Frontier Developments CEO David Braben recently issued a personal apology for the buggy state in which Elite Dangerous: Odyssey, the space-sim expansion that let commanders roam around outside their cockpits for the first time, launched. This latest disastrous release of a highly anticipated AAA project comes hot on the heels of Cyberpunk 2077's and Outriders' own troubled first steps. What's with all the buggy AAA launches these days?
These troubled games, alongside many other high profile cases in recent memory, are easy targets when it comes to espousing the inferiority of modern gaming over the golden age of the unspecified past in which titles allegedly shipped as a full, working experience. There are definite arguments to be made here, but things are never so clear cut - so what's going on, and when will things get better?
Thing is, buggy AAA launches are nothing new.
There are more games being released, and we are hearing about them via more media venues than before - we're just more informed about all of these glitches, server issues, executive apologies and so forth. Of course, that isn't to say we didn't hear about controversies surrounding major games back in the day, it's just really easy to forget about that when you're hell bent on ranting about the greedy antics of AAA publishers while frothing at the mouth.
Let's think back for a moment and remember a few outstanding cases. World of Warcraft, the legendary MMO from Blizzard that allowed fans to explore the, uh, world of the Warcraft series from an entirely new perspective completely melted the servers on launch, with countless players being unable to log in. Hey, Anarchy Online had an awfully botched launch, but it's happily chugging along to this day.
Sure, MMO launches going horribly is part of the package deal, right? Then let's look at something that isn't an MMO - how about Half-Life 2, widely regarded as one of the best shooters and even best video games ever created? Launching with an obligatory Steam authentication requirement, the game's popularity was more than Valve's infrastructure could handle, leaving players who owned physical copies unable to play. This was in 2004, for those of you keeping score. Even after you got in, you'd be slapped with a bug that caused performance to tank.
Of course, not all problems in the world can be blamed on overloaded servers. Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, a lesser known but near-universally praised RPG launched in 2004 in a near unplayable state. Cut content, broken cutscenes, constant crashes and game-breaking progression glitches would make this blood-sucking adventure just suck.
It took years of fan-made patches and content restoration mods to bring the game up to speed, and it has since earned a cult following, but that was a huge mess back at the time. Just about everything true of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is also true of Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic 2 - The Sith Lords.
Plus, no matter how awful a modern game has turned out recently, it never got treated quite like E. T. for the Atari 2600 back in 1982 - the game was so poorly received that all unsold copies were rounded up and buried in an unmarked landfill, and the game is often blamed as sparking the notorious video game crash that began the next year.
These are just a few examples, but the point is that terrible game launches have always been part of the industry and are hardly a newfangled problem we only need to deal with today. However, at the same time, it would be unfair to blame these cases solely on the overall larger volume of games being made - there is definitely a problem.
Between pre-order culture and the perceived security of being able to just fix games with patches after release, there is no doubt a sense of safety that the biggest AAA publishers out there have when it comes to knowingly releasing a product in a shoddy state that wasn't there years or decades ago. While the fact that one couldn't rely on patches to fix mistakes in the past meant that some bugs were here to stay, it also placed more pressure on companies to release a technically apt product.
The lack of that pressure these days also inevitably leads to some cases where plans to fix games with patches later on just... don't happen. A recent, particularly egregious case of this is Total War: Three Kingdoms. The game was one of the weaker launches in Creative Assembly's history, with many awful bugs and missing features, but fans stuck around on the promise of these issues being rectified over the course of post-launch support.
However, Creative Assembly recently announced that the latest patch for the game is also its last, and the team is moving on to a new Three Kingdoms project - essentially, they're leaving the game in its broken state, and instead of delivering on a promise are now working on a sequel, which naturally will be sold at full price unlike the patches that ought to fix the issues of this one.
There's no way to paint this as anything other than scummy. So yeah, there is a case to be made about shoddy launches and subsequent problems in modern gaming, but it would be entirely disingenuous to consider it a new problem.
Games Are Getting Too Big
Alright, so while we established that crappy AAA games being released isn't a new issue, it's definitely getting worse - why? While the actual, comprehensive answer to this is complex and multifaceted, it does come down to a root cause.
Games are getting way too complex and way too big, way too fast. The nature of the AAA industry is that companies are convinced that you just can't market a big budget project on a good story or gameplay alone; there always has to be new technology. The key word is 'new', not necessarily better or more efficient. You have to innovate no matter what, and it can't be esoteric either, like a new narrative direction or a creative approach to gameplay - it always has to be bombastic.
Bigger games, bigger lobbies, bigger maps, more polygons, higher resolutions, more NPCs on screen, flashier particle effects, more facial muscles for expressions, more visual effects, bigger explosions, and so forth. Everything has to be more, and bigger. In development terms, the complexity of the code and tech running in the background to facilitate all this increases exponentially - we've reached levels of graphical fidelity where the absolute slightest noticeable change requires colossal amounts of work.
However, as graphics continue to be a huge selling point and angry fans will descend on titles like Halo Infinite because an early demo wasn't visually fancy enough, these decisions to push unrealistic technical demands are only validated. Huge publishers are unfeeling corporate machines run by entirely too rich people who are divorced from reality, yes - but all they ever do is follow the money, and the broad audience of video games is teaching them this is how to get stacks.
Should we shift the blame from corporations? Hell no - but we definitely should be voting with our wallets a lot more. The next time you get the urge to pre-order a game, stop and think: is the potential reward of experiencing this game as early as possible worth the risk of buying into a toxic capitalist business model that validates the very practices that are damaging both the lives of the people who create these games, and the state of the hobby itself?
All of this extra work to achieve bigger and better just means that there are also exponentially more places where things can go wrong - and boy do they go wrong. However, all of this exponential growth also requires vastly more time to implement and even more to get working properly, and time is something publishers hate giving developers. The world over, the AAA industry is rife with horrid crunch times for developers even when games are delayed twice, thrice, or more.
Executives and managers set unrealistic deadlines without understanding the technical side of what they demand of the professionals in their employ, and when push comes to shove, most often they're rather push an unfinished product out the door than delay even longer. The industry can't keep up with the goals it is setting itself and the business side of things just isn't on the same page as the development side.
One could say that this is a case of the brain not knowing what the hands are doing, but we'd rather not give management the benefit of that metaphor. Whenever a disastrous launch happens, routinely it is followed by anonymous accounts from the development team of the game describing the woeful mismanagement of the project - the way months of work get tossed in the trash because a suit had a new idea entirely incompatible with an underlying piece of technology, or having to build a new engine from the ground up because management decides it wants better graphics halfway through, or how QA Testing is routinely considered expendable.
The same patterns emerge. These games launch in a crappy state because they really shouldn't be launched at all at that point, and this ties back to the previous point about games getting too big - if the biggest, best funded AAA studios cannot get these games to work even after crunch and delays, maybe the ambition needs dialing back?
If one looks at gaming in the past few years, it is studded with indie surprise hits that were developed on shoestring budgets by small teams, or even just one person - nonetheless, these titles sweep through the community and sell millions of copies not because they're flashy, or big, or animate each individual strand of hair on the protagonist's bollocks in real time - it's because they have soul, because they manage to tell an interesting new story, or because they approach gameplay in an innovative new way.
They achieve all this, most importantly, without an overpaid hobgoblin cracking the whip from a top-floor office.
As we weather this era of constant delays, buddy launches and crappy business practices, remember that for every Cyberpunk 2077, every Outriders and every Elite Dangerous: Odyssey, there are dozens of games out there - both indie and AAA - that offer fantastic virtual experiences as well, and that as players, we can enjoy an unprecedented selection and level of accessibility to titles new and old.
Don't pre-order, read reviews, support indies.