Skip to main content

The best live service games

The way that games are played and experienced is rapidly changing across the globe. Instead of making games that are designed to be played for a limited period of time and then discarded for the next one, developers have increasingly leaned into games that are updated frequently over the course of several years.

These “live games”, also frequently known as “games as service,” concentrate on building their player base over time with enticing new content releases and balance updates rather than aiming for the usual gigantic day one audience. While some games have been criticized for slights like oppressive microtransactions and undesirable content, others have built incredible experiences and demonstrated constant dedication to their fans.

Here are the Digital Trends team’s picks for the best live service games of 2021.

Apex Legends

10 essential tips for Arena Mode in Apex Legends
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Apex Legends has undergone quite the evolution this past year (how appropriate that its most recent past season was actually called Evolution). The game has gone from being one of many online battle royales to a standout experience thanks to new characters like Ash, whose lore connects Apex to the events of Titanfall more deeply than ever. The gameplay itself also got a big update in 2021 with the addition of Arenas, which brings smaller Valorant-style matches to the game.

Beyond the new legends and mode, developer Respawn demonstrated its commitment to the game with a new battle royale map in Storm Point, several smaller new maps for Arenas, new weapons — including the all-new bow and a new ammo category — and several events each season with their own cosmetics and unlockable items.

Nothing quite compares to the excitement of opening up a new season’s battle pass and checking out what new skins and goodies you’ll be able to obtain over the next few months. Though the game has hit some rough patches this year with extended server troubles and connection issues, that’s simply a testament to how many people want to play the game at once. In 2021, Apex Legends proved it will be a battle royale juggernaut for many years to come. ~ Emily Morrow

Final Fantasy XIV

Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers review
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Up until the belated release of Endwalker last week, Final Fantasy XIV was in the midst of its slowest year of content releases yet. But that didn’t stop it from finally hitting it big, with a devoted community ready and waiting to welcome an influx of new players finally ready to leave their old game behind.

Between the fights, the farming, and the crafting, the denizens of Eorzea and beyond have always made their own content. They’ve turned player housing not only into a planning and designing business opportunity, but into cabaret clubs, theaters, makeshift concerts, and safe havens for people to safely express and be themselves. They’ve created viral videos and comedic personas like Mr. Face, and even once made magazines to highlight the craftsmanship of its community.

Even during its droughts, Final Fantasy XIV has laid the foundations for its players to make their own fun in the absence of big updates. Between the typical endgame content farm of any MMO, there’s chocobo breeding and racing, card tournaments, tiny minion MOBAs, dangerous dungeon crawls, meme-fueled classes like Blue Mage, and expeditions into places like Eureka that turn the typical rules of combat on its head.

And then, at the end of it, there’s just a deep-rooted appreciation for looking good — so much so that there’s an official magazine dedicated to how players dress their avatars. In a year that’s seen big tech trying to hype up their version of the metaverse, we all know gaming has had them for decades — and Final Fantasy XIV continues to be one of the finest. ~ Josh Brown

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

My New Horizons character dances next to her satellite farm.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s been a weird year for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The cozy life simulator was all the rage when it was released in 2020 due to its launch lining up with social lockdowns. Nintendo had a major hit on its hands and it was in a great position to push the momentum with post-launch content. That didn’t quite happen as players hoped. The game got a slow trickle of updates that especially slowed once holidays began to repeat. For most of 2021, New Horizons had failed as a live service game.

Fortunately, the game got a major update in November that added tons of content to the game. Its 2.0 update brought several new features that convinced me to return to my island. But New Horizons’ real secret weapon proved to be its paid DLC. Happy Home Paradise is a fantastic addition to the game and a must-own for Animal Crossing players looking to expand the game’s life span. The design-focused side game is one of the most pleasurable things I’ve done in New Horizons and has totally made me rethink how I decorate. While 2.0 isn’t likely to hold my interest long-term, Happy Home Paradise is the exact excuse I’ve needed to log back in. ~ Giovanni Colantonio

Call of Duty: Warzone

Operator using the OTs SMG in Warzone.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Call of Duty: Warzone is a game full of little memorable moments. Moments like being one of the last teams alive, making an expertly planned play, or even something as simple as an effective call-out all come to mind. The odds are unequivocally stacked against you, but that’s precisely why it feels so good to come out on top. Warzone is challenging and complex, with an overwhelming number of weapons and attachments to choose from, each with different stats and quirks. This gives players no shortage of things to unlock and master, with an underlying sense of experimentation and variation always at the forefront.

In 2021, developer Raven Software won back the community when it finally doubled down on fixing the game’s greatest issues, while also offering more communication with its player base. This turn was one of the shining moments in Warzone’s life cycle, pointing to a bright future with Raven behind the wheel. It isn’t the easiest game to get into, especially with its overabundance of unlockables and complicated mechanics, but once it clicks, Warzone is immensely fun — and there isn’t anything quite like it. ~ Joseph Yaden

Genshin Impact

Genshin Impact characters in front of a dragon.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Genshin Impact started as a so-called “Breath of the Wild clone” but evolved into something greater. Players realized that its complex combat system, lovable cast of characters, and gacha mechanic fundamentally set it apart from its inspiration.

Developer Mihoyo built far beyond the game’s initial setup from September 2020. Over 15 characters joined the roster in the past year, including outsider Aloy from Horizon Forbidden West. Mihoyo also introduced regions such as Dragonspine and Inazuma, and celebrated these additions with special events to engage its passionate community of players.

Players can endlessly explore the continents, experiment with characters and equipment, and even build a hideout inside a pocket teapot. Simple additions like fishing holes have also expanded the possible adventures a player can have in Teyvat. It feels like there’s always something to do (though max level players might beg to differ).

Genshin Impact continues to be an entertaining experience for casual and hardcore players despite its grind-heavy gameplay and questionable PR stunts (like the Elon Musk fiasco). I agree that it takes some heavy investment to really enjoy the game to its fullest. However, once you get there, the view is beautiful. ~ Jess Reyes

Editors' Recommendations

Emily Morrow
Emily Morrow is a games journalist and narrative designer who has written for a variety of online publications. If she’s…
Call of Duty: Warzone Caldera is live, but it’s worse than we feared
Section of the Caldera map in Warzone Caldera.

After being offline for nearly two weeks, the original Call of Duty: Warzone -- now branded as Warzone Caldera -- has relaunched, but the package is far from what it used to be. This modified version of the beloved game is completely stripped down, offering access only to the Caldera map and the standard battle royale mode. This wasn't much of a surprise, as Activision previously confirmed the game would lack key features, but now that Caldera is live, it's far more disappointing than we expected. Here's what's currently missing from the battle royale game.
No Resurgence maps

The original version of Warzone is no more. Arguably Caldera's greatest flaw is the removal of the two beloved Resurgence maps: Rebirth Island and Fortune's Keep. Resurgence mode was great for those who didn't have much time to play, as matches would often only last 15 minutes or so, making it easy to get multiple matches under your belt in one session. It also allowed players to respawn, which made it possible to enjoy the game more casually. Now, this mode doesn't exist -- not even in Warzone 2.0. If you were a Resurgence player, there's nothing for you in any version of Warzone right now, which is a shame.
Only two playlists

Read more
New Call of Duty: Warzone mode is the change the game needs
Rebirth Island in Warzone.

Call of Duty: Warzone separates itself from other battle royale games in more ways than one. Whether it's giving players the ability to use their own custom loadouts, offering a way to come back from the dead via the Gulag, or even its general overall feel, there isn't anything quite like it.

Arguably, its most controversial aspect is the fact that Warzone features an extremely fast time to kill (TTK), which causes gunfights to be over before you even realize you're being attacked. However, a recent update implemented the Iron Trials mode on Rebirth Island, giving players more health and, ultimately, more time to react -- but on a smaller map, resulting in faster-paced matches.

Read more
Here’s why PlatinumGames and Sony are all-in on live service
Warriors look toward a beautiful sunrise and enemies in Babylon's Fall.

PlatinumGames President Atsushi Inaba turned heads in a recent interview when he indicated that the beloved Japanese developer would move away from the kind of single-player games it is known for. While PlatinumGames made a name for itself with linear, single-player action titles like Bayonetta and Nier: Automata, Inaba believes the company should make more titles that players can enjoy for long periods of time.
"When it comes to future game production, we want to focus on creating games that are different from the past," he told Famitsu (VGC translated the comments). "I would like to focus on creating games that can be enjoyed and loved for a longer period of time ... Considering the changes in the market over the next five years or so, I think it is absolutely necessary for us to do this."
Some fans fear this means PlatinumGames is about to embrace the live service segment of the video game market. This is worrying to some as Babylon's Fall, the first game of this kind for PlatinumGames, is shaping up to be a disappointing endeavor. Meanwhile, the single-player Bayonetta 3 looks like the kind of fast fun fans come to expect from the studio. 
PlatinumGames isn't the only studio chasing the live service dream. Sony is doubling down even more. After acquiring Destiny developer Bungie, Sony Chief Financial Officetr Hiroki Totoki revealed that PlayStation Studios plans to release 10 live service games by March 2026.
Games like this are controversial because they're monetized, and they vary vary in quality. You either end up a great success like Final Fantasy XIV or become an expensive failure like Anthem and Marvel's Avengers. So why are so many companies still pivoting to this model after high-profile disasters and disdain from hardcore gamers?
It pays to win
The answer is more straightforward than one might think. In reality, it comes down to what makes money. Yes, single-player games can still be successful and perform well for companies, but data from analysts highlights how much the DLC, microtransactions, and subscription elements of live service games make. Mat Piscatella, NPD Group executive director and video game industry adviser, explained this on Twitter, noting that 60% of non-mobile game content spending comes from DLC, microtransactions, and subscriptions.
It's not surprising that PlatinumGames executives see that the studio is leaving money on the table by not developing games that engage players like that. Bayonetta 3 could sell millions of copies when it launches later this year, but live service games could sell the same amount and then continue to make money years after launch.
Multiple analysts have recognized this trend too. Niko Partners senior analyst Daniel Ahmad tweeted a chart revealing that Sony made more from add-ons, microtransaction, and DLC content than digital and physical game sales combined.
To stay appealing to investors and keep the business afloat, companies will go where the money is. This approach, unfortunately, can have some harmful side effects. We've seen it happen more recently with NFTs, but there's a history of live service games gone wrong as well. High-profile live service games like Anthem and Marvel's Avengers have failed because they got bogged down in nickel-and-diming players or did not ensure the quality of gameplay increased with the length. If your game isn't fun, no one's going to want to spend hundreds of hours in it just because they can eventually unlock some cool-looking things.
Babylon's Fall currently seems like it may not do well, so PlatinumGames needs to focus on quality if it continues to go down this path. 
Quality over quantity 
DLC and microtransactions do have a bad rap around the video game industry for a good reason. When companies merely focus on player engagement and sales data, they often forget to make games that players will enjoy. The best approach for Sony and PlatinumGames is to make sure the gameplay, story, and worlds are a lot of fun before they stretch the experience to last a long time. It also seems likely that neither PlatinumGames nor Sony should completely abandon the types of games they are known for.
In the same interview with Famitsu, Inaba states that PlatinumGames "would like to cherish and create small but brilliantly conceived games such as Sol Cresta, and games in which you can enjoy the process of clearing the game by going through one-off, well-designed stages, such as Bayonetta." Inaba also wants the games to feel like what the studio is known for, saying, "I want to lead PlatinumGames in a direction that is pure and unadulterated."
While Babylon's Fall makes this trend look worrying, we don't know if that's the only way PlatinumGames plans to create games that players engage with for a long time. PlatinumGames must learn from the shortcomings of Babylon's Fall and improve if it doesn't want to release a string of live service flops. 
Meanwhile, live service will be just one part of Sony's first-party game strategy in the future. While the Bungie acquisition may allow the company to make more live service games, plenty of single-player PS5 exclusives like Horizon Forbidden West, God of War: Ragnarok, and Marvel's Spider-Man 2 are still on the way. Sony also intentionally acquired Bungie because of its live service experience with games like Destiny 2, so it wants to approach that kind of game correctly. 
We've seen plenty of companies get the live service model wrong as it's a high-risk, high-reward market. To stay relevant, PlatinumGames and Sony might have to embrace forever games more than their fans may prefer. Still, if making great, fun games remains a priority, these companies shouldn't go off the rails anytime soon. They'll just make more money while doing it. 

Read more