Why are games broken at launch?

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Fail to launch

We all like to moan and cry and get nostalgic about games. Why can’t they be like the old days, when they just worked and we didn’t have day one patches and life was so much better? Well, life wasn’t so much better, and games will probably be broken at launch for a long longer.

In the before times, games either worked or they didn’t. Many games ended up as absolute flops because of game breaking bugs that developers simply couldn’t fix after a game had launched. Of course, this put added pressure on game developers to get it right out of the box, and there were tons of games that were simply a joy to play. No need to patch, no need to add content, they were complete experiences and made us very happy.

Games now, however, are much more ambitious. The graphics are out of this world compared to what we used to play, with photo-realistic textures and facial expressions, as well as glorious voice acting and deep choices and mechanics. These make use of the improved processing power of the newer consoles and PCs, leading to games that are built to be the best we’ve ever played.

Sometimes, these games get it right. Although it feels a bit short, and let’s not even talk about the ending, you can get games like Shadow of Mordor. It had a minuscule day one patch, and then proceeded to blow us away with the Nemesis System. Unfortunately, it’s far easier to think of broken games – Assassin’s Creed Unity being the most glaring example recently. So how does this happen?

Going beyond release schedules and publishers pushing studios to get games out too soon, there is also a deeper problem. Development on these games started before the new consoles were even released. This means that much of the learning was taking place in a vacuum, where developers weren’t really sure what could or couldn’t be done, and it seems that they still aren’t quite sure of the hardwares’ limitations. But there’s also more.

Developers now know that they can fix problems after launch. No, they don’t want to ship a game with bugs, but the date a game goes gold is no longer the deadline to stop working on it. Developers can continue tinkering, fixing and working on the game, even after it is installed on players’ consoles. This has changed the fundamental relationship between developers and gamers. A game is no longer a flop if it doesn’t work perfectly at launch. Sure, it will take a serious knock, but gamers also have come to expect these problems, making pre-orders almost a thing of the past as they wait until the fixed version becomes available. Once it is fixed, gamers will admit that even previously broken games can still be fantastic – a fate that I hope Assassin’s Creed Unity will enjoy.

With so much more going into a game, studios simply don’t have the time, resources or maybe the inclination, to throughly stress test their games like they did in the past. Sure, it might mean that they ship a game with bugs, but those can all be fixed, right? Patches are just an accepted thing, like DLC or microtransactions. We might moan and complain, but eventually we still buy games that look good, even if doing so means that we’re supporting a game that required multiple fixes to get it right.

Perhaps as the console generation goes on, we will find that games release in better shape. However, we can’t expect that developers simply stop working on their products after they ship, and Day One patches are here to stay. Do you think your favorite upcoming game will be bug-free at launch, or can you accept that every piece of code will have issues and developers will be perpetually striving to make it right?

Last Updated: November 20, 2014

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