There was a time when you bought a game, pulled it out of the box, popped it into your device of choice, and that was it. In today's video game industry, however, a single game isn't even the end product. Now we have downloadable content and expansion packs – and don't forget to buy the season pass so you get it all for a nominal discount. Never mind just pre-ordering your games either, now we can pre-load them, guaranteeing access the very second a game becomes available. And the pre-order bonuses, bestowing us with trivial costumes or weapons, or maybe even some extra levels that will inevitably be sold after launch, despite being billed as pre-order "exclusives."
Even without these premium additions, the game you bring home isn't the static creative work it once was. Developers and publishers are free to update their games now, patching out unforeseen problems or even adding fan-requested improvements. It's good that issues can be resolved, but the darker side of this is the now infamous "Day 1 Patch." These crucial updates are applied on launch day, providing fixes so last-minute that they couldn't make it onto the discs before they were pressed (or even onto the downloadable code, for that matter). The implication of the Day 1 Patch, of course, is that the game in the box, or sitting in your Steam download queue, isn't actually finished.
The troubling part, as 2014 has proven, is that even after you've applied that patch, you can still wind up with a broken game. Not only that, but if the marketing has done its job, you have a broken game for which you have already purchased additional content. Maybe you paid a little extra for a special edition. You're a savvy shopper, so you saved five bucks on future DLC with a season pass. In today's climate, it's easy to plunk down $100 on a game before you've played a single minute of it. If said game doesn't work, all you've got is a fancy SteelBook case, a useless download token for DLC and maybe a plastic tchotchke for your desk. And that's assuming you didn't pre-order digitally, in which case all you have is a broken game and no hope of a refund.
Unfortunately, shipping on time, during whatever launch window was determined to be most beneficial for sales, is often more important to game publishers than shipping a complete product – not to mention the importance of securing your money as far in advance as possible.
What's really alarming, however, is that this process is standard practice now. Not only do we expect games to have problems at launch, but we tolerate it. We shrug our shoulders, saying "that's just the way it is," while developers and publishers take advantage of one of the most passionate audiences in existence.
This poorly translated clue in 1988's Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest baffled players, and made the game very difficult to beat. Image: Active Gaming Media.
In fairness, shipping broken games is nothing new. Looking back on the 8-bit generation, for example, something as minor as a poor translation could render a game nearly impossible to complete. It's wonderful that we now have the ability to fix problems like these – and I doubt most developers and publishers are intentionally releasing broken products – but it's hard to argue that the apparent mantra of "ship it now, fix it later" hasn't become disturbingly prevalent over the last few years.
Many of us will immediately think of Electronic Arts and Battlefield 4, which underwent months of patching after its catastrophic launch in late 2013. Moving into 2014, this holiday season has seen the launch of several buggy or broken AAA games. Driveclub, a game Sony deemed important enough to deserve its own PlayStation 4 bundle in Europe, has encountered server problems since launching in early October. The issues have been so pervasive that the much-touted free PlayStation Plus version of Driveclub has been delayed indefinitely. (Of course, server stability and ongoing service stand a bit apart from actual programming flaws and, in many ways, are another editorial entirely.)
Meanwhile, Assassin's Creed Unity, the first in the series crafted exclusively for the new console generation, launched with lots of notable problems, from the hilarious-but-tolerable missing faces to more rage-inducing issues like defective geometry and hard crashes. Publisher Ubisoft moved quickly to assure fans that updates were on the way, even going so far as to create a website dedicated to keeping everyone in the loop on upcoming patches. A nice gesture, perhaps, but also a living reminder that Unity probably shouldn't have been released in the first place.
Some Assassin's Creed Unity players encountered characters with no faces, an amusing bug. Less amusing: falling through the world into a void.
All of this leads us to Halo, a series that helped define not only Xbox Live but console online play in general. Last month saw the launch of Halo: The Master Chief Collection and, while it certainly delivered on serving up every main Halo campaign (enough for us to still enjoy it), those looking to play online were greeted with matchmaking that barely functioned (as we also lamented in the review). Matches took minutes to find and – if a match was made at all - there was no guarantee that it would be full, or that teams would be balanced, and that's assuming you weren't booted back to the menu before the match even started. Today, after four patches and some server-side updates, matchmaking is a still a mess, and what improvements have been made don't live up to the standard set by other shooters, and certainly not the standard set by Halo. The current state of The Master Chief Collection is bad enough, in fact, that developer 343 Industries has delayed another Halo game, Halo: Spartan Strike, into 2015.
I'm not suggesting that any developer or publisher is intentionally foisting buggy or malfunctioning games upon the public. Game creators are some of the hardest working people out there, and brutal, exhausting schedules are sadly commonplace. Launch hiccups too, are understandable, but the fact remains that release date pressure is real, and more and more games seem to be "coming in hot," with important fixes or even entire gameplay modes waiting to be enabled on launch day (or just prior to it).
But money is money, and a game delayed to the first quarter of 2015 won't do anything to help a publisher's holiday earnings in 2014. It's no coincidence that some of this year's most disastrous launches occurred in the final months of the year, the most profitable period for the video game industry. The financial realities of launching a game on time are seemingly more critical than ensuring a quality experience, and we're paying the price.
What's truly infuriating, however, is that we're paying it early. The game industry, more than any other (that I'm aware of, anyway), is hell-bent on making sure that you're committed to their products as soon as possible. As of this writing, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End has no release date apart from "2015," but Sony is more than happy to take your money for it right now on PSN. Let's be clear on this: You can pay full price, today, for a game that doesn't exist. What's more, Sony's terms (on the US PlayStation Store) make it clear that your purchase is non-refundable, even in the event that the price changes, or if the product is removed from sale entirely.
Sony probably isn't going to cancel Uncharted 4, but let's look at a different scenario: Suppose Uncharted 4 gets pushed out of 2015 and into 2016. Your 60 bucks is still gone, and that's money that could have gone to another game (or a night out, or a nice splurge at Bath & Body Works, whatever). I'm not singling out Sony, either. Most digital distribution platforms work this way, taking money in advance of release. Except for the single advantage of pre-loading (and the obvious convenience of online shopping), digital pre-orders are almost wholly consumer baiting. They prey on our desire to have the latest thing as soon as humanly possible, and give us nothing extra for our enthusiasm, save perhaps an insignificant discount or in-game bonus.
That insidious psychology is leveraged in both digital and physical pre-orders, picking at the human fear that we'll be left out of the loop if we don't jump on the bandwagon early. Put down your money now, or you'll be the only one without a golden gun, or a double XP boost or a Sword of Cutting +1 – and let's not even get started on retailer specific bonuses. Some games do have limited runs, especially from smaller publishers, and in those instances a pre-order is the best way to secure a copy, but most of the time your reward is no more desirable than a T-shirt – either for you or your in-game character. With a few exceptions, these extras are often negligible, and it's hard not to view them through a cynical lens.
Those who pre-ordered DriveClub got one of its unlockable cars early – with a spiffy "exclusive" paint job.
None of this is to say that you can't love a game so much that you want to make sure you have it on day one, and why not get something extra for that? Heaven knows I stood in line at midnight for Halo 2 and Halo 3. There's nothing wrong with that kind of devotion, but there is a difference between bonuses that feign value and those that are truly meaningful. Exploiting audience devotion with something perfunctory (exclusive skins!) is a far cry from, say, a Big Daddy figurine or Alien: Isolation's DLC featuring the cast of the original film.
Again though, no bonus, no matter how thoughtful or creative, will fix a broken or otherwise incomplete game. So, as more and more games seem to continue their development up to and even past release, maybe it's time to reconsider our consumer culture – maybe it's time to stop pre-ordering altogether. If we can't change the industry, we can at least let publishers and developers know that we'd rather have a working game a few months from now than a buggy wreck today. Financial concerns might make that dream unfeasible, but if development keeps trending this way, well-known publishers just might be losing their customers' hard-earned money anyway. We're already seeing some fallout from the last few months, namely CD Projekt RED delaying The Witcher 3, with its CEO noting that the gaming audience is "afraid of badly polished games on next-gen platforms."
Who knows, maybe the examples of the last two years – Battlefield 4, SimCity, DriveClub, Assassin's Creed Unity, The Master Chief Collection – are just flukes, missteps as the industry transitions into a new console generation and experiments with more connected experiences. If they aren't flukes, however, they're indicative of a larger problem. Either way, the last thing we need to do is give up our money months in advance, especially in exchange for some paltry extras.
The allure of the collector's edition, the pre-order bonus and pre-loading is tough to resist, especially for such a dedicated audience, but it's time to be more considerate. The next time you find your finger hovering over the "pre-order" button, ask yourself: Is this shining trinket a treasure – or a trap?
Images: Microsoft, Sony, Konami, Ubisoft.