2013 saw a distressing number of high-profile games riddled with bugs and crashes, and developers have to do better, says James.
By James Pinnell on January 9, 2014 at 11:12 am
There is a small but growing element of complacency when it comes to developing a title in this new internet age. Quick and easy distribution, significantly more reliable networks, always-on internet and improved client management means the build you release for consumption can be as complete as you’d like it to be. Because, hey — it doesn’t matter if your game is missing core assets, crashes consistently and only runs on video card drivers from six months ago, because your customers can simply change a few .ini files and run a community created patch.
Even on consoles, the original pre-XBL bastion of stability, where games updates come at a hefty premium for their publishers, it was not unlikely for gamers to be greeted with Day One patches as hefty at 3GB, compressed. None of this is acceptable, at all, on any level. In 1991, If your cartridge based title didn’t work, companies lost money when customers returned their carts. In 2013, you’d be lucky to get a refund out of Steam.
Over the past year, a host of titles released in such poor states that some of their stench even crossed platforms. Battlefield 4 launched broken across every single console, and at most, barely serviceable on its host platform. SimCity was unplayable for weeks after its launch, with eight months worth of patches required for the title to be feature complete. The War Z blatantly lied to consumers about its state, abusing Steam’s light-handed approach to the content of their store, but not before fleecing thousands from unsuspecting patrons. Hell, they’re still at it, even after a name change. But what’s more painful than the act of simply being dishonest is how carte blanche developers feel about dropping faulty product on their trusting audiences.
Then there was X Rebirth.
The Hot Mess
The X series has a pretty long and esteemed pedigree of deep, albeit somewhat convoluted, experiences that have heralded it as the “go to” space trading sim in the minds of black hole connoisseurs everywhere. Very few of those games have launched in anything resembling a perfect state, leaving much needed repairs and additions to volunteer modders. But Rebirth was different; radically changed from the ground up to (apparently) tackle some of the various longtime series’ bugbears — from improved UI, a wider universe to explore, and a dynamic economy to exploit. But what actually happened was Egosoft broke almost everything that could be broken, rushed everything from art, sound and story, and forgot that most gamers enjoy having their text fit inside the box.
There is almost nothing redeeming about Rebirth – unlike other unfinished releases, the game barely functions even after you breach the wall of startup crashes and load failures. The menu system just doesn’t work, refusing to consistently respond to requests or provide any useful information. There’s a lazy, clunky split set of controls. An appalling excuse of a tutorial that fails to explain anything outside very basic commands and procedures. Obvious and sloppy duplication of around 80% of the games textures, vectors and level design. The graphics are cluttered and broken, clipping through walls and in some cases, falling off their placeholders thanks to the abhorrently epic number of bugs.
Then there are the missions that fail… only to leave you stuck in a campaign dead zone. Objectives that don’t compete. Being asked to attack a ship only to find the entire intergalactic police hunting you down like a rabid dog. I could go on, and on. There was no conceivable way that anyone at Egosoft, or their publisher, Deep Silver, played this title and found it fit for sale. Even on production machines, as shown by the almost instantaneous apologies and micro patches that dribbled out via Steam over the first week post-launch, the game was broken, incomplete, and desperate for quality assurance and about 6 months of bug squashing.
But in the end – it didn’t really matter. Not a single outlet was allowed to review the game until the word was well and truly out.
The Straight-Up Lies
A fellow journalist and good friend, David Rayfield, would wax lyrical to me on a weekly basis about how excited he was for Aliens: Colonial Marines. There were some epic trailers and previews that showed off some impressive gameplay — full of tasty high resolution textures, impressive lighting, great weapons and animation. One preview in particular has Gearbox’s infamous president, Randy Pitchford, guiding players through some of the experience, with clever aliens pouncing on unsuspecting soldiers, anguished cries from mauled teammates, all apparently driven by “sophisticated artificial intelligence”.
So it was almost unbelievable to many, including those in the media who had played early builds, how mind numbingly terrible the final product was. Almost nothing — from that ominous red mist wafting in and out of flickering florescent bulbs, to aliens stalking deep corridors, climbing the ceilings in order to get the jump on you, actually occurred. What did, however, was a largely pointless, linear, romp through the same corridors, fighting aliens that barely move with guns that wouldn’t look and sound out of place on a shooter from 1993. Nothing, outside of the fact there are indeed aliens and colonial marines, that was represented and indeed promised to players ended up being offered.
The game wasn’t even close to finished. A:CM was an alpha, dressed up and debugged enough that it didn’t break anyone’s systems, but devoid of everything that would have made it special and worth purchasing in the first place. Unlocks don’t actually do anything. There is no suspense, no fear and no dogged cat and mouse hunting. Sure, there may be some scripted elements where an alien skulks through a vent or bursts out of the wall, but that’s almost exactly where things stop. Gearbox and SEGA quickly realised that the elongated development period mixed with the pre-determined expectations they alone put down on the table was not achievable without spending a lot more money…
…so they didn’t spend any more money.
The Server Problems
I was so hooked on the concept of a next generation SimCity that I practically threw my money at the screen the moment after I saw that first Glassbox demo. I was floored by the possibilities — actual people contributing to a real economy, sharing resources, problems and solutions across an entire region that worked together towards common goals. I absorbed every new dev video like the miniscule heaping of crack they were, expertly designed elements that cleverly hid many of the problems— that the system relied exclusively on both you being online the entire time, and, well, the GlassBox engine actually working properly.
I had, and still continue to have, a lot of faith in Maxis — even after they were purchased by EA, they continued to produce quality software while balancing the insane demands of their new overlords to produce exhausting amounts of largely irrelevant DLC. Playing the launch version of SimCity was just utterly painful — not only had EA drastically underestimated the day one population demands of a phenomenally popular series, but most of the GlassBox engine was still a huge work in progress. Everything from traffic routes to RCI demand was utterly broken. Almost none of the shared region features, which much of the games’ wealth creation relies on, worked either.
Maxis, whether out of a sense of duty or because of an order to from EA, fell on their sword and apologised for the atrocious state of their launch product. It took almost two weeks for the server problems to become manageable, but another eight months until the title was eventually feature complete. If only to rub more salt in customers wounds, Maxis mixed blog posts featuring cries of mercy mixed schizophrenically with announcements of some silly little DLC pack, including bafflingly obtuse attempts at product placement with Nissan and insurance company Progressive, while players continued to lose their patience waiting for a working game.
But there in lies much of the anguish that faces gamers who find themselves on the pointy end of faulty products — why do developers apologise as if they were completely unaware of these faults?
The Loose Ends
DICE has a pretty nasty habit of pretending that game breaking issues are only “affecting some users”, with almost every Battlefield game launching with enormous, almost comical, numbers of little bugs and faults. There’s always some announcement 2-3 weeks after each Battlefield launches, “thanking the core gamers” for their patience and “pledging to fix the problems” while “working non stop”. But every time players ask the same questions: Why do these bugs appear in the first place? It’s all well and good to expect bugs on release, especially as games become much more complex and large in size, but DICE’s track record has become laughably consistent – developing stunning game experiences but dropping the ball on the loose ends.
Battlefield 4 was probably the worst launch yet for DICE and EA, with almost completely unplayable versions of the title on PS4, PS3, 360 and XB1, plagued by issues ranging from launch crashes, lost save states and one hit kills to empty server browsers and missing crosshairs. While many of the larger bugs have indeed been fixed since launch, especially on PC (which featured the lowest number of launch problems), there are still seven critical bugs, including one simply called “Bug accounting for a large amount of crashes on X360″ still outstanding.
Sure, there is a pretty spectacular shooter under all these crashes. I bought the title fully aware of the outstanding bugs and managed to enjoy many matches. But the fact that I managed to connect the magical dots in order to have a playable experience is not shared by many players, especially on consoles, who are still unable to play MP without being matchmade with players with one second pings or getting killed after a single assault rifle shot to the chest.
Many of these bugs could have been stamped out by three more months of intensive quality control and beta testing. Many of the client crashes would have been easily picked up in early testing on non-debug equipment, and many of the multiplayer issues could have been picked up via a longer, less restrictive closed beta test. But what’s really becoming old is this expectation by DICE that they can simply expect to waste millions of people’s time in locating and troubleshooting their critical bugs after the game has been paid for, not before. There was no ominous DayZ-style warning on the purchase here — Battlefield 4, like any other title listed in this article, was sold as a complete, ready-to-play product.
DICE should be mortified at these faults existing at all, not trying to deflect accusations by saying “millions of players” are doing fine. No, Deep Silver, EA, Gearbox — the game should not be released until it is finished. Full stop. If you are aware of bugs, fix them. Don’t rely on your release dates and “community expectations” for when your titles are flushed into the Steam and Origin ecosystems. Here’s a hot tip: We like to play games that actually work.
The Sheer Embarrassment
Unlike many other entertainment industries, gamers feel connections to the people who make their titles. They preorder games, buy collectors editions, read interviews with creatives and watch previews. They expect that the trust they provide will be reciprocated, fully aware any dollar they put down, 90% of the time, can be a gamble with no chance of refund for poor experiences.
Then they are offered this:
Dear developers and publishers: We expect better than this. We we hand you our money, we are owed better than this. Work harder.