The Division, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, No Man’s Sky, Mass Effect: Andromeda; what do these games have in common? Out of the box, they were problematic. In some cases, they were broken, but before they were even released we threw money at them by way of pre-orders.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein.
The Stockholders are the Real Customers
If we want to break the trend of games not being ready for prime time, we have to stop assuming game companies will give us the best they have out of the box. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Would you buy an umbrella with a hole in it if the manufacturer promised to patch it after you used it? Of course you wouldn’t. So, why do we accept this from game companies? It’s time understand our position in this relationship. We are not the number one customer, the stockholders are.
Game Pre-orders Then and Now
Once upon a time, pre-orders made a lot of sense. Back then, virtually all games were distributed via physical discs. There was a real possibility that stores could sell out. Pre-ordering was a useful tool to game stores and manufacturers to make sure they met demand. This isn’t the case anymore. Digital downloads are increasingly popular. The fear of a store running out of the next big game title is replaced by the less likely obstacle of an overloaded download server.
Digital download services help game companies keep the price of games down. Download distribution is far cheaper than physical disc distribution. The lack of physical materials, labor and freight are some of the biggest costs no longer considered. One would think that with those savings game companies could deliver a solid product. All appearances are that the cost of savings has been passed on to the marketing team instead of Quality Control. They dazzle us with ever grander promotions in print advertisement, TV ads and online social media promo, all in an attempt to separate us from our money sooner – even before a game goes gold.
Reprogramming the Consumer
Companies used to rely on demo discs to attract us. Pre-released demo versions of games have all but disappeared from big name studios. Now, only small studios rely on demo versions or early access “works-in-progress” as way of getting their games in front of us. Beta access is still popular, but the content is tightly controlled. It seems that, despite the feedback game companies receive from the beta testers, they still miss the mark. Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s The Division’s Beta utterly failed to unmask the horror that was its PVP arena called The Dark Zone.
Gamers have been conditioned to accept diminished returns on their investment. We give the game developers a pass on quality in exchange for special pre-order swag, custom in-game rewards or even 24 hours of early access. All those people mad that No Man’s Sky wasn’t multiplayer (failing to listen to the words of Hello Games Sean Murray in the waning months before the release) could have saved themselves a lot of heartache if they had just waited a day.
Fans of Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise may be the most recent victims (Official Mass Effect fan here). While I think the initial reaction to the dead-eye-pan-faced animations and crabwalk running styles was over-played, the quality was certainly not up to the standards we are used to seeing from Bioware. They responded as most companies do and deployed a series of patches to correct the issues. Even after several patches, however, by the time I completed the last mission I had become sensitized to the most minor of visual bugs infecting Mass Effect Andromeda.
Once Bitten Twice Shy
Andromeda was the camel-breaking straw for me. Bioware is company that I have held in high regard since 1998 when I first player Baldur’s Gate, Tales of the Sword Coast. In my mind, if Bioware is capable of committing the same sins as other game developers then I cannot in good conscience justify handing over my hard-earned money for any game before its release. This is not easy for me to say. Destiny 2 is looming large, a grand carrot in the form of an early access beta dangles before me. A franchise that I put down in frustration months ago calls to me. I ache to enter the Crucible again.
The bottom line is that as long as we are willing to give up our money before we have the product, we are part of the problem. Game companies have proved that they are willing to commit the sin and ask forgiveness later. It’s obvious that the threat of negative publicity plays second to the guarantee of an early profit.
What do you think?