The Assassin’s Creed Flu

 

Have you ever had the flu?  You feel awful.  Your head pounds, your muscles ache, and all you want to do is sleep.  Everything you try to do is harder, and you’ll never be able to fully perform at anything when the malaise sets in.

Video game development cycles have become a source for the proverbial ‘flu’ I’m referring to.  I feel like the games themselves are good at their core and obviously had a lot of care put into them, but suffer from a much larger problem:

A flu that has made games feel broken and unplayable in the same way symptoms of the flu make you feel like you’re dying.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity was a game that suffered from the flu.  A game that, no matter how hard it tried, could not overcome the illness it had succumbed to. It just couldn’t perform anywhere near to the best of its ability.  It was slow, sluggish, and glitchy, and each of those symptoms have mostly been, over time, cured. Patch by patch; dose by dose.

It was one of my game of the year contenders last year, and while some people would call that crazy due to the issues, I would argue that I am being asked to disregard a game due to its illness.  I fully admit that the issues with the game overall, like micro transactions and app integration, are detriments to the overall package, but the game itself – that is, how it plays as an Assassin’s Creed game – is one of the best in the series to date.  The city is gorgeous, the crowds are immense, the story finally places more emphasis on the Assassin’s Order, and the assassination missions are a refreshing callback to when the series focused more on the assassin and less about the assassination.

The disconnect when talking about this comes down to where people put the blame, or where that flu comes from.  We’re so caught up in the symptoms that we’re not focusing on the bigger problems of companies putting unrealistic expectations on development time frames.

We, as a community, have the power to influence how the industry we love operates.  If we don’t influence the sources of these issues, then  they will  persist.  We have all heard crunch time horror stories where developers have  dealt with horrific hours in order to meet deadlines, so we have to be aware that the developers are dealing with terrible conditions as well.  Demanding they work harder to hit goals is not the solution.  That’s what is essentially being said, when you take into account precision of language with these companies.  They hear that the goals to hit need to be more stringent, not that the developers need to be able to finish the game.

The obvious retort is that the game should have been delayed.  The problem with this lies with marketing.  You can’t realistically market a title while simultaneously being willing to push the release date when issues arise.

If a game from a AAA publisher is being announced, it means that they have already determined when to start marketing the game, as well as planning on the purchasing habits of consumers for the time frame listed.  They will then get in touch with retailers so they can start setting up their materials for that date, who will then usually start advertising and even taking pre-orders.  This all involves a lot of money for a lot of different parties, and when one needs to change the agreement due to something like a delay, the other parties must be compensated.

Furthermore, they have also already factored an estimate of returns into yearly finance reports.  They have to give projections to the people invested, and losing out on that projected money hurts the company.  They’re in it to please the stockholders and grow the product, and having to sacrifice money in order to make the game a better, actual finished product at launch is not something that reflects positively on paper, regardless as to how much it matters to hardcore fans.

People were going to buy Assassin’s Creed: Unity regardless of problems, because it’s a behemoth of a franchise.  Especially with an annual franchise, companies are more concerned with  hitting that release date for the droves that will buy it regardless, so that they can at least make part of their projected return… and therein lies the problem.

We can’t just demand that they delay games, because it doesn’t make sense to do so at the higher levels.  It’s hard to comprehend that a broken game makes fiscal sense, but according to a company like Ubisoft, that’s something for the PR team to figure out.

We’re in a situation where the underlying problems – actual development time vs. what it takes to structure a game – are affecting developers and customers alike, but our cries to fix it are ignoring the bottom line for the companies actually putting up money to get these games made.

Basically, we’re crying out to fix the symptom when we should be looking to deal with the illness.  While we have a right to be pissed, we also have the power to influence change, and should use that anger to fuel a look into how games are developed and what the developers need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.  Because believe me, they knew there were problems, and the people actually making the games would never have wanted them shipped that way.

The good news is that we do have power to influence change in the industry.  We were able to turn the tides on Microsoft’s original plans and even convinced them to launch a website for user feedback for new features.  We’ve gotten EA to update their return policy on Origin due to the state of games on launch, and it stands as the best company for digital returns.

We were able to do this because our rallying cries do not fall on deaf ears.  When a company can fix a PR problem while simultaneously hitting their projected goals and plans, then they will gladly look into it.  We just haven’t been able to come together to focus on the root cause of the flu-like symptoms we’ve been seeing, because we’ve been focusing so much on the symptoms being taken care of.  We need to let these companies know that fixing problems is what we expect now, but more communication during the development process, and more realistic development times are what we expect in the future.  We need transparency from publishers on actual progress, instead of just bullshots and buzzwords.

We need to let them know that we’re refusing to pre-order because their actions result in broken games, and not the broken games themselves.  It’s unfair to blame the effects of the flu on the game that’s sick when it’s capable of being a great product when healthy.