We'll fix it after launch

28 September 2009
11:38 pm

unacceptableSeptember was a pretty packed month for MMOG launches; there were three bigger titles released as well as a revamped free-to-play game, on top of the myriad of tiny little patches and "hello worlds." With Champions Online rounding out towards the end of its first month, a lot of people have been re-examining their initial impressions from the beta, head-start and launch periods– largely, the viewpoint seems to be turning towards "this would've been a great game if it had been released a few months later."

It's not fair to peg this shortcoming entirely on CO; it would hardly be the first MMOG to have some stumbles at launch (I would also include Fallen Earth up there in the "holy unpolished Batman!" category), but it's capitalizing on what I consider a pretty depressing trend that doesn't just affect MMOGs these days but other PC games and even console releases: it doesn't matter if things aren't great, we can release it anyway and fix things after launch.

MMOGs, by virtue of the fact that they require a dedicated internet connection to play at all, are special in as far as they're constantly evolving, whether through free content patches or add-on expansions. Unlike a single player FPS, a MMOG has to be balanced for player activity and often times issues with a game don't become apparent until after servers are filled beyond the capacity developers had seen in private testing. While I think it's safe to say most people understand this, that doesn't excuse the fact that increasingly games are getting pushed to market in a state that seems to a lot of people to be unfinished and broken.

In the "old days" patches were pretty much unheard of. Nintendo had no way to ship out updates to fix bugs in Super Mario Bros, and even with eventual proliferation of the internet connections were limited and game developers rarely made use of their web presence to push patches. As a result it was expected that a game would either be relatively "finished" or it would just flop commercially– "we'll fix it later" simply was not an option. These days with more people online than not, it feels like game developers are getting lazier and lazier. Now an AAA title can launch with a crippling bug that renders everything unplayable past that point, and yet it still goes to retail with a patch coming days after release.

As just another customer, I won't pretend to know the real reasons behind the problems I've had with CO. Although initially I really liked it, the longer I spent with it the more I felt that things were lacking. Some problems, like the glaring lack of content at higher levels and the severe respecing punishment, didn't become apparent at first. Other things like UI glitches and rubberbanding were present at the start and haven't gotten any better. And although CO is not the originator of this just-get-it-out-the-door behavior, or even anywhere near to the major offender, they're a good launching point for a discussion about this trend. It's obvious that there are pressures on game companies to get their product to market as fast as they can– they're not making any money while bugs are being patched internally and the only players are the closed beta team. It's probably also fair to assume that the people in company hierarchy responsible for launching buggy games probably have nothing to do with actually fixing those bugs– I don't think any developer wants to be known as fail, and the programmers have the thankless task of trying to meet managerial demands while hoping the product they put in the box is playable. So perhaps this concern needs to be addressed to the people making the decision that it's more and more acceptable to throw something out to customers when it's in a state that, in any other industry, would simply be unacceptable: between the trade off in getting something released quickly so you can start charging customers, or losing all those customers in the long-term because they quit after a buggy launch, which is the preferable path to take?

(Requisite disclaimer: I'm not being hard on CO particularly, I think it's a great game and I have a lot of reasons to suspect that the problems present today won't be around in a couple months. I just wonder if the players will be there in sufficient quantities to let the effort make a difference. I also know that, as these things go, for every two people saying "this is terribad and ruined my life" four people don't have any trouble at all and don't understand what the complaining is over. But ultimately I think rushing these games ASAP is poisonous to the game industry– when you see more and more console games showing up with bugs because they were released too soon, it's really time to step back and reconsider what's really the focus here.)

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