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2013: The year of the tragic mea-culpa

The year of the tragic mea culpa

“We know we still have a ways to go with fixing the game – it is absolutely our No. 1 priority,” said the statement from EA’s PR. “We’re not moving onto future projects or expansions until we sort out all of the issues with Battlefield 4. We know many of our players are frustrated, and we feel their pain.” 

Just another tragic mea culpa, delivered by another PC game development team that failed to finish their game in time for launch.

There was something odd about 2013. Nearly every major game launched with significant, near tragic issues, prompting the developers to take to forums or twitter to say “we hear your pain.” Battlefield's drama came after Creative Assembly and Rome II's, and was proceeded by Batman, proceeded by Valve talking to their Dota community, proceeded by X: Rebirth.

It staggers me that so many major PC games were released in such a rough state. 

I find it baffling that Creative Assembly would release the most important game in their franchise for close to a decade, Rome II, and not delay it when there were clear and obvious faults with the game. These faults, as described by Total War’s Creative Director Mike Simpson, were ‘unacceptable’. But they released the game anyway. Baffling too when you consider that studio’s experience with Empire: Total War, which launched to similar, if not less severe issues, and remains, if you talk to those who work at the studio, a scar on the studio’s collective psyche. 

The problem isn’t buggy games. The problem is that software development doesn’t work like publishers want it to. The problem is that the best way to make good games isn’t to build up to one massive launch – it’s to develop, iterate, test, absorb feedback and improve. That’s the model game developers are following, with the first set of customers becoming testers and focus groups almost by default. 

What strikes me, isn’t that developers are releasing too early. It’s that they don’t have to put themselves in this position. 

The majority of the best games of 2013, in my mind, have come from Steam’s Early Access program, or followed an unconventional launch. Prison Architect, Kerbal Space Program, and Starbound all released fully advertising that the game wasn’t finished, but with an invitation to join their community. Those games are brilliant, and getting wildly better, and their communities grow by the day. Meanwhile, DICE and Creative Assembly were willing to sacrifice their most loyal fans passion for their series away to hit an arbitrary release date.

There’s something else that’s worth pointing out between the launches of Battlefield and Rome II: the problems with the games’ launches went largely unreported in the games press. Reviews of Rome II sat around 8-9/10 at launch (full disclosure: Fraser gave it 7/10 when we reviewed it). Battlefield 4 received broadly the same scores (full disclosure: we didn’t review Battlefield 4). There is a major disconnect between what players are saying about a game, what developers are admitting to about their game, and the judgements of those paid to criticise and recommend. 

There’s another mea culpa that I want to highlight. Blizzard’s removal of the auction house from Diablo III strikes me as a moment that’s worth highlighting. Seeing a developer respond to massive sustained feedback from their playerbase, doing what they can to fix the problem and move on from it, was a lovely thing. As Mea Culpa’s go, isn’t it nice when they make you happy?

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Dog Pants's picture
783

I'm not sure you can use Diablo 3 as an example of improvement when it took ten months to remove something nobody wanted in the first place, and the game still retains at least one other deeply unpopular feature. But I agree in principle that it's nice when companies admit to mistakes and try to compensate. The Witcher's re-release is a good example.

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Sax's picture
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They said pretty soon that they weren't happy with the result. Blizzard also started making changes to D3 very soon after the release. Of course it takes a while to turn the whole game upside down. The crucial thing is they did it. Which company the size of Blizzard would have done the same?

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Dog Pants's picture
783

The AH wasn't even live at release, and regardless of how long it took them to admit it was a bad idea it still took them until March 2013 to turn it off again.

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subedii's picture
246

More to the point, it was never a mystery to anyone, least of all Blizzard, that this was not only a deeply disliked feature (not the reason they disabled it), but that it fundamentally affected the gameplay in a terrible fashion.

This is something that was being told to them right from the start, in the many months of beta leading up to release.

That they went ahead anyway, and then kept plowing on with it for a whole _year_ before acquiescing isn't a sign of their being "nice" or desiring to do what the fans wanted (what the fans wanted was evident from the start), it's that they simply couldn't force it no matter how hard they tried.

Until then, why bother change anything? 10 million bought it straight away regardless.

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Sax's picture
153

Listening to the fans isn't always the best idea, and you forget that there are indeed people who like the auction house.

As you say, they sold millions and millions are still playing it so they wouldn't have to change it, but do it anyway.

Blizzard also works slower than most developers, even slower than Valve.

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subedii's picture
246

"Listening to the fans isn't always the best idea,"

Always? No. And yet here we are for some reason.

"and you forget that there are indeed people who like the auction house."

So... there are enough people that like the auction house that justifies its existence... but Blizzard are removing it? Because if not, then I'm afraid I'm sticking with my original perspective: Whilst you can find people on _any_ side of any fence if you search hard enough, it appears that in this case there wasn't enough support for it to continue its existence.

"As you say, they sold millions and millions are still playing it so they wouldn't have to change it, but do it anyway."

Blizzard have pretty publicly stated that the auction house has been a detriment to the game and its players (not exactly a huge and impossible to predict epiphany here), and that it's been correspondingly detrimental to player numbers. If they wanted to keep developing and pushing D3, something did indeed have to change or else future fan support was just going to dry up. That was the point of my last sentence.

As for Blizzard "working slow", that presumes that they didn't in fact still spend the first half-year of D3's release (not to mention its substantial beta period) telling its fans that they were completely wrong and that this feature was never going away. That's not working slow, they were pretty clearly working with that premise for most of D3's life.

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/127572-Diablo-IIIs-Auction-House-And-Always-Online-Arent-Going-Anywhere

Funny addition: The Auction house wasn't going anywhere, and BECAUSE of that, always online wasn't going anwhere, as the two features go "hand-in-hand" as it were.

So the former's gone, and the later just lost the justification Blizzard GAVE to it, and it's currently... ?

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Sax's picture
153

You obviously can't compare Battlefield 4, Rome 2, etc. with those indie games. Retail is just one big hurdle why these AAAs won't use something like an early access model.

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Shriven's picture
1128

Not to brown-nose Tim or anything. But,

I got to the end of reading this and I said out loud 'That's a good article, who wrote it?'

Their is a reason why he is da boss!

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UntoldAv3nGer's picture
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Not sure I like Early Access. Games tend to be on it for- months, while gamers expect less until they realize they're being tricked.

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