Image: Sledgehammer Games/IGDB

The annual game release model, and why you shouldn’t support it

Some companies choose to work on a single title for years, dedicated to perfection and the time it deserves. When it’s finished, there may be DLC on the horizon, but for the most part, it’s standalone and finished. A sequel may be considered, but it’s all dependent on the game’s success – and on the understanding that a sequel wouldn’t be a rehash of the same thing, that it would justify full price. 

Others opt for live service games, maintaining and updating over years, constantly innovating new content to retain the player base. When these live service games fail to entice consumers with shiny cosmetics, premium battle passes banking on FOMO, and pay-to-win mechanics, they fall behind. 

The live service model has garnered a lot of controversy in recent years, as players become conscious of exploitative monetisation. But there’s another business model that has evaded the spotlight for far too long. 

The annual game release model is the practice of releasing the same game with minor changes every year, at full price, often helpfully coinciding with the Christmas sales. It has been utilised by industry heavyweights like Call of Duty, but mostly centred on sports games like EA Football Club (formerly known as the FIFA game franchise), NBA 2K, Madden NFL, and Formula 1. Not only do these games release yearly charging full price, they often feature a shop where players can exchange real life money for in-game currency, which they can use for cosmetics or questionably unfair upgrades. In fact, EA has attracted endless criticism with its Fifa Ultimate Team mode that entices players (and indeed children) to spend hundreds of pounds on packs to form teams that would only be viable for a year, as after a year when the next game is released, a user’s previous purchases or in-game earnings can no longer be accessed. 

the problem lies with anyone who is fool enough to buy a yearly release game.

Game developers can spend years working on a single game, so one has to ask, how different can NBA2K23 be from NBA2K22? FIFA 15 from FIFA 14? F1 2020 from F1 2019? Call of Duty Modern Warfare III to Call of Duty Modern Warfare II? For any of these titles, the developers would have had less than a single year to make the next game worth buying and introduce new mechanics, gameplay, campaigns, and any other possible addition that could justify full price. That simply isn’t enough time for the kind of quality and innovation that gamers deserve for £70, and certain Ultimate Editions priced at £100 can’t possibly be justified either. 

The problems with this business model have recently come to the fore after the release of Call of Duty Modern Warfare III. The highly anticipated latest entry in the franchise did not meet expectations, received damning reviews, and is largely considered to be a recycled version of the previous title. Players noted in particular the disappointingly short length of the story campaign, which only lasted for about 3 hours. There are also clues that the game was intended as a DLC or update for MWII, so the choice to release it at full-price under the guise of a new title is a mark of pure greed. 

What, then, is a proposed solution? One could argue that an amalgamation of the yearly release and live service models is sensible. Games could undergo big updates every year, continue to make money via cosmetics and DLC (at fair prices, of course), without insulting the player base. This kind of model would allow games to thrive for longer, make in-game purchases more justifiable, and rebalance the industry’s ecosystem. If developers agree that a sequel is necessary after time has passed and technology has advanced, let them work on it for an appropriate amount of years before release. 

It must be acknowledged, however, and this is a sentiment I see echoed throughout the internet, that the problem lies with anyone who is fool enough to buy a yearly release game. As a society, as gamers, we are so consumed by the fear of missing out that we end up allowing companies to exploit us. The difficult truth we have to accept is that the annual release game we bought last year… is still perfectly playable. 


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