We’ve all done this before: We target our most anticipated game several months down the line. We fill out a “Request Time Off” sheet with the date of the game’s release and hand it in to our boss. We line up outside our local games retailer for a midnight launch (or in this day and age, await the pre-download off the platform’s online marketplace). We then head back home prepping ourselves to an entire day’s worth of binge gaming.
Now, imagine all of those prerequisites, only to find out that your game doesn’t work as it should. Unfortunately, this sequence of events mimics many experiences following some of this season’s biggest titles, from Assassins Creed Unity’s frequently jarring and occasionally hilarious glitches, to Halo: The Master Chief Collection’s near catastrophic matchmaking issues, to Far Cry 4 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s online instability, to the continuous train wreck that is Driveclub. The last few months have been fraught with unpolished releases, and have raised an unusual paranoia that particularly console gamers aren’t used to: “Will my game actually work at launch?”
Such is the nature of online connected hardware. One of the most controversial trends throughout the last console generation was the rise of the Day 1 patch: post-game release bug fixes which, in many cases, should have been addressed during active development. Extreme examples include titles such Medal of Honor: Warfighter, which saw a series of critical patches after its release that led many to question how the game even got past certification. Many have expressed the same level of criticism this year, claiming that Assassins Creed Unity plays like a game four months before launch, and that Driveclub – a game originally set to be a launch title for the Playstation 4 – shows no signs of its extra year of development time. Both are under extensive post-launch development at the time of this writing.
This has inevitably disrupted the nature of games criticism where the expectation is to offer a final verdict on software upon its release. Last week, one of our associate editors, Adam Lloyd, discussed the paradigm shift in video game reviews, and questioned their relevance to a title’s initial launch period. Previously being where we turned to for purchasing decisions, game reviews currently serve as “launch impressions”, potential warnings indicating that the retail product you were considering paying full price for in a store or online market place is still under construction.
I will not hesitate to state that consumers – who paid their hard-earned cash to purchase a game with the low-bar expectation that it’s polished – have every right to be pissed, and even perhaps demand their money back. However, that statement comes with a degree of understanding: Yes, there are financial deadlines to meet. No, QA testers can’t unearth every bug. Yes, game development is hard.
However if Battlefield 4 (which I *gladly* traded in) has taught us anything, it’s that one functionally broken release can tarnish the reputation of an entire franchise. Look no further than the damage control EA has scrambled to do up to just two months ago, and other likely attempts that’ll lead up to the release of Battlefield: Hardline in February of next year.
Ubisoft, on the other hand, isn’t just engaging in damage control, they’re straight up putting out fires. Several apology notices have come out of the publisher for Assassins Creed Unity’s dizzying amount of glitches (not to mention the pathetically reactive offer of free content). It certainly doesn’t help that the game got many middling reviews that were held back by an embargo 12 hours after launch. Ubisoft has already gotten ahead of itself by trying to ease the minds of gamers by encouraging them to overlook day-and-date reviews of their upcoming racer The Crew, stating that they “won’t be based on optimal conditions or reflect the finished game.” Look forward to The Division and next year’s Assassins Creed being treated with the same level of riot-gear caution.
With every passing year, publishers have a harder time avoiding the evil, publically traded, financially risk averse, corporate image. From the rise of indie development, to the trend of annualization/sequelitis, this year adds kicking games out the door without any regard to the consumer in a race to beat the Black Friday sales. That is the worst motivation a game publisher can be accused of.
If you’re pressured to push a product out the door because you planned for an October/November release to keep as many jobs as possible and avoid massive lay-offs come the end of the fiscal year, change your business strategy. CD Projekt did it, Rocksteady did it, and so have Turtle Rock.
You have a responsibility to keep your hard-working developers employed, but you also have a responsibility to keep your consumers satisfied.