Press Pause is a weekly column that takes a look at the biggest releases and news in the video game industry.
The old adage that consumers should vote with their wallets seems to finally be sticking with video game players.
November is often a busy month for releases; publishers pack it with games they hope will be big holiday sellers and receive plenty of critical praise. More than 15 major releases debuted between Nov. 11 and Nov. 18 this year alone—enough to last any gamer not just the month, but probably an entire year or two.
But a strange thing happened over the weekend: A re-release of a 2008 Japanese role-playing game became the highest-selling game on Steam, gaming’s most widely-used digital distribution network. Though not even the game’s publisher anticipated such a reception, it’s emblematic of how ridiculous the year-end rush has become.
Two of last week’s biggest releases—Assassin’s Creed Unity and Halo: The Master Chief Collection—debuted with major issues. Ubisoft has released multiple updates to fix annoying and even game-breaking bugs. Problems continue to plague Master Chief’s multiplayer mode, the flagship reason for owning the collection. As for the new Sonic the Hedgehog games? A ridiculous glitch allows players to beat the game in under an hour.
Flaws like these are a sad reality for many major releases these days. Consumers purchasing on day one essentially serve as bug testers for possibly defective games. And that ugly precedent doesn’t seem to be going anywhere: One of this week’s biggest releases, Far Cry 4, is just another entry on the recent list of games with problematic launches. Sure, with the dozen or so new games released in these last two weeks, something is bound to work. But should players really have to play Russian roulette with their games, praying that the latest one they load won’t be teeming with bugs?
So what did a dedicated group of players do over the weekend? They pushed Valkyria Chronicles to the top of the Steam sales charts. Steam is one of the most recognizable and widely used distribution services for Windows and Mac players. Chronicles is a re-release of a PlayStation 3 game from 2008. The game didn’t initially light up the sales charts despite a warm critical reception—but devoted fans showed up in virtual droves to buy the game again this weekend.
Thanks to the push, Chronicles ended up besting new releases like Unity and Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham. Perhaps this is a sign that Chronicles fans are just very, very passionate players—but it also signifies that players are willing to buy a reliable old game they know will work when presented with other, buggy choices.
Because those bugs continue to persist and loom over several launches, players may proceed with caution when Halo 5 and Assassin’s Creed [insert vague but catchy buzzword here] release next year. Such widespread, significant issues not only tarnish the immediate experience, but also can, and should, make customers wary of what’s to come. Some little nuisances can be easily overlooked—but when I can’t interact with the best part of a Halo game, or my assassin falls through the streets of Paris, these issues become more difficult to ignore.
Gears of War creator Cliff Blezinski noted recently that shipping a game these days is a small miracle in and of itself—so yes, we must give developers some leeway. But this recent spate of problems isn’t about those tiny problems; it’s about experience-ruining bugs that suggest it’s fine to put malfunctioning games out on the market.
Maybe the scope of future projects needs to be limited—it’s nice in theory to have a huge map of Paris to explore, but is it worth the hassle when it doesn’t even work properly? Maybe developers need more time with their new tools. But until they take that time, players shouldn’t have to suffer for their purchases.
The success of Valkyria Chornicles in the face of so many troubled games carries an important message: There’s no point in releasing an ambitious game if players can’t actually play it. By doing so, publishers and developers hurt both themselves and their consumers. Yes, with new hardware, consumers may expect better games—but they also, understandably, expect them to actually work.