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Iteration: would you pay for an unfinished game?

Thursday, 4th 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.

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10 Comments

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  1. Stardog

    I mostly play unfinished games.

    Minecraft when it was less polished
    Dwarf Fortress
    Gnomoria
    Towns
    Project Zomboid
    Cortex Command
    Prison Architect
    Overgrowth

    I would happily pay $60/£35 to play GTA/Elder Scrolls alphas/betas.

    “Is it because we, as consumers, still fear the big bad corporation”

    No. It’s because it was a god damn quad bike game.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Dave Cook

    @1 “No. It’s because it was a god damn quad bike game.”

    Look beyond the quad bike game ;)

    Capcom is bad for this. Lets release a game first, then tons of extra DLC modes, costumes and stuff at great cost post-launch. That sort of thing. A lot of people don’t like it.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. scrumpymc

    Minecraft was £10 when i bought it in the beta, it is still being updated to this day and bugs were fixed within a few weeks. Mojang’s success is due to constant updates and not taking the piss out of their customers. Big corporations don’t give a shit as they are established and customers will still buy the games. Sad state of affairs really.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. KrazyKraut

    Mh….when u mean with unfinished like FFXIV or Age of Conan then yes, because the players are in position to demand features they want and like, and they get it.

    But unfinished like ME3 or Resi 5 (first Edition): NO!

    And thank you for this article, it will becoming more and more a topic, and still consumer are buying their stuff like Zombies.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Dave Cook

    @4 Yeah definitely no to buggy, unfinished games. Also, I disagree Mass Effect 3 was unfinished as I liked the original ending. But let’s not have that debate here ;)

    Yeah no worries too, I was happy to write it as I feel it’s something that we’ll see more of going forward.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. dirigiblebill

    Interesting thoughts, Dave, but I disagree with the point about developers thinking they can get away with releasing buggy code. Wrote a feature about games testing a few months back (blatant self-plug, etc) – http://www.oxm.co.uk/42879/features/the-secret-world-of-the-games-testers/

    Key takeaway, from one of the dudes at VMC Labs:

    “I think with the way quality has gone up, a lot of the games you’d play in the SNES era got away with more. Gaming wasn’t seen as such a serious industry, so you could get away with a lot in terms of bugs, because that’s what people expected. The average person thought the developer was just some guy with a PC building the whole game himself. Now people see the huge budgets that some games have, the hype that surrounds releases, particularly the triple-A titles, I think people are a lot more demanding. They expect their games to have the same production quality as a Hollywood movie. It should be perfect!”

    #6 2 years ago
  7. KrazyKraut

    @5 I know what you said (no debatte xD), but its not about the ending, it was about the “From the Ashes” DLC. Its not about an extra char, it was about the Prothean background and stuff. I think on this day, I really lost the trust in EA forever. (That maybe sounds ridiculous, but this comes from the bottom of my blue heart)

    Look at SSX: In the awesome “tricky trailer” they showed the cult character Eddie…and what happend in the full game weeks later? He was only available as DLC. For me I purchased a unfinished game.

    No, I dont hate EA. Really like their games, but when it comes to Day-1/Full-Price-Purchases, they lost me.
    After I bought SSX some weeks ago, I canceled my pre-order for NFS and MOH.

    Unfinished in OFFICIAL way (“this is an alpha/beta and we will update the game forever and you will get the whole game) is okay, but in a guilefully like making a game and extracting content to sell it as DLC….not with me.

    And I am shocked that we live in times where the Internet reveals every shitty tricks by Companies, but people are blinder than ever and play along.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. KrazyKraut

    @6 But in this point I have to agree with Dave. Since the devs and pubs have the possibility to patch their games on console, they really think they can get away with this. I mean this sounds ridiculous for most ppl, but I think on the long term: In 10 or 15 years I will not be able to play my bought copy because still a bug exists and no patch is available after the long time. Yes, it sounds funny….but now take a look in our cupboard here:
    Every game we own…from NES to Sega Saturn to Nintendo DS to PSX and other consoles are 100% playable. Because it was expansive for the pubs to release a new, fixed retail version of game (yes, google what happend to Driver 2 on PSX or Croc on Sega Saturn).

    It cost their too much money…and thats where they were hit (for most of the time it was not because of their morale, but because of the Angst of loosing more money) and it worked. The quality assurance was awesome as faq. And now what? Releasing a patch is not cheap too, but in relation of having a better quality assurance + new retail copies its peanuts (except for indies, you know the Fez + MS dilemma).

    And Dave is somewhat right. I am always surprised when I put a just bought, older PS3 game into the drive and no Patch Note pops up.

    Sorry for the shitload of text, but this topic was on my tongues for years and I am happy someone picked it up.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. Dave Cook

    @7 Oh wait, From Ashes? Then I agree entirely, that was blatantly an integral part of the story.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. Gadzooks!

    With something like Minecraft you are not just buying a WIP project, you are investing in potential.

    It’s like shouting to the games industry ‘Hey you, more of this kind of thing please’ but with the knowledge that you will be answered.

    Same as kickstarter, only later in the process after proof of concept.

    I’m all for that, in moderation.

    #10 2 years ago