Live service, free-to-play games are the new hotness. With massive fanbases built around games like Genshin Impact, Destiny, and Fortnite, which are regularly updated with new characters, content, and quests, it's easy to see how other game development studios might be tempted over to the dark side.
Games-as-a-service (GaaS) is a little hard to pin down when it comes to Nintendo, because the Japan-based mega-corp likes to forge its own path in everything.
When microtransactions were the new trend, we saw Nintendo dabble in haggling with Rusty's Real Deal Baseball. When ongoing mobile games were the flavour du jour, Nintendo made their first one to test the waters: The surprisingly-pricey-for-a-mobile-game Super Mario Run. Now that subscriptions are the current fashion, Nintendo offers the NSO service and the Expansion Pack, neither of which are fantastic value for money, but do offer extra content for existing games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
When it comes to live service games, Nintendo has once again dipped their toes in the water with games like Mario Kart Tour and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp... but it seems like they're reluctant to leave the mobile game sphere.
So, will Nintendo get into live service games properly — or will they forever be treated as experiments that never quite reach the level of success of, say, Final Fantasy XIV? Let's take a look at which Nintendo games could benefit from a pivot into live service...
Nintendo could have instead made Splatoon 2 into an ongoing live service game, with regular updates, season pass content, and server support to keep it going well into the future, rather than just ditching it for something new and shiny (that some seem to think isn't different enough to warrant a whole sequel).
Given that Splatoon draws its inspiration from other online shooters like Destiny, it's strange that the games are still treated as standalone releases with a limited shelf life.
The Pokémon series has dabbled in games-as-a-service a few times, and despite a few successes (Pokémon GO, Pokémon UNITE) many of the games just haven't really caught on in a massive way. There was the disappointing Pokémon Shuffle, which relied too heavily on timers; Pokémon Café Mix, which gets barely any promotion from Nintendo or The Pokémon Company, and Pokémon Picross, which was made by the Picross studio Jupiter, but involved too many stingy free-to-play mechanics.
They just can't seem to get it right. But Pokémon Sword and Shield made some moves in the right direction, with new Pokémon being added on a fairly regular basis, plus two large DLCs that allowed you to visit new areas, catch new Legendaries, and find new items. Given how many people get angry about limited Pokédexes in every single new release, we can imagine that a Pokémon game that gradually introduces every Pokémon over a series of months might be a very, very popular idea indeed.
Nintendo have already proved that they can do Animal Crossing-as-a-service with Pocket Camp — and that people really appreciate it, too.
Although Animal Crossing: New Horizons has a few updates here and there, notably the Happy Home Paradise DLC and the various items that get added for holidays and festivities, imagine an Animal Crossing game that gets the full attention of a dedicated GaaS team. Imagine an Animal Crossing game that gives you new furniture, villagers, and mechanics on a regular basis, with a season pass that grants you access to special events and maybe even mechanics before the rest of the world. It would potentially smooth over all the difficulties that people experienced jumping from New Leaf to New Horizons and finding a lot less customisation and personality!
Maybe Mario Maker would be better served as a live service game, rather than the game Nintendo always seems to forget about. We could get new asset packs, Nintendo-made levels, festive content, and maybe some season-pass-only abilities, like being able to set multiple endings, bonus goals, boss fights, ghost data, or power ups. Call us, Nintendo. We have big ideas.
The Mario Party series has, for a while now, been little more than a light spruce-up every time it's about time for a new release. Cool new mechanics, like the ones involving HD Rumble, are welcome — but few and far between, even in more recent Switch outings.
Mario Party is one of the games that would suit the free-to-play model best — if everyone was able to access a base version of the game, you'd get a lot more people wanting to buy the freemium content within, rather than asking all of your friends to fork out $60 for a copy each.
The content that you could get as extra stuff could be new boards, items, characters, themes, minigames... the list goes on!
For the periods when Smash Bros. games are putting out regular stage, costume, and character packs, the series is basically a live service.
But imagine if the game had a longer shelf life, and the season pass granted you access to — for example — new characters as wide-ranging as those that Fortnite adds on a regular basis, plus massive events, tournaments, taunts, voice lines, and more. Smash Bros. could be a lot more colourful if it had lasting, ongoing support from its fans and players, rather than being supported for a few years and then left to slowly decay before the next instalment.
Nintendo's approach to Mario Kart in recent years has been quite weird. First, they released Mario Kart 8 in 2014 for the Wii U, later adding on DLC courses, characters, and free content like the Mercedes Benz pack (which we all agree was an odd choice). Then, they re-released Mario Kart 8 on the Switch, bundling in all the DLC (which was a much better choice).
Then there was Mario Kart Tour — the closest we've got to a Mario Kart live service game, but arguably not what many people wanted — and Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, an AR/AC racing game that sold a fraction of what MK8 did, and seemed to be aimed largely at families with kids. Nintendo's clearly experimenting with the Mario Kart franchise, but to what end?
Now, Nintendo is releasing 48 tracks — doubling the number already in the game — as even more DLC for MK8 over the course of two years, which many people will get for free as part of their Nintendo Switch Online membership. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is, at this point, a live service game that only has half the benefits. We're not getting game updates, new characters, or new modes, and although 48 is a lot of tracks, a few people have felt let down by the quality of the textures and the fact that it feels a bit like an ad for the phone game version of Mario Kart.
At this point, it's easy to wish for an all-or-nothing approach: If you're going to turn Mario Kart 8 into a colossal, bloated behemoth of a game, rather than releasing Mario Kart 9... then go all in on it. Release one new course a month, and add new cars, new characters, new battle modes, new challenges. Would that please everyone? Nooooooooooooo. But it's better than the halfway-between-new-game-and-old-game we have now, right?
Now, we know that the free-to-play live service model isn't necessarily a good thing. Many players end up spending more on cosmetics and content than they would have done on just the base game, and in some cases (like loot boxes and gacha packs) the F2P model can be predatory and unfair to those who don't have huge amounts of money to drop on making their character better. And you'll always get the rich jerks whose avatars are level fifty billion because they paid for it.
But Nintendo doesn't have to go down those routes. A lot of the suggestions we've made above are the cosmetic kind — and we've been imagining that other players would still be able to see and appreciate the content, even if they don't have it.
Imagine visiting an Animal Crossing: New Horizons island, and seeing it decked out in stuff that people paid real money for, or being able to play a Mario Maker level with items in it that you don't have access to. Sure, it might feel a bit like you're locked out of using those items yourself, but that's sort of the point of F2P, at the end of the day, and it wouldn't make a mechanical difference.
But tell us: Do you agree with any of these games being better as live service games? Have we missed an obvious one? Do you think F2P and live service games are a blight on the industry? Head to the comments!