Long live the video game content war

Photo: mikkelwilliam (Getty Images)

On Saturday, June 8th, the first of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) livestreams began. Away from the hustle and bustle of the show floor, these presentations—hosted by the likes of Microsoft, Google, EA, and Ubisoft—offered remote onlookers a glimpse into the machinery of the video game industry. Alongside dazzling (albeit curiously scarce) in-game presentations of blockbuster titles such as Watch Dogs: Legion and Cyberpunk 2077, the full extent of the messy competition between companies was splayed out on our computer screens—however much heads of business like Microsoft’s Phil Spencer and Google’s Phil Harrison tried to tell us otherwise. Across what felt like endless Michael Bay-directed trailers and awkwardly delivered spiel, the industry’s thirst for content—but not, pointedly, for new titles or IP—was palpable.

Instead, content updates to existing games were everywhere throughout this year’s presentations. EA opened proceedings with its EA Play event, a strange kind of televised festival-cum-press-conference. Of the six games the behemoth publisher detailed, Apex Legends, Battlefield V, and The Sims 4 are already released. They’re what we might call “games as service,” i.e., titles that are designed to be played in perpetuity, helped along by periodic content updates. At Ubisoft’s conference, the long-released Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege, The Division 2, and For Honor all received juicy content news. Microsoft, meanwhile, dutifully informed us of additional Gears Of War 5 content, specifically its Escape mode, which will round out its single and multiplayer experiences. All of these games are already big—in a “here are tons of things to keep you occupied” kind of way—but publishers are gambling that they can lure a significant proportion of players to return to them again and again.

What makes this emphasis on existing games feel especially weird is that the next generation of hardware is finally on the horizon. Microsoft even announced its latest console—Project Scarlett—albeit in a noticeably low-key fashion, leading not with a graphics sizzle reel, but the promise of a reduction in load times. (More akin to a sales pitch for a new generation of phones, rather than the big “Here’s the next epoch in gaming” announcements that have accompanied this kind of news in the past.)

Instead, it felt like the company was far more interested in showing off xCloud, a new cloud-based video game streaming service. Like the Google Stadia, Microsoft will offload computing processes usually carried out by a home console to its vast, resource-gobbling data centers. Players (ones with sufficiently capable internet connections, at least) will pay monthly fees for these the same way they already do for the subscription services offered by EA Origin Access and Microsoft Game Pass. Microsoft wasn’t alone in this shift, either; Ubisoft announced its own foray into the subscription model with UPlay Plus, while Square Enix confirmed it’s also investigating the approach, underlining the way more and more companies are looking to transition customers from “purchasers of products” to consumers of a new kind of streaming content.

These developments—really the opening salvos in a burgeoning content war—resonate with what Jenny Odell describes in her recent book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy, as the “technologies that encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community.” The Bay Area artist and writer describes herself not as “anti-technology… but opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention.” Odell doesn’t mention video games in the book at all—save for a fleeting reference to Pokémon Go—but watching all of this E3 content beamed from California to my laptop, I couldn’t help but compare what I was watching with the broader changes in media consumption she identifies. At this year’s E3, it felt like the big corporate players within the industry were attempting to fully consolidate their place within the attention economy, joining not just commercial social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but other content-delivery platforms like Spotify and Netflix.

You might reasonably ask what an interactive product like a video game has in common with these other platforms. But here’s the thing: When it comes to the attention economy, each type of platform has a vested shared interest in keeping consumers hooked, regardless of what kind of content they happen to be offering up. The longer and more intensively we use social media platforms, the more data they gather on us, which is then sold for eye-watering sums to advertisers. The “games as service” outlined above are based on a similarly crude calculation: The longer we inhabit these curated virtual worlds, the more money we’ll spend. Time, not sales, has never been a more valuable metric of success.

Accumulating and spending money on these types of games generally follows a similar pattern. Take the the battle royale shooter Apex Legends, which is clearly aping the seasonal structure employed by Epic Games’ Fortnite, whereby players purchase new content updates periodically. These might include changes to maps, new maps, options to buy new skins for characters and weapons, and more. (Notably, the battle pass model in both games also allows players to level-up a series of progression systems, allowing them to buy in to their own reward structures.) In Apex Legends, this is all performed using an in-game currency known as Apex Coins, which correspond to real-world money, with additional rewards doled out at the end of each level. Like social media, the game is built on inherently addictive design principles: Amid its already bright quasi-cartoon aesthetic, pinging notifications alert the player to accumulating experience bonuses, while the rat-a-tat of gunfire, the game’s now signature sliding mechanic, and the clink accompanying a weapon pick-up—what Odell might refer to as a “barrage of stimuli”—work toward tiny constant endorphin releases, all of which help keep us logged in and paid up.

Of course, critics might suggest these developments have been around for decades—which they have, to an extent. Design that encourages repeat play is as old as the arcade, while there’s nothing necessarily new about online competitive play or post-launch support. Some might even tentatively suggest that the modding communities which supported ’90s titles such like Doom and its sequels laid the groundwork for the shift toward “games as service,” pumping out hundreds of hours of new content for games that eventually served as little more than platforms for their fan-made innovations. But while that content was admittedly generated off the back of free labor, it was also distributed for nothing. Now, the video game corporations who own such titles have found a way of meticulously commodifying the interest which sustains them. Sometimes this process has been gradual: Counter Strike—arguably the world’s most historically popular shooter—existed in various official iterations for 13 years before the “Arms Deal” update arrived in 2013, subsequently enabling players to acquire and purchase weapon skins. Skip forward six years, though, and these developments have intensified: The current video game landscape is unique precisely because capital has never been more suffused into the act of play.

If this all sounds suitably dystopian, there’s another angle to Odell’s book worth considering in relation to the changing face of video games. In order to resist the attention economy, she suggests we ground ourselves more fully in our local communities, physical spaces away from the invasive glare of technologies. For Odell, this involved spending more time exploring the people, history and nature of Oakland and its hinterlands. Clearly, video games are not physical spaces in the way most people conceive of them. But games do offer opportunities for restoration, peace, and exploration, particularly when they’re not so determinedly beholden to the march of capital-driven content. When I think back to playing The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild—particularly its gently undulating grass and soft pastel sunsets—I realize the game offered me a break from the onslaught of daily life, not an extension of it. (To say nothing of the freedom from the always-rising bars and push notifications of so many more ostensibly “rewarding” shooters.) But with the relentless incorporation of service systems into the language, rhythm, and delivery of video games—exemplified by the weight afforded them at E3—the opportunities for more subversive types of play, at least in a mainstream context, might be diminishing.

And for the laborers behind these games, the content war poses another set of problems. The rapid development of updates—often on games which host millions of players—requires huge amounts of labor, and many of these companies are simply not equipped for such scales of production. Recent reporting highlighted the labor pressures exacted on Epic Games employees as development ramped up on its hit battle royale game Fortnite, with some workers disclosing working weeks in excess of 70 hours. While the report highlighted over 200 jobs listed on the Epic Games website, those positions take time to fill, and its executives would have known this as they decided to rapidly expand the pace of the game’s content in an effort to keep subscribers engaged. While demand came partly from the huge influx of players, it was also encouraged by individuals at the company itself, which stood to make millions of dollars per day on a game it was functionally “giving away” for free. If E3 is anything to go by, this model of content delivery and development is set to grow, not scale back, creating a never-ending variant on the old idea of “crunch” culture.

And not just for official developers. During Ubisoft’s presentation, the company both built on and hinted at the future of content through its Delta Company Community Program for the upcoming Ghost Recon: Breakpoint. Billed as a means for players to express and share their “passion,” the service promises assets and support to aid fan content “from cosplay to streaming, fan art to forum discussions.” Essentially, mega-fans will be able to assist in the creation of marketing materials—which sounds suspiciously similar to the art and music crowdsourcing initiative the French publisher launched for Beyond Good And Evil 2 at 2018’s E3, receiving significant criticism in the process). For Breakpoint, Ubisoft is asking fans to contribute assets which may or may not be included in the game (with a pot of $50,000 to split among successful applicants), creating an echo of the problems of spec-work that often haunt those trying to make a freelance living in the arts.

Corporate-sold, fan-made content isn’t new—Valve’s Team Fortress 2, one of the first major shooters to go the games-as-services route, started selling its fan-created “Community Contributions” back in 2010—but Ubisoft’s latest move falls in line with a wearily predictable trend. The recent Dreams and the upcoming Super Mario Maker 2 both encourage players to use their level creation tools to make and then upload content to an online hub for others to play. (Indeed, playing user-made levels that Nintendo didn’t have to spend any time or energy making is one of the chief draws of the much-anticipated latter game.) But where fan-made content might have previously been dispersed across a wide, delocalised, democratic range of online portals, it’s now being subsumed into corporate structures, both from the development and the marketing sides.

What’s emerged, depressingly, is a feedback loop of content creation, stretching from company to the players and back again. For those who feel the full pull of these games, their attention has now been monopolized at every point—creative, social, and recreational. If this year’s E3 points to anything—from the gluttonous content updates to the monthly subscriptions to the lukewarm Project Scarlett reveal—it’s that the console war might be dead as we know it. Long live the video game content war.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Writer and journalist at The Outline, Vice, Dazed, and more.