I know my column doesn’t usually run until Tuesday, but this story is kind of time-sensitive and so you’re getting it today.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is having a very bad PC launch. Oddly enough, this isn’t getting any media attention despite that fact that it’s a major screwup that impacts thousands. I don’t know how it compares to (say) the Arkham Knight PC launch, but I doubt the media does either. Our only point of reference is forum activity. (It’s not like publishers are keen to share their statistics on support tickets and refunds.) Going just by forum posts, it looks like this mess is impacting thousands.
Here’s a timeline I’ve hammered out of the events. Again, this is just the observations of one user based on forum traffic. The dates are not always exact. I’m just trying to give you a basic idea of what’s happened so far.
Tuesday Oct 26: The game releases. People report a large number of problems: Slowdowns, crashes, stuttering, visual glitches, blurry textures, and lockups. If you’re feeling generous, you might be able to excuse some of these as the sorts of edge-case technology problems that you can’t catch during QA testing. However, on top of these problems are glaringly obvious bugs that really should have been caught. The Steam overlay is broken, the mouse sensitivity isn’t saved between game sessions, and the promised 4K resolution mode isn’t working.
Bethesda spends the next few days repeating the same robotic answers, telling people to update their drivers.
Support: Get the latest NVIDIA drivers.
Me: I did that.
T: You may need to update your drivers.
T: Have you checked your drivers?
— Shamus Young (@shamusyoung) October 30, 2017
Thursday Oct 28: Bethesda announces a beta patch. Users (including me) try it out. Not only does it not fix any of the serious problems, but it also makes the game run even slower. People go to the forums to tell them “No, this patch is a mess. It doesn’t fix my problem.”
At some point, NVIDIA releases yet another a new driver hotfix. People get it, and they report the game is even slower and glitchier now.
Note that I’m reporting two different slowdowns. It’s impossible to tell if we’re talking about two different problems, or if different people are experiencing the same problems but blaming it on different things.
I’m not going to say that these fixes didn’t help anyone, but I don’t remember seeing anyone reporting any sort of success in the forums. I did see a lot of people complaining that things were worse.
Saturday Oct 30: Bethesda ignores the warnings and pushes the update to the masses. Additionally, they added a feature to the game where it will refuse to start if the user isn’t using the latest hotfix that everyone is saying makes things slow.
Now there’s a fresh group of people complaining in the forums. Lots of people (myself included) can’t run the game at all now that the patch is out. When we try to launch the game we get a generic popup saying “Could not write crash dump file.” The new drivers don’t help. The old drivers don’t help. Running in safe mode doesn’t help. Deleting your config files doesn’t help.
The timing here couldn’t be worse. The game has stopped working for thousands of people. If it was like this at launch, we could have simply refunded the game. But this is four days after launch. Steam refunds are only available if you’ve played a game for less than two hours. Most of us are well past that point. I lucked out and beat the game just before the patch went live, but lots of people didn’t and are now stuck in the frustrating spot of having the game die mid-playthrough.
Bethesda responds to these people by saying we should update our drivers, which is probably the single most infuriating thing they could possibly say. They have another suggestion, which is to open the menu and disable (some esoteric graphics feature I turned off days ago). This is a pretty clear indicator that they aren’t even trying to pay attention. I mean, HOW CAN I OPEN THE MENU WHEN I CAN’T EVEN LAUNCH THE GAME!?!
This is followed by three days of silence. Are they looking into these problems? Are they working on a solution? Hello?
Thursday Nov 2: Bethesda puts out a beta focused on getting 4K mode working for people. They have nothing at all to say about the large number of people who still can’t launch the game. (And because of the way Steam automates updates, there’s no way to roll back. Once you’re updated, you’re screwed.)
User Christsnatcher posted a possible workaround for the crash dump problem. This involves modifying files in your Steam install to disable the Steam overlay for Vulkan-based applications. It’s unclear if this is a problem with the Steam overlay, Vulkan, or the game itself. Maybe this is a problem with the game and maybe it isn’t, but in either case it’s something that should have been caught by testing before forcing the patch on the entire userbase.
Sunday Nov 5: The game continues to crash on launch with no acknowledgement from Bethesda, much less the promise of a solution. As of this point, the game worked for four days and has been non-functional for six.
It really is frustrating that this story isn’t getting any traction in the media. I suspect that this is because the game runs pretty well on top-end machines, and most game journalists have that kind of hardwareI’ve been meaning to upgrade for ages now, but Bitcoin miners have devoured all the mid-range cards, and I can’t afford to shop for the high-end ones.. Unless they’re reading the forums, they have no way of knowing what’s wrong. Batman: Arkham Knight was somewhat random in its failings. It ran tolerably on my mid-range machine and yet was unplayable for many machines with more power, which means those shortcomings were visible to game journalists right away. So Arkham Knight became the poster child for bad PC ports and Wolfenstein II is quietly getting away with much worse.
A Lie, or Incompetence?
I think the big sin of New Colossus (aside from an inexcusable lack of testing) is that Bethesda set their minimum system requirements way too low. I can understand the desire to do this. The number of people with hardware that’s three years old is vastly larger than the number of people with last year’s hardware. You can look at the Steam hardware survey and see the bell curve in action. The lower the minimum specs, the larger your potential sales.
The problem is that MAchine Games made a game that requires new-ish hardware, yet Bethesda’s specs claim it should run on cards from 2012. They didn’t take the time to make sure it would actually work on those machines, and now they have a large number of people that paid $60 for a game they can’t play.
Bethesda didn’t want to lose out on those low-end sales, and maybe they didn’t want to have to answer questions about why users needed such powerful hardware to run a game that doesn’t really look like anything special. I mean, this is an indoor corridor shooter we’re talking about. That’s easy mode for polygon culling. Why does this game require vastly more power than (say) Grand Theft Auto V? New Colossus has to to render fewer polygons, less texture detail, and does so with a greatly restricted draw distance and more predictable scenery changes. How can it possibly need so much more power? I understand why Bethesda would want those low-end sales, but there’s no point in selling people a game they can’t run.
I remember when Bethesda’s parent company bought Id Software and I hoped that we’d get the relative stability and performance of Id graphics engines in Bethesda gamesFor clarity: Id Software made this engine. Machine Games made the Game, and Bethesda published it.. Of course, this was a backwards way of looking at things. There’s a saying in accounting that says Tone at the Top, meaning the workers and middle managers all inherit their values from the executives. I think this idea goes beyond accounting. I think it explains most corporate behavior. No matter how diligent and clever those Id programmers might be, their virtues won’t benefit the users if they exist within a corporate culture that believes in “Launch first, test second, PR spin third, and if none of that works then maybe patch it.”
Bethesda has let through bugs that should have been caught before release. Then they released a patch that made things worse. Now they’re focusing on a patch that doesn’t address the original problems or the secondary problems created by the first patch. They have yet to admit fault and they’re still enjoying glowing reviews while the users rage at them impotently in the forums.
The real shame of it is that even if this game was stable, I don’t think it really deserves so much praise. This game is a step down from its predecessors. I’d love to talk about how the game falls short from a design standpoint, but I can’t do that if I can’t run the damn thing. What a stupid waste.
 I’ve been meaning to upgrade for ages now, but Bitcoin miners have devoured all the mid-range cards, and I can’t afford to shop for the high-end ones.
 For clarity: Id Software made this engine. Machine Games made the Game, and Bethesda published it.
The Plot-Driven Door
You know how videogames sometimes do that thing where it's preposterously hard to go through a simple door? This one is really bad.
Best. Plot Twist. Ever.
Few people remember BioWare's Jade Empire, but it had a unique setting and a really well-executed plot twist.
Mass Effect Retrospective
A novel-sized analysis of the Mass Effect series that explains where it all went wrong. Spoiler: It was long before the ending.
Do you like electronic music? Do you like free stuff? Are you okay with amateur music from someone who's learning? Yes? Because that's what this is.
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.