Ok gamers, it’s once again time to take out that mirror and take a look at ourselves as a group. A few weeks ago I noticed a tweet by a clearly rattled Jim Rossignol; linchpin of ‘Big Robot’, a tiny development team responsible for that excellent British romp ‘Sir! You are being hunted’ and ‘The Signal From Tölva‘ which won me over earlier this year with it’s sci-fi vistas.
The above tweet was the beginning of a mini-rant from Jim about the annoyances of some gamers assuming that the development of a title can go on perpetually; curious to know Jim’s views on the subject I decided to jump in to the conversation:
In his eyes it seemed quite clear that the finger could be squarely pointed at more successful titles that could afford to bankroll development and this had skewed the general perception that a game could simply be ‘done’. Of course (despite the increase in character limit) Twitter isn’t exactly the best place for complex discourse, even so, the exchange between us did stay with me, and the perception by some gamers that games can just continually be updated is one that I find distasteful for a few reasons. Game updates are not a bad thing inherently, there have been some excellent games that have maintained their popularity by evolving over time, but the expectation is potentially damaging to small teams like Big Robot who don’t have the resources to keep adding to their titles. Likewise it irks me that gamers are losing appreciation for something complete and finished; take Portal for example, in my opinion it’s a game that comes close to perfect and would suffer for the continual tweaks, extra levels, and presumably onslaught of hats that would have followed if development had continued. Think of any game that you consider to be a ‘classic’ and imagine that development had just perpetually continued to the point that the idea was wrung dry of everything that made it special. So is Jim right? Is this a symptom of the more lucrative titles having the cash to bankroll perpetual updates?
It’s not a trend that’s been with us that long; the first game that I came across to keep the updates rolling was Team Fortress 2, it’s a game I’ve sunk many hours into so the updates must have served their purpose and hooked me in, but in all honesty the core experience has been diluted by the endless loadout additions, dancing, and hats… Lots of hats. Six hundred and twenty four updates ago it was a very different beast, and first made an impression on me with the purity of those nine specific classes, each with a focused loadout, in a crisp, clean, highly stylised world. When the first major update rolled out the community went wild, servers were packed, players were stunned that a company that developed a game would release ‘more game’ after sale for free. Oh, and what was the update? … A map, a single additional map, Badlands. So at that point this was a new enough idea that it caused a stir despite being a relatively minor update by today’s standards.
Firstly Jim’s point is entirely valid; successful titles with high sales can continue to nurture those sales with the periodic boost that an update can have, but revenue doesn’t just come from shifting units. The scourge of paid DLC and microtransactions also make perpetual updates a useful and lucrative expectation for certain publishers to nurture and are often revenue streams that gamers see as much less significant than they are in reality. For publishers that regularly make hundreds of millions of dollars in these after-sale sales it’s obviously in their best interest to keep the ‘free’ content coming to retain the playerbase. I’d also argue however that there are a few other causes in that melting pot. Digital distribution itself had played its part; maybe ten years ago many (if not most) game sales were physical. You went to the shop, bought a box with a disc in it, and played it. Sure there might be the odd performance patch released, but in general the expectation was that what was in the box was the entire game and after a certain amount of time that game would disappear from the shelves of the store. With digital distribution we can now buy a game that’s ten years old as easily as one that was released yesterday, and yet we expect that game to be up to date, work perfectly with current hardware (for PC gaming). A minority will even moan in forums when the title hasn’t had a HD texture pack, or new episode released. It’s at least partially the accessibility that has driven this expectation.
We’re also living in the age of ‘early access’, a subject I covered previously in one of the very early blog ramblings, which has allowed small teams to bring in revenue during development, and get immediate player feedback. As I said at the time, some developers (Big Robot fall in to this category) have used early access to great success to offset their humble size with extensive player testing and feedback in order to release a final product. Unfortunately, given the shear number of early access titles available on Steam, there are those that sit in that early access phase indefinitely nurturing the player’s belief that this gradual stream of tweaks and updates will go on forever. I barely even register that some games are early access anymore.
The worst part is that I’m reluctantly tainted with the same expectation; during my recent playtime in the PU:BG I found myself thinking “Hmmm… they’ll need to sort that in the next update“, or, “Oh, there’s an update, what’s new?“. Sure it’s an early access title, but that’s a trivial thing to forget given the vast playerbase (recently surpassing 2 million concurrent players) and its overwhelming popularity for a title supposedly pre-release. In short, a few years ago most of us weren’t playing pre-release games, now we do it so often it’s become mundane, as has the process of updating and tweaking.
As consumers of games, we’re continually adapting to the changing market, distribution streams, revenue models, and individual publisher’s strategies. On an personal level we’re likely to either agree or disagree with these, but need to understand that everyone is doing things a little differently from their competitors and allow for this in our expectations. If a game is releasing ‘free’ updates maybe we need to take the time to think about how or why they are able to do this before taking it as the default. Likewise being able to buy a game and appreciate it as a finished work is an experience just as valid and that idea of seeing a creation ‘finished’ is one that I enjoy.
As always feel free to jump into the comments!
*Banner image: www.teamfortress.com