We’re moving toward a future of games-as-a-service

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

To understand just how integral Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform, is to the company’s future, you need only look to its new CEO, Satya Nadella. “Satya owned our services and tools business prior to this job,” said Darren Strange, who helps first-and-third-party game studios build or move on to Azure. “That includes bringing Azure from just an idea through to be the released service it became.”

With Nadella at the helm, it’s not hard to imagine that a few years from now cloud-based web services will be just as (if not more) important to the company than traditional software. Increasingly, instead of a clean break between Windows 95 to 98, Microsoft’s software will constantly evolve as a service, mostly on a server somewhere far away.

As both a major player in the cloud services and games businesses, Microsoft is uniquely positioned to determine a future where the two are inseparable.

Strange sees developers using the cloud to access partners that can provide them with common elements that developers traditionally spend a lot of time and effort building from scratch for every game. We’re already seeing this happen with leaderboards, player matching, analytics, and other services, and Strange thinks we’ll see more partners with further specializations soon.

“It’s going to be an interesting period where companies decide how much they do themselves and how much they buy into standardization of those features,” he said. “Specific enabler partners will emerge that take on that lion’s share of what a lot of big companies and small companies do.”

There’s a suspicion among many videogame fans that having to be connected at all times is to their detriment. 

So far, videogame players haven’t bought this future. There’s a suspicion among many videogame fans that having to be connected at all times is to their detriment, whether in the form of DRM, data mining, or other methods. This notion ruled the conversation that followed Xbox One’s reveal and eventually, amazingly, caused Microsoft to back off and downsize the promise of the cloud, to the point where it reversed the principles that at first seemed to define the console.

On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss the overwhelmingly negative reaction as that of luddites. Change never comes easy, and the protest against it gets pretty loud when you’re dealing with a customer base who knows how to use any and all online channels to express itself.

It’s doubly silly because this cloud thing is so clearly where we’re headed anyway. Players may feel like they were justified when Microsoft stepped away from the ledge, but the console’s first defining and extremely successful game, Titanfall, is an online only game, and one that uses the cloud to host its dedicated servers and do more with the game’s AI and physics. According to NPD, it’s been the best selling game in the US in the two months since its release.

On the other hand, when you talk to the people who are building this cloud-based future, you start to hear the kind of buzzwords that people rejected upon the Xbox One’s debut. In the technology business, certainly, we see more and more software-as-a-service (SaaS) as the popular solution to any problem in any market. It’s not surprising, then, that the minds building Azure say “games-as-a-service” without batting an eye.

As Strange explained it to me, Azure want to empower developers like Illyriad Games, to give them access to scale and computing power that was previously available only to the biggest developers, and at the same time give developers a way to use the same resources at a cheaper cost. Hopefully this will allow them to take bigger risks that lead to more innovation.

That kind of scenario is why I love listening to technologists talk about technology. It’s when they start talking about how this technology can dictate the creative aspirations of a game that I start to worry.

“I think that game studios had perhaps the most traditional, pre-cloud business model. They wrote a game, it went on a DVD in a box and it was a retail distribution business,” Strange said. “That meant that at the end of writing a game a studio would be able to just draw a line on the project and just start working on the next version of their title.”

With the cloud, though, games may never be finished. We’re already seeing how this constantly evolving approach to development, which used to be limited to competitive or persistent online games, is spreading everywhere. Early access games like Day Z and Rust have become phenomena, and games like Borderlands 2 receive DLC packs and content updates years after they launched. It’s getting hard to tell when a game is released and when it’s finished development.

According to Microsoft, that will become standard with the cloud, and this fundamentally changes how people make and play games.

“The game changes from something you write and ship and is then essentially frozen in time to something that is a business that lasts for many years and can change shape over time. This means the relationship that studios start to build with an individual gamer changes completely. They have to think about how to keep the game running and keep it economic, but it gives them the opportunities to create totally different business models, so this is where things like free-to-play start to come in.”

There is something counter-productive to games as an art form in this new model. With any art, at some point, you have to choose to walk away. As Leonardo da Vinci said: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

“Games-as-a-service” sounds like a convenient way of allowing games to never be done. 

I have little doubt that cloud platforms like Azure are the future, and the technology part of it has me genuinely excited to see it. They can and should empower more developers to do more new things. But with the exception of MMOs and other games that make use of persistent worlds, “games-as-a-service” sounds like a convenient way of allowing games to never be done, which in turn means we’re also never done paying for them. That may be a convenient business model for cloud service providers, and it’s one that works well for other software, but it’s not one that is necessarily in service of the game or the player.