Anthem and Fallout 76 are two recent examples in a long and growing trend of disastrous launches of games that are commonly referred to in the gaming industry as “live service games”. While there are many ways to classify games, for sake of this conversation games can be categorized as either single player/story focused games, like The Last of Us, God of War, or Assassin’s Creed; or Multiplayer/Live Service Games like that of Fortnite, Overwatch, or Apex Legends. While it is possible for a game to be both, it certainly can be at least put in one of these two categories. While single player story games have been around for ages, this console generation, and the last decade especially have given us the age of the live service era. Today with many of these games, things like twitch views, concurrent players, and seasonal updates are ways games are measured for success mores than just initial sales. These modern games are meant to keep players playing them for years to come and keep spending money.
Now this article is not an examination as to why the rise of service based games occurred or whether or not they are good game models. This is simply an observation of something I think is obvious why some of these once great developers are delivering absolute failures. Developers like Bioware and Bethesda were once known as some of the greatest developers in the history of gaming. These were the artists behind masterpieces such as Mass Effect and Skyrim. To think 10 years ago these developers would deliver total failures such that was Anthem or Fallout 76 would have been surprisingly unthinkable.
One of the gaming journalist youtubers I frequent inspired me to write this piece as developers and commentary for Fallout 76, Anthem, and even the developer behind No Man Sky have all been in the news these past weeks talking about the failures of their respective games at launch. There is just something very simple I can’t fathom why no one is discussing.
There seems to be two sides to this story, one side arguing that these games are huge and hard to make, that what games become should matter more than the state they launch in (a narrative many at Bethesda and EA are trying to push) and a side many journalists and gaming enthusiasts are fighting back against, arguing that these huge ambitious games need to launch 100% finished and complete at launch for 60$.
(Because silence solves disagreements; customer engagement is a lie...)
As someone who is both a gamer and someone who understands business and cares about the success and profits of developers, I can see both sides. However I don't believe either are wholly right. This battle for the launch states of games is coming from one thing in particular: what is good for gamers is not always (well at least immediately apparent) good for profit and share holders. The fact of the matter is modern games are huge massive undertakings, and are incredibly difficult to predict how long they will take to make. Picking an arbitrary date in the future is hard to achieve without either delays or massive crunch. Delaying games by months or years can hurt sales and cause marketing to be expensive. The gaming industry depends heavily on hype and built up demand that can all be for nothing when a game sees large delays. This is partially thanks to used game markets that make month number one still super important. Hype can be lost thanks to major delays. Day one sales are still king.
However on the flip side, releasing buggy broken unfinished games that lack significant promised features can permanently ruin a games reputation. These games can become infamous. Being well known for being bad can keep gamers away even if the game is eventually improved. Where this entire debate is coming from is this understandable perception that there is a growing attitude among game developers of “Release it bad and fix it later, maybe”. Even Todd Howard of Bethesda has openly admitted that he knew Fallout 76 wasn’t going to be a “high metacritic game”, and he released it anyways. Publishers are releasing games that based on their release state needed 6 to 18 months more in the oven and they are starting to wonder why gamers are angry.
Gamers are angry that they are paying $60+ for games that are unfinished, buggy, and lacking features that were promised. Maybe even some of these games look significantly worse than their original reveals with massive graphical downgrades. Todd Howards claimed Fallout 76 had a whopping “16 times the detail”….and yet looked worse somehow than the already meh Fallout 4. Anthem was just a hollow shell of a game, ugly boring, and empty; far from the unique incredible next-gen experience that was promised. I'm specifically focused on Fallout and Anthem but these are just the latest in massive failed promises.
To add insult to injury, these buggy unfinished games launching for 60$ are often found for under 30-20$ within mere months of release causing early buyers to feel cheated and ripped off. Buying new at launch at a premium should yield gamers a better experience, rather gamers feel punished for being early adopters.
I’ve written about this very problem after 2018’s rather excessive holiday release schedule; how gaming stores need to guaranteeing release prices of games for 90 days to incentivize game sales. I counted at least 6 major AAA 60 games able to be purchased for 50% off within three months (sometimes weeks) of release during Holiday 2018. There needs to be buyer protections. It's a double edge sword of poor launch states and quick post launch discounts.
All of these anti consumer attitudes, greedy practices, and massive failed releases; and publishers wonder why gamers are starting to have trust issues, why there is a growing divide between gamers and the game companies.
Here is the thing and ultimately why I decided to write this article. There already is a simple fix to this mess, and NO ONE is talking about it. Sometimes delays can't be afforded. Fact of the matter is sometimes games need more work. Also, hype and marketing sell games. These are all unavoidable facts contributing to the current state of the conversation, and there is something simple that could heal all these issues and fix everything, and I can’t find a single publisher or gaming journalist talking about this.
Do you remember the catastrophic launches of PUBG on Xbox or PC? The massive backlash and player hate for that buggy game? Do you remember how no one was playing the game because its was ugly and ran poorly? No? That’s because none of that happened. Why not? After all, when that game launched on say xbox, it was ugly, ran poorly, and was just over all a technically bad (yet still fun) game. What was the difference? Why did Fallout 76 and Anthem fail when PUBG thrived even to be lauded by critics getting GOTY awards?
Let’s talk about the concept of betas for a second, or “early access”. This is a concept that has almost lost all meaning in the gaming world as publishers don’t really know when to use it. For instance, world phenomenon Fortnite is about to approach its two year anniversary. This game has been played by countless players and has become a worldwide household name. Would it surprise you to know this game has been in Beta for this entire two year period? I can’t even find anything from Epic Games saying anything about their plans to “take it out of beta”. Will it be in Beta forever? It irritates me when I see this worldwide game that has received countless updates and runs fine on pretty much every platform there is, still being listed as a “beta”. It is kind of like the infamous "Kohl’s sale" that is always on sale. If it is in beta forever, thats not really a beta. While some developers like Epic hide behind the beta term to excuse any bugs existence, other developers think beta means “Demo”. They release a beta very shortly before release to act like a free demo to get players interested and there is no time to implement any player feedback into release. Often times these betas don’t even ask for any feedback. What’s the point of that?
Where am I going with this you ask? My point is games (which are just software) already have an established concept that could be used by publishers to protect them and they aren’t using it!
Old game marketing worked like this. Hype up a game as much you can. Release it come hell or high water on the day you promised. Sell as many as you can. Hope for profit. However this “tried and true strategy” may work on story/single player games, it simply is proving to be a devastating strategy for these over hyped massive ambitious games that are struggling.
My point with PUBG was this. Yes the game was buggy and ugly, BUT no one promised me otherwise. This game wasn’t hyped up as the greatest military shooter of our generation that would change my life. Most importantly the game was NOT sold for 60$. It was just a fun game, labled honestly as “Early Access” sold for a modest 30$.
It is absolutely amazing to me why no one is pointing out the obvious. Publishers and executives are arguing that these games are hard and they are willing to build them better over the course of months or years. Gamers, Youtubers, and Journalists are arguing these 60$ games with a huge backlog of promises need to deliver at launch. Why is everyone, including the entire marketing departments and PR departments of these major AAA studios forgetting there is an excepted and happy compromise for everyone?
Imagine if PUBG had launched with a 60$ price tag, no early access label, and had been preceded my months or possibly years of hyped marketing promising it to be this amazing life changing next generation experience. It would have been destroyed. Except the game was always presented honestly.
You see, these massive live service games all reach a point in their development where a developer could sit back and look at it and say, “Well its not done yet, wont be for quite a while, but it is done enough that people could still have fun playing it.” Why not be honest and just embrace this point in development? These games are HUGE and take years to build. If you want to build as you go and let the community play and give feedback as you build it better THAT IS WHAT BETAS ARE FOR. Why not?
People are mad because publishers are releasing what amounts to betas for full price and calling them finished. Beta’s are supposed to be free or cheaper and gaming companies are charging a premium to play early! Even paying extra to play early is ok if you are upfront about it! There’s a name for that too. It is called a “Founder’s Edition” Many games recently that planned to go free or offer a free version have done this. If I’m really excited about a game, I might even be willing to pay extra to play early because I want to support that developer.
The simple point I’m trying to make is that with a little bit of honesty and transparency is all that these gaming companies needed to do in order to avoid these massive failures. Perception is a funny thing where the difference between a bad game and game people like often times may just be how you sold it to them.
Imagine if EA or Bethesda had come out months prior to launch of both Anthem or Fallout 76 with this message, “Our game isn’t quite where we expected it to be at this stage in the development. While we think it will be fun for some of you to enjoy, it isn’t currently where we want it to be in the end.
"Instead of delaying the game, we will release it as Early Access at a lowered price, with regular updates and a full version to come later.”
Imagine that simple statement of honesty. Todd Howard has openly admitted he knew Fallout 76 was going to review poorly yet they released it anyways and were surprised when gamers were mad about it. I can't help but wonder; did it ever occur to him to just tell the public this? They are so afraid of derailing the hype train for a game that they fail to remember to importance of honestly to their consumers. When Nintendo announced that due to unsatisfactory progress on Metroid Prime 4 they were restarting development, were gamers angry? Maybe disappointed sure, but gamers were positive and appreciative of the honestly. Nintendo told them the truth.
“We want gamers to be actively part of our game's remaining development”
What if EA or Bethesda actually admitted the game wasn’t ready. What if Fallout 76 released as “Early Access” for 30$? Truth is Anthem was fun. That could have been the narrative, but it wasn't. It had fun combat, and amazing flight mechanics. In fact for those reasons it was super difficult to review and give a final score because it was unfinished shell of what was promised. Fun but buggy could have been replaced the overwhelming narrative of unpolished and unfinished. This is a simple concept of "you can't criticize a game for being unfinished if it is openly admitted as so and priced accordingly. What if EA has come out and said Anthem wasn’t where they wanted it to be and wanted gamers to be involved in finishing it and released it for say 30$ with a big early access label? It would NOT have gotten the massive backlash that it did. It is amazing how honesty, a realistic label of a games build state, and a fair price cut (that happened anyways anyways due to poor sales) could have saved these two games and so many others. Launch the game at 30$, and when it is better launch it at $60. Otherwise it will be the other way around and gamers will hate it.
This strategy would have mitigated all the negative backlash these games were facing, and positive reception is the key to sales. That idolized 60$ price tag can always arrive with a finished “complete edition” later, but it's not worth sacrificing your game at launch.
Managing expectations is sales 101; making a negative feel like a positive. It's almost like no one at EA or Bethesda as sold anyone anything before. It is simply better to be honest and deliver what you promise rather than hype up and let your customers be disappointed.
As a gamer be honest, when games take longer than expected would you rather see a massive delay or a cheaper early access period? I for one am totally ok playing early access or betas if they are used correctly. Early Access is meant to be a buffer, a consumer safety net between “playable” and “finished”. This is also a shield that can protect our favorite developers from backlash and “broken promises”. Anthem, Fallout 76, No Man Sky, Battlefield V, and countless others are being launched as admittedly playable, maybe even fun, but are being labeled as "finished" and amazing.
This strategy doesn't need to just pick on Fallout or Anthem. Other big games launched during Holiday 2018 to negative reception, poor launch sales, over crowded release windows, and quick discounts. Shadow of the Tomb Raider was very ugly at launch (although quickly improved) and saw very early discounts. Battlefield V is a huge example of a major 2019 Bomb. The game was heavily criticized for being unfinished and saw steep discounts very quickly. If EA had come out and launched it 30$ and labeled it as "Early Access" with a $60 "Complete Edition" mid 2019 when their Battleroyale mode Firestorm was ready they could have better taken on Call of Duty and sold way more copies. The gamer narratives could have changed from "Battlefield V Sucks" to "I'll buy Battlefield V over Call of Duty because it's cheaper". These large studios are so married to 60$ they forget about basic economics.
Remember back in high school or college, the best teachers let you turn in a rough draft paper for their inspection prior to your final version? Remember how much more confident you were turning in your final version when you had that buffer? The final paper is too late to make changes and your grade will be set. Your rough draft was readable, but not finished and gave you time to make improvements without suffering your grade. Developers have the ability to submit rough drafts to their customers in exchange for feedback and so many of them are choosing to not only turn in their rough draft as a “final paper”, they also preceded the entire semester telling their teacher it was going to be the greatest paper they ever read. They wonder why they got a bad grade.
Cheaper early access and transparent game states are the solution to the problem these major studios are facing and we as gamers need to tell them. Some companies will still be able to release games on time, but if you can’t release it on time, and can't delay it, that's ok. Just be honest, and give us a rough draft. Let us as gamers help you make your game the way you want it to be. These wont be the last broken games to launch to backlash and failure, but I guarantee it will because publishers/developers failed to call it what is was, a beta.