Is Retail Holding Back Modern Game Development?

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If you look around gaming websites right about now, a hot topic is the prevalence of big AAA games launching with significant problems. One of the more underlooked websites — Gamesindustry.biz, seems to pin the problem almost entirely on retail. I think at the very least we might be headed for a major conflict between the retail model and how video games are made these days, if we aren’t already in one.

PC games have more or less always been like this, but console games have gone through a transition in terms of how they develop and evolve. Before, most console gamers probably thought of each game as sort of like a movie or a book — it has a release date, comes out, and that’s it. That’s thinking of games as essentially pieces of media. Video games today with launch issues, patches, and long-tail communities, are revealing what they really always were — software. And modern software doesn’t neatly fit into a retail-focused model.

Gamesindustry alleges publishers and retailers have become heavily attached to pre-order numbers months in advance of a game’s release, focusing so much around that street date which is treated like an event. Delaying a single AAA game can really hurt a publisher’s quarterly revenue, and retailers probably don’t like delays either. A common suspicion is some developers decide to go ahead and stick to the street date for a buggy game and continue working on it in the days and weeks following through patches. Furthermore, in the weeks it takes publishers to manufacture discs and ship them to stores, developers are still working on games — adding features and fixing newly-found bugs, which is why almost every release these days has a day-one patch. Lastly, sales of these games tend to be extremely front-loaded, pre-orders and first month sales making up the lion’s share of lifetime sales.

Meanwhile, one digital-only game I pre-ordered this year which showed a stark difference from the retail model was The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Due to some last-minute issues the developer had to delay the game by a few hours (or a  day, I honestly don’t entirely remember), and it was no problem. It was clear they were basically finishing up the game literally minutes before consumers could download it from Steam. And Ethan Carter received multiple patches in the days immediately following launch.

The Gamesindustry story points to online-focused examples like League of Legends which started in beta before declaring itself fully “released.” It seems like PC games in general have been abandoning the event-based release date model as they abandon retail, instead launching slowly over the course of months. Minecraft is probably the prototypical example. DOTA 2 is of course Valve’s ultimate example, being the inaugural Steam Early Access game. Most importantly, those games are launched slowly with the expectation that people will continue to play them for several years instead of moving on to the next sequel in two years or trading them in at GameStop after a few weeks.

You know what that looks familiar to? The way a lot  of actual software is released outside console video games. Whenever Google, Facebook, or even Microsoft wants to release a new service or piece of software to the public, it usually has the word “beta” slapped on it, and is continuously updated throughout its life. Computer software has fully embraced the digital, online-focused world and become based on ongoing services rather than singular releases.

Will mainstream AAA games ever accept a business model like this? For a lot of people they’ve basically already slipped into it. Sloppy releases like Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Unity have convinced some people not to buy these games at launch, instead waiting a few months after which they’ve been thoroughly patched. Eurogamer’s tech analysis of Unity even said the game resembles beta code. EA Access is a digital service that already let’s customers play some games before their street date. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare promoted a “Day Zero Edition” before launch. I wonder if the developers of those games simply decided to let some people play the digital versions while physical discs were still being printed and shipped.

The western developers who moved from PC to console probably already simply see discs as no more than a delivery medium, whereas console gamers are used to seeing the physical media as the embodiment of the game itself, like a cassette tape. That was the reasoning behind Microsoft’s original idea behind the Xbox One, where you’d install each game from the disc and basically never use that disc again. Even now with the PS4 and Xbox One, discs are only used for initial install and a disc check thereafter. Developers are basically already making their games with a digital-focused mindset. You could say they’re just shackled by retailers.

And in the midst of all this you have Nintendo. In contrast with many developers today, Nintendo is often commended for releasing absolutely solid launch code. They’ve released a few balance patches for Super Smash Bros., but they’ve yet to run into major launch issues or been known for huge day-one patches. Ironically, Nintendo’s games tend to have the strongest legs at retail. In that sense games like Mario Kart essentially are services that remain in use for years, though Nintendo doesn’t put a huge amount of effort into updating them.

Other than some customers’ remaining preference for a box and a disc, along with distrust of digital ownership on consoles, the biggest thing probably holding back all-digital AAA games is internet service providers in some countries. It’s still too hard for a lot of people to download a 40+GB game. A lot of other people may already be used to simply downloading all the software on their tablets and phones, but most aren’t willing to pay for that digital software. We’ll see how things transition over the next few years.

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