Iteration: would you pay for an unfinished game?

Thursday, 4 October 2012 08:04 GMT By Dave Cook

More and more developers are releasing pre-alpha, buggy or unfinished games these days. VG247’s Dave Cook asks if this trend makes sense, or if it’s a slap in the face of gamers.

The rise of digital distribution has hurled the games industry into varying, polarised states of disarray and prosperity depending on where you turn. Some big publishers still don’t seem to ‘get’ the potential of buying through the wire, while at the same time others are experimenting in new, often intriguing ways.

I spent most of Eurogamer Expo weekend running through swelling crowds on my way to interviews with some of the industry’s best and brightest, and besides the fact that they all looked more awake than I did, they had something else in common.

Almost all of my interviews featured the words ‘iteration’ or ‘iterative’ – this notion of building upon an idea incrementally over time, or to dip back into broken code and expand on new ideas post-launch.

“Why were more people willing to pay for Notch’s opus than THQs ramshackle experiment?”

While digital distribution has made this a possibility, the process of iterative design can also give rise to buggy code, slack developers and – let’s be honest here – a feeling that paying consumers are just being pissed on from a great height.

Lets go back to 2011, back when THQ was trying new ideas to crack the digital landscape. The publisher released MX Vs ATV: Alive, a budget price title that basically gave players half a triple-a game, and then offered the other half to anyone willing to pay for DLC charges.

It failed, but there was method in THQs supposed madness. Just look at Minecraft, a game that was sold in an unfinished state and subsequently bolstered through iterative updates. Why were more people willing to pay for Notch’s opus than THQs ramshackle experiment?

The ‘bullshot’ DLC was well worth the money.

Is it because we, as consumers, still fear the big bad corporation, and that anything less than a £40 price tag implies cheapness? Do we not trust in developers who try to experiment when our money is at stake? Well ‘no’ is the short answer, and it’s probably the right answer too.

I don’t know about you, but when I recently laid down £40 for a new copy of Mario Kart 7 on 3DS, I wouldn’t have been happy to find that the game was half finished. I especially wouldn’t have been too chuffed if I had to inject another £20 into Nintendo’s considerably deep pockets to unlock the rest of my product.

But again, Notch got away with our millions without so much as a threatening email when at the same time, big developers get slammed for pricing on a daily basis. Something about our expectations of big-name publishers tells us we should always get a complete product when we pay for it.

“Iteration, and the ability to amend errors post-launch, has made it acceptable in the eyes of developers to launch ropey code.”

Bethesda probably knows this all-too well. Every time the studio brings out a new core title – be it Fallout 3 or Skyrim – they launch in buggy, often broken states and never seem to get completely fixed. Why then is that acceptable?

It’s because iteration, and the ability to amend errors post-launch, has made it acceptable in the eyes of developers to launch ropey code. Everyone would love the ability to fix past mistakes, but when you’re paying for a product that isn’t up to an unspoken level of quality, it’s natural to feel cheated.

Imagine if you saved up over a few year for a brand new car. You didn’t eat properly some weeks because you really needed a mode of transport. You scrimped, you saved, you maybe even cried yourself to sleep because of your financial situation.

Wario never had this problem, clearly.

But then the day comes you finally have enough to buy that car and live like a normal person again. You take your white hot bank card to the dealership, shake hands with the smug prick salesman, and drove your gleaming new ride home.

As you roll towards your home, you see your family at the bottom of the hill, waving and cheering at your purchase. ‘Our lives are going to be better from now on’, you think as you start to drive downhill, but oh no, the manufacturer didn’t give the car brakes. They were going to later on, they just didn’t think to mention it to you.

“Money’s tight these days and consumers deserve more respect.”

You tap the brake pedal furiously but it’s no good, the vehicle hurtles down the street as your family look on in sheer horror. Everything was going to be better, ‘why is this happening to me?’ you think just before the vehicle slams into a wall, crushing your body in a morass of blood and meaty bits. The dream is over.

OK, so that’s the dangers of iteration at its most extreme, but I honestly see gamers get so angry and upset over broken, buggy or unfinished code, you’d think that the above scenario had recently happened to a loved one. I see it a lot in this job.

Some may call these people entitled or bitchy, but I can empathise, I was cripplingly poor for about five years after University and when I bought things that didn’t work properly after saving for ages, it just made my heart sink. Money’s tight these days and consumers deserve more respect.

Prison Architect: ace idea, but so morbid it makes Das Boot look like a romantic comedy.

But there’s a silver lining to iteration in that Minecraft, Peter Moyneux’s Curiosity and Introversion’s grim Prison Architect – among others – are given or sold to you in an unfinished state, but their respective developers tell you that from the word go.

There is no con, no promise of quality, but these games also let you, the gamer, help dictate how they evolve throughout their iterative development cycles. That is real empowerment, and it’s something you will see a lot more of going forward.

Now you can have an almost direct impact in how those games progress, and that is the kind of iteration that gamers should get excited about. You may not be able to code or make your own game, but you can at least take part and invest in games you like.

So yes, unfinished games aren’t ideal in the boxed retail market, but they are turning into something new and engaging at the digital end. However, what will happen if and when consoles go fully digital will be interesting.

Will full triple-a games ever follow Minecraft’s example? Who knows? But the first studio to do it is going to have a real fight on its hands when trying to convince us of the benefits.