Maybe It’s Time We Stop Buying Games on Day One
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Sex Pistols singer John Lydon asked that question at the end of the final Sex Pistols performance in 1978, but the question could just as easily be asked by weary gamers. Publishers want their money, so they make launches extravagant. Celebrity appearances, largely value-free pre-order bonuses, massive advertising blitzes, a carefully cultivated first-adopted atmosphere — tremendous effort and money is put into creating the general sense that they’re not just releasing a game, they’re putting on an event, and one you don’t want to miss.
At the same time, consumers get punished for their faith in publishers and developers with alarming frequency. It’s bad enough that developers increasingly rely on schemes like same-day DLC and special editions, but more and more often, games that developers know include bugs and aren’t up to the quality standards players expect are released with the same fanfare as games that actually work.
Why do they do this? Quite frankly, it’s because they’re rewarded handsomely for it.
Visit any game’s forums and you’ll almost certainly find a litany of complaints about that title’s shortcomings, particularly games that came with certain promises about what players could expect. The community is clearly aware there’s a problem. And yet gamers continue to buy games on day one, in such huge numbers that a successful game can make the vast majority of its earnings in the first three days (in fact, the biggest games gauge their success or failure on the strength of their earliest sales). No wonder then that the industry has a carefully coordinated strategy when it comes to how games are launched, and how the gaming press treats that launch.
Take Medal of Honor: Warfighter. When it hit shelves earlier this month, rather than the surgical strike Electronic Arts had promised, it landed like a Nerf dart bouncing ineffectually off its target. The development team appeared to have had almost no time to get the thing right, and MOHW had to be released with a giant patch that still did not address numerous technical problems. But more important than the fact that it launched with problems that should have been fixed during beta is that it really isn’t very good, as reflected by the game’s average review score of 56.
But you didn’t know any of that before the game came out, did you? That’s because Game Front and, as far as we can tell, the majority of gaming publications, did not receive a review copy of the game. Fans found out for themselves how bad things were when Warfighter launched, and negative word of mouth probably did more than anything to render the current incarnation of the Medal of Honor series stillborn. Still, people who bought the game, especially digitally, were probably left feeling a bit ripped off. But, while it’s tempting to call out EA for having lacked the forthrightness to make the game available to critics, they’re hardly alone in the way they do everything possible to make sure games are glowing in the public eye prior to their actual release.
Activision, for instance, is known for sending reviewers to its very posh “review events,” which are basically vacations (full disclosure: we attended Call of Duty XP [which was not a review event] last year, and can report that the gaming press was provided with lavish perks just for showing up). Despite the royal treatment Activision loves giving to the gaming press, Activision still strictly manages the image of its biggest franchise; review copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 weren’t provided until launch date. Why send out copies and risk poor reviews when you know a game will sell well without them?