A look at some of the reasons games release while still requiring fixes and why our expectations and our anger are perhaps misplaced.
It seems to be a growing trend in the gaming industry to release games before they’re fully ready and patch the issues post release. To many, it’s as though players buying games at launch are made to feel like testers who are paying for the privilege of playing through all the bugs and glitches. People will point to the development of big titles like Mass Effect Andromeda and they will state that a game so long in development should release without issues.
Games releasing broken isn’t a new phenomenon. I’ve been playing games since the mid 80s and there were titles back then that were more broken than anything released these days. It’s perhaps a bigger issue now due to the amount that we invest in gaming but it’s not new. Just look at the Atari game E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial; it was so bad it ended up filling a landfill site in New Mexico. A fate that I’m sure a lot of other games should share.
The problem being is that making games is a complex business and there are a ton of factors that can lead to a game releasing while still having issues.
It is rarely the developers who set the release date of their games. Unless a developer also has their own publishing capabilities, they are usually reliant on a large publisher to fund development and ship the title. This means that the vast majority of AAA games are funded and shipped by major publishers. While Bioware Montreal developed Mass Effect Andromeda it was largely funded and shipped by EA. While Massive Entertainment were the lead studio on The Division, it was published by Ubisoft. While Bungie developed Destiny, the game was published by Activision. And so on… You can see this in the vast majority of AAA titles.
Being honest here for a moment, without the investment from big publishing firms the vast majority of AAA games would not see the light of day. The cost of making a AAA title has never been higher. Like any large investors, publishers want to see a return on the money they put up front. We’re not talking chump change here; even fairly average AAA games can have budgets in excess of £50m these days. It’s hard to obtain figures on the cost of making a game today as publishing companies don’t like to publicise the amounts they’re spending on individual projects. When we do get figures they’re usually conflated development and marketing costs, but a game like 2014’s Watch_Dogs saw Ubisoft invest around $68m. A bang average game but a pretty hefty investment from Ubisoft for what was then a new IP.
With so much money going into producing games, there’s pressure from shareholders and the companies’ own finances to make a return on these investments as soon as possible. You have to remember that they’re not investing money at launch; they’re putting the money in up front and throughout the development process meaning that on some projects they won’t see any return on their investments for several years. Many of the biggest publishers will have a number of titles in development at one time meaning they’re juggling hundreds of millions of dollars of investments.
As much as we’d love to believe that developers hold all the cards when it comes to releasing their titles, at the end of the day the ultimate say will rest with publishers. Publishers will have certain windows for releases each year where they believe they can maximise profit on particular titles. Once you know you’re in the final 12 months of development, you begin to get an idea of when to expect a release. You don’t want to release a first person shooter at the same time as the next Call of Duty or Battlefield as you’ll likely get hammered by the more established competition so the publishers want to make sure that their games are released at the most opportune moments. In order to make sure the game sells the publishers also need to get their marketing campaign into full swing early, meaning a lot of money is spent on advertising campaigns. Once they announce a firm date for release of a title, that’s it. There’s no going back. Everything is geared to getting the game shipped on that date.
For the developers, this represents their crunch period as they try to get the game ready to meet the release date. Anyone who has ever worked in the industry will tell you that this is the hardest time in whole process. They’re working every waking hour, they get no time off and it is break-neck pace to the finishing line. There’s a lot going on in this period and developers don’t get time to fix everything. There will be a list of known issues picked up by the Q & A Teams and the development teams work through as many of the major ones as they can before the game needs to go gold for shipping. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of today’s titles, there’s usually a fair few bugs and glitches that can’t be resolved before launch.
A bit like a snagging list for house builders, the issues that make it into the full release of the game are normally already identified by the Q & A Teams prior to launch. The developers will already be developing fixes for the issues but need a number of days / weeks following the game going gold to get those fixes tested and deployed via post-launch patches. Even great games developed and published by their own companies such as The Witcher 3 and GTA V have seen their developers need to deploy fixes in post-launch downloads. It’s pretty understandable that in such complex titles there will be things that are missed or just need a little bit too long to remedy prior to launch. When you don’t have control over the release date of your project, all you’re doing in the run up to launch is getting the game in the most stable form it can be and planning what fixes can be deployed later.
Any gamer will note that there are different kinds of bugs. It is one thing to have a horse that climbs buildings when you’re not using it compared to a bug that stops you firing your weapons or healing yourself. The first may be immersion breaking but the second can make the game unplayable. Game breaking bugs will usually destroy your playing experience very quickly making a game unplayable. Immersion breaking bugs can be comic at first but a ton of them can ruin the experience just as much.
With Mass Effect Andromeda there was a lot of anguish over the facial animations of the main characters. Okay, it was jarring at times but it was an immersion breaking issue, not game breaking. Disappointing perhaps, but not something that totally ruined the experience. Now I understand people being disappointed but the issue was over exaggerated to an incredible degree. People even ended up directing abuse at an individual animator as a result. Utterly ridiculous. Do you honestly think that Bioware weren’t aware of the issue ahead of launch? You think that nobody pointed it out? Of course they did. But how were they going to fix it when they had weeks to launch and they needed longer to put it right? They couldn’t turn around to EA and tell them to delay the launch. It doesn’t work like that with the major publishers. When was the last EA or Ubisoft game that you can remember being delayed? It just doesn’t happen with the major publishers. It probably should happen but it doesn’t.
I’m not saying that developers shouldn’t work smarter. There are certainly things that developers could do better to make sure that they can comfortably meet publishing deadlines (other creative industries manage it). What I am saying however is that we need to realise that there are a huge number of factors that might result in a game being launched with issues. It’s not as simple as, “The developers done fucked up.” Certainly on a AAA title, there’s never one person who can be singled out for blame over the quality of the released product.
As gamers we need to share some of the blame for the way the industry works. Gamers, no matter how much we might baulk at the notion, are consumers. As consumers, if we don’t like the products that are sold to us then there are a number of options open to us. We’re not “forced” to play broken games. Unless someone has you locked in their basement with a gun to your head, there is literally nothing forcing you to buy and play a game that is full of game breaking bugs. If you’ve bought a game that is broken beyond repair, don’t just bitch about it on YouTube and Twitter, you’re a consumer with consumer rights, do something about it.
If someone sold you a TV that didn’t work you’d take it back. You’d ask for a replacement or a store credit. You might, if it was a common problem with a particular manufacturer, just stay clear of everything they made in future. For some reason this seems to go out of the window when it comes to games. It’s as though the flashy trailers and bigger explosions have some memory jamming power over gamers. We need to be more discerning. If you love games, stop buying the shite ones. Stop pre-ordering titles for the exclusive items and the collectables. Stop lining the pockets of publishing companies that are only interested in milking you for all you’re worth. Don’t buy the DLC if it doesn’t add value to the experience. Wait for the reviews from reviewers you trust. Be more careful with your money. The reasons the things that we hate are even a thing in gaming is because gamers are buying into them in the first place.
I realise that this is easier said than done. If you love games like me, you’re always looking for the next great game and always hopeful that games will live up to how you imagine they’ll be. You will always hope that a sequel will build on the adventures you’ve already had and new IPs will blow you away. Truth is, it rarely turns out this way. So let’s try to be better at picking and choosing our games. Let’s make developers innovate. Let’s make publishers take more responsibility for the quality of titles they release. Let’s support the developers who do things well. Let’s help change the direction of the industry.