There’s a scary urban legend in the games industry – and pretty much all other industries these days, but especially those in media and entertainment – and it’s called ‘exponential growth’. It’s something that the bigwigs at the top seem to wholeheartedly believe in and expect, even though it is fundamentally flawed and unsustainable.
The main place we see this drive for exponential growth is in live service games like Genshin Impact. Your game did well, brought in millions of players, and made a massive profit this year? Great, we expect it to do double that the year after, and double those numbers again in the following year. Oh, and be sure to bring out another hit game in that timeframe, too, to push the profits even higher – we’re sure it’ll pull in just as many players.
The issue that this philosophy seems to be missing, though, is that there is always a limit. While it’s become a far more common pastime over the last few years, there are still only so many gamers in the world. That pool shrinks again when it comes to gamers who like this specific type of game. It shrinks again when we consider how much free time this group has to spend on gaming. And it shrinks even further when we consider how many people are willing to spend more than a few dollars on games per month – especially with recessions, a cost of living crisis, and more economic factors impacting people all over the world.
This results in a limited pool of people with limited time and money. And, while that pool is still pretty big, it’s also swayed by other elements such as personal preferences (eg, do you like ARPG combat or turn-based?), the reputation or marketing of a game and its publishers/developers, and more. This has caused an issue in the live service games world, as multiple companies see the success of Genshin Impact and want a slice of that pie – but there’s one issue. Hoyoverse is just too good.
Now, while I’m undeniably a big fan of Hoyoverse’s games, I won’t claim that they’re perfect by any stretch of the imagination. However, with Genshin Impact being the first game of its kind to truly gather such monumental success (just like PUBG and Fortnite were the first battle royale games to break into mainstream consciousness), this corner of the gaming world has essentially become a ticking time bomb – or, in terms of other live services trying to get in on that action, a life support machine soon to be unplugged.
The issue is, Genshin Impact captured many players’ hearts in the early days, and requires a lot of investment, be it of time, money, or even emotions (and, for a lot of people including myself, a mixture of all three). When you spend so much time and energy building up a roster of characters, completing quests and events, and logging in every day to do your commissions, many players begin to feel a sense of loyalty to the game.
Even if they’re unhappy with the direction the game is going in, or they’re tired of the game’s systems (believe me, game burn-out is a thing), many players end up falling into the sunk cost fallacy. I.e. “I’ve put so much time and/or money into this game, leaving it for another live service game is like losing all that progress and starting all over again.”
This is reinforced by how finite time is. Live service games are not only competing with each other and games from other genres, they’re competing with everything else that takes up your time – work or school, other hobbies, fitness, spending time with family and friends, household chores, even sleep.
We only have so many hours in a day, and when all these live service games expect you to log on and complete time-sink commissions and limited-time events in order to get a few extra in-game items and currencies, threatening you with FOMO if you don’t, it’s easy to get overwhelmed or fed up of it all. And this can either result in players completely disconnecting from the live service world, or just sticking to one game.
I’m sure that this has not only contributed to the death of more live service games than I can count, but I’m sure it’s even affected Hoyoverse in a way – namely, due to the cannibalization of its own playerbase. Genshin was the first Hoyo game that really took off on a global scale, followed by the Honkai Star Rail release date a few years later. And now, with the Zenless Zone Zero release date on the horizon, it’s all becoming a bit overwhelming, right?
Personally, I rarely missed a day of Genshin Impact for nearly two years since I started playing. However, when Honkai Star Rail came out, I began to struggle to balance the two, and I had a similar issue when I tried to dive into Tower of Fantasy during its release. After a while, logging into both HSR and Genshin to do my daily commissions, grab my login bonuses, and complete any events became a chore. And, while it may affect me more than others considering how much of my workday is dedicated to Hoyoverse, it’s easy to see why, and I know I’m not alone.
Recently I took roughly a one-month break from both Honkai Star Rail and Genshin Impact, mostly due to the fact that my health conditions flared up following a stressful time moving house. However, despite missing these in-game worlds and charismatic characters that have become a comfort to me over time, I found myself struggling to come back to them.
Choosing to spend this time on my favorite horror games like Resident Evil, Evil Within, Alan Wake, or even relaxing games like Spirittea and Stardew Valley made me realize just how much live service games are competing with. And it also made me realize just why I’ve never felt the urge to really sink my teeth into any other live service games. They’re huge, they’re time-consuming, and they never really end.
Now, don’t get me wrong, persistent free content updates aren’t a bad thing. In fact, I see them as a real blessing. A fresh update with a new area like Genshin Impact’s Fontaine or Honkai Star Rail’s Penacony is always highly anticipated among the PT crew, and having new events to enjoy, locations to explore, and characters to meet every couple of weeks is both exciting and impressive. But that’s the whole point. Games are supposed to be fun and exciting, not something that you feel obliged to play, even when you don’t feel like it. And, while you can engage with these games on a more casual level, there are lots of tactics in place to encourage you to make these games a part of your daily routine.
This has led me to approach many upcoming live service games, including Zenless Zone Zero (which I’m otherwise very excited about) with a certain level of trepidation. Can I afford to allow another time-sink game into my life alongside Honkai Star Rail and Genshin Impact? What about when the next big live service gacha game comes out? I won’t have time for all of them, so which one do I sacrifice? And this is a sentiment I’ve heard repeated by many other Hoyo fans.
This has also led me to appreciate just how good Hoyoverse is at its job. Even huge, well-established publishers like Square Enix and Nintendo have struggled to take off in this market, which makes the sheer scale and worldwide fascination with Genshin and HSR so impressive.
Hoyo has really cornered the market here. And, in a way, while other games like Genshin Impact predate these two titles, Genshin marked both the birth and the death of the sub-genre for the rest of the industry. Hoyoverse is too good at what it does, and I personally believe that, until the next hot sub-genre like live service battle royale or gacha games takes over the world, there’s little room for anyone else to compete.
Anyway, I suppose I’d better go do my daily commissions and complete that Honkai Star Rail event before it expires. If you’re looking for more of a feel-good Genshin feature, be sure to check out my piece on disabled representation in Genshin Impact, in which I talk to the voice actor for Genshin Impact’s Collei. We’ve also got a list of our mobile games of the year 2023 and our most anticipated new mobile games of 2024 for your perusal.