Ubisoft came under fire last month when its biggest release of the year, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, shipped with some severe quality issues.
If you’ve been anywhere near the internet, you’ll have seen the above pictures of faceless characters and heard tales of NPCs falling through the environment and protagonist Arno failing to enter combat mode in the middle of a battle.
This is by no means solely Ubisoft’s problem. Microsoft has been working frantically to fix matchmaking glitches in Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Blizzard’s Warlords of Draenor expansion for World of Warcraft disconnected some players as soon as they moved. Troubled Sony racer Driveclub continues to suffer a myriad of issues.
These problems are certainly not new – who could forget Red Dead Redemption’s donkey lady, or Skyrim’s backwards flying dragons? But tempers around Unity suggest diminishing consumer patience.
Developers agree that it is impossible to launch a totally glitch-free game, although Bohemia Interactive CEO Marek Špan?l says that studios should always endeavour to achieve such quality.
“It was, and still is, relatively simple to make a flawless single-player linear experience, especially when using existing technology and game design rules,” he told Develop.
“However, with an open world and online experiences, it’s more difficult to make the game completely ‘flawless’.”
Mathieu Lachance, functionality QA manager at Keywords-owned Babel added: “There will always be some bugs left, within or outside of the developer’s control. In most cases, a game’s quality becomes acceptable for Gold Master status when the ratio of newly-found major issues becomes null and that all known major issues are fixed.
“What is considered to be acceptable, or a major issue, can fluctuate from one person or group to another though. It’s not always black and white.”
THE ROAD TO LAUNCH
It’s easy to say buggy games weren’t ready for release, and in serious cases publishers will delay a launch by months in order to give that extra polish. But how much time is required to ensure a game is ready?
“Ideally you want a title to be polished to perfection for release, but this is unrealistic with the reality of release windows and financial pressure,” said Testronic operations director Chris Rowley. “It is great when more time is allowed to add in more polish, but often development teams look at this extra time to add in a feature, rather than bug fixing.”
VMC’s director of business development Ben Wibberley agreed: “You can keep polishing a game almost infinitely but at one point or another developers have to realise that there are other factors that come into play: marketing plans, timelines and budgets. Once all are set in motion, that game needs to go. No one has a magic pot of money; there is the commercial reality of running and funding a studio or game.”
Nick Barrett, who runs independent firm Proper QA and previously ran QA at Electronic Arts and Realtime Worlds, says ‘readiness to launch’ is “often a business decision now”.
“It’s becoming rarer for the launch greenlight to be dictated solely by QA,” he said. “Or we’d never launch anything.
“It’s possible to place a speculative dollar value on each bug we find: how much each bug costs in lost revenue, downtime, dev costs, and so on. Weigh these costs against your projected revenue from releasing now, and see if you can stomach the numbers.”
Paul Colls, co-founder at new studio Fierce Kaiju and veteran of Rockstar Leeds and The Blast Furnace, says that the pressures of meeting a publisher’s launch window – or even a specific launch date – can be a major factor in the final quality.
“Unfortunately, time can get the better of us,” he said. “This is partly why we hear of crunch and unfavourable working conditions. In most industries, you would point the finger at poor planning. Ultimately, though, you need to be pretty damn sure that the player is going to have a great experience – that has to be priority number one.
“The problem is almost always down to money. Dev time costs and hitting your launch window can be crucial: if you miss it, you risk a lot. Not only are you likely to miss out on sales, but you risk stomping on advertising deals, actors and time slots lined up for launch. Not to mention upsetting the people that matter: the gamers looking forward to the title.”
The answer for many firms has been the Day One patch, an update that is lined up before consumers have even put the disc in the drive. And Barrett is one of many devs that believes these are a blessing.
“As long as they exist, we will use them just like all the other tools in the box,” he said.
“Usually the stuff getting pushed to the Day One patch is a trade-off so that something with a higher priority gets fixed prior to submission or launch.”
Lachance added: “Day One patches have a very positive role to play, provided they are not used as an excuse to cut corners. From my point of view, more groups should actually take advantage of Day One patches. They’re just one of the tools that helps all parties involved to improve the end product, and video game enthusiasts should actually be happy that devs and publishers care enough to make their products better.”
However, Day One patches can be met with negativity from end users – particularly if they involve a hefty download. It is also a tool open to be used for more than just fixes, something that also provokes skepticism from consumers.
“Many of the recent issues with these titles seem to be victims of the increase in the patching of key features and fixing severe issues on Day One that are not on the disc,” Wibberley explained.
“This practice is common now given the capabilities that digital distribution offers, so really it was only a matter of time until a dev was not able to deliver updates properly on launch.
“We have seen this historically – it just hadn’t really reached the prominence in the press that it has recently. One example that springs to mind from last year was where a Day One patch, which added multiplayer, meant one prominent sports game was unplayable for weeks.”
Rowley added: “Day One patching has become an industry-accepted way to behave. Better development methodologies and practices would help to improve the situation, but the reality is developers will always push the time to the maximum to make a better product.”
Some companies argue that quality at launch has become less important if the title in question goes through an initiative like Steam’s Early Access, where it is released in rough form and constantly improved over time.
“Speaking about our own games, day one has become less and less something that matters, as we try to release the game early and support it for a long time after the ‘final’ release,” says Bohemia’s Špan?l.
“In a sense, the ‘release’ is mainly a symbol and marketing milestone. Arma 3 was in an Early Access state for half a year – and you could say it still is over a year later, as the entire development team is still working on it, and improving the game. In this situation, the day one patch is just one of many. We feel such a complex game can be worked on nearly forever and that is can never be truly finished – only abandoned.”
With developers already striving to ensure games are as polished as possible – even working on patches after the title has gone gold – the only other thing to do is deal with the fallout of any quality issues responsibly. Gamers will complain about broken games, and it’s vital to handle such situations carefully.
“Community management is key and rapid development responses showing how much the studio is listening, reacting and truly caring can build trust and enhance reputation,” said Lachance.
Wibberley added: “We’re now intrinsically linked to consumers and we have to recognise that customer service is now a crucial part of development: it needs to be planned for and that starts during production. What is vital is making sure we maintain the relationships with our players before, during and after launch.”
Publishers have responded to recent issues very well. Ubisoft posted a live blog listing all of the Unity problems and when they were likely to be resolved, while 343 Industries has kept Halo fans regularly updated about upcoming hotfixes. And Fierce Kaiju’s Colls predicts this will continue.
“My expectation is that we’ll see companies opening up much more, letting both the press and public into the fold much earlier,” he said. “We’re already seeing it with very public Beta releases these days.”
The morale of studio staff is also important. It doesn’t take much for the consumer hate surrounding rough launches to penetrate walls, so devs must be ready to deal with it.
“Developers have likely put a lot into their game, put their lives on hold or inadvertently forced dramatic change in their lives all because they want everyone to enjoy it,” said Colls.
“When someone tells you your work is poor, it’s soul-destroying stuff. It may well be deserved in some cases, but that doesn’t make it any easier. But you have to move on, pick yourselves up and come back stronger, learn from mistakes and don’t make the same ones again.”
Testronic’s Rowley agrees, adding that the best response to a rough launch is to focus on better quality for your next title.
“Ultimately, devs are in control of the quality of their product, especially at the start,” he said. “To keep that control, they need to be realistic with their goals, cut features if required to hit their agreed street date, or force date changes if they are outside the publishing window. This will allow them to create a polished title for release – they can always add in features later as part of their DLC strategy.”