You find yourself watching E3, with either complete disdain or overwhelming childlike excitement, and then something special appears on the stage. The game of the show. The magnum Opus. Maybe its a hot new first person shooter, a story driven tear jerker, a small indie platformer or a work of genius so inconceivable you can hardly contain your excitement. The developer has a great history, the idea is bulletproof and best of all you have the right setup to play it. Its an E3 miracle. You wait months, even years to play it. You laugh in the face of other pathetic games that can’t sate your ravenous appetite. After a feverish night’s sleep before the release day, it arrives. Sat in your inconceivably comfortable gaming cave, the lights are dimmed, the disk is put into the console and claw like hands grip the controller. A few hours later you find yourself in a foetal position, tears flowing and a gut wrenching feeling of betrayal. ‘How?’ you ask. How could this have happened? It was the chosen one, THE game. And it was a bit naff.
Untold numbers of the gaming community have experienced their own variation of an event we’ll call the ‘Brendan Fraser Experience’. Where everything was in the right place, where failure was inconceivable. But somewhere, something went horribly, horribly wrong. It seems to happen with alarming frequency, causing a widespread mistrust of gaming developers. Aliens Colonial Marines, Watch Dogs, Total War: Rome 2 and Assassins Creed: Unity are just a few of the more recent examples of this occurrence. And it looks to continue well into the future. But why does this happen? Are developers cruel Faustian monsters who love to toy with our emotions? Are video-games inherently designed to disappoint? Or are they simply just created by a studio with poor hierarchical structure, overzealous marketers and oppressive publishers? Well, yes and no. It’s a hell of a lot more complex than that.
Developers are highly creative people. Behind them they have inflated budgets, huge market presence and a loving fan base. This is a problem. How many times have you heard ‘this game will redefine it’s genre’ or ‘this is a game changer’ chanted for games that end up being generic and stale when released? Developers have a history of not learning from significant mistakes. Peter Molyneux shares this history with gusto, creating overly ambitious projects without the ability to deliver on his promises. During his time with Microsoft, Peter relied heavily upon the security of the company, with a stern disbelief that anything could go wrong. Despite continued disappointments, every time a new announcement would be unveiled with Peter at its head you would get the same snake oil pitch. Any developer will tell you that it’s rare for the original concept to last even a few months into development. Overconfidence can lead a project into the red without its creators identifying it’s issues. Ambition is key, but unrealistic expectations only lead to a rapid crash and burn.
Publishers want to make money. It doesn’t make them evil ; videogames are a business after all. But with any entertainment and technology driven industry you need to get a project out while people still want it. I’m looking at you Duke Nukem: Forever. But creating a videogame that is both fun and functional is like trying to walk across eggshells whilst holding a small whale over your shoulders. Things are going to go wrong, and decisions must be made.
A significant part of development time is designated to fixing engine bugs, optimizing the performance and ensuring that the disk doesn’t decapitate you when ejected. Sadly, this is often left to the end of a project, once all the assets have been generated. Frame Rate optimization is reserved for the final stretch of the game, sometimes to be resolved post launch. Unique ideas that are predominately experimental in nature aren’t given the priority or the attention that established concepts are. What can be finished quickly will always be on the publishers mind. Due to the limited time frame given to achieve these goals many launches suffer a broken engine, cut content and a much plainer result than originally presented.
Publishers may not be inherently bad, but they are overbearing. Due to the fact a publisher will provide an enormous amount of the development budget, they get the first and last word about how the project will unfold. Publishers like security, if a developer pitches something too out there without an established market presence, it very often receives a big fat no. EA has a bad history of intervening in half finished titles to mold it into something less exciting. Insomniac’s FUSE grabbed the headlines when its fun, cartoon art style and over the top characters suddenly changed into boring drab stereotypes. This change took place due to a fear it wouldn’t appeal to gamers who followed the current craze for realistic shooters, despite the success of Team Fortress 2 and Minecraft.
Furthermore, forced features such as multiplayer violently jammed into traditionally single player titles such as Dead Space and Mass Effect drastically eats into the core experience’s development time. This often goes against the original vision of the project and disrupts key design philosophies. Sometimes these are the right choices, but often it can water down a solid design. Publishers also have a history of making deals with certain software developers, celebrities or brands behind the back of the primary developer. This too can cause utter chaos during development, due to sudden character and theme changes, hardware restrictions or feature overhauls. When a developer shows abundant confidence in a game, just remember the publisher could very well disagree.
Being a creative enterprise, the vision a developer may have for the title can be somewhat misguided. Technology is advancing rapidly, but once a game is deep into its creation there isn’t much going back. Hardware and memory restrictions turn that fantasy of 1000 men battles on a dynamic battlefield into six dudes punching each other in a pub. These restrictions tend to come in after a great deal of work is done. Once the optimization process begins, a sad realization dawns that certain features just wont work. With the widespread accusation of downgrades rampant throughout the industry, this can really make a title suffer. Current generation console hardware isn’t as strong as it should be, leading developers to cut back from a fleshed out vision to ensure it’s playable on the targeted systems. Certain ideas are great in concept, but even the best current technology sometimes simply refuses function as it should.
A.I. in games has continually been an issue; Bioshock Infinite developer Ken Levine claimed that Elizabeth, your Disney-style companion, was meant to have a grander interaction with the world than she actually ended up having. But due to memory restrictions and an unreasonably faulty AI engine, most of it had to be drastically cut back. It’s hard to compromise, but if a great idea is sabotaging everything else, it has to be cut.
You shouldn’t trust marketers. Seriously. Marketing is designed to grab your attention, sing the product’s praises and ignore any faults it may have. E3 is all marketing, like a convention for LIES! The games industry is founded on this kind of misinformation, with over-hype, obsession and pre-orders. What you see in trailers never gives you the full picture; it doesn’t tell you that the engine crashes constantly, that the writing is poor and that after an hour you’re going to get bored to the point of cutting a limb off with a small mammal.
Screenshots are almost always enhanced in Photoshop and demos are usually not representative of the final product. In short, they make everything look and play better than it actually will. We all remember Aliens: Colonial Marines. Years in development, changing studio to studio and finally we get an E3 demonstration. It look amazing, exactly what we had hoped for. Then almost no other gameplay until release. What we ended up getting was nothing like what we saw. It was clunky, ugly and bad in every sense of the word. But that E3 trailer sold more than a few copies from pre-orders. Don’t trust people who are paid to be dishonest.
Yes, you. And me. Everyone who gets excited about new releases. Gamers are clingy, resistant to change and are subject to delusion over a product. Rabid obsession with a franchise leads to an innate denial of facts. Just ask any fan of Halo, Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, Sonic, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, Doom, Star Wars, Half Life, Left 4 Dead, Red Faction, GTA, and I can continue this list into the eons. Everyone who plays games has their favourites. I myself will hear no criticism of Dead Space or Red Orchestra 2, and because of this I make mistakes.
When something you love betrays your expectations, it’s hard to admit it. Most people don’t and choose to defend the offending title to death without any compromise. Just look at Sonic the Hedgehog fans, despite a constant rank slurry of awful sequels, spin offs and other misadventures, they never stop buying them. It’s horrible for the industry, and encourages laziness. After all, developers only listen to what comes out of your poor starved wallet.
No one likes a complainer, but you should have an opinion when you feel like you’ve been let down. Ignoring problems is why we have overbearing DLC policies, copy and paste sequels and broken games being launched. Ignore that little fan boy in your brain that keeps you buying products that suck. Get mad, write an angry letter or just spend your money elsewhere. Don’t be suckered into being a chump.
But man, that new Fallout looks good.