As this generation has continued, we have seen an alarming number of game launches involving products that simply seem to be unfinished- games that were not ready, games that needed at least a few more months of development before they were released to the market. Games that publishers had no business demanding money from the public for. Battlefield 4, DriveClub, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Batman: Arkham Knight are all among the games that simply should not have been released in the state that they were.
But why is this an issue at all? Buggy games have always been a problem, of course, since time immemorial- but high profile games never launched with issues such as these before, and never with so much frequency. What has caused so many games to be launched in, frankly, a broken state this generation? GamingBolt recently caught up with Andy Nealen, who specializes in computer graphics and is a consultant at Hemisphere Games. Andy also handles his day to day responsibilities as a professor of Game Engineering and Design at NYU Poly. And his opinion on the matter gives us a startlingly simple explanation for why things are turning out the way they are.
“Well, there’s a lot of reasons why that happens, right? And most of that has to do with project management- project management, budgetary constraints, all kinds of stuff like that,” Nealen said. A lot of this also has to do, Nealen added, with the added complexity of games this generation.
“To be honest, the games are just getting much bigger. The content creation for the games, and the play testing for the games of this scope and scale, is becoming very, very difficult, and I think it’s one of the big problems that the games industry faces, which is, the more we push graphics technology, and the more we push the size and scale of these games, the more we realize that the current model of creating games doesn’t exactly scale very well. Like, if you have double the assets, and double the rendering capacity, you can’t just put double the people on it and hope that solves the problem. That’s not how it works, it doesn’t scale that way. Because with increasing the size of the team, there comes a huge overhead where project management just gets exponentially harder- and I don’t know how that’s gonna be solved.”
Nealen explained that no developer wants to release a bad or broken game- but it comes down to the amount of resources and care that are allocated to a game’s QA and testing, citing Nintendo and Blizzard as two examples of developers who won’t release broken or buggy games.
“I think we’re running into a phase where, it’s not even bad intention on the developer’s side. It’s not like they’re doing this on purpose! Obviously, every developer wants to ship an amazingly polished, clean game- they want to be proud of it, they don’t want it to be garbage, they don’t want the servers to crash on day one, they don’t want any of this to happen. It’s just that some people are obviously more careful about this. I mean, you brought Blizzard up earlier, right? And Blizzard, instead of making a franchise, simply make a game, and then they cater to that game, and so Blizzard is almost more of a platform developer. Every game they have is a platform that they support for years and years, instead of putting a new one out every year. It’s a lot like Nintendo- these companies make platforms, while others make franchises.”
Nealen explained that trying to create annualized franchise models, with rushed and accelerated development cycles – is what ultimately leads to buggy and rushed launches – which makes sense in context of most of the buggy game launches we have had this generation.
“You are probably prone, in my opinion, to see bugs crop up in franchise development, where a new one needs to be out every year- and I think recently I heard that the latest Assassin’s Creed was actually a financial flop, even though the game I think was critically, it was considered to be one of the better games of the series. I mean it totally poisoned the well, and now Ubisoft is like, I think, considering taking a year off.”
So is there any end to this? Does Nealen, as a developer himself, see a way out of this cycle for the industry?
“There are ways, I think, in which the future of games, and games engineering and research can solve that- I mean software engineering has unit testing, right? Most other fields of software engineering understand that if you don’t have automated testing for software, you’re very likely to end up delivering to the client a very buggy bit of code. So I think games hasn’t fully figured out what that means yet… and I think it’s also because games are much more complicated, fully dynamic things, whereas most other software has much less scope than games. But I still think games can use the principles of automated testing and automated playtesting.
“So I think it’s gonna get better- but something is going to have to give. Maybe making these gigantic AAA blockbuster titles is not a good business model- and I think we’re beginning to see, we’ve seen less of them come out in the last two or three years, because you can’t sell fifty blockbusters a year. No one’s gonna buy 50 games a year! Your normal person who loves games, but has a job and a family is not going to spend that much amount on games each year!”
All of this makes sense- AAA game development is too bloated, too big, too prone to failure, with too many moving parts. And yet, no one lets it get the time in the oven that it clearly deserves. With more and more failed game launches, and the ensuing backlash, one can and should hope that eventually, the AAA industry settles into some kind of equilibrium.