Kickstarter, Greenlight, Early Access, pre-alpha, alpha previews, closed betas, open betas, demos, full release! Post-release, DLC, expansions, mods, third-party utilities and patches, hell, even subscriptions, pay to play, free to play and voluntary donations… gaming evidently isn’t like any other medium. But we all knew that anyway, and that’s kind of why we love it.
We live in a world where Starbound, a game that went into open beta towards the end of last year — a game that isn’t finished — rocketed to the top of the Steam charts and secured the top spot beneath DOTA 2 as the most played game on Steam. Anybody would think they had no backlogs to chop through. This should be of no surprise: Minecraft was huge back when it was in alpha and DOTA 2 was no slouch in beta either. Dwarf Fortress manages to sustain two developers even though it is a) free and relies on donations, b) still in alpha (and will be for another 721 years), c) looks like The Matrix and d) is less accessible than a living human being at Steam Support. There’s Garry “Garry’s Mod” Newman’s Rust, DayZ, Wasteland 2, Dungeons of the Endless, Overgrowth, Planetary Annihilation, Nether, Kerbal Space Program, Project Zomboid, Space Engineers, Prison Architect, Maia, Spacebase DF-9, Sir, You Are Being Hunted, Neo Scavenger, Speedrunners… the list goes on and on.
What I want to know is: why are so many people playing them? I can understand the buying –the supporting– but the playing? The unfinished bug-riddled playing? I don’t believe that most players are actively involved in helping improve these games (plenty of other players will do that, right?), it seems more likely to me that people just can’t contain their hunger and want to nibble, suck and slurp the raw meat from any bones thrown their way. In a recent Guns of Icarus Online game, one captain in the lobby just suddenly shouted out: “Oh my god, DayZ has just been released on Steam! I gotta go.” I mean, really? DayZ will never be worse than the day it was first released on Steam.
With the advent of Kickstarter, Steam Greenlight and Early Access, and the rise of independent gaming, gamers have never before been able to get so close to a game and its developers so early on. We’re invited to peer behind the curtain, to see what’s in store, what could be, and in some cases, to play a part in the production itself.
It’s a funny thing because, as a very critical person (some may say a vampire that feeds on joy), I ought to be jumping in and assaulting developers with lots of feedback but… I don’t want to play something unfinished. I don’t want to look behind the curtain and see feature-shaped holes, things broken, things getting broken, and being involved in fixing it. I’m happy sitting in the stalls waiting for the show. Yes, I’ll report stuff when I come across it after release but to jump into a beta or alpha seems like a sure-fire way of dispelling some of the magic of a new release; a new release that can be consumed meticulously and wholly. I just can’t see the fun in watching a magician practicing their tricks and fumbling them. And, you know, the longer I play games the harder it seems to find the magic that used to exist in every square pixel when I was younger and less experienced. I need to hold on to that element of wonder, perhaps now more than ever. So I can wait, and it’s not as if there aren’t literally — like, literally literally — countless other games to be played in the meantime that are, y’know, done, and amazing, and stable and impossibly, obnoxiously cheap — or free.
Even when games are done, they’re still not done. Like a fine wine, they tend to get better with age; bug fixes, added content, game modes and features, tweaked balance and optimisations. I’ve been playing Guns of Icarus Online and Natural Selection 2 since they were released in 2012 and while they’re fundamentally the same games, they’re so much better now than they were at launch– and this is not reflected in Metacritic’s score for reasons I’ll come to in a moment. Most multiplayer games are generally well supported post release and go through continual improvement while single-player games get patched to varying degrees before being bolstered with DLC and expansions. And what about mods, third-party utilities and patches? That’s a minefield of joy and despair right there if you’re wanting to extend or optimise an experience.
Unlike other media, the artifacts of gaming are getting decreasingly static, and perversely a game’s success can hinge on reviews that remain static once they’re flung into the wild. They’re rarely revisited and with Metacritic’s policy of only honouring the first review the damage can be permanent, especially when those pesky numerical scores are so prominent — and the resulting aggregates even more so. In the last few months Steam have rolled out their new user review system which adopts a ‘Was this review helpful? Yes/No’ system, similar to Amazon, to hopefully separate the wheat from the chaff and to move away from that Metacritic aggregate badge and the cherry picked and pruned praise in the description blurb. I appreciate the idea, but have you read some of the most ‘helpful’ reviews? And did you dig much deeper? It’s a system which reinforces those who post first and rise to the top first, and what rises isn’t always the cream. Here’s the ‘most helpful’ Steam user review of everyone’s other favourite ‘not a game’ game, Proteus:
Proteus is a brilliant idea that only excels in its visual execution. It perfectly captures the kind of world once portrayed using just a few, two-toned pixels displayed from an Atari 800. A world that you, the viewer were forced to imagine rather than witness in high definition glory. The problem is; there is literally nothing to do within that world expect to wander its hills and valleys scaring off groups of animals while listening to the whimsical but unimpressive, procedurally-generated music. It is best described as a tech demo and it would make a fantastic screen saver akin to the classic Windows 3D maze. The one thing it is not however, is a game.
24 hours inside of Proteus would offer no more enjoyment or depth than simply watching it’s 2 minute long trailer video. And that is possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever written in review.
While most indie games leave you wanting more for their own good reasons, Proteus leaves you to starve on an empty island for want of anything at all.
This one riled me up so much I couldn’t help myself:
“there is literally nothing to do within that world expect [sic] to wander”
Proteus is all about wandering and doing “nothing”. That is the idea — you can even sit down in it!
‘Doom is a brilliant idea that only excels in its visual execution. The problem is; there is literally nothing to do within that world except shoot.’ See?
I totally get why people don’t and won’t like this — I’m fine with that — but to say it’s a “brilliant idea” and then miss the point of the game so monumentally is just… wow.
We’re in a weird situation now where we have user rated and user commented user reviews, a ‘critical’ cesspool-cum-quagmire that can indefinitely swallow games whole, an awful lot of games that are getting a lot of attention before they’re really ready for it and countless games that are undergoing continual improvement for some time after release. That’s a pretty whacky and unappetising cocktail if you ask me. To top it off — and to tie this tangent into the main topic of the article — Steam mind-bogglingly allows user reviews for Early Access games which begs the question: will those user reviews be wiped once a game is deemed ‘done’? I suspect not and I can only imagine how much of a burden a resilient and outdated ‘most helpful’ review could be…
Paid access to development builds is a fine thing for devs who can’t afford to pay an army of testers to bust their game. And if people are willing to pay to test then why shouldn’t devs capitalise on that? It helps fund the project, helps identify and fix issues and it potentially builds hype. I can’t help but feel that a great many games in the past would have benefitted from such breathing space between alpha and release. I’m generally positive about the whole thing, as a means of funding developers earlier on and a tool for publicity and quality assurance, but I’m a little uneasy about it all at the same time.
What about players burning games out before they’re done? Who cares? They paid for it, right? What about games entering Donedom without fanfare because they were, like, so last year, y’know? Burning bright then fizzling out when it probably matters the most. Do piecemeal builds diffuse or build hype? I remember when all had we had was a one page preview and a single screenshot to get excited about. And what about games that will never reach that hallowed place? Instead languishing in the donedrums? How will buyers feel about that and will that have a similar cooling effect as it did with Kickstarter? At least with Kickstarter you get your money back if everything goes to shit.
What about ever-shortening attention spans as players flit from game to game, pursuing the new and shiny, practically eating from developers’ busy hands? We already had enough games as it was but now the alpha and beta dams have breached. What about this whole dev and user communication loop/feedback thing going on and the effect this seems to be having on gamer and community entitlement and expectation? (I’m thinking of the recent undercurrent of disappointment around Valve’s handling and lack of communication with Diretide, company lay-offs and, yes, the future of Half-Life. RPS had a bit of a whine at Valve about this recently and I think Enkinan nailed it in the comments.) Or how bad feedback may steer games away from otherwise new and compelling territories into the same old familiar ditches? Hey, don’t you be knockin’ my ditch. Or conversely, developers flying in the face of their proposals and careening headlong into a ditch anyway, against perfectly decent player feedback?
What about all the great ideas and premises being spoiled, tainted or laid bare by players because they were flitted across, experienced or reported on in unfinished states? Or because they had to be spoiled, tainted or laid bare by the developers themselves to sell the game; to differentiate it from the rest, to raise it above the noise? No surprises, please. (Recently a friend linked me to a video of a game in early development that features a very clever new first-person puzzle mechanic that manipulates size and perspective. By the one minute mark I’d seen enough to whet my appetite but on went the video exposing more and more of itself — argh! All those great discoveries being spoiled! It’s not too dissimilar to those awful, awful, awful movie trailers that go on for minutes and show every story beat, funny punchline and incredible set piece you’d like to have, y’know, experienced first-hand.)
Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud here, it’s all a bit jumbled and scatterbrain I know, but what are your thoughts on all this? Have you bought into any Early Access titles? Did you play them? If so, did you spend long with them? Did you provide any feedback? What about Kickstarter? Should user reviews be allowed for games still in development? And when –or how– should Metacritic consider a review conclusive enough to put it into their number crunching machine? Should revisiting games be more of a thing?
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