Releasing unfinished games

Posted on 13 February, 2008

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Budgets are running low, publishers are demanding units on shelves (or the virtual equivalent) and games end up being released in a less than polished state.  Some may argue this has been going on for years.  My concern is that that this is becoming less of an unwelcome result of poorly managed projects and publisher pressure and instead is developing into an accepted part of the actual business model.  And nowhere is it more rampant than in the mmorpg.

Tabula Rasa developed by NCsoft arrived late last year and has been mentioned several times on this blog.  In only a few short months players have had character attributes and skills reset several times as game balance received sweeping changes, staple genre features like auction houses and multiple character race choices were entirely absent at launch and have been introduced instead through patches, several zones had major lag issues which made them practically unplayable (especially strange given that most game areas ran perfectly smoothly) and it was clear that whilst early areas were content packed the experience seemed to degrade somewhat as the player reached higher levels.

Flying Lab Software launched Pirates of the Burning Sea onto the high seas last month.  The game seems to be fundamentally lacking in variation, most missions are geared towards single players, ship battles are well realised but rapidly become uninteresting and rarely vary in anything other than the number and size of the ships being faced, different land-based missions frequently recycle the same environment, and the swashbuckling gameplay is truly woeful (the system admirably strives to derive a system rooted in real sword combat, but completely fails to make it fun). 

Now both titles rightly claim features that are innovative, appealing and differentiate them from other games on the market, and in spite of the problems highlighted above I’ve enjoyed many elements of both.  Tabula Rasa is an all action affair in a sci-fi setting, and refreshingly manages to capture the intensity and (some of) the play-style of a first person shooter whilst remaining thoroughly steeped in the design of a mmorpg.  Anyone beginning their life in Pirates of the Burning Sea will be thoroughly entertained by their first ship battle on the open sea, and will look forward to upgrading to bigger and better ships and perhaps even partaking in the challenges of port contention and the economy.  However, plus points aside, I’m of the opinion that both titles were released somewhat short of the benchmark players expect.

Jess Lebow, Content Director at Flying Lab Software admitted there is room for improvement during a recent live dev blog.  Most of the game encounters to date have been created using a template system which whilst aiding the rapid generation of content has resulted in an overly repetitive experience.  Jess states that “As we move forward, we won’t be using those templates any more.”

Contrast this to Blizzard.  At last weeks 2008 DICE summit president and co-founder Mike Morhaime revealed a long list of cancelled titles, underlining that Blizzard only hit such a high hit rate of successful releases by cancelling those they know are not good enough.  Mike concluded, “The worse thing we can do is to release a game that doesn’t live up to our quality standards.”

Playing a mmorpg from release has largely been and appears to remain a bit of a risk, offering the chance to experience a new game world but demanding that you live with something that simply isn’t quite ready, yet.  And whilst I’m not suggesting that Blizzard are perfect anymore than I am NCsoft or Flying Lab Software are awful, it would be nice to see signs that the industry as a whole is getting better at managing big budget projects without having to compromise on quality.  With high profile mmorpgs Age of Conan and Warhammer Online expected later this year we won’t have long to wait to see if this is true.

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Posted in: Gaming, MUVEs