Those of us who have been following the games industry since the 80s would be blind to not notice the sweeping changes made to the medium–the birth of the console, the annual upgrade in visual and audio fidelity, the extra buttons added to joysticks every five years–but no single change to the industry has been as significant as the integration of the internet. Now, developers can circumvent entire links in the supply chain, and consumers can often acquire their entertainment as quickly as they desire it (or even before then, if there’s a Steam sale) and always have a “Player 2” at the ready in a dimly-lit den halfway across the globe. But constant connectivity has its drawbacks, and publishers who have become accustomed to multi-year development schedules and multi-million dollar budgets have every incentive (and obligation) to pressure developers to release their games as soon as possible. With high internet connectivity rates and mandatory software upgrades on all major platforms, companies are beginning to release unfinished games on the regular, with the expectation that things will be working as intended in the near future. But what about the people who don’t connect their consoles to the internet? And is it fair to charge full price for partial effort?
Nintendo’s new Wii-U console boasts an internet connectivity rate of 74%, while a 2010 study showed that 78% of PlayStation 3s and 73% of Xbox 360s are online. However, a 2012 survey from Frank N. Magid Associates (proprietary study) suggests that 47% of console gamers are unlikely to use their console’s online services, and another 37% are ambivalent to the concept. Further, the Xbox 360 requires a $100 adapter to connect to a wireless network, which means that most consumers have to run a lengthy ethernet cable from their modem to the living room. The point being: while it’s true that 3 in 4 consoles are online, most people have no desire to use online features in games. Is it therefore fair to expect consumers will tolerate paying for software that amounts to an open beta, especially when 1 in 4 customers will never have their games fixed, and the majority would rather not be burdened with the downsides of connectivity?
And what of the impact to a company’s brand image? Many big game releases receive major backlash from the communities they intended to serve: One of Bethesda’s newest games, Skyrim, was plagued with slowdown issues that rendered the game nearly unplayable for many PS3 users (to say nothing of the many issues that were already present in the PC release–refer to the video below), and the issues persisted after three subsequent patches on the console. Some gamers also discovered that the patching process would corrupt their saved games, wasting dozens to hundreds of hours of their time and effort.
Other games are released in a format that is for the most part technically sound, but incomplete. For many massively-multiplayer online games (MMOs), this has become the norm, and is even a suggested business practice:
“In today’s economic environment we recommend building just enough game to make things interesting, then letting players in.”
–Hero Engine, Idea Fabrik
“My answer is for us as publishers is to actually sell unfinished games — and to offer the consumer multiple micro-payments to buy elements of the full experience. If these games are pirated, those who get their hands on them won’t be able to complete the experience.”
–Codemasters CEO, Computer and Video Games
Some companies, however, attempt this approach and are punished for it. Bioware’s third installment in the Mass Effect series concluded the trilogy with an ending that many gamers felt was rushed and insulting to them, which the company addressed after-the-fact with downloadable content. The maneuver spawned tremendous internet backlash and prompted the company’s founders to leave the industry entirely. Bioware has since separated from Electronic Arts (their publisher) and intend to make a fourth game in the Mass Effect universe, but this raises a couple questions: will gamers forgive Bioware? Will they instead blame EA for bringing a rushed product to market and abusing their trust? Jason Trent from Goozer Nation addresses the problem at its core: