I Can Finish it Later
Kangaroos are famous for keeping their children, known as joeys, in the big pouch on their belly. This adaptation means that the joeys can come out really early and then spend a significant portion of time finishing development in their mother’s pouch. By most comparisons, the kangaroo joeys come out woefully underbaked. They are only about an inch long. They can’t see or make noise, and they don’t have any fur. The pouch allows the mother to kick them out of the womb very early and then keep them with her always so she can go do kangaroo stuff without the joey losing out on milk or heat.
Compare this to, say, puppies, which are born without sight but not without smell and can crawl, or horses, which come out practically already running and with full vision. The joey pouch is truly a bizarre adaptation. But it works for the kangaroos – it means the adults, which are bipedal like us, don’t have so much downtime after giving birth, unlike us.
The long and the short of it is that the kangaroo has, over a very long time scale, learned what game developers have figured out in the past decade or two: you can release a product and then continue to work on it once it’s left the studio and as long as it works eventually everything will work out.
The Internet Will Let Me
It didn’t start this way.
Games used to be release-and-let-go, totally unmodifiable once they’d left the factory assembling the floppy discs. They were like horses – they were ready to go straight out of their plastic case and able to run from day one with no serious and very few minor flaws. Skyrim may have had funny character models that got stringy or stretched out when they died in a corner or near a door, but the game never had any problems with actually running and playing. Big studios had reliable quality, and customers were happy. Games could be patched after the fact, but they usually just didn’t need it. It was more of a hassle than it was worth most of the time.
However, once the internet started getting really good, and games came as downloads more and more often, the games themselves tended to get worse. If it’s a download from an online game platform, that means the user had internet when they downloaded it. They probably still have internet a few weeks later, when it’s discovered that a bug where you kick a baton off the edge of the map causes the game to freeze (real example from Fallout 76 initial launch) so you can probably push an update that fixes that issue without alienating your fanbase. Fans will be a little miffed at first but happier overall once they’ve got a more functional product.
This was horrible news for gaming developers. Fans will tolerate updates. Fans will tolerate bugs as long as an update is promised to fix them. The people making the game and the people controlling it’s release date are often not the same people at larger companies, the same way the person screwing in the bolts at a Ford factory is no longer friends with the owner of the company. The industry has expanded; games got bigger; there’s just no way for a distant manager who’s also watching the finance and advertising teams to be there on the ground floor with the developers themselves. The problems plaguing the game industry are plaguing many industries, but it becomes so easily visible in places where consumers are expecting a fun, fair experience.
Games that needed larger sets of playtesters in different computers and internet bandwidths used to go through a long period of beta testing, where the reward for the players was getting to play the game early, in a less complete state, sometimes for a reduced price or a limited-time prize. Beta testing is still around, of course, but when you read reviews of games like Halo: Infinity, you wonder why they even bothered if they were still going to release something that’s broken a year later despite several rounds of updates.
Deadlines were not helping. You can smooth out some codes with a little time to optimize it, but you have to do that carefully so that you don’t accidentally break anything that interconnects. As gamers get bigger and better computers, bigger gaming companies got more comfortable with releasing absurdly large games that they haven’t combed over to optimize. Sometimes, the release date actually prevents them from both using all the data crammed into the game or removing it, giving gamers the worst possible experience. For example: a game in the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise, Security Breach, is rumored to have been pushed out to be ready for Christmas. As a result, tons of areas in the game are underutilized but still present. The game has a comedy bot with a five minute routine and a whole stage and theater to itself, a bowling alley that has no bowling minigames in it, an intricately laid out arcade that may as well just be a maze of rectangular wall blocks, a brewery tank setup that’s in the files of the game but not currently in use, the list goes on. It was a wreck of a game for framerate and loading issues when it first came out, and probably a quarter of the map could have been removed without changing the gamer’s final experience. Maybe a third, including some cosmetic and simple map changes. The game’s file was massive when it didn’t need to be, and it’s final required size actually shrank quite a bit in the next couple of updates to the game as the developers took out stuff.
What sucks in particular is that it was supposed to have a bowling alley with games. The theater was supposed to be cool. The player was supposed to be able to have fun with all these places that ended up being decoration! Given another several months, they could have packed enough stuff into this game to make it a 20-hour game… but they didn’t. And they couldn’t cut it in time, either. The upper management wanted it done by Christmas, and so the game was ‘done’ by Christmas, with all this extra stuff that bloated an already mid game. Updates made it more playable, but it’s still not great. And this is pretty emblematic of all the problems that huge studios are having even though this specific game had it worse.
Patches and Pouches
Security Breach has been updated a number of times to become a more playable game. They never did add games to the bowling alley, but a number of quality-of-life problems have finally been fixed. Maybe in a DLC, they’ll finally release the features that the designers meant to include in the main game. Coincidentally this may also cost the players money, but as of writing this article they haven’t said either way.
The same goes for Cyberpunk 2077 – it didn’t come out right, and it was delayed, but they fixed it. No Man’s Sky – delayed, released broken, fixed. The pattern is becoming alarming: gaming studios are trying so hard to meet release dates that the games are coming out incomplete or weirdly buggy. They keep making money, though, so why stop?
In theory, the studio can always patch those issues out after launch – first day patches are now normal, when it used to be assumed the game was ready when you could buy it. If the developers had a poor launch, the sentiment was to go easy on them because they had no control over it. Unfortunately, the studio pushing these games out began hiding behind their developers to stave off hate and criticism. Now they don’t have to bother. Consumers are used to patches. Consumers are used to having to wait for the game to get good. Consumers are used to delays that aren’t long enough for the people who needed the delay to fix the game on top of that. We’ve gone from foal to puppy to joey, and the worst part is that the benefits of releasing a ‘joey’, a low recovery time, are no longer applicable: burnout is common because 80 hour crunch-weeks are common. The developers suffer for an art they can never finish in time for their patron to display to the public. Patching got easier with the rise of constant internet access, and as a result, games come out juuust playable enough that the consumer won’t ask for a refund before it gets polished and completed.