The state of PC ports

The dreaded “release now, fix later” model that has been adopted by corporations across the games industry has shown up constantly in 2023. Although a number of console titles have been affected, by far the worst impact has been felt on PC. As PC is my primary gaming platform these days, this is something that hits me personally. Today, I wanted to talk a little about the absolute state of many recent PC releases.

Jedi: Survivor, Redfall, Forspoken, Hogwarts Legacy, and The Last Of Us Part 1 should have all been among the biggest PC releases in the first half of 2023. I was genuinely looking forward to several of these games myself. But all of them, despite being massive games with huge budgets backed up by major corporate publishers, have been released in broken, unfinished, and in some cases borderline unplayable states.

It’s Joel from The Last Of Us… apparently.

As a rule, I don’t pre-order games. I’ve been burned in the past, and as someone who doesn’t have money to piss away, pre-ordering just doesn’t feel like a good idea any more. But many folks still do, lured in by pre-order exclusive bonuses and the like, and many of these folks – as well as those who picked up titles shortly after launch – have been left severely disappointed in the first half of 2023.

I had hoped, particularly after the Cyberpunk 2077 debacle a couple of years back, that the games industry was beginning to learn its lesson. Just because it’s technically feasible to launch a title in an unfinished state and patch it out later, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea; the damage done by a rocky launch can be difficult to overcome – if not outright impossible. For every success story like No Man’s Sky, there are dozens of titles like Anthem, Aliens: Colonial Marines, or Assassin’s Creed Unity that are too far gone to be salvageable. And even titles that manage to continue development, like Cyberpunk 2077, are forever tainted by the way they launched.

A hollow character model in Redfall.

Who knows how many more sales Cyberpunk 2077 might’ve made had it been released six months later? The damage that game did to CD Projekt Red has set back the company immeasurably, damaging its share price and tanking its reputation with players. It’s an expensive lesson in how not to release a video game… so why have none of the other corporations in the games industry taken notice?

I didn’t buy Jedi: Survivor this month, even though I’d gone out of my way to save up for it and allocate money for it in my budget. Why? The reason is simple: I read the reviews, saw breakdowns of the PC port of the game, and decided to put my wallet away and wait. Electronic Arts lost what should have been a guaranteed sale because I’m not willing to buy an unfinished product. And make no mistake, that’s what Jedi: Survivor and all the other games listed above are: unfinished.

Cal falls through the map in Jedi: Survivor.

Unlike making a game for a console, developing for PC can be a challenge. Take it from someone who built their own PC last year: there are a huge number of different internal components from CPUs to GPUs, RAM to solid-state drives, and beyond. Ensuring perfectly smooth compatibility across an almost infinite range of potential PCs isn’t as easy as getting a game to run on an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5, which don’t have this issue of varied internal components. And I get that, I really do.

But that isn’t a good enough excuse. I’d actually rather that a corporation delayed the PC port of a game than release it in a broken state, and I won’t be alone in saying so. It isn’t ideal to break up a title’s release by platform, and it’s something to be avoided if at all possible, but under some circumstances it can be forgiven – especially where smaller, independent studios are concerned.

Characters clipping through each other in Hogwarts Legacy.

I used to work in the games industry, and I know or knew dozens of developers at both small and large companies. Developers are great, passionate people who put a lot of energy and love into their work. Developers working on franchises like Star Wars, for instance, are almost always passionate fans who want to bring their story to life as best they can. These bad releases are not a reflection on developers – nor should anyone try to harrass or attack developers because of these broken games.

The fault here lies with games publishers: corporations like Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Sony, and Warner Bros. Games. They’re the ones who hold the cards, and developers are forced to work to often unreasonable timelines. Even intense periods of “crunch” are often not enough to salvage a project in time, and a premature launch is almost always forced on a developer by a publisher. That’s undoubtedly what happened in each of these cases.

The fault lies with corporations like EA.

Crappy PC ports used to be fairly commonplace, but as the platform has grown and become more lucrative, that games industry stereotype seemed to be fading away. 2023 has brought it right back, and I’m now in a position where every PC game release is treated with scepticism. As players and fans, we shouldn’t be in the position of assuming a PC release will automatically be buggy, laggy, and an overall worse experience – yet here we are.

I’m not prepared to accept this as being “just” one of the downsides of PC gaming, either. Corporations need to make sure they’re allocating enough time and energy to their PC ports as they are for consoles – and if they can’t guarantee that a game will be in a playable state, the only option is to delay it. Ideally a game would be delayed on every platform, but in some cases it might be okay to go ahead with a console release and merely delay the PC port.

Promo art for Jedi: Survivor.

As consumers in this marketplace, all we can do is refuse to participate. It’s on us to tell corporations that we aren’t willing to pay their inflated prices to do the job of their quality assurance team, and that releasing games before they’re finished and before they’re basically playable is not acceptable.

One of the disappointing trends that I’ve seen, not just with PC games in 2023 but with a whole host of “release now, fix later” titles, is players and fans covering for and continuing to support these faceless, greedy corporations. Too many people seem willing to make excuses on behalf of big publishers, essentially doing the job of a marketing team for the. Some games, like Jedi: Survivor, have even received positive reviews on platforms like Steam and Metacritic, even as the reviewer admits that the game is in a poor state and playing it isn’t a great experience. Why say that? What benefit is there?

A couple of examples of positive Steam reviews for Jedi: Survivor.

I’m also deeply disappointed in some professional outlets. Practically all of the titles above received positive reviews from professional critics, reviews which in some cases glossed over or outright ignored bugs, glitches, and other issues with the titles in question. There’s a stinking rot at the core of the relationships between some games corporations and certain media outlets – and while I would never accuse anyone of writing a paid-for review, there are clearly incentives given and threats made to keep review scores higher than they deserve to be in some cases.

I also don’t buy the excuse of “pandemic-related disruption,” not any more. That might’ve worked three years ago, but as the World Heath Organisation downgrades covid and society gets back on track across the globe, it’s beginning to stretch credulity to blame any and all problems on the pandemic. That’s a cheap excuse by corporations who don’t want us to know the truth: they’re greedily publishing unfinished games to grab as much cash as possible for as little work and investment as possible. That’s always been the case, but it’s been turned up to eleven in recent years.

At the end of the day, this is all about money.

Unfortunately, I don’t see this trend disappearing any time soon. For me, all PC releases are now suspect, and I will be checking out multiple reviews and tech breakdowns of the latest titles before I even consider parting with my money. I would advise all PC players to take the same approach – and to not shy away from calling out games corporations that misbehave. No other industry could get away with this – not in entertainment nor in any other sector. We wouldn’t take this kind of behaviour from other corporations and companies – so why should we be forced to put up with it with our games?

It is infinitely better to delay a game, continue to work on the issues it may have, and only release it when it’s ready. This is a lesson that the games industry really ought to have learned by now – but I guess we’ll have to do whatever we can to hammer the point home. Why should we accept low-quality, broken, unfinished games with promises of fixes and patches to come? We shouldn’t – and this awful trend of crappy PC ports has to stop.

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

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.