A long, long time ago, I wrote an article about if you should forgive Hello Games and No Man’s Sky for turning their terrible game into something actually good. That was when I was young, and naive, and assumed that it was going to be a rare – or possibly even one-time – situation. Before we discovered that the model that they “innovated”, for lack of a better term, would become the foundation and inspiration for all modern “triple-A” marketing and development.
I think it’s time we revisit the issue.
But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with a quick refresh: No Man’s Sky raised a fuss for being perhaps one of the most overhyped games in history. They had amazing presentations at huge trade shows, they talked a big game in interviews, both for the press and on TV, and the company head made amazing claims about how huge the game was and what you could do when it was finally released. People were seriously excited for what Hello Games was promising, but what they delivered did not live up to that promise. The dynamic, exciting, varied worlds turned out to be dull pallet swaps. Worlds were empty, the tasks were repetitive, and people very quickly realized that one of the foundational promises of the game, that people could play together (but the universe was so large it was entirely unlikely) was just a straight-up lie. People got mad, and Hello Games, rather than jumping ship, spent years releasing big free updates that slowly improved the game, until it reached the state where it’s at today, where worlds are vast and interesting, gameplay is varied and fun, and you can actually play with your goddamn friends in real co-op.
Still buggy as all hell, but what can ya do?
In any case, I argued, at the time, that the fact that Hello Games stuck to their guns and released a number of free updates that improved the experience ultimately “redeemed” them. It would have been easy to take the money and run, or to release a bunch of paid updates that would force players to “pay” for the game they thought they had already bought, but instead they buckled down and fixed the game for free and made a game (a few years late) that they could be proud of. It didn’t absolve their sin, but it did correct it, at least a little bit.
But that was three years ago.
A lot has changed in three years.
Now, it seems like every game has decided to use this model, in some form or another. For Honor, for example, was released in a fairly lackluster state that left fans wondering where the epic medieval combat simulator they were promised was, only for Ubisoft to release a number of free updates (although there was a season pass, and recently, a paid expansion) that made the game “better”. The first Division had people standing in line to get their first quests because the game was so broken and boring, only for future updates, free and paid (again, Ubisoft) to turn the game into something genuinely enjoyable. Destiny is probably the poster child for this, with the first game being notoriously monotonous, only for Bungie to release a number of paid expansions that made the game fantastic, according to the fans. Destiny 2 seems to be following the same trajectory. And we’ve got other games, like Final Fantasy XV, which got improved post-launch with updates that helped the story make sense, and first Star Wars Battlefront, which was really lacking in features until EA released a few rounds of updates that helped the game shine… just in time for the IP to catch fire during Star Wars Battlefront 2.
And of course, there are games that are clearly banking on their ‘eventual’ goodness. I’m looking specifically at Fallout 76, which fans have received less than kindly for a number of reasons too long to cover in this article, and of course Anthem, the latest dud from Bioware where the controversies surrounding it are far more interesting than the game itself, and where the plot is relegated to an in-game encyclopedia when plot and story is literally what Bioware is known best for. Both companies have committed to these games, and have assured fans that changes are on the way: really suggesting that they’re counting on this new “strategy” of “release first, fix later” in order to stay afloat.
Obviously, not all of these situations and games are exactly the same. Fixing bugs and fixing boring gameplay are two very different things. And games like No Man’s Sky, who released their updates for free, are very different to games like Destiny, where you had to pay an extra 120 something bucks for the actual fun version of the game. But they’re similar enough to be a noteworthy trend, and on top of exposing the many, many flaws with the “live service” model, they’ve left me wondering if the forgiveness and even praise I offered No Man’s Sky somehow enabled this flood of poorly-executed but ‘eventually’ fixed games.
Not me specifically, of course. I mean in the broader, cultural sense.
As for how “acceptable” this situation actually is, well, obviously it’s not. While not all of these games pulled the No Man’s Sky gauntlet of lies – for example, Anthem always looked boring – it’s basically an industry-wide bid of complacence that fans will just accept a terrible “beta build” and stick around with it in the hope that it’ll get better, and in doing so, they’ll get an ‘edge’ over people who only join when the game actually becomes fun. I have to assume that’s the FOMO strategy they’re willingly employing here, because the alternative is that their QA teams are either being ignored or are really, really bad at their jobs.
I mean, that’s the thing: with No Man’s Sky you at least got a sense of, like, willful maliciousness from those early lies, like he knew what he was saying was wrong but he only cared about pre-orders and stuff like that. For games like Fallout 76 or Anthem or the initial release of Destiny, it’s hard to tell if they knew their games were crap and didn’t care, or if they were sincerely under the impression it was an enjoyable experience and they have no idea they’re going to have to spend the next two to three years “fixing” it. And I don’t know which one sucks more, the idea that they’re doing it on purpose to be manipulative, or the idea that they’re so bad at their jobs they don’t even realize what they’re doing. Both explanations kinda suck, and neither of them warrant forgiveness.
We shouldn’t forgive companies who want to push a glorified beta onto their most devoted fans only to release a 60 dollar “patch” six months later. Heck, even if the improvement is free, it’s still a manipulative system, because just like No Man’s Sky, the only reason the improvement is noteworthy is because the base game was so bad. A “free” improvement is free advertising, especially when you’ve got fans who go out of their way to defend the ‘new’ game… which is exactly what these developers want. People talking about their game long after its first released when the hype would naturally wear out.
And we sure as hell shouldn’t forgive companies who are so bad at their jobs that they don’t realize that the games they’re putting out are garbage. As long as Nintendo exists you can’t pretend that making a great game on your first go is impossible. They’ve been doing it consistently for the past few years if you forget ARMS was a thing. I know I did.
Now, I can’t tell you how to spend your money or your time. And I’m obviously not some kind of moral authority in the field of video games – lord knows we need one, but it’s sure as hell not me – so I can’t tell you what’s “forgivable” and what’s not. But I can say, personally, if I had known No Man’s Sky was going to inspire future generations of games for all the wrong reason, I sure as hell would have never extended my hand out to it in good faith. I’m still a firm believer that making a game “better” isn’t a bad thing in itself: there are always going to be people who appreciate that effort, even if it does cost them money. And a game that eventually becomes good is ultimately better than a bad game that stays that way.
But while making a bad game good is ultimately a good thing, the reason they’re doing it, either self-serving greed or general incompetence, should not be rewarded or encouraged. If a year from now Anthem has been patched to hell and is finally a good game, I’ll be happy for its fans, but I will not be quick to offer any congratulations or thanks to EA or Bioware.
Making good games is supposed to be their goddamn jobs.
Developers shouldn’t get a pat on the back for just doing their goddamn jobs.