It became apparent to me following Bethesda’s release of Fallout 76 that the game development industry was beginning to take the same shape that other big entertainment mediums had formed for themselves decades prior. There’s always going to be someone with knowledge that spans further back than the person in front of them, but I’d wager that this change began to really start to water it’s seeds in 2004 with the release of World of Warcraft. The change that I’m referring to, which the recently released (and berated) Cyberpunk 2077 is guilty of, is the new expectation that games with a lot of monetary value at stake will just come to the markets with an early access framework. Early access, for those who might be unaware, is a term that means exactly what it sounds like: A release of a game that isn’t finished. I.e. ‘Early’. The point of which is usually to sell an unfinished product (usually at a cheaper price) to players who are fine with playing a buggy mess for the sole purpose of playtesting the game for the developers free of charge. But before I dig more into this phenomena and how it relates to Cyberpunk, I’d like to finish my original thought about World of Warcraft and Fallout 76.
Blizzard’s hit MMORPG wasn’t the first game to require a recurring subscription fee, but it was absolutely the first one to set the standard for what a large subscription-oriented playerbase should look like for the big dogs of game development, with the vanilla version of the game capping out at 8 million players. Such a large player base, which would continue to grow until The Wrath of the Lich King’s life cycle came to a close, demands excellent and timely performance of the development crew to keep their customers happy. Each expansion needed to be of equal (and mostly better) quality in terms of artwork, writing, balance, player engagement, and fun. This meant that, given the limited nature of a development team, some corners were going to have to be cut and some exceptions for what’s considered a ‘quality release’ were going to have to be made. Players, even in the most current retail version of the game, will find glaring issues and annoyances in the quality of releases and monetization practices. They seem to spend more time complaining about the game than actually playing it, at least in the retail version.
Most people on earth would probably agree that these issues pale in comparison (and least in relation to craftsmanship) to the issues Fallout 76 faced on it’s first release, though. The game, advertised as a multiplayer action-roleplaying game, was put out in the most shameful form I think I’ve ever seen any game released in ever. And that’s when comparing it to No Man’s Sky’s first release, to be sure.
Graphic errors, AI issues that broke the game, accidental duplication glitches replicating custom bases, non-accidental duplication glitches flooding the game with the best items available, and a multiplayer framework that came with that good old classic Bethesda engine jankiness strapped together with connectivity problems and poor programming to boot. It was an absolute shit show, and none of us need reminding of it, so I’ll digress.
Fallout 76 wasn’t a launch gone wrong. In fact, I’d go as far as to say Fallout 76’s launch wasn’t even a shock to Bethesda, despite half of the game being a problem for anyone looking to play a working product. It was simply free play-testing at it’s finest. Bethesda knew they could release a half-completed game for full price and slowly patch it into a working game over time and all would be forgiven. And when people began demanding refunds, they simply shut their customers out and kept working on the game. Fast forward to today, and the argument for whether 76 is a good game is now on the table, but collectively irrelevant for the topic at hand.
Bethesda sold a product that was incomplete. The aforementioned No Man’s Sky was a product that was sold so far and away removed from what it was advertised as, it’s advertising practices bordered on illegal as well as immoral. Now both of these games are in a better state, and their respective player bases seem to enjoy them well enough. So what’s the problem, and where does Cyberpunk 2077 come into play?
The problem is that these kinds of releases are now going to become the breeding ground for a new kind of development pattern that large and small companies alike will grapple onto as a way to increase shareholder confidence and keep their cash flow secure.
First, WoW set an example of large-scale open-word gaming that no one had seen before and monetized it in a way that no one had done before. Then games began introducing micro-transactions to give players the ability to cut corners or get exclusive content, and thus developer studios’ revenue began to grow rapidly with the investment money they saw increasing right alongside it. And now, with so much money at stake, we have companies being bulldozed and flattened under the tightly closed fist of quarterly profits and revenue performance. The amount of money at stake here is nothing to scoff at. Just earlier this year, Microsoft purchased Bethesda for 7.5 Billion dollars. Whatever the intentions might be here, it’s clear that 7.5 billion dollars just isn’t going to settle for ‘Delay the game for another 3 months, there’s some bugged quest lines.’
And just to throw some caveats out there, I’m not saying that any project with money behind it is going to commit to this deceitful practice of ‘promise, cut, release.’ Naughty Dog, a studio that you can say a lot of things about in terms of it’s creation process, can’t be accused of releasing a game that they (or least the creative efforts behind the development) don’t believe in. Rockstar Games, known for their Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption titles, would be caught dead before releasing something that was half-baked. Or, at least, that’s what their history tells us.
But to pretend CD Projekt released Cyberpunk without understanding what a mess it was is simply naive. These developers play video games, and they play their own games as they make them. They knew what the experience was going to be like on consoles, next gen or not, and they knew about the graphics issues, the crashes, the missing features that were promised from the start, and the overall failure to even execute on the ‘RPG’ aspect of an RPG game. They’re more than aware of these things, they aren’t stupid, and they aren’t people who haven’t touched a controller or keyboard in their lives. But in this day and age, where the boulder of responsibilities on a developer’s shoulders is all-encompassing of a playerbase, a studio, shareholders, billions of dollars in revenue, and their own jobs (let’s not forget), it’s a safer bet for a studio to hype up a game in it’s advertising stages with all that a studio would like to do with it as though it’s already in the game and then hope that they can actually accomplish what they’ve promised.
If worst comes to worst, they can just release the game in an unfinished psuedo-early access state as though it was completely finished for full price and then patch it up from there. No Man’s Sky did it, Fallout 76 did it, and Cyberpunk is right about to pull the same exact maneuver in grand Keanu Reaves style. I expect to see videos and articles popping up in one to two year’s time revisiting the game and praising the developers for ‘sticking with it’ despite rough takeoffs. It’s going to work perfectly for them. And the game, fun as it may be already, is going to probably be a decent, if not great, story-driven V-playing-game for the rest of us to come back and grab on sale in a year.
The studio will have its money, the players will be forgetful and pacified, and the standard for what a studio can get away with while taking their customer’s money will continue to sink to new lows.
I just hope that we’ll still have one or two major studios with enough dignity to avoid these practices by 2030. If you share this sentiment, vote with your money. Stop pre-ordering games, stop buying games that are half-baked simply because they have been hyped up, and stop trusting companies that have pulled this kind of practice in the past by giving them the benefit of the doubt until they earn your trust back again (in a way that isn’t finishing the game you already bought, for fuck sakes, S’wit).