When You Buy an Unfinished Game, Everyone Loses
Back in my day, patches for video games weren't a thing. Whatever data was on the disc or cartridge the day you bought it was there to stay, forever.
This probably sounds like a massive inconvenience to those of you who have never known any such thing as offline gaming, but the inability to change games after release was actually a major factor in explaining why they were, on average, much better (or at the very least, more functional) prior to about 2005.
This is Business 101, everybody
Broadly speaking, business has had a bad rap since roughly the beginning of time, and that's absolute bullshit.
There's this pervasive perception in virtually every culture that businessmen get rich by lying, cheating, trampling anyone in their way, and/or buying politicians.
Some people do make big piles of money by doing those things for a while. There is no such thing as a longstanding, profitable, healthy business that got that way by being dishonest. Period, end of story.
Shady business practices always catch up to you and will always sink your business, unless you've scored legal monopoly protections by writing a check to a politician that shouldn't have any power to grant you any such favors (but that's a topic for another article).
I'm speaking from experience here. I currently own two businesses, both of which generate more revenue every year and which have sterling reputations among my clients. The most common compliment I receive goes something like this (paraphrasing): "I really appreciate how transparent and trustworthy you are. Many of your competitors try to get my business with flashy gimmicks or inflexible contracts, but you just focus on doing good work at fair prices, and I'm happy to pay for that."
This super basic idea is no different for video games, or for any other industry.
It's really not hard to understand the essence of what makes a business successful: keep your promises, deliver the best product you possibly can at the price point you've chosen to compete for, and make things as simple as possible for your customers. That's really all there is to it; build your business on that foundation and you will do well.
When developers make absolutely outstanding games, gigantic numbers of people will buy them. You rarely see phenomenal games that don't sell well; the quality of any product ultimately speaks for itself. Great products take time, and great video games take an enormous amount of time. Gamers can't demand everything better and faster; to a large extent, it's one or the other.
We live in a world littered with broken, unfinished $100 million games largely because many gamers routinely make ridiculous and unrealistic demands, leaving developers scrambling to do the impossible.
Video game developers and publishers (yes, even EA) are not sitting in their high-backed leather chairs, twirling their mustaches and brainstorming ways to screw you over. If they were, they'd have gone under long ago; the games industry is relatively unregulated, meaning participants sink or swim on their own merit (or lack of it). They're responding to market conditions as best they can, but they're fighting an unwinnable war.
Why are so many unfinished games being released?
Even as recently as about 2008, game developers largely understood the basic principles of good business and lived by them. Crippling bugs and day-one patches were still relatively unheard of during the first half of the Xbox 360/PS3 era. Even though developers had the technology to patch games after release, they and their publishers generally tried to avoid doing so if they could.
There was still some degree of expectation that the product sitting on shelves on launch day would be a polished, professional one that reflected well on the hundreds of people that spent years of grueling effort making it.
But it couldn't last; gamers wanted more, they wanted it now, and half of them couldn't make up their minds as to what "it" was.
As development costs continued to skyrocket—largely thanks to an over-emphasis on graphics that consumers continue to insist on—publishers became more and more aggressive with their timelines and ROI charts. Profit margins on video games have always been narrow, and they're only narrowing further as gamers demand increasingly realistic graphics and physics, both of which are astronomically expensive to create.
(The growing demand for hundreds of hours of content from a single game, which almost by necessity has to be mind-numbingly repetitive, doesn't help either.)
Developers are being asked—nay, told—by everyone around them to produce more and more complex games on shorter and shorter deadlines. And yes, if you habitually pre-order AAA games, you're partly to blame, especially if you keep buying from developers or publishers that have been pumping out launch day train wrecks for years now.
If you pay any degree of attention to gaming news, you've also undoubtedly noticed a relatively new trend: video games that get mega-hyped by eight-figure ad campaigns, shatter pre-order and day-one sales records, and then accumulate truckloads of negative reviews and go on discounts as deep as 50% mere weeks after release, once everyone starts to realize what a fetid garbage pile it is (looking at you, Fallout 76).
To me, this reeks of extremely talented game developers starting to give up.
Gamers are jaded and annoyed, but nonetheless keep buying crap games before anyone knows they're crap. Developers are exasperated by increasingly unreasonable demands from their publishers and from their customers, so they resort to any gimmick necessary to break even as fast as possible. (Protip: if you're strategizing in terms of weeks, not months and years, your business model is already set up to fail.)
Publishers aren't going to throw $100 million at a new game if the last one didn't return at least 10% (which is perfectly reasonable), but they apparently never stop to wonder if what they're demanding of developers is actually the best way to make a profit (it's not).
Are unfinished games a good thing in any way?
The answer to this question depends heavily on context. The term "unfinished games" needs to be defined very precisely.
Open betas and Early Access games are a thing, and neither paradigm looks to be going anywhere anytime soon. The difference here is that when you sign up for either, you know what you're getting into—the developer has clearly disclosed that their game is a work in progress and that you're to be an active participant along the way. If you don't want to do that, bookmark the game and check on it every six months until it's finished. Easy fix.
As things stand now, the status quo with "traditional" AAA titles like Battlefield 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2's online mode provides a much-needed pressure release valve for overworked developers struggling to satisfy gamers and publishers that are often in direct conflict with one another. There are serious problems with both games that have pissed off huge numbers of consumers, but I'm not one to suggest ostracizing developers for patching games weeks and months down the line if it's the only option currently available to them.
In other words, we need to be sure we're discussing the root causes, not merely treating symptoms.
On the most basic level, the fact that the internet allows developers to fix problems with their games is a great thing. The fact that that option didn't exist in 1998 strongly incentivized developers to put their absolute best foot forward, but I don't think condemning devs for fixing mistakes after launch is necessarily appropriate in every case.
One needs to ask why the post-launch fix was necessary, whether it represents an ongoing systemic problem, and to what extent the decision was out of the developer's hands due to publishers breathing down their necks (or other factors).
All of this is to say that I'm calling on gamers to do something that, as a whole, they're not very good at: control their emotions, take a step back, and think carefully about all the relevant factors in any given situation before reaching for that caps lock key. It's possible to be both just and benevolent.
Give people the benefit of the doubt, at least to begin with. Investigate a situation before judging it. If developers or publishers have done something truly dumb or shady, then criticize them—calmly and constructively.
Unless the broken mess of a game you're upset about is the only and inevitable result of demands levied by millions of your fellow gamers, in which case you should be criticizing them.
What's to be done about it?
The good news is that this problem is totally solvable. The news that's not necessarily bad (but that you might not want to hear) is that the solution has to start with you. No developer or publisher is going to initiate the long and painful course correction necessary to bring about a true Golden Renaissance of Gaming—most of them have locked themselves firmly into codependent catch-22 arrangements.
They need your money to continue to exist, and nothing will change for the better unless you change the conditions under which you're willing to give it to them.
One of several things has to happen:
- Gamers need to understand just how expensive their treasured hi-def graphics are and settle for slightly less impressive visuals to let developers realize huge cost (and time) savings, or;
- Gamers need to accept the fact that a $60 price point for AAA video games hasn't been a sustainable price for many years and come to terms with substantial price increases, or;
- Gamers need to exercise a little patience and vote with their wallets after launch day, which will result in a gradual but steady market correction.
The last option won't be easy—convincing millions of people to agree to do something differently never is—but I think it's the easiest option and the one most likely to work long-term. One great thing about free markets is how it's on sellers to figure out the enormously complicated logistics of providing a great product at a fair price in a timely manner. We just have to adjust our expectations and let them do it.
Pre-orders are a huge component in the machine that keeps pumping out unfinished games, and one thing will be incontrovertibly true until the end of time: developers and publishers won't continue to pursue strategies that consistently fail. The few that do will quickly go out of business, leaving their more agile and reasonable competitors to take over.
The bottom line is this: broadly speaking, gamers are getting what they deserve right now. Developers aren't churning out unfinished games in spite of demand, but because of demand. Nothing about the way it's done now is sustainable; the problem will end eventually. The only question is how, and whether the end result will be better or worse.
If we, as consumers, want a better product, we have to stop incentivizing bad ones, which requires some self-control and some delayed gratification. On our end, it really is that simple.