It’s a rough world out there for the live service games. Dozens of games have shuttered following lacklustre performance this year. Day one players are proving fair-weather. Who can blame them? Every live service game out there isn’t just fighting for your money, it’s fighting for your time. Why sink 100 hours into a flawed new release when you’ve already got 2,000 hours in Fortnite, Apex, or otherwise.
It’s this unforgiving nebula that T-Minus Zero Entertainment is soaring towards. The Netease studio has many veteran developers on board, sure, but it also has Rich Vogel leading the company. If you’re an MMO fan, that’s a name you should recognise; he’s previously had major roles on popular titles including Star Wars The Old Republic (SWOTOR), Ultima Online, Fallout 76, and more besides.
“I grew up around the space industry, and one thing I thought about was how much energy it takes to make a game,” states Vogel. “Coming up with a unique name that hasn’t been trademarked today is kind of a challenge! Our discussions came to the Apollo program. One of the cool things about the countdown to launch is that a whole bunch of things that have to go off in a very orchestrated way when launching a rocket, getting into escape velocity, then getting into sustained orbit.”
Vogel and his peers are currently working on an unannounced sci-fi third-person action game. “I’m well known for MMORPGs, but at Certain Affinity, I gained a lot of experience working on shooters. So I have that DNA in me now.”
T-Minus Zero’s game director Mark Tucker – an industry vet Vogel says he “worked to hire” – stands out as one of a handful of extremely senior names attached to the fledgling studio. With a combination of successful FPS and MMO experience behind the bar, this cocktail of specialised staff is blending into a very modern drink: a third-person, live service, action game.
Even with a gaggle of established names at the helm, there’s no guarantee of success with the live service market right now. Games like Rumbleverse and Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines (both from established studios with decades of work behind them) are just two casualties in a brutal season for online multiplayer experiences. Even big budget IPs like Overwatch 2 are fumbling the bag and falling out of favour. This begs the question: why will T-Minus Zero succeed where others have failed?
Vogel explains two main approaches. The first is identifying the audience and what they actually want from live service games right now: “The player population has changed a lot. Minecraft and Roblox have helped the new generation to come around to where they are. They’re more into quick-fix games without a huge treadmill. They like a treadmill over time, rather than a huge grind every day. Getting in and getting out – having a great time. That’s the kind of game we want to make and Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Destiny has proven that’s a good idea.”
Then there’s launch and post-launch content; an area that many industry peers in the space haven’t paid enough attention to, per Vogel. “One of the problems I’ve seen in games that have launched recently is that they don’t have a very solid D1, D7, or D14 plan (D1 refers to making players want to come back after day one, D7 refers to a week, and D14 is two weeks). You need to nail those before you really go big, otherwise you’re dead in the water.”
“I want to make sure we have the right experience right away, and then we’ll update. Another problem a lot of other games have had is they’ve not had a good pipeline established, so they can’t release content at the similar cadence as Fortnite does, for example.”
This all sounds sensible, sure. But there are still pressing questions here. For one, this plan requires support, something that Vogel highlighted as absenst with EA’s SWOTOR during a 2019 GDC talk. NetEase, T-Minus Zero’s partner, appears to be taking a shotgun approach to live service, with various titles that all differ wildly from each other under its umbrella. To Vogel, NetEase is a company with a vision he can get behind.
“That’s why I went with them: their vision! They understand you won’t hit it out of the park. Hitting it out of the park is very hard to do in this business. I just want to be successful – like Warframe! Fortnite is lightning in a bottle, and hitting that level is fantastic, but to me making a successful [game] with tons of players like Warframe is success.”
Then there’s live service fatigue, the last and especially exhausted looking elephant in the room. Vogel initially pointed to COVID as a source of general gaming fatigue – that the rise and fall of gaming’s popularity over the lockdown years was an obvious occurrence. However, he does acknowledge the exhaustion many gamers have for traditional live service features as something developers must look out for and react to.
“We’ll watch the player dynamics very carefully, and we’ll play the game too. We’ll tune things depending on what the audience is. If we feel that the battle pass and the seasonal structure isn’t the way to go, we’ll figure out and try different aspects. The key is making an experience people haven’t seen before, and making it fun and worth coming back to.” Vogel would also state that Early Access is something they’ll be doing as part of their breakout game, to better understand what that day one audience wants.
This rocket ship has got some tested spacefarers onboard. At T-Minus Zero, the clamps come off and the rocket either “goes up or over” according to Vogel. He believes that’s often true for making a new game, as is the huge number of course corrections that must happen once a rocket starts making its ascent. Whether Vogel and co. can make it to cosmic levels of success, or whether they’ll join the heap of ruined ships around them, remains to be seen.