Is it ok to release an unfinished game?

Assassin’s Creed Unity was released November 11 2014 to widespread criticism concerned with performance and glitches leading to shares in Ubisoft dipping by as much as 12.8%.

Ubisoft commented: “we are currently working on our next update that will help address some of the specific issues some players are having including: [the protagonist] Arno falling through the ground; game crashing when joining a co-op session; Arno getting caught inside of hay carts; delay in reaching the main menu screen at game start”.

The pressure to rush a game for release can harm a product’s quality. Film tie-ins, for example, are often hastily made to coincide with the accompanying film’s release.

A notable exception in the past was Goldeneye 007 on the N64, a game released two years after the movie.

Currently game publishers set their own release pressures. Pertinently, though other Ubisoft games including Watch Dogs and The Crew were delayed, Assassin’s Creed has seen a major release every year since 2009.

Developers in the past had to be aware that their work on a game ended when it was shipped and they needed the product to be as flawless as possible.

Now, with internet connectivity in consoles taken for granted, games can be patched to fix bugs and tweak gameplay.

In some cases this is a very good thing, but it can remove the pressure of polishing a game for release and seems to make rushing a game more acceptable for some.

ss_80c2cc5aee4bddea38c7a6a95bb004c0a5553c04.600x338An example is Rome Total War II which released with a swathe of glitches that ranged from infuriating to hilarious. Steam users proceeded to proliferate the tag: “Rome wasn’t patched in a day”.

Games are now regularly patched on the day of release. Halo: The Master Chief Collection, recently released on the Xbox One, received a day one patch sized at 20 gigabytes.

Usually when a product is incomplete or faulty you can take it back to the store. The problem is, a game is not a dangerous pram or simply a damaged toy: it is entertainment. Who gets to say when art is complete or incomplete?

A poorly made film or book is usually just accepted as a poor artwork and releasing it isn’t considered a rip off or unethical.

Literature can be analogous with games as different editions of texts do often correct errors. However, when reading we often glance over incorrectly spelled words, whereas in a game, a person with a spasming multicoloured head is almost guaranteed to take you out of the game.

Developers may feel that a patch is akin to a new edition or a recall, but a hasty patch signals, for some, that the product does not just include accidental errors, but was consciously left incomplete, as developers continued to work on it even as it shipped.

There is still a difference between bad and unfinished media. If you bought the DVD of an awful film like The Room, you can’t really take it back (unless the particular store was very nice). On the other hand, if you bought Avengers on release and it was missing some scenes, in some shots the Hulk was a tennis ball on a pole and it was hastily pulled from stores and re-released, you would probably have good standing to get a refund under any circumstances.

The phrase “broken game” is used frequently, but to be broken there has to be a point of comparison and there is currently no real standard for what constitutes a “broken” game.

Rushed AAA games are one thing, but there is an entirely different kind of “unfinished game” that is perhaps more blatant.

Through the Steam greenlight programme on PC, games can be bought and sold as “Early Access” in a beta or alpha form. Some games are never completed as planned.

steamworkshop_webupload_previewfile_92927895_previewThe PC game Towns was abandoned entirely by its developers, leaving it in a permanently unfinished state, despite remaining on sale and selling over 200,000 copies as of 7th May 2014.

Steam advises: “You should be aware that some teams will be unable to ‘finish’ their game. So you should only buy an Early Access game if you are excited about playing it in its current state”.

Such a game is more clearly unfinished than a simply buggy game, as the developers set a standard they wanted to achieve, yet it is also arguable that consumers know exactly what they are risking when buying in Early Access, as highlighted by Steam’s policy.

There are examples of games being misleadingly sold, if not unfinished. Aliens: Colonial Marines and Watchdogs are infamous examples of games displayed at trade shows, including E3, that presented footage that did not represent the final product.

While currently not wrong per se, as games have always been shown in Beta states, these actions are different – showing footage that is more advanced than developers know their product will actually ever be – which can be seen as genuinely unethical.

Games are not regulated in the same way as traditional media and advertisements, potentially because of comparative modernity. Notably, if a game is purchased as downloadable software, and not as a physical copy, the buyer has no rights to a refund in the UK (Edit: Steam has now introduced a refund policy).

There could potentially be a body or legislation to regulate games in a way that supersedes Steam or Kickstarter, outlawing consciously misleading trailers, and defining what constitutes a broken game.

The Assassin’s Creed Unity’s embargo on reviewers, making reviews go online 17 hours after the game went on sale in the US, is not wrong now, but could easily be considered so in the future.

For now, a short term-solution may be the clichéd “choose with your wallets”. It may not be unethical to sell a shoddy product but, if consumers become more wary and laws change the standard for new games may improve.

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