When I was a kid, there were no patches. There were no updates. There was no DLC. The closest thing you could get to additional content in a game, other than buying a sequel, was an expansion. And honestly expansions were usually just sequels on a smaller scale. They were bought and sold as separate games, but continued directly from where the base game left off and required an existing save file. My point is that games were static for the most part. When you bought a game, that was the final product. There was no additional development, no tweaks or rebalancing to the gameplay, and certainly no making a shitty game better or, as in the case of some developers, worse.
Today, the bulk of games seem to be using what’s known as “agile development”. Wikipedia defines this as:
. . . an approach to software development under which requirements and solutions evolve through the collaborative effort of self-organizing and cross-functional teams and their customer(s)/end user(s). It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continual improvement, and it encourages rapid and flexible response to change.
Through the magic of marketing speak and fancy packaging, agile development appears to mean that software is delivered to end users faster and then improved rapidly based on user feedback. This all sounds very nice. But what it actually means in practical application is companies release broken, shitty software that works enough to pass minimum functionality expectations/standards but ultimately needs a ton of work. This work is then done based on user feedback by prioritizing what customers, having already paid for the software, are complaining about the most at a given moment. In gaming terms that means bad games are released and then patched over time while it still seems profitable to do so.
In the olden days, reviews worked. Not just “professional” reviews from places like GameSpot and IGN. User reviews were equally valid depictions/critiques of a specific game’s experience. Reviews were timeless. A review about a game published on the day it released was an equally valid depiction of the game a year or even 10 years later. First impressions were valid judgments of games and honestly didn’t need to change, assuming a fair amount of time was put into playing/testing that game when making that first impression. But that is often far from the case today.
Whether intentionally or by design, we are seeing more highly hyped and marketed AAA games released in broken states than ever before. Examples like No Man’s Sky, Sea of Thieves, and the recent Anthem come to mind. We are also seeing lots of games as service titles that aren’t released necessarily broken, but certainly not in a completed and satisfying state as far as content provided. Examples like this include bother Destiny I and II, The Division 1, and from what I’ve read, the recently released Days Gone. While these two groups of games aren’t in the same boat quality/user satisfaction wise, they are both using some form of agile development. More importantly, all the games mentioned were/will be much different on day 365 than they were on day one. And more importantly, what they will be on day 365 will most likely be much better than what they were on day one.
On a previous blog post, I recently received a comment saying that they didn’t agree with my views on Destiny because I was ignoring the fact that Bungie had improved the game(s) over time based on user feedback. This is specifically what I want to discuss today. The commenter was factually correct in saying that both Destiny titles evolved over time and had been noticeably improved based on user feedback. That is a position that I cannot and would not try to deny. But I am equally right in saying that Destiny I was a huge disappointment at launch. I think most people, including that commenter if I understood him correctly based on that one comment, would agree with that statement as well. I preordered Destiny and purchased the Collector’s Edition. I invested $100 into the game and don’t/didn’t feel that I got $100 worth of content delivered to me. At the same time, if I had waited a year, I could have gotten a huge amount of content for less than $60 with The Taken King Edition. If you remember that time, then you will recall that many early adopters were angry about this. Because it was much more blatant and “unfair” than your standard GOTY edition release of a game. Since I haven’t personally played that additional content, because I absolutely refused to give Bungie another dollar for that game, I can’t say if I would have felt like I had gotten $100 of content or not. But based on what I’ve seen and read, I am of the opinion that I probably would have felt satisfied if my $100 preorder had netted me all the content of the Taken King Edition.
So you have two people with two very different opinions of the same game because they played the game at two very different times and thus had much different experiences. But is one opinion more valid than the other? Is my take on Destiny a more legitimate critique because I judged the launch version of the game, which would rightfully be considered the most authentic experience? Or is the commenter’s take the more legitimate one because it was/is the most up to date and arguably better represents the intended experience that the developers had for the game? I don’t actually know if there’s a right answer. What I do know is that this question and how you answer it presents a real problem when it comes to reviewing, grading, and ultimately valuing games in 2019.
Anthem is a trash game. It is an objectively broken experience that does not live up to the BioWare name. 99% of gamers agree with this statement, 0.5% are lying, and the other 0.5% don’t know what Anthem is. That is the current state of the game and the reason the player base has declined so rapidly. In true EA style, it was released broken, lacking of all character, and not at all like the BioWare games of old that ultimately led to people buying a shared world shooter from a long established RPG dev to begin with. But that shouldn’t have surprised anyone. I predicted the game would be disappointing at release months before launch. I will admit that I didn’t see it being as bad as it ultimately is though. But I also believe that Anthem doesn’t have to remain bad.
Anthem has a ton of problems and is missing a plethora of things to be a proper BioWare game. But the skeleton is fairly well made. I genuinely believe that Anthem in year two can and will be a great game if EA continues to invest in it and doesn’t shutter BioWare, as everyone, myself included, is worried about. In fact, that’s why I made a blog post called Anthem Year Two back in July of 2018. In the same way that Destiny, No Man’s Sky, The Division 1, and countless other games added a lot of additional content, made changes, and patched out bugs over the course of the first year to ultimately create a great game in the long run, I believe Anthem can, and must, do the same thing. The real question is how do you judge and valuate such a game?
Let’s say on February 22, 2020, exactly one year after the original launch of Anthem, BioWare releases an update that completely revolutionizes the game. Let’s assume they fixed everything. Loading times are lightning fast, story actually exists, decisions matter, romance is an option, gear is more consequential, and drop rates are drastically improved. Imagine that basically the game went from where it is now to Mass Effect 2 status for quality of experience while maintaining the balance between single player and multiplayer at the same time. Essentially GTA Online with much stronger writing. I’m pretty sure that we would all agree that such an improvement would be welcomed and revolutionary. But how would/should we value and grade Anthem as a whole in this scenario? Would we just ignore the original version and pretend it never existed? Would we average our opinions based on both iterations? Would we still condemn the game based on our first impressions? What exactly would be the right way to go about judging this new and vastly improved Anthem?
On one hand, you’d have a phenomenal game that everyone would be dying to play. But on the other hand you’d have, if estimates I found online are correct, somewhere between three and six million players (purchasers) who bought the game at/near launch who were ultimately disappointed and quit playing the game. While many of them would probably jump back in for this new version, many will have already been soured by the game, rightfully so, and would choose not to pick Anthem back up for all the patches and improvements in the world. This later group would be accurately judging the game on their first impressions. At the same time, anyone judging the game based on the new content would also be making a fair critique of the current product. This presents a number of questions that really haven’t been fully addressed or properly answered by the gaming industry or community. Also the pricing of this magical update would need to be part of the discussion as well. Would it be free like the improvements made to No Man’s Sky? Or would it be at cost like the way they’ve developed Destiny with periodic paid expansions?
What I’m most interested in discussing is how we as consumers should be judging games, and the companies that produce/distribute them, that fall into this situation. First impressions used to be super important. To me, they still are. Most people can name at least one developer or publisher that they absolutely do not trust anymore because of one or, in the case of EA, several projects that soured their feelings toward the brand. But in world where games are improved over time and often go from being some of the worst games currently available to some of the best games playable over the course of an extended period of time, how do we as consumers navigate that system? How do we judge games like this? How long do we give games to stop sucking? How do valuate games like this in terms of pricing? Possibly most importantly, how do we discuss games with each other on fair terms when we could literally be playing different games depending on when we started and stopped playing a specific title?
I think Destiny I was disappointing. I started playing day one and stopped after the House of Wolves expansion. I spent $100 total. Another player started playing after The Taken King Edition was released. He paid $30 for all the content I got plus a lot more. He thinks the game was phenomenal. In my opinion, we are both correct and both wrong at the same time. But how do we officiate those opinions in a useful, constructive way without having to precede them with three or more pages of explanation, a personal gaming history, and a notarized record of gameplay experience every time we try to engage with each other online? Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit but the point still stands, two players played the same game and yet didn’t play the same game and one felt justified in attacking the other’s opinion as a legitimate criticism of that opinion, and not just a troll.
For me, I think first impressions matter a lot. I don’t support the idea that a company can release a garbage game and improve it over time with no repercussions to their public image or the way we discuss that game in the long run. I think we should absolutely be mindful of the fact that a game was released unfinished and severely lacking for $60 or more in the case of AAA titles. I think it’s criminal for a developer/publisher to release a broken, unfinished game and then charge extra to repair it, even if those repairs ultimately turn it into a masterpiece. At the same time, I also think that it’s important to give a clear and accurate depiction of a game in its current form in order to help late adopters make decisions that will ultimately net them the best overall gaming experiences within their limited budgets.
I didn’t buy Anthem. I played the alpha and the beta and saw that it was going to stink to high Heaven. It was very obvious to me and ultimately why I published my previously linked post about it. But I also believe that Anthem has the potential to be a great game in the future if given the proper time, care, and resources it needs to evolve into something beautiful. So when/if I buy it, I’ll be getting a hopefully great gaming experience. And I will discuss it as such. But that won’t negate the bad experiences that the many people who did buy it day one first experienced before ultimately quitting the game. The gaming community needs to evolve to a new set of standards that properly address this point when discussing, judging, and debating games in the current landscape.
There’s a bigger issue at play here as well though. Let’s say BioWare really does improve Anthem. In fact, let’s say they completely fix it and really do ultimately deliver an award winning, GOTY level gaming experience. Would that make everything OK? Would it suddenly be acceptable that they released a steaming pile of crap, charged everyone who bought it day one or preordered it $60+, and made them wait a year before delivering a serviceable product? Should we then champion BioWare like in the days of old and commend EA for sticking with the game till it met the expectations they promised us? Now as an old school gamer who was gaming years before patches were even conceived of, I say no.
I wouldn’t forget that release, the lacking content, or the fact that day one players were asked to return to a game a year or more after release, and possibly have to pay extra for the expanded content. Even if I did buy the game a year later and got something great, for me that wouldn’t negate the fact that BioWare and EA tried to pass off something terrible to the public. Because Anthem day one is what they wanted us to accept. Anthem day 366 is what we forced them to ultimately deliver. In my opinion, consumers shouldn’t have to strong arm studios or publishers to get quality games. There’s supposed to be a social contract where they deliver good products and we purchase them, and because those products were good we’ll purchase their next product as well, assuming it also looks/is good. That system falls apart when studios try to put out crap and then apologize by making patches. Yet many people today, especially younger gamers, see this as the modern norm. They’re fine with a studio releasing crap as long as they fix it in the long run, because they’ve been raised on patches. They don’t let first impressions define their perception of a game or studio.
In some ways this modern form of judging a game is kind of beautiful at the human level. The ability for a person to see the potential in something bad, trust the creators to evolve their work to its full potential, and then not carry any grudges or spite from the past is a quality that I think all people could benefit from . . . when dealing with other people. But we’re talking about multi-million to sometimes billion dollar corporations. We don’t need to feel any sympathy for them. A lot of people try to say corporations are the people who work for them, but that’s not really accurate for larger studios. That’s just marketing and PR over many years of inceptive messaging. Why should I pity a studio that puts its employees through 80 hour crunch weeks? Why should I feel sympathy for companies that are known to work their teams to the bone and then fire the bulk of their employees down to a skeleton crew once the project is launched? These corporations aren’t people. They’re heartless money making machines that care more about profits than the health and well-being of the creative minds that make their profits possible. So while I’m not actively calling for the gaming industry to reform itself, though I do believe it needs to, I’m also not going to look upon these companies with any sort of charity or sympathy. These is merely business.
Sell me quality products at a fair market price, take my money, and I’ll see you again for your next game. That’s the full extent of the relationship. So for me it’s a real issue if products being delivered are no longer being delivered at an acceptable standard. The fact that they’re getting improved down the road doesn’t negate that first impression. Especially if there’s an added price tag for those improvements. But as a whole, the gaming community is not in agreement on this topic. Many are fine with the agile development model. Many are happy to forgive a studio or publisher as long as the game is good in the long run. We even have review sites now updating their reviews over time to account for these changes to games rather than having projects deal with their troubled pasts for the entire duration of their tray life. And that’s not necessarily wrong. It’s not the way I judge games and the studios that release them, but it’s certainly a valid position to take in the current system. We really need to come to some sort of agreed upon system for how we as consumers are to judge and discuss games like this fairly and accurately. Because this model of development is here to stay, whether we want it to or not.