By most of the accounts I’ve read, H1Z1 is not a particularly fun game to play unless you like DayZ, in which case it’s still not a very fun game to play because it’s a weak copy of DayZ. Which in and of itself is fine. Sometimes a game just doesn’t turn out to be all that fun, you try it out and it turns out the idea didn’t gel well or it was too similar to its source or whatever.
What makes this seem odd to me is that the game is coming from Sony Online Entertainment, which as a studio does not exactly have a shallow bankroll. I’m not even talking about whether or not it’s a studio that can produce great games, I’m talking about the fact that as a studio it could afford to let this die on the vine.
I don’t want to say that the weirdest part of the past several years has been watching games move into earlier and earlier sales for “early access.” But what surprises me is that increasingly, it’s not the little indie studio that needs cash now before the workstations get repossessed. It’s the huge companies that can, legitimately, axe a project on the basis that it’s not very fun to play after all.
Don’t get me wrong, we all know that fun is a crazily subjective thing. My favorite games are probably not your favorite games. There’s some debate to be had about some of this, of course – I might not find League of Legends or Skyrim to be any fun in play, but I can understand where the fun is supposed to be. I am sure there are people who can’t stand Final Fantasy XIV in play but fully understand why others love it (although an awful lot of people seem to go in trying to just analyze it and wind up falling in love). But we can all agree that there are certain games out there where the core of fun isn’t fun, doesn’t get communicated well, and doesn’t inspire you to play more.
This is part of the nature of the creative process. I’ve mentioned before that I have ideas which just aren’t going to work well and I kill them ahead of time. Despite that, I do have deadlines breathing down my neck, I have to make sure that I keep up a certain amount of buffer so that you lovely folks have something new to look forward to every single day. Sometimes, I have realities that push me to do something I otherwise would not – like announcing a column subject two weeks in advance and then realizing too close to the buffer that it’s not going to turn out as well as I’d hoped.
Of course, I’ve got no one to fucking blame but myself when that happens. I said “I will do this thing” when I was not yet sure I could do this thing justice, and so now I have to eat the bullet and do the thing. That’s life. It’s my own fault. I am not a multimillion dollar international corporation.
We live in a world where “AAA game” is basically synonymous with “polish,” but an awful lot of that polish is focused on the visuals, and that seems oddly backward. I would think the real benefit to working for a studio that large would be that you can step back and re-examine the game you’re making, ask yourself if the core is fun, and stop making the game if the answer is “no.”
Part of the problem is the rabid demand for a constant news cycle on games, wherein you are forever hearing about titles that are ever earlier in development. This isn’t purely a journalism or fan thing, either; Kickstarter has normalized the idea that a few test shots and a lot of lofty ideas qualify as a game which deserves your money. For smaller indie studios, the early test idea is almost vital. But increasingly it feels as if the game-buying populace is getting the pitches that used to be reserved for investors.
Yes, I’ve mentioned elsewhere that this is problematic insofar as it asks consumers to make decisions that they may in fact not be equipped to make. (Protip: most investors do not decide whether or not to put money on a game based on whether or not it looks fun. Another article.) But in this case, it basically asks for triple-A studios to start talking about their own titles earlier and earlier, even when those titles are still very much in the early stages of development.
Back when the industry was still recovering from the crash of ’83, you knew games were coming out because they came out, period. Now I know about titles coming out that aren’t actually going to be launched for another couple of years at least, and some of those titles might not turn out to play well. But that really no longer matters, does it? The studio has announced that it’s coming, they have to deliver on it. Even if the whole thing turns to shit, the developers have to just grin and bear it.
This seems to be part of the reason why games increasingly look prettier and prettier as the main distinction between triple-A titles and smaller titles. When you’ve got a budget valued X, you can either use it to start developing two dozen games and sort out the good ones from the poor ones, or you can use it to develop a smaller number of titles really thoroughly. If you’re already locked into making those titles, about all you can do is make them the bet you can. Throwing money at a game won’t buy you a better game, but it can buy more time for amazing visuals.
And then you wind up with titles like Final Fantasy XV, a repurposed game that was in development as something else, languished for a long time, and then got shoehorned in as being something else because of what chiefly seems to be the sunk cost fallacy. Because we can’t just let all of this work we’ve done go to waste, can we?
I don’t see this particular door shutting again any time soon. The idea of putting out early access packages and announcing release schedules years in advance has become more and more common everywhere; the Marvel films are basically announced for the next five years, in many cases without yet having writers, actors, or directors. But I do hope that we start realizing that this is the environment we get, and that in order for things to change you have to accept that sometimes the project you really wanted to see turned out to not work very well and just got cancelled.
Or we can just keep watching projects launch when they’re not fun to play. That’s cool too.