Experienced Points: When is a Game Done?

By Shamus
on Feb 11, 2014
Filed under:
Column

It used to be such a simple question, but this whole “games as service” thing is making it increasingly difficult to know what you’re getting. I’m not saying it’s a serious problem, just a strange one.

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  1. rofltehcat says:

    Really, when should I buy a game that might interest me? Some pretty good games I have played are (still) in early access. On one hand when I play (or even finish) it now, I might miss out on a few features and additional polish. On the other hand, if I don’t like it as much now, I could stop playing and check again in a few months. It is also pretty hard to determine if I might like a game because traditional reviewers either don’t cover early access games at all or only make one quick look video/article about it that doesn’t help me discern the quality of the game, especially when that video/snippet is a few months old.

    One thing that I find especially annoying about early access games is that there seems to be very little drive to actually finish them: Patch cycles seem to get longer, forum posts by the devs sparser and sometimes when checking out an early access title, the last patch is sometimes a few months old already.

    It feels like they should just be done with it already and “release” it when it isn’t 100% perfect rather than just sitting on it for years. As a designer you will probably never be completely fine with the state of your product because as its designer you notice all the small imperfections that nobody but the most scrutinizing observers (which probably are also the game’s biggest fans) would even notice.
    By the way: Please release Good Robot already! :(
    (Or put it on early access :D )

    • Amnestic says:

      Sparse patch cycles are a concern. Do consumers have any recourse if it seems to be stuck in place and not going anywhere? I don’t actually know. Should Valve even allow Early Access titles to continue to be sold if it looks like the game isn’t advancing at a reasonable pace?

      • rofltehcat says:

        I don’t think Valve interfering would do any good even although Steam has extreme quality control problems as of late. If they can’t do some basic checks for the contents of their water lock before opening the flood gates for hundreds of titles at a time, they can’t keep track of the state of hundreds of early access titles. Their meddling would probably just lead to more problems.
        It has come to a point where I normally only check the top sellers list to see if there is something interesting because all the early access and Greenlight titles (90% of them are either bad or not interesting and none of them should be promoted unless it is a real release).

        They have refunded people in some cases of big problems but with the floating releases stuff like that might become even rarer. After all, these games are “not finished yet” so people might be asked to just wait because the game being not yet finished is pretty obvious with the early access disclaimer.

        • Sacae says:

          I like the greenlit titles Ive gotten. Games like Long Live the Queen would never be on steam otherwise and its fun.

          Delver is early and greenlit I believe, and its a fun game to play.

          • rofltehcat says:

            I liked the Greenlight/early access games I bought as well. However, finding the good ones is where the challenge is at. Of course the whole thing has both good sides and bad sides and which a game falls on depends really just on the developer.

            The best case scenario is us getting some good games in which the developer made what the people wanted. The worst case scenario is us getting lots (and lots) of bad games that are never finished.

            Finding the good ones is the key but I really don’t want to looks at all the stuff finding its way onto Steam nowadays. I guess that is unfair towards indie developers who are putting their sweat, blood, and tears into their project (along with their savings and credit rating) but I really don’t want to deal with the sheer number flooding Steam.
            Relying on others to find the gems and to share them on news sites, youtube, the top sellers list etc. probably means I’ll miss out on a few of the titles I might have liked but the recent floodings of hundreds of titles don’t make checking everything myself feasible.

            I guess however Valve does it, they can’t appease everyone with their greenlight and early access programs.

      • Tizzy says:

        Early access games should probably come with a Gantt chart and scheduled updates. Then we would see who keeps tonthe schedule…

  2. Rick says:

    Indeed, all the timeline markers changed with these open betas, early access and DLC as well a revival techniques like free weekends and Humble Bundles.

    • TMTVL says:

      By the by, I’d love to try buying a triple A game, running into a bug, taking a screenshot or something as evidence, and then ask the publisher for a refund on grounds that the game isn’t a finished product. If only I had a few million USD for a semi-decent lawyer.

      • Tizzy says:

        That’s not how software licenses work, as far as I know. Last I checked, you buy something with the express promise that it is not guaranteed to do ANYTHING, let alone what it’s supposed to do.

        People with an actual legal background: please feel free to clarify and explain this more accurately.

        • krellen says:

          Software “licenses” are barely legal. Almost any court – even in the US – will mandate a refund if the issue gets pressed. No matter what that “agreement” says, the law understands that the purchase is a product; if no product is delivered, a refund is required.

          It is really, really dangerous that there’s a generation growing up with the idea that software is a “license” and that EULAs and other “agreements” that you must purchase to agree to are in any way legal, acceptable, or expected. These things are almost entirely bullcrap, and conversations about them need to be framed in a way that makes that clear.

          “Software as a service” is not a thing that will ever be relevant to an end-user. That is solely the realm of bulk, enterprise deployments.

  3. It’s a problem, as you end up paying more for less, compared to what you got in the past!

    • Tizzy says:

      But what about the uptick in quality, at least in some titles, caused by the earlier user feedback?

    • Tizzy says:

      Surely, Shamus, you must have considered the pros and cons of early access not merely as an academic exercise, but also in conjunction with the Good Robot project.

      Are your reflections on this specific issue something that you are likely to share with us in the future?

    • Andy Panthro says:

      I doubt many people are paying more for less.

      Games used to be quite expensive, and there weren’t many that received expansion packs either (and they’d cost quite a bit too!).

      I feel like PC gaming has got fantastically cheaper, and even with early access you can pick up some fully playable (if not feature complete) games for £20 or less.

  4. Amnestic says:

    I don’t know how I feel about Early Access yet. Some of the offerings (Minecraft, as you noted) turned into massive juggernauts partially because of their early access alpha – something I contributed to, if only monetarily.

    I see games I really like the idea of – Divinity: Original Sin and Planetary Annihilation both look amazing to me – but dropping ~£30 on a game that’s not finished, that I’m not 100% certain of the state of, and that might not even have a concrete release date or list of up to date features…that idea bugs me. It’s not an investment I’m personally prepared to make. Still, others do, so I guess it works.

    I suppose it’ll be a while until we see the first complaints bout games that are in “Early Access Hell” forever. Those’ll come eventually, I’m sure. Will Valve refund games if they don’t come out of Early Access in a certain amount of time? Is it reasonable to ask for a refund to a game you ‘bought’ in Early Access if the update schedule slows and the release date is no where in sight? I dunno.

    • Thomas says:

      I don’t think Valve can use any system that requires them to evaluate how ‘done’ a game is. If they put a limit on Early Access then developers will just say the game is done when it clearly isn’t. How can you tell the difference between something like that and Rome 2 or KotoR 2? All games have missing features and cut content their developers would have included with more time.

      Valve need to invent something more robust and consumer led (maybe a partial refund system?) or find a way to publicise early access games that shows the unreliability. With time consumers should get more knowledgeable about the risks involved too and hopefully the trend will die off a lot and leave the games that are playable from the moment they hit early access

      • syal says:

        Honestly, I’m all in favor for a system that makes the publisher fix Rome 2 and KOTOR 2 before they get released. Past releases don’t have to be the standard.

        • Amnestic says:

          The fact that KotOR2 was “fixed” by players about a decade after release is a pretty big problem, in my eyes. And I say that loving the hell out of KotOR2 and thinking it was the far superior game.

        • Thomas says:

          But I don’t see it as possible to tell when a game is buggy incomplete and buggy complicated in any kind of reasonable way. How do you tell the difference between Skyrim and Rome 2? Or To The Moon and KotoR 2 (To The Moon had completely different mechanics that were dropped due to complexity and time).

          What % of bugs makes a game broken? I mean all software has bugs, so it’s never going to be 100%, and how do you as Valve tell when a game has that amount of bugs considering it changes completely depending on the hardware being used and fringe play cases?

          Is Planescape: Torment actionable because it’s middle half is pretty unpolished? What about Muta stacking in Starcraft 1 which ended up being a gameplay mechanic in 2?

          I just can’t see any metric that could determine a game as too buggy to play. And having a publisher make subjective judgements could end up being terrible and preventing some great games from being released

      • guy says:

        I don’t think there’s much Valve can do as a practical matter except declaring that Early Access games are purchased at the customer’s own risk.

      • Steve C says:

        Valve could if they wanted. They have enough money to pay someone to install a game and see if it counts as something. Their name is associated with these things. If it’s an embarrassment then they shouldn’t sell it.

        If retail stores like Walmart are able to test products for suitability then Steam can too. It would be far easier and cheaper for Steam to do the same thing. But Steam doesn’t do that as far as I can tell.

  5. Sacae says:

    I don’t know.

    I played Rust, which is early access and clearly not finished. You get chicken meat from deer and pigs still and zombies were just removed – zombie bit I like it being gone.

    And Rust is hella fun and awesome. I spent like 70 hours in it these past two weeks.

    • Paul Spooner says:

      While this may be true of your experience, and even true of Rust in general, the point is more that there is an over-arching lack of consistency in how “done” a game needs to be before it is exposed to consumers. Taking money for a “still in development” game is basically the same as funding through Kickstarter, a way to raise jointly commission a piece of art that might not turn out quite as advertised. That some of these instances turn out well does not invalidate the point that the range of expectations and executions appears to be irreconcilably vast.

  6. Cybron says:

    It’s so hard to find out how done games are before you buy them.

    I’ve played early access builds which were done enough that I could consider them a real game and play them as such. Even in the early days, I sunk tons of hours into Minecraft, because there was enough game there for me to do what I wanted.

    Then there are early access games which are half finished at best. I’ll boot them up for an hour or so and then find there’s nothing to really DO. And then it rots in my steam library, generating buyer’s remorse. Stuff like this is why I’ve become increasingly skittish about buying into early access builds.

  7. bickerdyke says:

    Well written, as usual.

    But I think you’re missing an important waypoint: World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs. They were the games that made users comfortable with a steady stream of new content instead of a finished product. (Seasonal content, expansions, Add-Ons…)

    Minecraft, on the other hand seems to be more like an extension (storywise) to the old MUDs, where the product was not as much as a “game” with content, but more like a platform that could be used by the players to create the actual content.

    I’d put it that way: A game is finished, when it has as many beginings and ends as it needs to have. Have those ready at day 1 and feel free to add some fluff between them later on.

    So how many beginning s and ends do we need? That depends on the game. It’s “none” for simulation platforms like Kerbal Space Project, MUDs, Flight simulators.

    It’s several beginnings and no mandatory end for MMORPGs that are supposed to grow over time.

    It’s one beginning and at least one possible ending for story-heavy, linear or tree-like single player games. (The more role-play, the more alternate endings you need)

    And it’s a number of beginings and exactly as much ends if you want to make a episodical game like “Sam & Max”. (You don’t need to have all episodes ready when you release Episode 1, but you should know where the story will be heading)

    • rofltehcat says:

      I think one of the things to keep in mind about the MMOs is that most of them required you to pay a monthly fee and/or expansions. So you could abandon ship whenever you wanted.

      Other than that, yes I agree with your point: MMOs are also an example that made us get used to the constant patching. On the other hand, they required a constant internet connection anyways, so their whole premise is different from other (single-player, or single-player-should-not-require-internet) games that might be in a broken state on their disk.

  8. Thomas says:

    One of the thoughts I’ve been having about it is, as you guys pointed out on the Die Cast, early access games promote a certain type of game. Open-ended, mechanics focused, probably procedural. The sort of game that’s fun before it’s done and can be added to without requiring someone to ‘redo’ something they’ve already done.

    Is this creating a bias in a balanced system, or were the traditional payment models already biased in favour of more linear, traditional games? You sell a person Minecraft and he never needs to buy it again. In fact buying ‘Minecraft 2’ would mean someones cut-off from old projects and the community is split in two.

    And creating something with narrative structure or a finite gameplay structure is probably much easier to get right the first time, whereas Minecraft benefits from the constant iteration and feedback.

  9. See, this is why I like being behind the technology curve.

    Unless I have been given something new (eg I got a copy of Starbound for Christmas), I wait until other people have played / reviewed / liked it, and then get a copy. This way I get stable, reliable releases.

    However, while I can bask in my smug superiority, I realise that if everyone did this, the entire games industry would collapse.

    Since there is one XKCD link, here is another one:

    http://xkcd.com/606/

    Also: I still haven’t finished portal…

    • Paul Spooner says:

      Yeah, I went through a period a few years ago when I was on the cutting edge of indie games. Got into Minecraft on the ground floor, Spacechem, Osmos, Cortex Command, Aquaria, etc… After a while though, I don’t know, I just lost interest in keeping up with all the intelligence-gathering that went along with it. It’s a massive sleuth fest, and I just don’t have the desire or the energy right now.

      Oh, and I was also unemployed at the time… that may have had something to do with it.

      Anyway, I’m with you at the moment. It’s a lot easier to let other people do the sorting work, as long as you’re happy never being the one “in the know.”

  10. MrGuy says:

    I buy a game that I’m interested in whenever it’s either on sale on Steam, or the subject of a new Spoiler Warning season and I decide after Episode ~2 that I like the game enough sufficiently well that I don’t want the rest of it spoiled.

    It’s a good system.

  11. acronix says:

    One of the justifications I heard for Early Access games being so expensive in certain cases is to make sure that players don’t just leave after getting bored with it. Basically, the idea is that if you put your unfinished game at 15 bucks you are going to get a lot of people who will play for a bit and then never come back. But more importantly, they won’t leave feedback. If you up the price then, suppousedly, you get less players but those that you do get are more likely to be invested in the game, stick around and leave feedback.

    I don’t know how I feel about the matter, personally. In one hand, it allows indies and devs to get money so they can actually make the game. On the other, it seems a bit criminal to charge money for something that isn’t finished and might never be.

    • rofltehcat says:

      I think that only works when fans are already so invested into a franchise (e.g. Planetary Annihilation) that they will not only put up with incomplete and buggy versions but are also ready to pay premium for the chance to (maybe) influence the game’s development to their desired state.
      Plus the higher price tag (hopefully) keeps out people less invested into it.

      I think the idea behind that is pretty good. However, most early access titles are doing the whole thing very differently and for most the whole concept wouldn’t really work.
      It is really just a way to get paying beta testers who share very similar expectations (e.g. very close remake of already existing game classic) with the developers. I can’t see that work very well for more innovative/unique games.
      I think it is one of the better early access models, although the aim (get “better” beta testers but overall probably get a lot less money) is very different from the model of other early access games (easier access -> feedback quality might be lower; but probably also more money for the development process).

  12. Minecraft’s price structure seemed the most reasonable: You paid (I think it was under $10 for a while) for the Alpha or a really early Beta with the promise that more was coming. When more did arrive, the cost to get in went up a few (wait for it) notches, but you were getting more game to play with from the get-go. Unless the game concept really pushes all of my buttons, that seems to be the most “honest” way to do it.

    Ironically, I saw Postal 2 go on sale today on Steam (long story short, the juvenile humor/racism of the game masks a pretty clever take on the shooter genre) with some kind of “1413” content/bugfix update with the promise of more to come, and that game is 10 years old. With the migration of old games to new platforms, often with more bells and whistles tossed in to make picking it up attractive for people who aren’t just nostalgia-seekers, will ANY game ever be truly “done?”

  13. Mephane says:

    Frontier Developments are doing something interesting with Elite Dangerous. The have explicitly added – I’d like to say invented, but I am not sure if there might be a precedent – a new stage of game development to draw a clear line between unfinished “early access” and a more traditional release. In this “Gamma” phase (the greek letter after beta), the game is supposed to be complete and finished and all player progress is persistent, but bugs may still occur. Basically, it is the phase where other games are release and put on store shelves while still in need of multiple important patches down the line.

    The game is still in Alpha, but I very much like this honest and frank approach of explicitly labelling that awkward “released but still buggy” phase and doing a true release afterward, i.e. at the end of this year, if all goes as planned.

    (There are also several stages of early access, Alpha (right now), First and Second Beta; everyone with any of these early access packages gets to play in the Gamma phase.)

  14. rtbones says:

    I think much of it boils down to expectations.

    I personally have no problems with a game like Minecraft. In the beginning, while the game was fun, you went in KNOWING the game was in alpha or beta – I was expecting to encounter the odd bug or two. Further, the price for entry was small enough that even if I had played it and didn’t care for it, I wasn’t too concerned about what I had spent.

    I also don’t have a problem with AAA titles – the difference is that with a AAA title, I expect the product to be polished. The price of entry is steep. Take a release like X:Rebirth. A supposed AAA title, spending $50/$60 on a game that was 7 years in development – ANY bug is one too many. What was expected to be something similar to X3 turned out to be anything but, which meant even a ‘perfect’ software release meant I wasn’t going to be terribly pleased with it – though I might have played it more. The number of bugs was astounding for a project being developed as long as it was – since the game was released, its been patched over 20 times, and at one point, the number and severity of bugs made the title borderline unplayable.

  15. kdansky says:

    And you haven’t even talked about post-release balance patches. Some developers believe that it is important to fine-tune the game, even years after release, like Starcraft. Others don’t care, which can have horrible consequences on the eSports scene, for example Capcom vs SNK 2 died a quick death, because there was one balance-breaking bug which completely dominates all tournaments. Again others like Sirlin Games insist that even board games should be patched if possible, which then leads to people being annoyed that their first edition version is inferior (even though it has always been very good to begin with).

  16. Abnaxis says:

    I’m not sure why anyone would really consider an Early Access game “done.”

    To me Early Access is, and is intended to be, a replacement for pre-ordering. Just like pre-ordering, you slap money down on a game so you can get your copy day 1 it when it comes out, the only difference is that with Early Access you get an early-build copy that you can leave feedback on while you wait.

    Everybody wants to frame Early Access like “I paid full price so it counts as a finished product,” but gamers have been paying full price for nothing more than a promise of a product for a while now–they’re called pre-orders and season passes. In none of these cases should the content in question be considered “done.”

    • Amnestic says:

      I don’t know about you, but where I live I could preorder games without putting a penny down. I’d go into a shop, say “Hey, can I preorder [Game]?” and they’d put down my name+phone number on a list. If I decided I didn’t want it, I just needed to not go buy it (or tell them – but even then they’d often keep my name on the list because it was easier that way). No fuss. They’d hold it for a few days after release at most in case I’d missed the day or whatever, but eventually they’d just dump the list and sell their copies as normal. I’ve never had an issue with this, even with large releases. No deposit. No paying full price up front. No solid commitment.

      • Abnaxis says:

        Maybe it depends on the game? I’ve personally never pre-ordered a game, but the people I have known who have paid retail price, and got a receipt they turned in to receive said game when it came out.

  17. Zeta Kai says:

    ZOMFG, this happened to my wife last night, while I was reading this article. I picked up Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII from Gamestop yesterday, & after dinner, chores, et cetera, the wife was finally ready to play. So we popped the disc in the PS3, which hadn’t been used as anything more than a DVD player in several months…

    And it needed to do a system update. Okay. Five minutes later, it finished, then rebooted…

    And it needed to do a network update. Whatever. Seven minutes later, it finished, then rebooted again…

    And it needed to do an update for the online store. Grrr. Four minutes later, it finished, then rebooted again

    And it needed to do a patch for the game. Damnit. Six minutes later, it finished, then finally, my wife was able to play the actual game. Between all the updating & all of the DLC downloads, it was over a half hour between putting the disc in & seeing the intro movie. To kill time, I pulled up your article & laughed at the timeliness of your topic. I even remarked to the wife that a SNES cartridge would have been ready to play in double-digit seconds at most.

  18. If you give it a think or two, this is really a natural evolution of the medium. With each new generation of games (for the most part delineated by consoles until these last two), has come an increase not just in fidelity, but in player-controlled win-states. Sim City didn’t exist in the NES era, GTA didn’t exist in the SNES era and Minecraft didn’t exist in the PS2 era. What I’m saying is there is a clear path showing that players defining the level of play has always been a gradually increasing aspect of game design.

    Think of Amnesia, which is no different in design from a standard point and click adventure puzzle game, but by making the game in the first person, the player has direct control over how the actions on screen are defined. This was an ability that was available to game designers since ‘mlook’ was a command in Quake, but the concept was never considered until last generation made player-defined control such an overwhelming aspect of game design.

    This increase in player control means that mechanics are becoming more important to how a game functions rather than set-pieces and the like (especially for non-AAA studios who can’t afford the spectacle), while the role those mechanics play is determined by the players. It only makes sense for these kinds of games to utilize a lego style ‘always adding blocks’ kind of business model as long as they have a solid core design that can sustain it.

    Will that happen? I doubt it. We’re going to go through the standard growing pains that Pay to Play is currently going through whereby attempts to exploit the model will lead to failure and either smart people will learn how to properly take advantage of it, or it will die. PtP is more likely to survive it’s fallout, because it’s less integrated into actual game design and so takes less effort to properly implement.

    Least, that’s how I sees it.

  19. Retsam says:

    It’s interesting the extent that patching happens, even on games that you don’t think are still in active production.

    Just a few weeks ago I went to play Portal 2 multiplayer, and discovered that I had 6 GB of updates to download/install; which pretty well ruined that plan for the night. Granted, it had been over a year since I had played it, but still, that seems like a massive update for a game that, as far as I know, really hasn’t updated much.

  20. Steve C says:

    I’ve been noticing this trend for years. For me personally, it came to a head with Guild Wars 2. I bought the boxed game purposely because I wanted the box, the disks, and the multiple gigs of data on those disks. Turns out zero bytes on those disks are used to install the game. ZERO! In fact you end up having to download more stuff because you have the disks than you would if you had no disks. Even the updater on the disks has to download a brand new updater.

    And this was release day! I will never forgive Guild Wars for that bullshit.

  21. Sleeping Dragon says:

    Other than Minecraft, which I bought in alpha after it already became enough of a phenomenon for me to hear about it and then the “free weekend” happened, I think almost every other “before official release” game I have comes from a bundle or some ridiculous sale and are mostly sitting in my backlog.

    I have this problem where I don’t really like playing games that are supposed to receive more content (again Minecraft being a notable exeption), I even postponed playing Terraria for something like half a year as soon as the rumours of the “one more big content patch” started. This is also part of the reason while I had strong issues with DLC when it became popular, and a source of some annoyance if I play a title that I know is going to get a lot of nice mods soon after release.

  22. TMC_Sherpa says:

    I should probably make two posts rather than stuff both of them together but hey, I’m lazy.

    One the day one patch side I have to wonder if some of it is to combat folks..um… “acquiring” the game before launch. Take Skyrim for example. If you didn’t grab the launch patch you would float out the front of the cart when it stopped at Helgen and break the cinematic. I know we’re talking about Bethesda but come on, you get half way through the opening scene and get stuck between the cart and the wall? Even using the console to unlock movement didn’t help. Maybe I should have tried turning off clipping but whatever.

    On the DLC front, I kinda liked the way DeusEx HR did it. Here is a chunk of game play from the middle-ish that you can run as its own EXE so you don’t have to play the whole game over again. Did the directors cut or whatever they called it insert that bit where it belongs? I bought it but I haven’t played much of that version of the game.

    I swear every time I try and make a post here I rewrite everything three or four times before I hit post so I’m going to sneak a third thing here on the end.

    My cousin has never seen Blade Runner before. I bring this up because
    a) I bought a copy for him on Tuesday
    b) Movies are usually brought up as a counter to games in that they are done on release
    c) How many versions of Blade Runner are there? No cheating. Answers on a post card please.

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