Declining standards in the games industry

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Two games cropped up under my Christmas tree this holiday which should have been similar. Both were first-person sci-fi Shooters developed by the highly successful game studio Bungie, yet one was fantastic and the other painfully mediocre. The former charmed me straight from the outset with its personality, humour and thoughtful levels, the latter bored me into a stupor with its lazy character design and stubborn refusal to contextualise or explain anything that was happening in its plot. The catch? That the sub-standard latter was Destiny, a £500m project released in 2014 and starring Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage; whereas the excellent former was Halo: Combat Evolved only the company’s second ever release, produced on a much smaller budget in 2001.

For all the sparkling HD-ready panoramas that Destiny had to offer it felt frankly unfinished, with the lead writer fired just a year prior to release and large amounts of exposition relegated to the game’s website in what stank of a last ditch attempt to clarify the incoherent mess of a plot. It was rather disheartening to think that Bungie had fallen so far from their much earlier title in such a fundamental way. In a sense it seemed symbolic of a current trend in the industry. Huge AAA releases have lined up to fall flat on their face one after the other in recent times. To list just a handy tricolon of examples: DICE’s Battlefield 4 was so riddled with technical bugs and the propensity to crash that its multiplayer was rendered near unplayable for months after release; Assassins’ Creed Unity was bursting at the seams with an array of bizarre visual glitches that rather ruined its attempts to faithfully depict Napoleonic France (see image); and 343’s Halo Master Chief Collection and Halo 5 beta suffered from server troubles that made multiplayer matches almost impossible to find for more than a month after release.

One must be careful of course not to overly-romanticise the industry’s past. Certain games have of course been released excessively buggy / in a sub-standard state for as long as gaming has existed, but it seemed not too long ago that at least this wasn’t the norm. Bath University first-year and avid gamer Ryan Clifford surely speaks for a lot of customers when he says “[publishers and developers] think these days that it’s all right to put out half-finished games and it’s not.” Indeed the idea of games being half-finished particularly seems to resonate in these recent releases. To iron out bugs, adequately maintain the servers and, in the case of Destiny, actually write the story properly would, frustratingly, only require a little bit more development time. The attitude of the industry seems to consist of troubling haste, bordering on a disregard for their customers.

The reason for this? Well one can’t be precisely sure, since the decisions behind release take place privately within companies, but many gamers have pointed fingers at the game publishers that work with developers. These companies (giants like Activision and EA) are responsible for game distribution, and have been notorious in the past for pursuing aggressively anti-consumer policies such as hard line DRM (Digital Rights Management) and the designating of large portions of game content as commercial DLC (Downloadable Content) – often at unreasonable prices. It seems entirely possible that these publishers pressure game designers to put out products in time for Christmas or the release of new generations of games consoles. Indeed, tensions between publishers and developers have run high in the past, with swathes of employees from the stellar developer Infinity Ward leaving the company after disputes with publisher Activision several years ago. Regardless of the explanation behind it however, the result is a loss for all. Consumers have a poor experience, frankly an insult for the price of games these days, and the companies responsible alienate their fanbase and risk driving future customers away.
 

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