Riding a wave of anticipation into a new game is a dangerous play. Our correspondent Walker is here to talk you through this emotional minefield.
We all have our own unique game buying quirks. Some people will insta-buy games in a certain genre or series regardless of their quality. Some people staunchly refuse to buy games at full price, instead staying a year or two behind the launch schedule to pick up last year’s AAA games when they drop in price. My buying habits vary greatly from game to game except in one very specific way: I will always, 100% of the time, get way too hyped about a game that’s going to have a disappointing launch. I don’t know how this became my thing. I don’t know why this became my thing. All I know is, time and time again, I’ll be swept away by promises a studio just can’t keep. This is not meant to be an indictment of any particular studio (and especially not the three I’m going to be touching on here). This is just how game development works, where a game starts as a perfect idea, but the realities of budget, time, and the high expectations of the gaming public sometimes come together to turn a promising idea into a bungled release.
Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s The Division had perhaps the best launch of the games here. The abandoned winter streets of New York City looked stunning, the gunplay was tight and combat felt good, the story missions were varied and memorable, and hopping in with a group of your friends was painless. In fact, the game was so fun, that my squad quickly hit the level cap and transitioned into endgame activities. And that’s where the trouble began. As an idea, The Division’s endgame was very interesting: up until the level 30 cap, the game was strictly player vs. environment, but once you reached level 30, you could venture into the Dark Zone, an area that was both player vs. environment AND player vs. player. Your fireteam would go up against powerful, high-level NPCs, while at the same time having to be constantly wary of other players who’d gone rogue, looking to wipe your whole team and steal your loot. The Dark Zone didn’t have any sort of gating once you got inside, so your fresh-faced squad could be facing down a group of rogue players armed and equipped with the highest level gear. It was an interesting idea on paper, but the execution made the Dark Zone the opposite of fun. This alone wouldn’t be the end of the world, except at launch, it was the only way to get endgame gear, and really the only endgame activity at all. You were only getting better loot in order to be stronger in the Dark Zone to make it easier to get better loot. Disappointment and complaints about the weak endgame were so loud that Ubisoft delayed the release of two paid DLC packs, instead rolling out multiple free updates that improved the Dark Zone and added other ways to obtain high-level gear, but the damage had been done. Just a couple of months after launch, I’d be playing solo more and more often, with none of my friends bothering to log in anymore.
When Rare showed off Sea of Thieves for the first time at E3 2016, I think just about everyone instantly fell in love. Rare is known for making games that are equal parts good and goofy, and it certainly didn’t hurt that the titular sea looked absolutely gorgeous. Almost two years later, with the game’s release imminent, Rare ran several closed betas, and those early players noticed how limited the actual gameplay seemed to be. I dabbled in the betas but held out hope, assuming some content was being held back for launch. I was wrong. The game looked just as beautiful as promised, but activities were limited to glorified errand running, and the only enemies were skeletons (on land) and sharks (in the water). There were raid-type events, but they just involved fighting more skeletons. Considering that they offered no in-game benefits, prices on mundane clothing items were wildly inflated, and boat customization options were comically expensive. Rare quickly promised that new, free content was going to be released on an aggressive schedule, but I found my playing group shrinking extremely fast. More often than not, I’d take to the seas in a solo sloop, exploring islands, sailing straight through storms, and picking fights with larger ships I could never hope to win, basically doing anything but what the game wanted me to do, because what was the point in grinding out repetitive missions without my crew? Rare has kept their promise, though, releasing both the Hungering Deep expansion and weekly events in May, and following up with the Cursed Sails expansion releasing July 31st, and Forsaken Shores, coming later this summer.
Recounting the trials and travails that followed No Man’s Sky’s launch would fill several chapters of a book, so here’s the short version: Hello Games, a tiny UK studio, captured the public’s attention with an awe-inspiring trailer released in 2013. As the game gets closer and closer to release, the flurry of attention surrounding it, the studio’s inexperience and tendency to perhaps over-promise a bit, and Sony putting their marketing muscle behind the game, all combined to form a perfect storm of dissatisfaction and disappointment from the general public upon release. Two years after release, it’s impossible to separate genuine criticism of the game from those who were simply stirring the pot for their own amusement, but at the time, those of us who were genuinely invested in the game faced a relentless onslaught of negative attention and press. I found myself having to defend my enjoyment of the game at every turn, repeatedly being forced to explain that I didn’t feel betrayed or tricked by the developers, that I genuinely enjoyed exploring this infinite universe, forging into the unknown and claiming planets and creatures in my name. Fed up with having to continually justify my enjoyment, I moved on, but Hello Games kept the content coming, with massive free updates. The first of which, the Foundation Update, landed just 3 months after the game released and added base building, survival mode, and a host of other tweaks. This was followed up by the Path Finder Update (which added driveable vehicles, base sharing, and permadeath), the Atlas Rises Update (adding 30 hours of story content and procedurally-generated missions), and, today, the Next Update, the biggest one yet.
Every time I watch a competition cooking show, I tend to root for the contestant who has weird and grandiose ideas. Most of the time, they end up defeated by the time limit or an unexpected setback, or just hoisted by their own petard. Occasionally, the judges will recognize their skill and vision and send a flawed dish through to the next round on ambition alone. And every once in a while, these contestants will turn it around and deliver something absolutely spectacular in the final. In our current games landscape, these kinds of stories are becoming more and more common. Developers can continue to support their games for years after the original release through free content patches and DLC updates. For the ambitious game developer who’s trying something new, there’s always the next round to get it right, but it’s up to players to recognize the games worth coming back for.