry is adapting to the changing landscape.

With so many games offering battle passes and cash shops, as well as Microsoft’s insanely successful Xbox game pass—a subscription service allowing access to a huge catalogue of titles—I wonder if we’ll see an end to the full-price retail release within this decade.

From Elden Ring to Activision Blizzard allegations: The best and worst moments in gaming from 2022

Let’s be real: 2022 has been a rough year—from Will Smith’s internet-shattering slap to Kanye West’s anti-Semitic meltdown, even the gaming industry came with its share of controversy. So let’s forget all about what 2023 might bring for a minute, get comfy by the fire and prepare for a deep dive into the biggest hits and flops that dominated the gaming news of the past year. We’ve picked out the most standout stories just for you, because we’re nice like that.

FromSoftware cemented its reputation, pleasing sadists all over the world

The 2010s saw a decline in games with a challenging edge. Instead, auto-aim and hand-holding was rife. The Japanese developer FromSoftware was the last bastion of hope for sadistic, controller-smashing maniacs who relish in difficulty (like myself).

Enter Elden Ring, a culmination of everything FromSoftware has learnt over the last decade of making crushingly complicated games. Through such mastery, this industry titan even managed to spawn an entire new subgenre, known among fanatics as Soulslike. Referring to an action role-playing game identified by its increasingly difficult narrative, Soulslike’s name was inspired by FromSoftware’s hit series Dark Souls.

The series, released in 2011, popularised dark fantasy settings by showing off cryptic lore and punishing gameplay with an emphasis on big, bad bosses. A theme and style that the developer hasn’t let go of since, exemplified by the likes of Elden Ring. The immediately popular game was nothing short of a masterpiece in the genre and reached a wider audience than anyone could’ve expected. This gargantuan success culminated in its momentous victory at the 2022 Game Awards, in which Elden Ring took home the award for Game of the Year.

FromSoftware’s games are challenging, rewarding and rich in dark detail and intrigue. The company’s latest entry really bridged the gap between casual and hardcore gamers, proving that people do like a little bit of a beating every now and then. Safe to say, it appears as though difficult games are most definitely here to stay.

2022 was a year of allegations and lawsuits

In the biggest flop of the year, we saw the gaming industry reveal a sinister side—exposing worrying traits and patterns many spectators hadn’t prepared themselves for.

Let’s start by getting some of the tamer news out of the way. Video game publisher Bethesda Softworks and Mick Gordon, composer for DOOM Eternal, went to war over contract, payment and crunch disputes. There’s far too much internal rigamarole to trudge through, so instead let’s focus on the main takeaways from this altercation. The falling out centred on the common occurrence in which artists and composers are sidelined and swindled by large companies motivated by corporate greed and complication. There is so much to read in regard to this topic and so I’d recommend fetching some hot cocoa—or a mimosa if you fancy something stronger—and diving into Gordon’s open letter wherein he discusses the entire affair.

Moving along, there was also the really strange news that the creator of iconic game Sonic The Hedgehog, Yuji Naka, had been found guilty of insider trading and was subsequently arrested twice—all in one year. The creator of the infamous Sonic couldn’t outrun these allegations.

The lowest point of the industry though was by far the explosion of allegations against Activision Blizzard which, though having started in 2021, spilled over into the new year with fresh suits and settlements lingering around every corner. To give a brief summary of the drama, the gaming giant—aka the studio behind Call of Duty and World of Warcraft—was accused of fostering a frat boy atmosphere and repeatedly making female employees uncomfortable due to unwanted advances and attitudes.

Allegations including the notorious Cosby suite, and female employees finding their breast milk missing from fridges wasn’t the end of the line for the developer giant in 2021. As 2022 rolled around, fresh allegations began to spawn, particularly regarding sexual harassment and inequality in the team, perpetrated in part by its CEO, Bobby Kotick, a man who is still running the company today. To top it all off, this year saw Blizzard trying to stop its workers from unionising by hiring a well-known firm whose job is to stop workers from organising.

Activision Blizzard has been in damage-control mode since the beginning of the year,  but it might be a little too late for the company. Will the community move on, or will they take a stand? 2023 spells a tough year for the developer as it desperately tries to win back players. It’s worth mentioning, it wasn’t the only gaming giant to face allegations this year, French titans Ubisoft also faced a scathing harassment lawsuit, as reported by Kotaku.

Yes, we’re counting Wordle as a videogame

The social phenomenon that was Wordle completely dominated the early months of 2022, and with good reason. Everyone was playing it—I’m a massive fan of games with the ability to unify people across boundaries and Wordle was a prime example of this.

In case you happened to be living under a rock for the first half of the year, Wordle requires players to figure out a daily random word in only six guesses. Each guess tells you which letters you surmised correctly,, and if they might be the right word but in the wrong place. For such a simple game, it was surprisingly addictive.

This word game sensation—originally developed and created by software engineer Josh Wardle—spawned numerous clones and copies, such as Quordle, an iteration where you guess four words at once, and Squirdle, a Pokémon guessing version. Although not the most traditional of video games, we believe it deserved an honourable mention here.

The gaming industry went on a shopping spree

2022 captured  one of the strangest emerging gaming trends—one of overspending and acquisitions. We witnessed Microsoft and Sony racing to buy up smaller studios, in a supposed bid to boost their respective arsenals in the long-running console wars.

After Microsoft acquired Bethesda Softworks—the studio behind the Fallout and Elder Scrolls franchises—in 2021, Sony kicked off the summer of 2022 by purchasing industry veterans Bungie, the legendary creators of the Halo franchise, for a tantalising $3.6 billion.

In retaliation, Microsoft threw its hat into the ring, making a stake for controversial gaming giant Activision Blizzard for an even more mouth-watering $69 billion. This purchase is yet to go through and will likely spill into 2023, so keep an eye out. Due to the size of the accession, the deal has got regulators in a flurry as lawyers and big wigs work their hardest to try and ensure that the gaming industry doesn’t become  monopolised.

News recently broke that gamers are banding together to sue Microsoft too, to ensure that gaming continues to allow players to make decisions on what systems they play on and who they give their money to. We’ll have to wait and see in the new year if this proves to be too big a bone for Microsoft to chew on.

The two mainstays of gaming weren’t the only companies scooping up studios and indie darlings though. Epic Games purchased Mediatonic, the lovable underdogs responsible for 2020’s surprise hit Fall Guys. The rest of the industry was left with odd bits of scrap with Take-Two Interactive, the Grand Theft Auto publisher grabbing mobile juggernaut Zynga, and Swedish holding company Embracer finding their hands on The Lord of the Rings, Tomb Raider, and Deus Ex franchises from Crystal Dynamics and Eidos.

The cherry on top in this extensive acquisition saga has to be the fact that  Chinese company Tencent can’t seem to get enough of Western games. Tencent recently found itself spending generous sums in order to have a stake in gaming giants Ubisoft and FromSoftware. Some seem to think this is part of a worrying trend of Chinese businesses infiltrating the West and harvesting data, but I think Tencent just wants to make money—a whole lot of it. 

So, these have been our highlights and lowlights of 2022. It’s been a messy one, but for the most part, gamers have been spoiled with a buffet of excellent titles, superb escapism, and a bundle of surprisingly enjoyable word-solving problems. This year did highlight a lot of problems within the industry itself—despite the games successes, Elden Ring we’re looking at you—so, let’s hope that 2023 stays as clean as possible. The only way is up.