The world of gaming is changing, and not in a way that best suits players
If the title didn’t make sense, then it should now.
The recent news that EA and BioWare will be stopping any further development – and indeed support – of Anthem came as a shock to very few and as a disappointment to many. When unveiled at E3 2017 I was admittedly blown away. For all intents and purposes; an Iron Man game in a Star Wars-esque setting. Conceptually I’d been hooked, and the visuals reeled me in. The footage was supposedly captured in-game and in real-time (the veracity of which would go on to be heavily questioned) and demonstrated a stunning landscape to explore the diverse abilities of the Javelin suits. I don’t think I made it to the end of the trailer before I decided I would have this game and likely have it day one – I’ve been waiting (and frankly continue to do so) for a decent mech game since Armoured Core 4.
Granted, I’d rather look at this than that Good Charlotte photo.
Thankfully, I’d seen sense. Something in the back of my head would go on to convince me to wait and see how things would play out after release. Its name? Meme Effec – sorry – Mass Effect Andromeda. Released only months before the E3 demo, Andromeda was a comedic mess. Also developed by BioWare and EA, would it have been smart to trust the studio again with an upfront €70, no questions asked? Bethesda gets away with releasing buggy messes all the time, right? How’s Fallout 76 doing? At the time of writing just over 6000 average players in the last 30 days (source). A lot has changed in gaming in the 10 years since the release of Skyrim, but a simple yet important sentiment remains: gamers want a finished game.
It’s the same old reason
Studios and publishers, however, want money. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pulling out the hammers and sickles just yet. Making games takes resources. One would assume more money equals more resources equals better games equals more money. It confuses me why billion-dollar companies struggle with that equation. Instead, it just looks like they need to throw out a quarterly cash-grab to appease a business executive that seems to get most of their gaming knowledge from their YouTube parroting kids.
While businesses are always looking for ways to improve revenue, rarely is it so evident that it’s at the expense of quality. We’re practically in Freddo territory. After fumbling the first in the rejuvenated Star Wars Battlefront series, EA came back with a much-improved sequel but with a catch – loot boxes. Loot boxes are not a particularly new concept, but the pay-to-win method employed by EA in this game was so dubious in its execution that it resulted in multiple countries updating their gambling laws.
Microtransactions have now become a staple element in gaming. Evolved from the gacha mechanic of free-to-play mobile games, its ability to generate revenue has led to established games like Rocket League moving to a free-to-play model. “Battle passes” are rife. These tend to dominate in online multiplayer games, where it is apparently important that every player’s avatar has a different skin. Otherwise, what’s even the point? It even permeates genres. Whether it’s a shooter like Call of Duty or fantasy like Elder Scrolls Online, it’s rare you would be unable to spend real-life money on either fake game money or usable items.
Why am I rambling on about how gaming companies make their money? It has facilitated the movement from the traditional single upfront purchase of a game to the new method of a reduced upfront cost with long-term subscriptions or in-game purchasing. And why is this important? It has created an environment where publishers are happy to release games – unfinished, nevermind unpolished – and go on to make money with little more than promises of updates, repairs, and decent support.
Examples? Almost any recent game that has been released as a quick attempt at games as a service. I’m not saying every single one was a disaster like Anthem, but many have been levelled with very justified criticism. Fallout 76 and even Elder Scrolls Online were criticised for being empty shells that required vast updates. Final Fantasy XIV had to be completely rebuilt with a new engine. You only have to jump on the Warzone subreddit to get a sense of how unsupported the community feels. There are undoubted exceptions – World of Warcraft essentially created the idea and has gone from strength to strength. Here would also be a good time to acknowledge it happens to non-gaas games too, most famously No Man’s Sky.
The crunch – the worst aspect of gaming development
I am sympathetic about the position some companies can be in, but almost entirely for the developers themselves. It’s difficult to manage developing and releasing games when you have a small-yet-loud contingent of ravenous d**ks on the internet spamming them with questions, nonsense, and, in some cases, even threats. I even understand the crunch – I’m in the middle of one with this billionth draft (Sorry Paul!). It’s important to set and meet deadlines as it allows companies (not a twenty-something-year-old ranting in his kitchen) to manage the expectations of their customers, their investors, and their staff. Underestimating targets will negatively impact the devs. Overestimating will rattle your potential customers. Doing either will raise questions from the people holding the purse strings. When you manage to piss off all three? Cyberpunk 2077.
Dramatization of gamers revolting against lazy studios that released too many s**t games.
Is there a solution?
The solution I offer is very simple. Finish the bloody games! Players will wait if they’re receiving updates on development and know they’re getting a finished product, no matter the vocal minority of s**tposters. We could talk at length about executive involvement in the creative process and all the behind-the-scenes nonsense that’s been filtering out from the likes of BioWare, but those are office politics that go beyond gaming. In 2015 I was seated in a lab in downtown Boston, secretly watching the reveal of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Development had barely begun at that point. The next five years were frustratingly scant with information. But eventually, we got gameplay footage, story overviews, and release date. I took the chance I’ve not taken since Skyrim in 2011 – I pre-ordered. I even sprung for the collector’s edition. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Would the 8 million people who pre-ordered Cyberpunk say the same? Absolutely not.
FFVII Remake required the lightest of touch-ups following release.
A polished gem of a game was released. It took over five years, but it was done and to critical acclaim. Sure, Square Enix wasn’t going to d**k about with an IP as beloved as Final Fantasy VII, but the meticulousness was evident. Updates? Minor texture upgrades if I remember right. Subscription to play? Nope. Microtransactions? Some DLC but nothing to write home (or here) about. Replay-ability? I played the demo four times. Plenty of similar stories will be heard of Ghost of Tsushima, God of War, and Horizon Zero Dawn. Players want their AAA games to be visually and narratively engaging with involved and intuitive gameplay. Publishers want games with longevity that people will play over longer periods and continue to spend money on. It is possible to have both. The Witcher 3 remains in the top 10 of games played on Steam. Skyrim is now playable on fridges. Name the platform and I’ve purchased Resident Evil 4 or Final Fantasy VII for it.
If you expect someone to spend €70 on a game, don’t make them wait months after buying it to play it as it should be played. If you want someone to continually spend on or subscribe to a game, make sure it is properly developed and supported going forward. If you don’t? The best case is thread after thread online of “F**k EA.” Worst case is getting dragged to court like CD Projekt Red. Either case and the spectrum of in-between will inevitably result in money lost.
Players like to finish their games. They like it more when developers do.
All images are taken from their respective websites.
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