Article The Future

2015 and beyond in video games

The day has finally arrived. The new book in that weirdly arousing vampire-zombie-werewolf series has been released and you’ve put down £20 for the hardback copy. You pay the cashier, feeling slightly smug about still buying physical books in the age of Kindles and iPads. You start to head off, when the cashier calls you back

“What is it, gentle bookkeep?” you reply, still beaming.

“You haven’t ordered the season pass, have you?”

“What on earth do you mean, good sir?”

“The season pass, so you can get the rest of the book.”

You look aghast and flick through the pages of the book. The pages are brittle and start breaking apart like a fresh poppadom. Some pages appearing to be missing and the entire last chapter is printed upside-down and – you drop the book in disgust – it’s in comic sans.

“Bookseller!” you cry, tears welling in your eyes, “what’s wrong with my book?”

“Oh, that? There were some problems at the printers, but it’ll be fixed in a month or soon, just wait. You can still read some of it.”

“Unacceptable! I demand a refund.”

The bookseller laughs, turns his back, and starts counting your money.

A nightmarish situation. A fantasy. It just wouldn’t happen, would it? You don’t go to a film and see a director wandering into the shot, or actors forgetting their lines and consulting a script. That brand new U2 album wasn’t released with half the songs and the vocals missing, although maybe that wouldn’t be the end of the world in U2’s case.

None of these things would happen in any entertainment industry, except in what will soon be the biggest one of all – video games.

2014 was a poor year for AAA, blockbuster video games. Developers and publishers found it hard to cope with the transition to the next-generation of consoles. The PS4 and Xbox One’s move to “PC-like architecture” got fans excited. Games should’ve been easier and potentially cheaper to develop (no longer would it be so difficult to port from one console to the other, as seen with the 360 and the PS3′s insane Cell architecture) and PC ports would be easier and plentiful.

How wrong we were.

From big budget, $300 million disappointments like Destiny, to botch jobs like Assassin’s Creed Unity and Halo: The Master Chief Collection, it has all been a bit shit. 2014 was the year fans of the virtual reality device, Oculus Rift, were delivered the news that the platform had been bought out by Facebook. Much hand-wringing was had, but for the time being, gaming seems to be the Rift’s main application. The only bright spot has been indie developers, and Nintendo working overtime to single-handedly support their Wii U system with much critical, if not commercial success.

What’s the difference between Nintendo and the mostly western developers? How can a company with the resources of Ubisoft be releasing broken dross like Assassin’s Creed Unity, while Nintendo, which is having to support a home console on its own, while still providing software for its 3DS system?

Let’s look at two series, Assassin’s Creed and Super Smash Bros. In 2014, new entries were released in both series. Super Smash Bros was released in two formats, on the 3DS and Wii U. Assassin’s Creed Unity was released on PC, Xbox One and PS4. The former began development in 2012, and the latter has been in some stage of development since 2010. Both games have featured multiple development teams, with Nintendo, Sora and Bandai Namco working on SSB, and an incredible 10 Ubisoft studios working on Unity.

SSB has released relatively bug-free and to critical and commercial success. Unity has seen a more muted response critically (except when it comes to ratings, but we’ll come to that later) and has had a catastrophic response from fans since release. Here are some of the problems encountered after the game (which retailed for £49.99 and was selling in some editions for £64.99) was released -

  • Characters would fall through the floor
  • The co-op mode (a main theme of the game, hinted at in the title) was unplayable for some
  • Frame rate and general performance was abysmal and decidedly not next-gen
  • NPCS would behave bizarrely or have their skin and other facial features missing, with hilarious and grotesque results
  • The character would get stuck inside hay carts, the very things he uses to hide from enemies

These were all appearing after the now typical day one patch. Ah, day one patches. Let’s go back to the book analogy again. How ridiculous would it be to have photocopied handwritten missing chapters stapled on to the front of your brand new book on the day of purchase. Very ridiculous. Yet it’s now a standard and accepted practice in games.

I’m trying not to be unreasonable here. I know that the scales of Super Smash Bros and Unity aren’t completely comparable, but both are games with massive budgets and expectations, so why does one go so well and another go so poorly?

Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto once said “a delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.” This is a philosophy long forgotten in a world of day one patches and downloadable content. Game doesn’t work? Push a fix on day one. Game over budget? Cut some of it out and sell it later for some easy cash. It’s not something Nintendo do, despite investors demanding they rush off to the moral and financial cesspit of mobile gaming. Nintendo have finally adopted downloadable content, but it’s done long after the game is released, with great pricing and their usual polish.

I’m writing this in December, over a month since Unity’s release. The game still isn’t fixed. Patches are still coming out, sometimes creating new problems. By the time this article is published, maybe it’ll finally be fixed. Will it happen again? Undoubtedly. Modern game publishers are eating themselves, stuck in the cycle of annual releases. Not enough time is given to development and quality control, and more and more games are being affected. Having 10 different teams working on a game like Unity can’t be good, either.

Driveclub, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Watch Dogs, all these games have faced problems and over-hyping, but we still bought them. Watch Dogs has sold over 9 million copies. Unity’s sequel is deep into development as we speak and details of the game were conveniently ‘leaked’ during the outcry over the game.

Will things change in 2015? Next year sees the release of several high-profile games that were delayed. Batman: Arkham Knight, The Witcher 3, The Order: 1886 and Dying Light being some of the most anticipated games. The Witcher 3 has the good fortune of having a developer with a steady stream of cash from its own distribution service, GOG, and a Miyamoto-esque attitude toward quality. There was, of course, some annoyance from fans regarding yet another delay, but most seemed to accept that you can’t rush quality.

Batman: Arkham Knight is an interesting one, because it’s published by a company, Warner Bros, that would obviously love to turn Arkham into an annual release, so much so that they hired a company to make another game between Arkham City and Arkham Knight. To the surprise of no one, the game released with some big problems, with players told that some bugs wouldn’t be fixed because the team were “working hard on the upcoming story DLC”.

Fortunately, Rocksteady, the developers of AK, are happy to get the game right and delayed it. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was their last Batman title, and the game wasn’t turned into an annual release from 2016. Publishers are trying to chase the Call of Duty money and annualise everything, leading to disasters like Unity and Master Chief Collection.

2015 will probably see more microtransactions sneak into AAA releases. Assassin’s Creed Unity had the gall to offer microtransactions up to an eye-watering, wallet-grabbing £64.99. The problem here is that if people weren’t buying them and using them, the publishers wouldn’t be shoving them in the game. Depressingly, the microtransactions in Unity were one of the first things Ubisoft fixed.

The tedious battle between brick-and-mortar and online retailers will continue. Indeed, the battle between digital distribution services like Steam, UPlay, Origin and GOG will likely intensify. At the end of the year, Ubisoft made their new releases like Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed Unity exclusive to UPlay in the UK. Steam currently control around 75% of the PC gaming market and claim 30% of a publisher’s revenue for selling their games through Steam, so it’s no surprise to see companies like EA and Ubisoft trying to get a piece of the action. As annoying as it is to have another new way to buy, install and play games, this should hopefully lead to each platform improving.

Origin, despite being developed by the historically awful EA, are actually doing things quite well. They offer refunds, which Steam generally refuses to do, and the program itself is fairly unobtrusive. UPlay, on the other hand, is a mess. The experience of opening one program (Steam), to play a game, which then opens another program (UPlay) and then have to wait for that to load is frustrating. Imagine opening a Kindle book but having to go through each individual publisher. Ubisoft do actually put out some fantastic, smaller titles, like Child of Light and Rayman Legends, and it’s frustrating having to go through two store fronts, two pieces of DRM just to get to it.

The PC’s digital store fronts have seen some great titles in 2014, but it was otherwise a dire year for fans of the Xbox and PS4 . Some of the best games were remasters of 2013 hits, or Nintendo games, which everyone ignored. Nintendo, did pretty much everything wrong with the launch and promotion of the Wii U, from the name, to the GamePad, to the third party support, but bless them, they’re keeping it on life support with title after title. 2015 sees the release of The Legend of Zelda: A Working Title, which promises to be the biggest game in the series yet. It’s taking its inspiration from Skyrim and the original NES game. Nintendo have said that the game will be shaking up the usual Zelda formula, which is going to lead to the usual moaning about the stylistic and gameplay changes, but eventually everyone will realise it’s brilliant.

Nintendo will be a bit stretched in 2015, with very little third party support. Because of this, they’ll keep getting badgered by shareholders to release games on mobiles. This is a terrible thing and I doubt they’ll pull the trigger. Nintendo games, when you get right down to it, are all about control and feel. Look at the evolution of their controllers, they generally design the games around the controller and their technical innovations. Look at Super Mario 64 and the control stick. I could go on forever about the genius of that game and that little piece of plastic. Wii Sports and the Wii Remote. Virtual Boy and Galactic Pinball (okay, perhaps ignore that last one).

You can’t play a proper Nintendo game on a touch screen alone. The whole reason the DS was such a success was because the touch screen was exotic and new. It had two screens. It had a microphone, a little stick to control the games with, alongside six buttons and a D-Pad. Most important of all, it had dozens of fantastic games that generally used all those things in tandem. Shrink that down to just a touch screen and zero physical buttons and you’ve got a problem.

Could Nintendo make a good phone game? Yes. Will they? No. The mobile game market is broken, with dire, anti-gaming F2P mechanics and awful pricing. People would only moan about how expensive Nintendo’s mobile games would (rightfully) be. Nintendo already have their own handheld hardware, they don’t need mobile.

Sony are going to be going hard with new technology — PlayStation Now and their VR tech, Morpheus. Now is like Netflix, but for games. You pick a game you want to play, but instead of installing it and playing it locally, you stream it from a computer far, far away via a pretty fast internet connection. Pricing seems a little off at the moment, but technically it’s working pretty well. Sony spent a lot of money on getting PlayStation Now off the ground, approaching $400 million, but the service will be launching on certain Samsung TVs soon, so I believe it’s going to turn out to be a very shrewd purchase.

The Morpheus I’m less convinced of. I think some people are going to be expecting a lot more, graphically, than it can actually handle. Don’t forget that it’s got to essentially render the same image twice, and the PS4 isn’t exactly wowing people technologically at the moment. I think it’s going to be a sideshow, a cute distraction, and that it’ll suffer the same fate as the Vita and Move on the PS3 — a lack of support and an eventual quiet death. They’ve got to sort out Driveclub and make sure other games don’t release in the same state. The game was promoted with the tag line ‘Drive together. Win together’ and it’s unacceptable that people weren’t able to get online for weeks after release. The company’s high profile hacking dramas and the downtime suffered by the PlayStation Network have only added to the pressure. It wasn’t that long ago that Sony were riding on a renewed wave of confidence, but if they let the hubris that set in during the PS3’s development take over, things will be bad.

Microsoft are looking great after dumping Kinect from the main console bundle. They’ve won back a lot of people since the Xbox One was so terribly and infamously announced. At the end of the day, they just need games. Sunset Overdrive is a good start, but it’s harder than ever to get exclusives on a console. They need Rare on form. They need to make sure something like Halo: The Master Chief Collection doesn’t happen again. All the goodwill and free DLC in the world isn’t going to fix another cock up like that.

That was 2014, then. It was a bit crap, but as it stands, 2015 is looking pretty damn good. A decent PC and a Wii U is my suggestion, but there’s going to be something for everyone on each platform. I’m not going to hold my breath that publishers will change their ways and give their developers time to breathe. Gaming is fast becoming the biggest entertainment industry in the world, the stakes are too high. There isn’t going to be a crash like in the 80s, there’s too much diversity in the market, but I hope we don’t put up with many more disasters like Unity and Halo.

There’s one thing I haven’t touched upon, because trying to work up the effort to do so is difficult. 2014 might’ve seen some pish from Ubisoft et al, but nothing tops the prepubescent bile spouted by the idiot man-children of the Gamergate movement. To cut a long, tedious, misogynistic story short, here’s what happened - some dickhead said that his ex-girlfriend, developer Zoe Quinn, had a relationship with Kotaku journalist Nathan Grayson. This led to false accusations from some truly idiotic, basement-dwelling, women-hating sciolists that this relationship led to positive coverage of Quinn’s game, Depression Quest. The nonsense exploded and soon people like Anita Sarkeesian, a video game critic, were finding themselves in the flaccid cross hairs of men claiming they were all about ‘ethics in video game journalism’.

Let’s get one thing straight. This wasn’t about ethics in video game journalism. Video game journalism has had a sordid, rotten relationship with video game publishers from the very beginning. Things are getting better, but we still have games that are broken getting precious 8/10 scores from critics. There’s a lot wrong with video games and the writing surrounding it, but Quinn and Sarkeesian were being targeted by ignorant, tedious little bullies.

I’ve always had a problem with the term ‘gamer’, because it just sounds odd to me. I’m not a booker, I’m not a filmer, so why am I a gamer? It’s been a long time since I’ve been ashamed to call gaming a hobby, but things like GamerGate have brought those feelings back again. There is a depressingly sizeable amount of people who — instead of trying to shed the image of gamers being uncouth, lazy, horrible people hiding from the sunlight in their tired parents’ basements — are actually seemingly trying to cling onto and perpetuate that stereotype.

Women shouldn’t be afraid to voice their opinions about games, especially ones that bring to light the shitty practices and ideas of certain developers. Being a dude, I don’t often see the shit that women have to go through in the often pathetic gaming community. I can’t imagine even wanting to advertise one’s gender these days, and that makes me sick and ashamed.

2015 can only get better, right? Thankfully, people stepped up and pointed out how ridiculous the “movement” is. The mantra of it being ‘about ethics in video game journalism’ was turned into a mocking meme. Shockingly, men who stepped up to tear apart the followers were largely ignored. Women were barraged with rape and death threats. If you’re a vocal member you’re generally seen as a bit mental. Hopefully it’ll die down in 2015.

So that was 2014. A few highs, a lot of lows, and that weird game where you chatted up pigeons. 2015 has to be better, it simply must. And if it’s not? I will be sitting in the dark, playing Pokemon and pretending everything in the world is okay.

Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony and Ubisoft were contacted during the writing of this article, but haven’t responded. They probably have more pressing issues, which is fair enough.

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