By Peter Allen Clark
Console video games broke this fall.
Not all of them broke and not for the first time, still the industry cannot ignore the amount of big games that shipped in a variety of unplayable conditions. From the fiasco of Drive Club to the stealth embargo of a broken Assassin’s Creed, many games bought and played by the new generation of consoles stumbled and fell out of the gate.
The future appears to hold a hefty chance that the game you are most excited to play might not exactly work when you take it home from the store. What is the reason behind this shift that has grown over the past generation and how should your expectations shift?
Too much Halo, too soon?
It’s difficult to determine which of the big Triple AAA titles which launched this fall had the most resting on its heavily armored shoulders, but one could make a case for Halo: The Master Chief Collection.
Ever since the week last November that separated the launch of the current generation consoles, the Xbox One has flagged behind the Playstation 4 in terms of sales and arguably the minds and hearts of video game players.
Microsoft announced last month that they had “sold in to retailers” over 10 million consoles. Unfortunately that comes a full three months on the heels of Sony’s “10 million” Gamescom announcement. A difference exists in that Sony’s represent systems actually sold to customers.
Those lagging sales put The Master Chief Collection in prime position to be the veritable Xbox One system seller to buoy profits in time for holiday sales.
Unfortunately, all of the matchmaking capabilities tied to the four games within a game suffered an enormous breakdown at launch, leaving a vast many unable to enter a multiplayer game and continued difficulty playing co-op.
In fact, the first apology for the game’s failures came later in the night on the Nov. 11 launch. Executive Producer Dan Ayoub took to halowaypoint.com with regret.
“You deserve better and we are working day and night to find solutions as quickly as possible, with our first priority focused on matchmaking improvements,” Ayoub wrote. “[W]e plan to roll out a number of server updates to help improve matchmaking.”
So what went wrong?
Some speculate that it was simply too much, too soon. That the four different games, not including the Halo 5 beta that came with it, were forced into a console still new to developers.
“That’s four previously released games (plus a beta of an upcoming game) that were developed by two different game design companies to run on three separate video game consoles, all in one package,” Grantland opined. “The game code for just the first Halo game is some 14 years old, and encompasses a reported 1.6 million lines. Add to that the however many millions of lines of code used to build Halo 2, 3, and 4, the individual graphics engines that run each of those games, plus the remastered next-gen graphics and the unified navigation menu that sits on top of that legacy software.”
Bonnie Ross, founder and head of 343 Industries, put out the most comprehensive apology Nov. 24. However, her only justification for the issues only raised more questions.
“We have encountered unexpected issues that were not apparent in our internal test environment and that have resulted in a frustrating experience, including long matchmaking times and low session success rates,” she wrote. “Only through making changes on both the ‘server side’ (matchmaking and other server rulesets) and, via content updates (to the game itself), can we make the significant progress we’re working towards.”
Although the game never had a public beta, which seems to have benefitted other large releases this year, it still came from an internal Microsoft studio, presumably with many resources available for the success of the game.
In the name of apology, Ross seems to have promised reparations for those affected.
“While our team works on continual improvements and towards solutions, my commitment to you is that we will take care of all owners of Halo: The Master Chief Collection,” she wrote. “Our primary and continued focus is first on fixing the issues at hand. Once we’ve done that, we will detail how we will make this right with our fans.”
It’s tough to say whether this will appease Halo fans.
Update: Ross outlined the reparations 343 Industries would offer to Halo: The Master Chief Collection players Dec. 19 on Xbox.com.
She said players who had played the game online between its launch day and the time of the post would receive the Halo 2 Anniversary multiplayer map 'Relic' and a remastered version of the Halo: ODST campaign. She said development had "just started" on a 60fps, 1080p Halo: ODST campaign, but that it would arrive in the "coming months." She also said work continued to fix remaining problems with the Master Chief Collection.
"We’ve been working around the clock deploying weekly content updates and numerous server-side adjustments that have shown good results and we’re encouraged by the feedback we’re hearing from you," Ross wrote.
Belly up to the embargo
Assassin’s Creed: Unity might have had the sneakiest failure this year as the annualized effort rolled out of Ubisoft’s many development teams and into global homes. After the previous success with last year’s well-received Black Flag, few outlets could have expected the mess that arrived.
Three days after the launch, Ubisoft Player Experience Manager Xhane posted a long list of Unity’s known issues that include game crashes, frame rate issues, multiplayer difficulties, inability to launch the game, corrupted saves, inability to progress and much, much more.
Bewilderingly, for a game sold on the prospect of four-player co-op, Ubisoft’s answer for fixing a few of the problem involves taking and keeping your system offline.
Ubisoft made this launch seemingly sneakier than the other fall falters by embargoing reviews until after the game’s release.
In an impassioned Nov. 11 editorial on the Ubisoft embargo, Polygon Senior Editor Ben Kuchera lashed out at the developer.
“The reviews for Assassin’s Creed Unity were held until noon, Eastern time today,” he wrote. “The game will have been available to purchase for as long as a dozen hours before anyone could read whether it was good or bad, or if it suffers from technical problems. There’s no valid reason for a review embargo such as this; it’s blatantly anti-consumer and likely designed to get the first rush of hardcore fans into the stores to buy their copies of the game before the reviews hit.”
So what caused Ubisoft developers to lose their heads?
Yannis Mallat, the CEO of Ubisoft Montreal & Toronto took to the site’s community page Nov. 26 and gave a comprehensive apology for the issues, though might not have specified where fault lies. Basically, he lays the failure at the feet of new tech.
“[I}t was the culmination of years of work on new technologies, the development of multiple innovations -- including an all-new game engine -- and an evolution of the Assassin’s Creed franchise’s core pillars,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, at launch, the overall quality of the game was diminished by bugs and unexpected technical issues.”
The unspoken reasoning behind Mallat’s words undoubtedly has to do with Ubisoft’s seeming commitment to put out a large Assassin’s Creed release every year, which they have done consecutively since 2009. This commitment surely limits the time developers need to master those “new technologies” and “an all-new game engine.”
It is also difficult to discuss the fractured nature of Unity without mentioning the fact that Ubisoft currently owns 29 studios in 19 countries. And while all of them did not contribute to the development of Unity, a full 10 had a hand in it. This scattered cooperation may also have some hand in disrupting the cooperative play.
An Ubisoft spokeswoman, who went unnamed for some reason, posited a different reason for Unity’s tribulations to the BBC.
“Having the online elements available and having populated worlds is essential to creating a representative and complete experience for reviewers,” she said. "Achieving this prior to launch is incredibly complex… We are working to adapt our services and communications with consumers accordingly, both by changing the way we work with reviewers and by offering customers open betas or other early access to some games, all so that they have the information they need and want.”
Ubisoft released the most recent patch Dec. 16 for Xbox One and PS4, which came in at an enormous 6.7 gigs and still did not claim to fix every item on the bug report.
On Dec. 2 Kotaku reported a leak of 2015’s next Assassin’s Creed game, reportedly set in Victorian England. As the annualized effort moves forward, maybe the next few months will allow the multiple development studios to learn the new tech and avert another broken game.
Rule No. 1: Don’t talk about Drive Club
While it never had the most hype and never tried to hide its failure, the debacle that was Sony’s first-party Driveclub continues to define the stumbling nature of this fall’s lineup. For those with the fierce fire of console war in their heart, this marked the degradation of the one Playstation 4 exclusive to release this fall (It technically was the sole exclusive seeing how Little Big Planet 3 released concurrently on PS3).
First and foremost, readers should recall that Sony initially unveiled this title to coincide with the launch of the Playstation 4 and only delayed it into 2014 a month before the new console went on sale.
That delay ended up giving the developer Evolution Studios a full extra year to work on the game before it’s Oct. 7 release. Unfortunately, that time did not give the studio enough of an idea on how to successfully implement the game’s ambitious multiplayer. Specifically, server overload crippled multiplayer — Driveclub could not put together a club.
The first apology came the day after Driveclub’s release.
“[W}e’re facing new challenges which we haven’t encountered as a development team before,” Paul Rustchynsky, Driveclub’s Game Director said on the game’s Facebook page. “We are seeing a lot of activity and new social behaviours right now, but unfortunately this is pushing the servers to their absolute limits.”
It not only set the tone for the months to come, but also announced the delay of the game’s Playstation Plus release, which Sony had touted in September.
“In order to help all DRIVECLUB players who have the game already, we're temporarily holding back the PS Plus Edition and the My DRIVECLUB app to ease the load and traffic to the servers,” Rustchynsky wrote.
Over two months later, the game still has not made it to Playstation Plus owners.
Implementation of fixes took so long that late in October, Shuhei Yoshida, President of Sony World Wide Studios took to Facebook to apologize.
“With the high volume of new players and additional server load the PS Plus Edition is anticipated to bring, we are currently not confident that we can guarantee the best online experience,” Yoshida wrote. “Unfortunately, the time frames required to roll out the fully connected experience will be longer than anticipated and we do not have an exact time frame for when they will be resolved.”
So, what happened?
“The servers hit their absolute limit soon after the midnight launch on Oct 7. The servers were actually live for over a week before Oct 7 for reviewers and none of these issues were discovered during that time either.”
Evolution Studios has maintained that they prepared for a busy release.
Further details remain scarce though questions continue to swirl around the year delay that did not prepare the game appropriately.
The developer continues to put out updates in hopes of fulfilling promises given before release, which have included performance enhancements and the addition of dynamic weather. But neither the studio nor Sony has provided more information on how they could have avoided the issues.
However, both have had some honesty about the release, with PlayStation UK boss Fergal Gara telling IGN.com that Sony and Evolution Studios are collectively “embarrassed”.
This embarrassment, particularly in a season devoid of big, exclusive titles, will follow consumers and Sony into the console’s second year.
Not the first, won’t be the last
As per usual, Nintendo remains relatively unscathed from this battered deep bench of botched triple A titles. The company’s slow evolution between console generations seems to have also informed its quality assurance testing, especially with its single player outings.
However, Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros for Wii U also seems to have fallen under the weight of multiplayer maladies with an error affecting a “small percentage of consumers”.
Again, these are not the first games to ship broken. This year seems to be merely a notable intensification of last year’s Battlefield 4 or 2011’s Skyrim on PS3. For the three games highlighted here, Alien: Isolation, Shadow of Mordor, Sunset Overdrive and many other games released without high rates of failure.
Whether it’s the player outrage or the fear of something akin to Sony’s “embarrassment”, this fall’s broken games might have already affected 2015. Some of the most anticipated games scheduled for release have already announced delays including Sony’s Bloodborne and The Witcher 3.
Still, with developers creating more complex games and publishers wanting games released sooner, the future of half-finished, untested titles seems unfortunately bright.