Release now, fix later

The rise of the internet, and the fact that more and more people around the world have a reliable connection to it, has changed the way video games are being made and released. Many games are no longer finished – or even close to finished – when they launch. “Release now, fix later” has become the standard model across the games industry, but I feel it does gamers a disservice – as well as being potentially costly for games companies.

This column was prompted by – of all titles – Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In a video a couple of days ago, Nintendo announced the latest update for the game, bringing the ability to have a cloud save backup (for those players who paid for Switch Online), as well as a few other additions to gameplay. This is the third major update to the game, and a fourth was teased right at the end of the video. While New Horizons’ updates have brought new features to the game – most of which have been longstanding features of the Animal Crossing franchise that were missing at launch – shouldn’t it beg the question why they weren’t included in the first place?

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is getting an update.

Before you say “coronavirus”, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on the 20th of March, before the worst effects of the pandemic and its associated effects on working were strongly felt. And this business model has been used for years; expansion packs used to be additions to already-complete games, like Age of Empires adding its Rise of Rome expansion, for example. But sometime in the mid/late 2000s, companies began changing the way expansions worked. Increasing internet connectivity and faster download speeds meant it was possible to release all kinds of post-launch patches and DLC, even on consoles, which had previously lacked internet connectivity.

Many gamers remember Oblivion’s infamous “horse armour” DLC, which was one of the first examples of a small piece of cosmetic paid-for DLC that came to prominence. At the time I remember thinking that no one would pay money for something that silly, but enough people bought it – and similar items – that companies like Bethesda realised they had a huge opportunity on their hands.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s infamous Horse Armour DLC.

There are really two issues here – paid DLC that could and should have been part of the base game, and unfinished games that are subsequently updated either through paid DLC or for free. These issues can be related, and both are pretty crappy from a consumer standpoint. Even when updates are free, it really does leave me wondering why a games company would risk releasing an incomplete title.

Reviews for Bioware’s Anthem, released last year, were mediocre. The game was criticised for a number of issues, including repetitive gameplay, a lack of fun items, and a bland story. Bioware and EA planned Anthem as one of these “ten-year experiences”, but within a single year the game’s updates had been dropped from the schedule and as of right now it seems pretty dead. This is the danger of launching an incomplete title – it receives negative or mixed reviews, putting people off. Why should I, as a consumer, invest £55 into a game that’s average at best with vague promises of getting better later? That’s no way to market a product.

Anthem was incomplete at launch and received mediocre reviews as a result.

My review of Animal Crossing: New Horizons made note of some of the missing features that have subsequently been added to the game. I don’t want to give myself too much credit here, but if a potential buyer had read my review, in which I said that I enjoyed the experience overall but that it felt a little threadbare compared to the previous entry in the Animal Crossing series, they may have chosen not to pick up a copy. While New Horizons generally received glowing reviews, there were others like mine which took a more nuanced approach to the game, pointing out some of its big missing features.

Including these missing features now is a good thing, and I’m glad it was done for free instead of as paid DLC. But waiting an extra couple of months to release the title with everything already included would have been better – and it would have meant, from my point of view, that some of those points of criticism and negativity could have been omitted from my review. I don’t want to give a company much credit for adding a missing feature after launch that should have been present from the start.

This feature, soon to be added to New Horizons, should have been available at launch.

I’m not disappointed by Animal Crossing: New Horizons adding a free update that brings in more features, but I am confused as to why those features weren’t part of the original experience. I had fun playing New Horizons overall – I played it almost every day for two months, and sunk over 120 hours into the game in that time. I’m tempted to jump back in to see what the update has to offer, but I’m also disappointed to have missed out on playing the complete game the first time around.

Microsoft showed off a first look at Halo Infinite a few days ago, and as I noted at the time the response was lacklustre. I felt the game looked okay – if clearly current-gen – but upon hearing that it’s planned to be another “ten-year experience”, alarm bells started to ring. That kind of live service business model almost always results in games that are released incomplete. “Release now, fix later” is the mantra. And I can think of only a few such titles that came anywhere close to lasting ten years.

Who genuinely believes Halo: Infinite will last ten years? If you put your hand up, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

The 2014 game Destiny – released, somewhat ironically, by the Halo series’ former development studio Bungie – was one of the most high-profile underperfomers. Its promised decade of updates and improvements lasted barely two years, and a full sequel was released only three years after the first game launched.

With the exception of a minority of gamers who dedicate most of their time to a single title, people like having a variety of things to play. After completing a game, they’re ready to move on to the next. This surely means that the entire concept of live services and ongoing updates is flawed – most players won’t stick around no matter what the update brings as they’re already planning their next title.

I’ve just completed Jedi: Fallen Order and I’m ready to find something else to play. Even if it was promising updates and DLC I wouldn’t be sticking around for years playing the same game.

These business decisions are taken by executives and managers; they see the success of a title like Grand Theft Auto V and think they can replicate its accomplishment with their own “ten-year plan”. Some poor team of developers is then tasked with bringing that experience to life, but without the same resources as a studio like Rockstar, which puts years and years of development time into its biggest titles. The result is a half-baked game that players abandon – if anyone even played it in the first place.

In short, the internet has made it very easy for companies to try their luck by releasing an unfinished game. Many titles in 2020 have day-one patches that fix bugs and improve gameplay, and while those things aren’t bad in and of themselves, it’s something that titles in the past couldn’t get away with. Because on the developer side it’s relatively easy to roll out a patch, there’s a temptation for games to be “good enough” at release with a view to fixing them later.

These decisions are taken by CEOs and managers who are trying to imitate the financial success of better titles.

The problem is that they usually aren’t “good enough”, and by the time updates, patches, and DLC plug the holes of an incomplete title, players have moved on. If a game has a bad enough launch these planned updates and DLC may never even see the light of day. The biggest example of this in recent years has to be Mass Effect: Andromeda, a game that massively underperformed at launch due to bugs and glitches that should have been fixed in pre-alpha. Andromeda’s DLC was scrapped and its story abandoned in the aftermath of bad reviews and online mockery, meaning that the players who stuck it out got screwed over twice: first by the crappy launch of a broken game, and second by the game’s abandonment.

The “release now, fix later” business model doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon, which is unfortunate. It really can harm games and make them less enjoyable at the moment where they have the most potential. If all the hype and excitement for a new title ends with a letdown, it can be impossible to recover from that. It can doom not only a single title but, as we saw in the case of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a whole franchise.

There is a frequently-overused quote from Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto: “a delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.” Some games companies think that rule no longer applies. Unfortunately for them, in practically every case it still does.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer, studio, and/or publisher. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.