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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Game On: Minecraft and Overwatch – live-service games past their prime

Released in two parts over the course of 2021, Minecraft’s Caves & Cliffs updates completely overhauled the cave spelunking and mining system that had changed very little for over a decade. Whether or not these changes were good depends on who’s asked.  (Mojang Studios)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

While there are a variety of exciting factors to frequently-updated “games as a service” – balance updates, new content and a lively community – there are also downsides. If a game is ever-changing, its overall quality is bound to have peaks and valleys.

Overwatch launched in 2016 and holds a 91/100 critic score on Metacritic. Overwatch 2, which scored 79/100 on Metacritic and is little more than an overhaul of the original title, now holds an average 2/10 “overwhelmingly negative” user review score on Steam based on 170,000 reviews and counting.

This isn’t a perfect comparison – one score is from professional critics and the other has been subject to “review bombing” by everyday gamers – but a significant number of the negative Steam reviews come from self-attesting “former fans.” Overwatch revitalized the class-based competitive first-person shooter genre in 2016, and Blizzard’s commitment to releasing seasonal events every two months, a new map every three and a new hero every four gave the title a steady stream of updates that kept players invigorated.

After a couple of years, development was shifted to Overwatch 2, which was to have a dedicated cooperative campaign mode. Two and a half years of content drought later Overwatch 2 was released without the promised co-op mode and with only one big change – a much more prominent and aggressive shop to buy cosmetics and new characters with real-life cash.

Overwatch undoubtedly peaked during 2016-18. It now occupies a deep valley that might be better described as a sinkhole. With the original title shut down entirely, Overwatch now occupies a wistful place in the hearts of gamers like myself. Choosing to endure the aggressive monetization and pay-to-win elements of Overwatch 2 would only tarnish the memory of a once-great game.

While bashing Overwatch is all the rage these days, the assertion that Minecraft is no longer at its apex is more contentious. The game has a significant advantage over most other live-service titles – few additions to the game overwrite previous ones. Minecraft’s vast worlds keep expanding, rarely at the expense of the previous biomes, creatures and items that players already know and love.

That all changed in 2021 with the Caves & Cliffs updates, which completely overhauled the cave spelunking and mining system that had changed very little in the games’ entire decade-plus run. Players had been asking for new additions to Minecraft’s vast underground for years, and many of us got more than we bargained for.

Developer Mojang not only added biomes like “lush caves” and “the deep dark,” but also expanded the game’s entire height limit and spread the various ores – coal, iron, diamond, etc. – over a much wider area. Players must now venture to specific depths to acquire the ores they need.

My initial excitement for Cave & Cliffs quickly gave way to feeling overwhelmed, and it hasn’t changed in two years. My coffers, once overflowing with shiny rocks, have run dry as I find myself avoiding cave spelunking until I absolutely must. Not everyone shares my disdain for the revamped caves, but I can’t recall a more controversial change to Minecraft.

Unlike Overwatch, I continue to play Minecraft. While its changes have a greater impact on moment-to-moment gameplay, Mojang’s updates have always been made in good faith – a stark contrast to the shareholder-first, player-last approach now prevalent with all of Activision-Blizzard’s products.

Since Minecraft can be played offline and without connecting to a master server, gamers also have the option to play an older version if they really want to. I recently picked up an antiquated Wii U copy and ensured I have the “legacy console” version installed on my Xbox in case I’m ever feeling nostalgic.

This isn’t an option for the likes of Overwatch – its glory years are well and truly behind it, it seems. The peak of any live-service game is easier to find in hindsight, typically when you log in after a long break and realize you’ve simply moved on.