Releasing Games Before They are Ready

Over the course of 2014 purchasing a video game, popping it into your shiny new Xbox One or PlayStation 4 and then actually being able to play it, became a more difficult task than it should be.

Today’s modern video games and consoles have brought a number of innovations to the industry, giving players new ways to interact with traditional game experiences and creating vast, social network-like video games built upon living, breathing open worlds.

But with these interesting innovations has come a new problem: Developers are often releasing and selling unfinished video games – and unfortunately, it seems as if this is becoming a regular occurrence when it comes to the modern gaming industry.

Welcome to next-gen gaming.

Halo: The Masterchief Collection

The issues many of 2014’s biggest video games suffer from come in various forms. Sometimes a game needs an update that takes hours to download the second you put it into your console. In other situations, a title needs extra polish and multiple patches are released a couple of days after the game lands in the hands of consumers. And in certain instances many of the biggest games of 2014 were completely unplayable long after their release.

343 Industries’ Halo: The Master Chief Collection was still broken up to two weeks after its official release, with many players still unable to find games through its matchmaking multiplayer mode. This was a huge personal disappointment for me since The Master Chief Collection was one of my most anticipated games of 2014. Sony’s DriveClub suffered server issues that lasted weeks, rendering the online-only game unplayable (weather effects were also patched into the game at a later date).

Ubisoft’s Assassins Creed Unity launched with countless issues related to slow frame rates , often hilarious graphical glitches and even the occasional audio problem. Another Ubisoft title, Far Cry 4, forced some players to delete and re-install the game on their PS4’s in order to continue playing it, causing the player to lose their saved file and start the game all over again.

These issues likely occured for a number of reasons. Developers are now primarily creating games for two new, powerful consoles, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Both these devices have only been out for a year and many studios are probably still trying to get the hang of creating games for them. Developers also have financial goals to meet and despite how unfinished a title might be, a video game is still a product and sometimes products just need to ship. The video game industry is about making money after all.

Far Cry 4

The issues many of Ubisoft’s games suffered from, while not unique to the current state of the gaming industry, are an interesting example of what the source of 2014’s glitch filled gaming problems might be. Many of the developer’s recently released games, Far Cry 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity or even titles like Watch_Dogs, all featured what many developers refer to as “living worlds.”

Leading up to the release of Watch_Dogs, Colin Graham, Watch_Dogs’ Animation Director, explained he felt creating a more comprehensive and believable world was what would define the “next-generation” of gaming on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. This is a sentiment many developers, particularly those at Ubisoft have emphasized in interviews over the course of 2014.

“When people get their hands on Watch_Dogs I hope they see the complexity of the systems, because we’re throwing more AI, more CPU to determine behaviors and there are hundreds of characters on-screen. Every civilian is their own AI and they react differently. AI civilians know the difference between seeing and hearing a person. There’s a different reaction between hearing a gunshot and seeing someone get killed,” Graham said during a Watch_dogs preview event in Toronto.

While Watch_Dogs didn’t launch any game-breaking issues, Graham’s statement holds true to many of Ubisoft’s other releases this year, particularly titles like Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed Unity, two games that blend multiplayer and singleplayer into a more seamless experience.

Assassin's Creed Unity

Because these worlds are detailed and included a significant number of moving parts – and in some cases even online features – there are a lot of things that can go wrong during the development process. Even with the army of testers most game developers have working through their titles before they land on store shelves, it’s impossible to test all aspects of the game until its bottled up, systemic world is open to the gaming public.

This seems to be why it has become increasingly common for developers to release early beta versions of upcoming titles. Destiny’s launch went relatively smoothly and this is likely attributed to the fact that the game was released to the public in both beta and alpha form, giving Bungie the ability to test the game under the stress of real world conditions prior to release.

Halo 5: Guardians’ multiplayer beta is another great example of this strategy, especially since the game’s release is likely over a year from now. Creating a multiplayer-focused beta, something the Halo series’ creator Bungie has done in the past with earlier Halo games, allows dedicated fans to give 343 Industries integral feedback about the game, and perhaps more importantly, test Halo 5’s online ranking system and network infrastructure, two issues that The Master Chief Collection suffered from.

Even one of Ubisoft’s own titles, The Crew – although it was developed by an external studio, Ivory Tower – was given a lengthy public beta testing phase, resulting in the game launching with minimal issues.

Halo 5: Guardians

If always-online experiences are destined to be the future of video games, public beta and alpha testing need to become a more regular occurrence in the video game industry. Unfortunately right now many public beta/alpha tests occur far too close to the game in question’s official release date for the developer to make significant changes to its experience.

This means that beta testing is often used as more of a promotional tool than a way for developers to gain feedback from their fan base and stress test their title.

It’s important to point out that games like Assassin’s Creed Unity and Halo: The Master Chief Collection have been patched multiple times post-release and are much more playable than they were at launch

But at some point players are no longer going to put up with paying $69.99 for a broken gaming experience. However, flipping this concept around and giving players free early-access to a title long before its release date, allows developer to have ample time to iron out any kinks in their game.

The idea of being an unpaid beta tester instantly becomes more appealing when you don’t have to shell out $69.99 for the privilege, and this is the direction the industry needs to be headed.

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