How Much Does It Matter If Games Have a Crappy Launch Anymore?


#1

I’ve never developed a game, but I have to suspect one of the hardest parts is wondering if there’s a there, there. A foundation to build on. In the hours I’ve spent with Rare’s new game, Sea of Thieves, it’s clear the game has a there, there. The laughter, shock, and comradery I’ve shared while streaming the game is proof. The question is if Rare can be nimble enough to capitalize on what makes Sea of Thieves, sometimes in fits and starts, special and interesting and weird and beautifully different.

I don’t know! Maybe the game's moment lasts a week week, a backlash will ensue, and Sea of Thieves is quickly forgotten, swept away as games like Far Cry 5 come out. But what if we live in a different time, one where a game’s launch—full of server errors and complaints about whether there’s enough to do—doesn’t predict the future?

The way I outright passed on Fortnite, only to watch it explode, has stuck with me, and forced a reckoning on determining a game’s "destiny." I spent a few hours with Fornite at launch, when it was being pitched as a co-op building defense game, and it was clearly not for me. It seemed fine, the kind of game people would enjoy so long as their friends were playing it, until The Next Thing came along. That didn’t happen, obviously, with Fornite’s Battle Royale transforming the game from surprising curiosity to an emerging cultural phenomenon approaching a level of visibility a rare subset of games enjoy.

People talk about Fortnite, a game I made snide comments about when they seemed to just be ripping off PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the way they talk about Minecraft. Its popularity is besides the point. There are lots of games I’m okay with not liking, even if they’re popular. But the popularity gives me pause.

There's a growing trend of games with troubled launches finding their footing. No Man’s Sky was not universally disliked at launch (see: how much our own Austin Walker enjoyed his time with it, despite reservations), but to many, the game felt like a bait and switch. What was promised in the trailers didn’t feel like the game they were charging money for. (By contrast, Sea of Thieves seems to be exactly what was advertised ahead of of time. After each beta, there were borderline conspiracy theories Rare and Microsoft were hiding the “real” content for the game as a surprise. Nope!)

A year later, No Man's Sky got a massive update that fixed a lot of its problems. At the very least, it stabilized the game’s community, who went from hostile and upset to sharing images from their space adventures and, uh, making space governments.

How about Rainbow Six: Siege, a game that received okay reviews, but was roundly dinged for its approach to microtransactions, serious matchmaking issues, an influx of cheaters ruining games, and not enough content? Ring a bell? The game’s launch sales were seen as disappointing. Siege was ripe to become the type of game that underperforms in its opening weeks, only to be discarded in favor of a sequel or reboot that tries to take some lessons from what went wrong and avoid them the next time.

Instead, Ubisoft doubled down on “games as a service”—it wasn’t lip service. Matchmaking got better, bugs were squashed, players got kicked if they killed teammates, a anti-cheating system was implemented eight months after launch, and the game add new maps (for free) throughout the next year. (The season pass included access to new soldiers, or “operators.”) The game was adding players as it went along.

Siege just entered its third year of post-release support, and gained traction as an esport. Ubisoft is attempting to pull the same resurrection story for its melee, For Honor, which also faltered at launch. There’s evidence it seems to be working, too.

I’m not arguing every game is capable of this, nor is every game even to be patched, updated, and altered to make up for whatever muddy first impression it leaves. But it’s increasingly clear first impressions aren’t everything, or, at the very least, there’s an opportunity for players to come back around, so long as the game in question has a there, there. Personally, anyway, it means I’m going to start keeping a more open mind.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/7xd9ab/how-much-does-it-matter-if-games-have-a-crappy-launch-anymore

#2

It seems to me that the people that are most vocal about crappy launches are those that didn’t want to like a game, anyway. It makes it easier to avoid FOMO and they get to take a dump on an easy target. Certainly there are fans that get upset over a bad launch because they can’t play the game they paid for, but once things stabilize, the memory of that rough launch doesn’t last.

I’m heartened by Ubisoft’s follow-through of supporting their games post-launch. Siege is clearly their biggest success with this plan, and I really hope Eric Pope’s For Honor follows a similar track, but let’s not forget The Crew. That game got very few positive reviews out of the gate, but they continued to add major features to it in expansion packs every year and it’s a pretty different experience now than it was at launch. It’s not as polished as a Forza game, nor as tightly tuned as Burnout Paradise, but it has a goofy charm to its systems that keeps me coming back. I love going off a big jump on the way to a race and getting a +2 exhaust as a reward, and I haven’t had this much making hideous cars since NFS Underground.

I hope Battlefront 2 gets a similarly long tail. I want to jump back after yesterday’s patch, because there just hasn’t been another game that’s scratched my arcade-y flight combat itch like that Starfighter Assault mode has.


#3

That Starfighter Assault mode just made me really want to see Criterion given the resources for a new Rogue Squadron or any other Star Wars space combat game. It’s just incredibly fun, and I intend to play more of it after the patch as well. When I played Battlefront 2 in the month or two after launch, I eventually basically ignored the other modes in favor of Starfighter Assault. It’s that good.


#4

Yep, was also thinking of The Crew (which I think generated more revenue in year two and year three on sale, each individually, than it did during the first year of sales - and the game didn’t collapse at retail launch so that’s a pretty huge tail which was enabled by a complete engine rebuild at the same time as the first expansion and a second expansion along with some rolling updates to keep it populated).

Jumping up to the very top: looking for the there there. I think everyone should at least have a look at taking part in a game jam to help unwrap what’s going on with the creatives they’re covering. Full time journalists are clearly capable of contributing words, editing, etc. Maybe even some skills for crafting a quick trailer, making some video content for an FMV opener, or doing foley work for the audio. There’s lots of transferable skills to bring to a jam (maybe if there’s a local meeting for a weekend jam, that would be a reasonable micro-embed to contribute to and watch a project come together). Because those jams are pretty good microcosms of hunting for the existence of there being a there there. It’s the pure exploration of a single idea to see if there’s something to it that could be built into a full game (no wonder some studios use them internally to generate new project pitches that go beyond a document and actually prove some of the promise of something new). The same way a demo party is a concentrated ball of rendering (and audio-visual creativity, extreme compression, and general low-level coding tricks) exploration.


#5

The Fortnite situation has been super weird to me. I’ve been playing it on and off since Battle Royale launched last year and for most of the fall and winter I felt super out of step with the gaming communities I am a part of. Here I was, enjoying the hell out of Fortnite BR, but I kept seeing it getting slagged in forums and on podcasts from people whose opinions I greatly respect. I thought I was taking crazy pills regarding this game, and almost left it off of my GotY list because I felt something akin to embarrassment for liking it. It was a weird situation, because I am definitely not the type of person to be on the cutting edge of trends, gaming or otherwise.

Anyway, with Fortnite blowing up like crazy recently, I do feel some vindication. And it gave me some perspective that the people I think are the arbiters of what’s good (internet) can sometimes overlook things due to their own biases. That’s not a dig at Waypoint, just a comment on how we’re all human.


#6

In this case, it’s also a bigger and weirder launch than most other games. I would guess that the majority of people playing Sea of Thieves are doing it through the Game Pass subscription, and likely just as a part of their 14-day trial on their service. The game is technically $60, but everyone is paying between nothing and $10.

It’s a curse and a blessing, because on one hand the backlash still regards it as a $60 game and you have way more people engaging with that argument than you would have otherwise if it was a simple retail release. But on the other hand, Rare doesn’t have to worry as much about sales figures as Microsoft is mainly using their oddball game as leverage to get people on their monthly subscription service.

None of this has a bearing on what the game’s future is, but for now Rare is “safe” in the short-term, aside from lots of angry forum posters.


#7

Sure games can turn around from a sub-par launch, but the devs need to have the ressources to actually be able to do that.

The piece only talks about larger games, but for smaller devs, a botched launch, be it either because the game is buggy, or (what is most likely going the case) they messed up their PR, is pretty much a death sentence.

Steam buries newly released that don’t catch on pretty quickly and unless you’re able to push out a significant update there isn’t much of a chance to recover from that. And pushing that update also takes time and ressources and comes with the risk of not having the desired effect.

Just something I felt is worth pointing out, because most games that get released nowadays aren’t of the dimensions of Fortnite or No Man’s Sky and I’m not a big fan of sweeping statements about game development, when they in fact only affect a smaller portion of the whole industry.


#8

It helps to fill a niche no one else is. 4x and Grand Strategy is the only corner of gaming that still has expansion packs. These games, particularly those made by Paradox, are initially nothing more than an interesting framework that are built up through constant patches and expansions. Crusaders Kings 2 was pretty bare bones at launch but over the last six years has radically changed and expanded. And I have spent way more time and money than I’m comfortable admitting on it. That’s because no other game comes even remotely close to doing what it does. There isn’t any competition in the medieval dynasty simulator genre. Rainbow Six has a similar monopoly on squad based tactical combat. Sea of Thieves also has its own niche and if they continue to update it I might get sucked in. I’ve been trying to scratch that pirate itch since Black Flag and nothing has really done it. SOT has that strong framework. Hopefully they can build something great on it.


#9

I don’t see Killer Instinct 2013 talked about much, but it’s one of the prime examples of a just-okay game at launch which became successful mainly through consistent, continued support via additional characters/modes/stages/etc. It had a surprisingly strong three-year run at EVO and is still worth trying out, even though they’re effectively done with the game.


#10

I think the ability of games to right themselves via post-launch support is one of the more exciting developments in the last few years of video games, and some of my favorite games from the past half-decade or so launched either unfinished or horribly unpolished.

It’s absolutely hit or miss when it comes to maintaining an audience though – No Man’s Sky hasn’t seen player numbers anywhere near launch, even though it’s gotten much better.


#11

I think that is one of the more interesting aspects of that service. SOT Has a not so great launch. Everyone burns their 14 day trial on it. It starts getting better and having more added to it (And there is a great core game in there. But then I really love Elite and this SOT is like Elite on water). Suddenly the option to resub is there. Then you spend the $10 on it and State Of Decay 2 is on it. So you go play that. And then they kinda have you. It’s kinda interesting the way we consume games is changing. But I think the press is missing out on these big success stories because they have to cater to the hardcore bubble and be on top of new news rather than looking back at older games and how well they are doing. Hence why the big trends are in multiplayer but that loud and vocal minority wants single player coverage and believes single player games are under threat (They aren’t)

@miscu

Thats a great point. Killer Instinct was very good application of the whole roll out where the core loop was great. And then they brought in more complexity with each “Season” having new characters with more complex playstyles along with thoughtful changes to older season characters. I think they are effectively done with the game. But not the IP. It was a bit low key but it was really successful for MS and Iron Galaxy.


#12

This is a hugely important point that went completely unsaid in the article.

Here’s the thing: “games as a service” is basically just large companies leaning into their actual strength: the ability to outspend and outlast the competition. The reason it’s happening now is because microtransactions and loot boxes have made it financially viable to do so. It’s no longer simply a long play – it’s also a very profitable short and medium term play.

I don’t think anyone has fully reasoned through the implications of large publishers chasing after the dream of making The One Game that everyone will want to play and live in forever. (This vaguely ties into this week’s theme – a combat game that never ends is just an eternal war for fun and profit.)


#13

Not only this, Steam basically encourages devs to go down that route. As a dev you get something called “discoverability rounds” that increase your visibility on the platform (not by a lot if your following isn’t all that big to begin with, but it still helps a bit), but you can only use them, when you push an update for your game.

Sure you might be able to push change some minute things and still use them anyway, but it’s clearly meant to incentivice devs to continously release new stuff for their games.

This is really great and all that, when your game can support such a model. But a lot of “normal” single player games don’t and if your ressources are already very limited, it hits you almost twice as hard.


#14

It’s cool that developers can put a game out there without everything they intended for it to have, and make sure audiences actually care before investing all their resources into something. Sort of like a stealth version of the Decksplash stunt.


#15

3 years later, Street Fighter V is seen as inferior to other games in the genre in the FGC, largely because of the state it launched in.


#16

Despite it’s crummy launch, the continued support of SFV is why it’s still in EVO. MVCI is not.


#17

launch clearly isn’t as important to all games (or all people) as it used to be, but it’s still pretty important to me. if a game comes out and the sense around it is “it’s great but it’ll be better when they fix (insert laundry list of things)” i’m not going to buy it.

i don’t buy a ton of full-price games. if i’m going to buy a game at launch, the consensus has to be that it, as it exists at launch, is a complete game. sure, i might buy no man’s sky one of these days for $9.99, or $3.99, but if they’d put out a more complete game back then i probably would’ve paid $60. i don’t have the time/money resources to drop $60 on the shiny new thing only to hope that it gets better eventually through ongoing development. if there’s any whiff of “it’s iffy right now but they could turn this around” i’m not gonna drop the money at launch.

to mr. klepek’s point - i might come back around and buy these game later, usually much later. but i’d rather pay full price for a great game that is great at launch, that doesn’t need to be fixed later, than discount price for a game that is a year or three old that has finally been completed.

something like fortnite was an anomaly - being a free to play game means there’s no investment, so there’s nothing at stake if you jump in at launch and are disappointed.


#18

The thing about AAA development is that it has standardized the awful practice of the “Day Zero” patch. Before Steam and digital took off, the physical media for a game had to be finalized months in advance – and that combined with the shitty business practices of publishers guaranteed that the game, as shipped, would be a broken piece of shit.

This used to be something purely on the PC side, but as consoles gained more storage, they also gained huge launch patches.

What’s telling is that this hasn’t changed all that much, even with digital. Broken development practices arising from impossible business requirements are evergreen. It’s why it doesn’t pay to buy AAA games at launch, and it definitely doesn’t pay to pre-order.

As for indie games … I think as the scope and price of the project shrinks, it becomes a more reasonable risk to support small games on launch. Again, it depends on the specific dev and project.


#19

Street Fighter V is a bit of a different story to the other games patrick mentioned because the optics on that game were vastly different. Essentially, the core game was good enough that fans accepted 16 fighters at launch because they were quality and you could spend in game currency on new DLC fighters anyway with a reasonable price of 100,000 “Fight Money” which they announced at Evo to a good reaction. A lot of fans figured they could play enough to earn them anyway and saved them money. Capcom said a “Story Mode” would be in at launch and then a “Cinematic Story mode” would be coming later in the summer after Evo. The betas also went really well so was assumed it would succeed.

All seemed well and good till copies leaked out from the UAE about a week before release and it turned out that while Capcom hadn’t lied. The “Story mode” was mostly 2-3 one round fights between really rough visual novel style exposition and the amount of “Fight Money” given was so pitiful that the game became a colossal grind. On top of that, it was asking even more money on day 1 for more costumes, alternative time of day on stages. Everything you’d normally earn in game had a price attached to it via fight money, or to escape the grind, real money. And thats where players really turned on it and outrage began. Add in the launch day server woes where people couldn’t even play the game and it was a hellstorm of bad publicity on top of tweaks Capcom made to the fight system from the betas being really bad decisions that made the game play worse and the input delay.

Another thing to point out is that where Ubisoft succeeded. Capcom faulted badly. They continued to pump out content but it was obscenely expensive including a $20 pack for a stage and some costumes that had limited availability during Evo and went completely tone deaf to the community who were sick of being constantly charged money when other fighting games like MK X and Guilty Gear Xrd were way more up front with what cost money and what would be free. Even the relaunch with Arcade edition faltered because they didn’t offer enough upgrades to current owners and still pushed the obscene microtransactions along with overhauling the “Fight money” system for the worse by locking it to challenges you had to spend fight money to get into. Add in tone deaf producers convinced “The haters” were just out to get them. And you get a colossal mess. And it’s likely going to lose the main event spot at Evo 2018 to Dragon Ball Fighter Z after Capcom held that spot ever since the event’s inception. It’s the perfect example of how not to recover after a launch like that.


#20

I wonder how much this phenomenon is limited to multiplayer-focused games. People tend to move on quicker from single-player games, and even games that made a decent first impression seem to struggle drawing players back in for DLC.