How live subscription games squeeze traditional AAA releases

Colin Campbell, Thursday, June 1st, 2023 5:56 pm

How much of an impact are live service games having on more traditional triple-A releases? That’s the question addressed by Ampere Analysis’ Piers Harding-Rolls in a recent webinar report, titled Dissecting the competitive landscape for console games in 2023.

Harding-Rolls shared how much live service and multiplayer games have come to dominate the console landscape. In March of this year, the top Xbox and PlayStation games by monthly active users were Fortnite (36 million), Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (22m), Grand Theft Auto 5 (19m), FIFA 23 (18m), and Minecraft (15m). By contrast, triple-A single-player smash Hogwarts Legacy managed 5 million, while the hit release Resident Evil 4 notched up 4 million. Hogwarts Legacy was released in February, while the Resident Evil 4 remake was released in late March.

Furthermore, live service game players tend to be highly engaged. The average FIFA player returned to the game 33 percent of days in March. Other live games notched up similarly impressive numbers – Destiny 2 (32%), Fortnite (25%), Apex Legends (24%). The stat for Hogwarts in its first month of release was 18 percent.

“The stickiest games reach over 30 percent,” said Harding-Rolls, “meaning that the average gamer is playing the title on around 10 days a month.

Driving MAUs

Publishers are forever competing for gamer attention to drive MAUs, playtime and, of course, revenues. As Ampere points out, they are up against a formidable array of consumer options including other games of the same genre, in-device competitors, multi-platform options and, of course, time-sinks like social media and other entertainments.

Live service games are so dominant that publishers are obliged to factor them into their release strategies, even though those games were often released many years ago. Live service games demand extra consumer attention during particular seasons, like holidays or upon the release of new seasons or special events.

For example, in November, 2022, Fortnite’s global user acquisition rate was at 26 percent, but in December, when many children are off school, and when Epic released a new season, that figure jumped to 39 percent, before settling again at 24 percent in January, 2023.

Harding-Rolls said: “As a publisher, you’re not only competing with new releases but there’s also a floating audience of players that are pulled back into games because there’s an event or content update that resonates with them.”

He added: “That means when you’re assessing the competitive climate, you should be looking closely at live service events and seasons that might impact audience activity.”

Extreme competition

Publishers who wish to take the live service route face extreme competition. More than 500 developers and publishers are active in that market, and some handle multiple games. While many only publish one or a few games, Ampere showed a list of subscription service unique titles by company – Sony has 165, followed by Microsoft (143), Embracer (142), Ubisoft (137), and Electronic Arts (124)

It’s hardly surprising that the dominant publishers – by global monthly active users share – are also active in the live service sector. Electronic Arts’ sports titles help give it a 17 percent share, followed by Epic (12%), and Activision Blizzard (9%).

Warner Bros, which published Hogwarts, saw its share rise by a single percentage point to 4 percent during the first month of that game’s release. Between January and April, the Harry Potter game peaked at 8.3 million MAUs. Resident Evil 4 topped out at 4.6 million. For traditional triple-A games, success in the market for user playtime is short lived. Hogwarts captured 12 percent of PlayStation and Xbox playtime at launch, but that number dropped to 2 percent within a couple of months.

Harding-Rolls pointed out that the game was “the biggest release we’ve had in the first four months of the year across Xbox and PlayStation”.

Opportunity window

Warner can take some comfort that Hogwarts may have dented Fortnite’s dominance, at least briefly. Ampere pointed to a “little dip” in the Fortnite share of players when the game was launched, which Harding-Rolls said was “a testament to its quality gameplay,” adding the caveat that “the window of opportunity to take advantage of that deep engagement closes pretty quickly for these types of games”.

Publishers understand that a not-insignificant number of their players are regularly diving into live service games. Among Resident Evil 4’s players, 8.5 percent play Fortnite, followed by CoD: MWII (8.3%).

There are compelling reasons to embrace live service games above and beyond direct revenues. Adding an old title to a service can boost interest in the franchise prior to an upcoming release, and demonstrably boosts interest in the game. When Far Cry 5 was pushed onto PS Plus, its MAUs jumped from 300K to 800K. Watch Dogs 2 on Xbox Game Pass went from 200K to 1.2m. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey went from 300K to 1.1m.

Harding-Rolls concluded: “The console market is a melting pot of monetization models, where premium titles sit alongside free-to-play games where in-game monetization is now a huge part of the market. Subscription services are disrupting audience behavior. Competition for attention is multi-layered. It comes from new releases, existing live service games, new season and DLC releases and new additions to subscription services.”

Colin Campbell
Editor-in-Chief

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist.

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