SFTW – That Insidious Lack of Care.

The second hand market speaks volumes…

So it seems the next-gen war is back on.

Which is wonderful, as many people would agree it would have been a shame to see nice things like Ryse fall by the wayside just because the machine is unpopular. But I am still concerned and I still have a serious issue in general with what I have seen of the next-generation so far; from E3 demonstrations, videos and the Wii U as an entity, so far the next generation delivers shiny 1080p at a steady 30/60 frames a second (dependent on the game you are playing it would seem), but at the cost of technical validity.

I don’t like to bang on about it, but this year already we’ve seen some absolute stinkers in the video game market.

Take Fuse; a game which feels like no-one involved with it had any sense of personality; the end result is a game that straddles immaturity like a pommel horse, and never really gets moving anywhere. You have games like Tomb Raider; lovely, charming, but cruel and short and rather nasty. God of War: Ascension, whose single player campaign is a by-numbers tread with a camera that will make you want to be Kratos-level violent. This year, we’ve had games where a little care, a little love, a little attention might have saved them from such bland obsolescence.

Of course, then you have far worse. Resident Evil: Revelations HD – the more I played it, the more I realised what a hack-job it was. The closer I looked, the more short-cuts I could see being taken. And then Lady Hunk arrived to convince me, completely and utterly, that Capcom didn’t do this to save face over Resident Evil 6. They couldn’t care less about the mixed reaction, they did this to make up numbers; a quick, cheap and disgracefully dirty port-job of a game that actually worked on the handheld Nintendo 3DS. But they couldn’t justify DLC for that, so they instead threw that money into an HD reworking and then added some of the laziest, most incompetent and offensive DLC you could think of. The end result, after DLC, is a project that overall smacks of bad business logic rather than any real love or emotional attachment to a franchise which has made Capcom very rich over the years. This wasn’t going through the motions; this was watching people working on it repeatedly smack their heads against a brick wall. They didn’t want this. They couldn’t make this work. That someone insisted that they carry on in the face of knowing this was turning into an abomination is concerning at best. Someone, somewhere, should have had the common-sense to take one look at the release build and say, “NO!”

Then you have Aliens: Colonial Marines. We must talk about this, because it is important we do some group therapy on this; yes, I too was tricked into pre-ordering the game. I saw the demos, the screenshots. I heard people like Randy Pitchford talk to us about a respect for the franchise, how they enjoyed it. I thought the combination effect coupled with examples of their actual work like Borderlands would end up in a decent game. And I was wrong. It was a hateful, vile, diseased excuse of a videogame. Broken, buggy and in points utterly unplayable, this was the sort of game that I said would be used in torture chambers. It’s so unbelievably bad that I thought for a moment I must have been the only one, I must have got the beta build of the game on my disc. But no, we all got this mess. A game that didn’t resemble the slick, polished demos and wasn’t reflective of the screenshots we had drooled over. We saw no decent AI, no polish, no soul or passion or respect. Even the story was base-grade fan-fiction, and trust me, that’s trying to be nice about it. That anyone could have pushed this travesty of a title into the market is anyone’s guess, really. You’d think Gearbox wouldn’t want this stain on an otherwise great reputation. But, as it turns out, they did, they do and they are the ones paying dearly for what happened.

It’s a sad state of affairs and it’s not merely the bad or the average that seem to be suffering either; perfectly decent games are being badly optimised between consoles, done in a rushed and lackadaisical manner that defies any sort of work ethic or sincerity. More and more, we are seeing games – not merely on the Wii U, but elsewhere – hang, slow down, struggle. Long loading times, slowing down in the heat of the moment and response times that you could get a pizza delivered in are becoming more and more widespread in even the games we LIKE – Assassin’s Creed 3. Deadly Premonition: The Directors Cut. Hitman: Absolution. This is just to mention a few (I could slip in DmC: Devil May Cry or Mass Effect 3 but I’d rather not).

We are slowly seeing an awful, distressing slip into laziness in the industry.

Bugs and glitches happen, of course; but rarely are they as immediately obvious as they are becoming. And if you think it was simply an issue of squeezing every ounce of juice from our current hardware, you merely needed to watch E3 this year and the Sony and Microsoft conferences to realise that this is a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. We saw games with latency issues, games heralded at 60 frames a second slowing down to a crawl, we saw crashes and load lag and games hanging as they searched desperately in their software for the next step, hangs which I haven’t seen since the PS1 version of Vagrant Story (love it still but jeez, it could take a while to ‘find’ those spells!). It’s not an issue of getting the most from our machines; it’s an issue of poor workmanship.

One may say this is because QA departments are far smaller nowadays. Publishers have realised that the power of the Internet allows them to release something, get free community feedback on what is wrong and then patch it up. Why pay someone to professionally spot the often very easily-identified problems when you can release a game to people and have them do the same task for nothing, whilst simultaneously getting them to pay money for extra content? It seems mad that once upon a time we had “Breakers”, and “Software Assurance Squads”. These ladies and gentlemen were heralded somewhat as superheroes; people who got to play their games early. But it wasn’t enjoyment, it was ruthless efficiency. Knowing how to spot bugs and in some cases, how to find ways of breaking a game before anyone at home could spot it. But the Internet has already cost many of these former testers their jobs. It’s easy to lament studios going under for shoddy workmanship – but we forget that the people who used to be hired to ensure that quality are in large parts gone now. In the face of people prepared to pre-order games without seeing the quality of the product, they simply can’t have seemed worth the extra expense.

Others have told me this is because our consumer rights are skewed and being taken advantage of; a store merely needs to sell you an operational disc. They do not need to take any responsibility for the functional worth of the content ON that disc. Same with digital downloads; they merely need to give you the software as is. They don’t need to ensure the software is any good. This is sadly not like a toaster or a kettle, where if it doesn’t work right you can take it back and get a refund or a replacement. A store has given you what they needed to. Their transaction is above board and legal, and this means that we can’t take a game as distressingly crap as Aliens: Colonial Marines back. It’s not the fault of the shop; it’s the fault of the publisher, the developer. Of course, stores are willing to take in games as trade-ins, which means that games like Aliens: Colonial Marines, which hit the best selling list for one week only (that’s the power of the lie…) then the following week hit the second-hand market harder than anything you may have seen before. The only recourse we have is the trade-in, and publishers obviously don’t like this. Because it means rubbish games can be undermined and they can’t make nearly the money from them as they’d like.

And I’d say – good. In the absence of legal recourse and decent QA testing, any weapon in our arsenal is worth using. I am frankly a little tired of seeing stupid bugs in my games. I don’t like to do a jump attack, to see a game freeze. I don’t like loading up for a quick blast of a strategy game only to spend the next ten minutes waiting for the damned thing to load. I hate being asked to pay out for sloppy workmanship, where you see a blood bag in a medical unit after supposedly being worked in HD, only to find out not only is it as flat as a pancake, but it’s blocky and jagged. No-one had an eye for detail and obviously didn’t give a damn.

The industry may want to realise that it is that insidious lack of care which is undermining the industry more than anything else. More and more we are experiencing games which give at best the impression of “That’ll do”, and at worst the impression that no-one really wanted to be doing the project at all in the first place. Much of this is identifiable in the end product; if someone didn’t feel connected enough with their work to ensure a level of competency and polish, then we’ll see that. You can’t hide it, because it’s just obvious. A creative industry thrives on the attitudes of those who work inside it, and you can very easily spot when an artist in this instance is putting their heart and soul into something, or just haphazardly phoning it in. More and more, we’re watching our games being rushed, being pushed faster into the market with not a single level of polish applied.

The industry may feel entitled to growth and money, but as customers, it’s far more powerful to argue that we have an entitlement to not be taken for mugs, and to expect a certain degree of quality. For me, any game which I have to score below a 5 (and even in some cases a 5) is in that arena where I can’t see their actual worth in the market. I don’t see the point. I don’t understand how a company is in any way expecting to make anything from such poor work. People throw games aside only because the games at times deserve to be thrown aside, to be disposed of in the cruellest sense of the term, because they are trash. And stinking up stores means they are indicative of the poor quality of the new product, and provide a pleasing counter-balance. That is the harsh reality of the second hand market at times. Sure, you can find gems – some people will trade in quality sometimes for whatever reason. But mostly? It’s a sea of crap, and you can more easily tell where the crap is nowadays. It’s the new game where you have ten or more of something beside it being sold “as new”.

If the industry really wants our business, try aiming for something like The Last of Us, or Zombi-U. Try BioShock Infinite, or Torchlight 2. From Terraria to Recettear, there are great examples of quality out there. People are happy to pay £40 for a game, but that game has to if nothing else be good. It has to be worth that price; a £7.99 DVD can be considered a throwaway item. A £40 game? If someone dislikes it, then it’s going into the second-hand market. And there, it can only fester and remind others that it’s clearly not worth the full asking price.

Time and time again, we simply play games where it appears, be it the dependence of online servers to check up on us or the myriad of technical woes, that the industry no longer cares about entertaining us. They want our money. And nothing else matters to them, they don’t want to please us because somehow, they simply don’t care.

And an industry that stops caring about the quality of its end product is an industry with a serious problem. An industry that sees us as a thorn in their side is an industry in crisis. If they don’t care, then one must argue that they’re in the wrong profession. They can’t expect us to buy something that is so rubbish and then somehow still think the sun shines from their dirty unwashed bum-cheeks. But they do. There’s no other explanation for some things. They simply make something rubbish and we are expected to buy it because that’s how they see it. They have forgotten the base ideal of Capitalism that people can go elsewhere if they don’t like your product. And they hate the idea we’re exercising our consumer rights by trading in a game that isn’t very good in the first place.

This is what we’re taking with us into the next generation. An industry that increasingly hates us, and cares little for the product it is making. And it terrifies the crap out of me. I can only hope some of these companies go out of business in the coming decade, so we can get some new blood into the market. New publishers, new developers, new people eager to take the place of the rotting, lifeless shells that some are increasingly becoming. And even these companies might be saved with new blood and new visionaries who could breathe new life into them, by people who care.

In an era where consumers are turning the tables in the market and becoming stronger and more aware and alert, the industry can no longer afford to be content with mediocrity, or deceit. If the XBox One policy reversal and the EA Online Pass system can be changed by consumer willpower, then it’s obvious that consumers are the final frontier that cannot be as easily conquered as they thought. And they are right to fear us, and the second-hand market; the latter of which is now a weapon that companies can ill afford to dismiss so casually, or be so damned dismissive of. They should be afraid. “Oh, what can consumers do with that tennis racquet ha ha ha!”

You don’t want to know what we can do with this tennis racquet. Except when we’re done, you won’t be sitting comfortably for a few weeks at least…

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