Time for a new “Seal of Quality”?

A painful question for some…

 

There’ll be a bonus soapbox sometime later as well, but for now, this.

Something occurred to me today. I was thinking about the E3 showings – for Nintendo in particular but Sony and Microsoft as well to some degree – and the quality of them. It’s hardly a secret that the third-party support for the Wii U has been, to put it mildly, atrocious. When your game is running worse on a machine with better graphics, CPU and more memory, then I don’t see the necessity of the product other than to effectively corrupt the public opinion of the machine. EA and UbiSoft equally had some serious derision aimed at them in the Microsoft and Sony conferences respectively; Battlefield 4 crashed on EA before they could show it off, leading to a quick reboot to get it running again. It was an embarrassing moment for EA, one of several the past couple of days but heck, when you are showing off your super-snazzy new military FPS, a crash right at the start is hardly the best marketing ploy.

Equally, at Sony’s conference, the Assassin’s Creed 4 demonstration was also technically not up to scratch, something that seems an oddity for UbiSoft but there was no mistaking the “Load Lag”, moments where the game, trying to load textures and scripts for the next area, stops suddenly and noticeably. This can be hidden in the jungle segments (poorly, but it was possible). However, when jumping through the air for an assassination or onto something else, any hang is immediately and painfully obvious in every single way. You can’t hide it at that point, much like Darksiders 2 Wii U edition couldn’t hide its equivalent of it. It just was hard to not notice that.

In both cases, one assumes that some junior programmer will be sacrificed on an altar to try and regain the favour of the programming gods.

But Nintendo obviously don’t have loads of their own content coming any time soon – bits and pieces, but the majority of the content coming is predominantly third-party and predominantly from companies for whom have already demonstrated a lackadaisical attitude to porting a game to the Wii U. Sure, it’s not technically as up there as the PS4 (although it’s not that far off, 8GB of GDDR5 sounds snazzy but it’s no substitute for proper DDR memory) but it’s significantly advanced enough to have more power under the hood. More graphics, more CPU, more memory. You’d think considering this that optimisation would be a doddle, but clearly it hasn’t been a doddle for anyone and if we’re being brutally honest, it hasn’t been a doddle on the market for some considerable time. But when a system really relies on that to carry them through to their own content (which predominantly now looks to be coming in 2014 for Nintendo…), then one must end up questioning whether tighter quality assurances are necessitated.

Of course, Nintendo has the “Seal of Quality”. Back when they started with it in the 80’s, it was a sign of quality. That it had gone through rigorous checks in order to pass the quality test before a release. At the time, there were a lot of awful games doing the rounds, lots of clones and lots of copies of games and unofficial cartridges.  The Nintendo Seal of Quality doubled up the quality checks with an official stamp, making sure people who bought that copy of the game were aware that it had undergone the scrutiny of Nintendo as a company and was an officially approved entrant to the consoles bulging line-up. As the market struggled with poor review scores and consumer frustrations, it was Nintendo who cut a swathe through the market to lead the new wave of home gaming consoles into a brighter future.

These checks lasted all the way up through the Gamecube era as well. Oddly, Nintendo stopped putting them on the cover during the Wii window, relegating them to a tiny speck on the back of the box. You can still find official stamps on the covers of some of the earlier Wii releases, but for the most part Nintendo did not seemingly make the same checks they used to, and this of course as we all know led to some pretty shoddy stuff arriving on its shores; unforgivably poor quality software stealing ideas for pure monetary gain. Nintendo seemed to give up, likely because it was a hoop some developers and publishers were not keen to jump through any longer but quite possibly because Nintendo thought any software was better than no software, and that the money taken for the license was better spent elsewhere. I think now we’re starting to see that isn’t a true statement; no software is terrible, sure, because it says that Nintendo is taking its sweet time. But bad software sticks like glue and can be incredibly hard to get off without the proper solvents, and it damages the public perception of the Wii U considerably more than a company taking its time and verifying the quality of software.

Nintendo obviously do still put the seal on the back of the boxes now. But in almost all cases, its a token gesture rather than any serious mark of quality. And it sure as hell isn’t on the front cover any more, just a tiny speck on the back of the case.

Of course, in the past we’ve had truly awful games – Resident Evil Gun Survivor 2: Code Veronica X springs immediately to mind as one of the most shocking games ever. And it’s also true that for all of the quality assurances that came with the Nintendo Seal of Quality in the past, somehow for some reason Superman 64 managed to slip through the net, which is effectively the single worst game ever released on the Nintendo 64. Perhaps that was where we began to see the standards slipping; that rather than verifying the software and allowing a subjective opinion to form on the basis of the software and its intrinsic value, the monetary gain from the sale of these licenses was far more valuable to Nintendo and as such the checks became less and less important.

But it doesn’t stop the original idea behind it from being any less valid – or, in the modern day, any less appealing. For the last year or two we’ve seen some shocking lapses in terms of quality control. Aliens: Colonial Marines – that just shouldn’t have happened. There’s no excuse for what happened there and even the most basic of checks would have shown that up as unfit for purpose. Family Guy: Back to the Multiverse was just a cheap, nasty piece of licence exploitation that everyone involved with should be ashamed of. Same with Silent Hill: Downpour – a game that slow, that barren and that poorly executed passing itself off as a survival horror was just ridiculous. Battlefield was seen a mile off as a piece of trash, but that doesn’t excuse it for being a piece of crap either. And of course, my personal bugbear is Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale, a hateful, awful piece of utter garbage. I should also mention most of the Kinect’s main releases in the last couple of years too; Steel Battalion was awful, Fable: The Journey dire and Star Wars Kinect was an insult to anyone even partially invested in the Star Wars universe.

And this doesn’t even start on games which are good, even great, but come along with shocking amounts of technical issues that need to be fixed. Skyrim on the PS3, Deadly Premonition on the PS3, Fable 3 on the XBox 360 to name but a few, Most people will have been subjected regularly in gaming today to bugs, issues, glitches and errors to a degree that even last generation were almost unheard of. The nature of the Internet has changed things; but one can argue, changed for the worse. A product can be shipped sub-par quality and fixed with a day-one patch, rather than being simply drop in and play and hold back until the patch can be integrated with the game itself for release.

Considering the reliance Nintendo now currently has on third party games, it needs to find a way to improve the quality of those releases. So far, the quality of the workmanship even at the best of times has been rather less than stellar, and the sheer nature of these issues combined with no significant improvement to the actual visuals has left Nintendo with a machine that runs games like Bayonetta 2 in 1080p at 60FPS, and games like “X” which look sensational, expansive, open and again, running full pelt at 1080p and 60fps, and left the market genuinely feeling as if it’s more current gen than next-gen. That’s a disastrous position to be in when the technical side is so evidently improved on the current generation, but it’s a position Nintendo has been put in with such an awful series of last-gen ports that simply haven’t had much effort put into them, and have been released in a technically poorer state than you’d expect from a company like Nintendo. Zombi-U was the first true demonstration of the next-generation, but it was a game which didn’t quite sell as much as you’d hope a stunning game like it would sell for either. Which is a shame because Zombi-U was a perfect demonstration of the power and usefulness of the Nintendo Wii U platform.

It might not have helped that Nintendo themselves phoned it in with Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U however – both good games, great games, but the latter was only a good demonstration of off-TV play (which, for most gamers, Nintendo will have to accept is a minority market) and the former was a poor demonstration of the UPad in general.

Nintendo has to grab the bull by the horns on third parties and ensure that it doesn’t allow them to simply dump out any old rubbish, like they have been allowing of late. This means that the Nintendo Seal of Quality would be more beneficial on the cover than ever before – a mark that the game had undergone stringent technical check-ups, so as to avoid any horrible situations like Aliens: Colonial Marines and Darksiders 2-U arising again. It would also ensure that Nintendo has more invested in the third-party scene, and more involvement, which might scare away some but ultimately attract others. The opportunity to work with Nintendo can be quite appealing for some, and even for something as basic as a quality assurance check, it would benefit everyone. Nintendo, because then its name sits on the box as a mark of the quality of that product that needs to be of a higher standard. Third parties because they get a QA testing that in more and more cases is intrinsically lacking in the rush to see a product to the market.

And sure, Nintendo can have an option to not go through these checks. But ultimately, in those cases, Nintendo can drop a big one; if you don’t want to go through the checks, you won’t be found on the eShop. As simple and brutal as that, an incentive to strive for better and do better.

Of course, it’s not just Nintendo that needs to do this; arguably, Sony and Microsoft need to do so as well, because if their E3 shows proved anything is that even when you expect the games to be smooth, clean and run perfectly, they just don’t. Things are rushed and not checked properly, sure, but an E3 show is not the time to go, “Let’s see what happens.” All companies should be somewhat concerned that the lack of quality control in the market in many cases is quite shocking and is leading to a genuine amount of consumer anger. It is quite amazing that the video games industry is one of the few places you really can sell a duff product with fewer and fewer repercussions than you used to be able to – most stores that sold such dire products would be shut down under health and safety laws, or by trading standards, but the video game market has no intrinsic independent regulator to watch over it. This means that companies like FROM Software can move on from shockers like Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, and Gearbox can unashamedly release footage of a game that in reality doesn’t actually exist because hey, it was a representation of what they were aiming for. In much the same way I cold send people a picture of a former Gladiator star and claim it’s a representation of me, when in reality I have a pudge and can barely freaking walk.

It just strikes me that the best way for Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to actively combat the often awfully choppy third-party market as it is would be to put themselves on the line as well. Rather than simply taking the money to license a game for their machines, to offer a grading service, a quality assurance check-up. They could even add incentives for this service too; say, discounted patching rates, more money made on DLC sales through its marketplace, the ability to sell the product on its digital marketplace and a label for their machine that says, “I went through the hoops, I passed the checks and I can say this product has passed all basic quality checks.” Of course, topic material and genre clashes can always be subjective, but at the very least this will filter out at least some of the basic technical sloppiness that has been creeping into the market this generation.

And games that choose not to can still get a license, perhaps cheaper rates on it… but won’t get any of the benefits that those graded would. Two-tier? Perhaps. But an increasingly necessary evil that might end up in the consumers best interests.

For all the arguments that the market and Nintendo should be grateful for what support they get, it’s a facetious argument at the best of times. No-one should be grateful that games like Aliens: Colonial Marines and SBHA exist. No-one should forgive the technical sloppiness of many of the Wii U’s ports lately. We shouldn’t be thankful for day-one patches and servers going down for weeks on end. Some may be willing to bend over and take the spanking on the behalf of everyone else, but we should be trying to assure these people that no-one should be accepting anything of such poor quality in this day and age. Games consoles are not cheap. They’re getting more expensive, there’s a next-gen here and more coming, games are set to increase in price and make our hobby more expensive. We shouldn’t be thankful for that, and neither should companies like Nintendo tolerate it either. They obviously need some quality material out there, and it’s their task to ensure that it at least meets basic Nintendo levels of quality. No console should be thankful for any old rubbish to be thrown onto it. That’s not how it should be, and Nintendo of any company on the market should absolutely know this. They went through this throughout the second half of the 80’s after the big computer market crash, they stuck to it through the 90’s and they even went through some of the naughty noughties with this. It was when they began to let it slide with the Wii – the last generation – that so many of their real problems began.

A quality assurance program will for Nintendo at least ensure their often pristine quality image is put back in place. For other platforms, it will help ensure that certain products at least pass the base level of technical competency that is required for a games release. We always did have some broken games – Overblood 2 jumps to mind – but they were usually few and far between. Now, I seem to play rubbish every couple of weeks because hey, the games are technically poorer! There’s no point beating about the bush. A technically poor game is a technically poor game; sometimes there’s something deep down inside that is quite loveable, like in The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (technically utter pants but hey, if you can pick it up second-hand for a few quid there’s also plenty of laughs and some genuine heart to it. Just wasn’t worth a £40 investment in that state…). Sometimes they’re just technically bad and hateful. And sometimes they’re just rushed, sloppy and take increasingly large shortcuts in the HD updates. Resident Evil: Revelations springs immediately to mind and hey, their next DLC addition will be a Hunk model with no pants on and a female voice! Yeah, they’re actually doing that…

We should be expecting platform holders to protect us from some of this dire crap. We should be expecting them to make sure the products they are allowing onto their system pass if nothing else base technical competency checks to make sure they aren’t pushing out something that really is chock-full of issues and errors. No, it won’t always be perfect and no, not all games problems lie in their technical aptitude. But it’s at least a good starting point and can help ensure that if we must pay more for our PS4 and XBox One games, that they have if nothing else been given a clean technical bill of health.

Everything after that can be a matter of personal taste and therefore subjective. But technical errors and maladies aren’t subjective. They just are. They exist. And there’s no way anyone like me would tell someone to go out and spend £30-£60 on a product that I know has serious bugs. It’s something I take into consideration. And it’s a consideration I just get the feeling that I shouldn’t be making allowances for. What’s the point of an entrance fee to a games console if not to verify the quality of a product?

It needs to be answered. If we must see our hobby get more expensive, the industry – and by this, I mean the platform holders – need to realise that they need to ensure a consistent technical validity across the board at the very least, or end up with more and more serious problems as opportunistic publishers and developers release ever more degraded material for the market.

You won’t be able to fix the vile content of things like Family Guy: Back to the Multiverse, but hey. Nothing will be 100%.

The important thing is they are being seen to try and get a grip on the quality of these products. And that, I think, really will be worth a large golden stamp on the cover of every single box…

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