Alright this editorial is a sizeable one (Surprise!) which I can easily divide into two halves for the readers who are interested. The first two sections cover Battlefield 2 and its bastard child-spawn Battlefield 2142. These two games serve as a specific platform for me to launch into a lengthy discussion on a "State of the Industry" variety where I'll delve into the recent plague of games which are thrown into stores for public consumption when, in all actuality, they should still be lying on the couch with their parents waiting for another batch of antibiotics -- which is to say that they're a flawed, buggy mess of entertainment software. Anyway, this whole article is designed to progress from a look back at last year's biggest game, to a case study for the future, to the real point of my spiel, so it's probably bestest to read it that way. If the idea of Battlefield 2 makes your soul weep, though, I'd suggest instantly jumping here.
A Prologue (Battlefield 2)
Once upon a time -- which, for the sake of argument, I'll postulate happened about a year ago -- I wrote an editorial about this little game called Battlefield 2. A few weeks later, after a fairly large amount of comments (for this site, anyway), a hate-mail or two, and no patch to speak of was released by DICE, I was very near giving up on the game. Here was a AAA game title with more than a few trenches filled with nothing but solid tons of hype that was released in a buggier state than an Elder Scrolls game ( oh, no he didn't) even after a pre-released demo was unleashed to the rabid Battlefield fans three weeks before the final game hit retail shelves all over our great nation. I did my part as a loyal customer, though, and just tried to overlook the game's problems; I mean, the gameplay itself is definitely spectacular. The final nail in my Battlefield 2 Gaming Coffin, though, came when the first mini-patch was released which did very little to address a number of the issues of the game in the first place... And this 'patch' was so buggy that DICE required a rollback on all ranked game servers. And, let me tell you, that was it.
I gave the game another try a few months down the line after a new map, Wake Island 2007, was released in one of the patches (v1.2, I think). I actually had a really good time with the game, but my friends got me started back on World of Warcraft and shortly after that I went home for a while (56k... for the win?) and by the time I got back I was fairly addicted to WoW again. This is all to say that the lack of really getting into the game at the time had nothing to do with the title itself.
It's the recent install which really got me back into the game with great vengeance. The patches that have been released for the game have done a whole lot in terms of overall game balance, fixed a lot of the stability issues with the game, and generally improved it for the better. The red label bug is still in the game (albeit to a lesser extent), which is... Odd, to say the least, but overall the game seems to be in good shape. The menu is still a tragedy akin to a train wreck of adorable, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed kittens, but the fact that it hasn't received a major overhaul is simply a testament to a developer who has presumably decided that the game garnered so many awards and sales that it isn't worth the effort.
When Battlefield 2142 was first announced, I laughed. This wasn't a mere snicker, mind you, but a full-body eruption of haughty laughter. I looked at the PC Gamer -- yes, I subscribe to it, shut up -- in my hands and scoffed at the cover exclaiming the announcement of DICE's "new" shooter. Before reading about the game itself and without knowing its release date, premise, or absolutely anything about this drastic, bold, innovative original idea (*cough*) all I could think of was the bastard child of the brilliant Battlefield 1942: Battlefield: Vietnam. In what is a brilliant business move, DICE released a game that was little more than a full-priced mod for their critically acclaimed first game. I bought and played the game a couple weeks after its release and, honestly, that's exactly what the game was: a mod to milk the cash-cow that is DICE's namesake. And, from the looks of it, it appears to be deja vu all over again.
In a recent news story a senior producer on Battlefield 2142 said that the game would be "A lot less buggy than Battlefield 2." Apparently DICE has listened to fan criticisms about BF2 and now aims to achieve a very high-level of quality with the sequel. I read in PC Gamer when they were doing the initial coverage of the game that special attention would be paid to designing and programming the new menu interface for the game after the flurry of critical feedback about the positively abysmal menus that were on display in Battlefield 2. I'm far from being an expert on quality user-interface design (some may be surprised that UI design is a fairly large field of study/research), but I'm fairly certain that I could get a blind toddler drunk and have him find bugs and qualms during his testing of the BF2 UI.
The New Standard
The main thing I want to ponder is this new 'trend' that seems to becoming increasingly prevalent with retail games. Battlefield 2 isn't some low-budget, indie developer effort. It's a big-budget, triple-A sophomore effort (I believe Battlefield: Vietnam was done by a separate division of DICE) from a developer whose first game took in Game of the Year awards or some similar accolades from the gaming press. A while before Battlefield 2 was released, Electronic Arts even bought DICE, which should mean that the level of quality assurance, pre-release testing, and customer support from one of the largest publishers in the country would result in at least some level of polish to such a blockbuster title like BF2.
This is just one of many examples of a recent downgrade in release quality that the gaming industry has seen over the period of the last couple of years. A certain deluge of bugs has always been expected in a few titles: The Elder Scrolls series, the Bioware games, and most MMORPGs... Though if there are any prevalent bugs in the latter, then you open the floodgates to thousands upon thousands of customers screaming "But we pay more than your average gamer! We demand complete satisfaction! Quit giving Shaman access to keyboards!," but I digress. The point is that gamers seem to be relatively okay with large, epic games having their fair share of bugs.
A conversation with a developer friend of mine led to him making the statement that the more complex a game is, the more bug it should be 'allowed' upon the day of its release. It's a very simplistic approach to the topic, but just think about it: a game like Battlefield 2 is a first-person online shooter with only the most meager of single-player offerings. Over the course of the game's development DICE, most likely, spent the early period designing and programming the engine and toolset which they could eventually craft the game from. Once that aspect of development was over, the work on the actual game could begin... And the thing that gets me about Battlefield 2, is that it had no tabula rasa to call its own; DICE started with a very well-defined, and tried-and-tested gameplay base which they were building the sequel off of.
Anyhoo, the game gets to a workable state, goes through testing and balancing, features get added and removed, and the process is repeated until the day the game is released. This is the general kind of development schedule that most games go through (which is to say all but some of the rarities which have special stories to tell in a post-mortem). Therefore, with that in mind, why should a multiplayer-centric game like Battlefield 2 be allowed such a release-day mess when it's being done by a time proven developer and a massive publisher like EA when some other developers can craft a bug-free, polished, complex single-player game along with a significant multiplayer offering all for the same title. To stay with the FPS example, Monolith did an excellent job on both the single- and multiplayer fronts of F.E.A.R.. Firaxis did the same with the incredibly complex Civilization 4 (though, in all fairness, the single/multiplayer in the game is fairly similar...); the only release-day problems as far as I'm concerned were all to do with the game's copy protection.
Currently I'm playing Titan Quest which is an action/RPG in the same vein as Diablo 2 which has had a decent amount of hype built around it. It's the first title from a developer with a great pedigree. And, currently, I'm never sure whether I'll be able to play the game for two minutes or two hours before it 'randomly' crashes to the desktop. Iron Lore has a patch coming on July 5th for the game, which is fairly speedy considering the amount of things the fix is planned to include, but there really is no excuse I can think of to have a game in this state on release. Using the complexity/bug correlation, this title really has no right to have as many problems as it does. While all RPGs are definitely difficult things to develop, Titan Quest isn't even in the same realm of complex action/RPG title like Neverwinter Nights. A game of a similar caliber to Titan Quest would be last summer's Dungeon Siege 2 which was released with polish (even if it wasn't the prettiest girl at the hack-and-slash prom) and very few bugs to speak of.
Complexity aside, I can't say that every game I've played lately suffers from a lengthy list of problems. They don't; however, the list is in the minority of games with near game-breaking release day problems. In my good graces are: Galactic Civilizations 2, Rise of Legends (though I hear the multiplayer has a lot of issues), and Red Orchestra. So let's have a big round of applause for releasing... Working software.
A Pessimistic Conclusion
I guess the reason that I wrote this was a combination of my instinctual need to follow my traditional bitching pattern with summer editorials. There is a decent amount of truth in the verbose writings above, but that doesn't really amount to much in the grand scheme of the game industry. The truth of the matter is that as games become increasingly more popular they also become increasingly more costly and complex the amount of things that need to be considered as developers and their publishers approach release day is, in a word, overwhelming.
The real question I have, though, is whether the true quality of a game-gone-gold rests with the developers, the publishers, or a combination of both. It's difficult to pin the blame on either in particular due to the fact that not all publishers are solely responsible for testing and not all developers can be faulted if the publisher is expected to give the game extensive testing and does a poor job... But I think there's definitely a relationship to be found in the state certain publishers release their games in. As an example, Microsoft Game Studio (Age of Empires 3, Dungeon Siege 2, and Rise of Legends for a few examples) consistently released high-quality games for both consoles and PCs that I can very rarely find any fault with. The same can be said of Blizzard, who I believe does a majority of their extensive game testing in-house. And, for a developer/publisher who I'm personally endeared towards, Stardock has some of the greatest game support of the industry. Meanwhile, titles published by EA Games can either by fantastically polished with spectacular production value or, you know, not so much. And then you have the fuzzy area of a studio like Valve whose games are incredibly well-produced, but whose games also have a tendency to be a complete mess for the first week or two after release.
All in all, this is a matter which will probably grow worse with time. The most important thing I can think of, though, is that the developers who still feel the urge to release well-polished, well-tested games are the ones that really deserve to have their names shouting from the rooftops in the best barbaric yawp that gamers can muster. The English major in me had to find some outlet; all apologies.