Over the course of this console generation, I’ve been noticing an unfortunate trend with high profile titles. For me in particular, the biggest offender is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, although there have been plenty of other games in just the last few months alone that have fallen victim to the same problem. They get released with poor quality assurance testing, and are shipped to customers in a buggy state that doesn’t get rectified until months later. It begs the question, “If the big games will only work properly months later, after a few patches, is it better to buy them at a later date, with glitches ironed out, usually at a lower price?”
Skyrim for instance, was released to PS3 owners on November 11th, the same as it was for the PC and Xbox 360. However, it wasn’t until patch 1.4 in February that PS3 gamers were able to play the game the way it was intended. In other words, PS3 owners that were crippled by the performance issues of the game waited over three months to finally play the game in the same way as PC and 360 owners. If they’d waited three months instead of buying it on day one, they could have picked it up on sale, or used, with significantly less technical frustration. Another example is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Across all platforms, there is a bug, in the main quest, that can prevent players from progressing if they explore a particular area and start destroying things before getting the main story mission that asks them to do so. Prematurely destroying these quest objects before getting the quest prevents story progression. As of this writing, that bug has still not been patched, meaning that some players are twiddling their thumbs waiting for Big Huge Games to tell them they can start playing again.
But perhaps the biggest snafu in recent weeks has been the compatibility problems with Mass Effect 3. There have been a small, but significant range of bugs that drastically impact the most unfortunate victim; the long-time fan. One bug wouldn’t allow players to import their Shepard’s physical features, forcing them to go into the character creator and attempt to remake the character they’d been emotionally invested in for the last five years. Other players found that because they had “played it safe” and put their game save on a cloud storage system of some kind, Mass Effect 3 refused to recognize their “import” save, completely invalidating the decisions they’d made and forcing them either play a pre-determined, “vanilla” version of Mass Effect 3 with previous in-game choices already made, or else play through their old games again, on their current machine, to make the decisions they wanted, and carry them over. Neither solution is ideal, especially for someone that has loved the series, and grown attached to their particular story over the years.
This is something that is probably not going to go away anytime soon. It’s an unfortunate combination of bigger, more complex games needing thorough testing and not getting it because publishers are locked into release dates in order to hit their financial estimates for the year and appease shareholders. Delays to a game mean publishers needing to revise their financial forecasts to investors and this can have a dramatic impact on their business, especially if it’s a flagship title like a Skyrim or Mass Effect. Fortunately—for publishers—the new online connectivity of modern consoles has brought with it the “patch it later” mentality of PC gaming. In an era where developers and publishers only had one shot at finishing a title, it was much riskier to release a game knowing that it still had documented bugs. In today’s gaming climate, we, as players, pretty much expect there will be bugs, perhaps even serious ones.
So what’s in it for a gamer today if they buy a game on release day? These days, the incentive to get something on day one are usually in the form of pre-order bonuses, small tokens of appreciation that have a minor impact on the gameplay experience. So for the money-minded, if you do the math, a day one purchase means some potential new skins, flashy weapons with minor improvements, and possibly a bugged game that won’t have all its glitches ironed out for about one to three months. On top of that, the bigger games have a regular schedule of DLC, which can add anything from $2.50 to an additional $15.00 of extra content on a semi-regular basis for up to a year after release.
People who bought Fallout 3 day one got an extremely glitchy game, and then—optionally— bought DLC in the form of Operation Anchorage, The Pitt, Broken Steel, Point Lookout and Mothership Zeta at $10 each. So what early, loyal customers got was a buggy game at $60 and five more add-ons for another $50. People who bought the game of the year edition can now get a patched game with all content for $30 or less. That’s difference of $80—and better functionality—for someone who is willing to wait, and that’s pretty significant.
Let’s be realistic, there will always be games that—naturally, as gamers—we’ll be excited about, we cannot wait to play them, they are like early Christmas gifts. For most people the idea of waiting months on a new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare game instead of a launch day purchase is tantamount to psychotic behavior. But aside from the understandable eagerness to play an anticipated game, is there any other reason anymore to buy these games? Especially in today’s patch-laden world?
I’ve seen a lot of people in the last month or two get sucked into the hype of Mass Effect 3, but many of them were only hearing about this franchise in the wake of the aggressive, massive marketing campaign. They hadn’t played Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2, but the option to go back and revisit those games—years later—was very cheap and affordable. We’re only now hearing about the possibility of new DLC for Mass Effect 3 that may soften the blow that some have felt after the controversial ending. We have people still waiting for a patch to use their original games saves from previous titles. For anyone that waits for a “Game of the Year Edition” of Mass Effect 3, none of these issues will exist. They will get a ton of content, fully patched and working, and will experience in one uninterrupted playthrough the story that may have taken months for other people to experience due to patches or waiting for new DLC to arrive. And for those latecomers it will be a cheaper experience overall in addition to a smoother one. They might even get the pre-order bonus content that was previously only available to people who bought the game at select stores. All these substantial benefits come to those who simply put a leash on their anticipation and are willing to wait.
It would be interesting to see what the results of such a “movement” would be like, if people voted with their wallets and there was a noticeable drop in day one purchases, and a massive spike in GOTY edition sales. Businesses are focused on making money, and if they notice consumers are choosing to spend their money on products that work straight out of the box, they will have to adjust their operations accordingly. Right now it looks like many, many developers could stand to have a serious financial injection into their QA departments, because many of us have been in that situation where we see a glaring, potentially game breaking bug in our newly purchased game and wondered, “How did they let that slip by them?”