Everyone’s got a game that they’ve played for a long time. Maybe forever.
StarCraft II is one of mine. I play other things too, but recently I’ve found myself spending a lot of time in this familiar place.
Each time I fire it up, I ask myself the same question: “Why this game? What keeps me coming back?”
It’s not just me. I’ve watched more and more of my friends settle into their own ‘forever’ games. One plays Final Fantasy XIV almost exclusively, and most nights you’ll find him sitting in queue for a raid.
Another slid into the comforting groove of World of Warcraft. He has more than a dozen characters at max level.
One joined a clan that plays War Thunder. I almost never see him anymore.
The more I looked around me, the more I saw a pattern — unless there was a special event or they were taking a break to play a single-player title, my friends had their game and played it to the exclusion of everything else. Getting them to try something new was almost impossible. The answer was always “not right now.” Eventually, I learned “not right now” meant “never.” That was when I realized the industry had a problem.
We have two types of ‘big’ games these days. The first is the big budget single-player title. These are immaculately produced, they push the graphical envelope, they’re well-written and acted and have engaging gameplay that often includes RPG elements like loot, leveling up, and skill trees. They can be shooters, action games, open-world titles, or traditional RPGs, but they all have one thing in common — they end. They may have a ton of content, but eventually credits roll.
The second is the ‘forever’ game. In industry-speak, we call these titles “Games as a Service.” These games don’t end. They are constantly being updated with new content, cosmetics, loot, story elements, and ways to play. And everywhere you look, it feels like the forever game is taking over.
When I tried to gauge player reaction to the ascendence of the forever game, responses were mixed.
One user I polled on Twitter described a recurring cycle where he’d spend weeks blowing through content in Warframe so he could catch up to his friends, only to burn out and stop playing. Eventually, the pressure of being behind kept him away entirely.
Another loved the grind until life wouldn’t let him play enough to keep up, and such a barrier is a problem in a multiplayer game where you rely on your teammates. “I don’t like being the slow one on the team,” he said. “I want to pull my weight, and on the same tip, I hate being pulled through content I wouldn’t otherwise be levelled for.” Combine that with season passes and other content he needed to purchase to stay current, and the math didn’t work out for him anymore. A single-player game he could work through at his own pace made a lot more sense.
Several others cited their desire to move between games without penalty or wanting to simply clear out their backlogs, which seemed impossible while keeping up with a forever game.
I understand both positions, particularly the latter. When a friend asked why I stopped playing World of WarCraft several years ago, my answer was simple — “I could play WoW,” I said, “or I could play everything else.”
Another user summed it up well: “If I’m not there from the start I’m unlikely to ever play. All the years of WoW I’ve missed is the reason I’ll never return to WoW.”
That logic kept me away for a long time, too. When I finally broke down and did go back to World of WarCraft, I found a game with more content than ever and fewer games competing against it.
The MMO genre used to have dozens of high-profile releases. Now your options are WoW, Final Fantasy XIV, or niche games like Eve Online or The Old Republic. The same is true for looter-shooters — it’s either Destiny or The Division. League of Legends and DOTA 2 own the MOBA space. And while there are plenty of battle royale games out there, none really compete with Fortnite.
The rise of the forever game (and the rising cost of AAA development) also means fewer games regardless of genre, as developers adopt more game-as-service tactics.
Rather than getting a series of new Halo games, we’ll likely get Halo Infinite and multiple add-ons. Street Fighter is now a once-a-generation series supported by tons of post-release content. Before, it was logical to skip a game if you disliked it and simply wait for the next one in the series. These days? Not so much. Regardless of the title, you’ll probably be waiting a while for the next one.
Having fewer games encourages people to stick with one, and almost everyone I talked to told me that they were happy to have a world they could return to and make progress in. It’s nice to have a world that’s always there for you. After a bad day, you can just log into your favorite forever place and play with your friends. There’s value in that.
One person I spoke to even said that Destiny 2’s mix of new content in a familiar setting helped pull them through COVID lockdown. Millions took refuge in Animal Crossing. People aren’t wrong to want worlds that will always be there to welcome them home.
But that value comes at a cost.
While almost everyone I talked to about forever games told me that they were happy to have a world they could return to and progress in, these games also often felt like chores — keeping up with the Joneses meant playing their chosen game a lot, and often when they didn’t even want to.
Another side effect of the forever game is that we’re already starting to see genres stagnate as publishers pick a lane and stick with it. Ubisoft releases The Ubisoft Game across multiple genres. EA has doubled-down on sports. Activision seems fine releasing little more than the yearly Call of Duty, the odd remaster, and whatever Blizzard is working on. Sony almost exclusively publishes big-budget single-player games.
Even community content has begun to dwindle. Things like custom games and modes are afterthoughts in most modern multiplayer titles. After all, why support something you can’t monetize?
As time goes on, I imagine big releases that everyone plays will become increasingly rare. Communities will get smaller as everyone picks their forever game and sticks with it. The cost of staying in those communities will increase and the expectation to stay current will be more common. We’ll play games longer and we’ll play fewer of them. The forever game is the future.
Or is it?
In many ways, such a road isn’t sustainable and this model just isn’t possible for every developer.
The cost to make a forever game that can compete with established IPs is enormous, which is to say nothing of the time investment required to launch the game and maintain it — even the biggest, most successful forever games deal with content droughts.
And even if you manage to get a game out the door, people only have so much time and money to spend, and they’re more likely to stick with a game they’re already invested in rather than risk falling behind their friends if they try something new.
When I brought this up these observations to my gaming group, one friend said that what I was saying was the point.
“I think people like feeling more powerful than people who haven’t been playing as long. They like getting rewarded for putting in the time. Because if you’re not, why are you playing?”
He’s probably right. Destiny players spend hours getting farming guns with the right stats and perks. The point of raiding in most MMOs is to get the game’s best gear, to complete the hardest challenges, or to try to be in an elite group that can play at the highest level.
The reality is that most people have a game that they could play forever if given the opportunity. In fact, it’s what they want. They like to feel rewarded, and to progress. They like to have the best stuff, to complete all the content, and to know all the tricks.
More importantly, people want to feel comfortable when they play games. Players like knowing what to expect and that their time is well-spent, and in a medium where the average person is not an enthusiast who plays a ton of games each year and probably hates losing, forever games are safe and comfortable while providing enough new content to keep players engaged. The increasing success of the “Games as a Service” model proves this.
The other night, my friends and I got together to play Fall Guys. Our resident FFXIV player declined to join us, and booted his favorite MMO instead. After a while, we asked him what he was doing.
“Nothing,” he said. “I opened the game, and then I realized I didn’t actually want to play it.” We asked him if he wanted to play Fall Guys. “No,” he said. “Not right now.”
After we finished, I went to get a drink. When I returned, he was back on Final Fantasy XIV and everyone on my friends list was back playing their regular forever game.
We used to play together, but now we mostly sit in a chat room while everyone is separated into their own world of choice with little crossover.
I’m never going to play Final Fantasy XIV because I’m too far behind to ever catch up. My friend will never fire up StarCraft because he hates losing and doesn’t want to learn.
We managed to all play Gears 5 for about a day before people starting quitting because the learning curve was too high and they were tired of getting killed.
The places my group can call common are becoming increasingly rare, and maybe that’s that future? All of us together in one way, while enjoying our favorite things alone. Sharing a common hobby, but not enjoying the same parts of it.
It’s a depressing idea. But maybe it shouldn’t be.
Perhaps we should simply be happy that we can spend more time in the worlds we love with the people we care about. As any medium grows, it will inevitably become more fragmented as people migrate to their niche. Even if we’re not enjoying the same games, we’re still occupying the same spaces, talking about the same things.
The forever game seems to be what we want, despite all of the baggage that comes with it.
Let’s hope we’re making the right choice.