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How Much Does It Matter If Games Have a Crappy Launch Anymore?

'Sea of Thieves' has room for improvement, and these days, it's possible for games to figure that out over months (and years).

by Patrick Klepek
Mar 22 2018, 3:00pm

Image courtesy of Rare

I’ve never developed a game, but I have to suspect one of the hardest parts is wondering if there’s a there, there. A foundation to build on. In the hours I’ve spent with Rare’s new game, Sea of Thieves, it’s clear the game has a there, there. The laughter, shock, and comradery I’ve shared while streaming the game is proof. The question is if Rare can be nimble enough to capitalize on what makes Sea of Thieves, sometimes in fits and starts, special and interesting and weird and beautifully different.

I don’t know! Maybe the game's moment lasts a week week, a backlash will ensue, and Sea of Thieves is quickly forgotten, swept away as games like Far Cry 5 come out. But what if we live in a different time, one where a game’s launch—full of server errors and complaints about whether there’s enough to do—doesn’t predict the future?

The way I outright passed on Fortnite, only to watch it explode, has stuck with me, and forced a reckoning on determining a game’s "destiny." I spent a few hours with Fornite at launch, when it was being pitched as a co-op building defense game, and it was clearly not for me. It seemed fine, the kind of game people would enjoy so long as their friends were playing it, until The Next Thing came along. That didn’t happen, obviously, with Fornite’s Battle Royale transforming the game from surprising curiosity to an emerging cultural phenomenon approaching a level of visibility a rare subset of games enjoy.

People talk about Fortnite, a game I made snide comments about when they seemed to just be ripping off PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the way they talk about Minecraft. Its popularity is besides the point. There are lots of games I’m okay with not liking, even if they’re popular. But the popularity gives me pause.

There's a growing trend of games with troubled launches finding their footing. No Man’s Sky was not universally disliked at launch (see: how much our own Austin Walker enjoyed his time with it, despite reservations), but to many, the game felt like a bait and switch. What was promised in the trailers didn’t feel like the game they were charging money for. (By contrast, Sea of Thieves seems to be exactly what was advertised ahead of of time. After each beta, there were borderline conspiracy theories Rare and Microsoft were hiding the “real” content for the game as a surprise. Nope!)

A year later, No Man's Sky got a massive update that fixed a lot of its problems. At the very least, it stabilized the game’s community, who went from hostile and upset to sharing images from their space adventures and, uh, making space governments.

How about Rainbow Six: Siege, a game that received okay reviews, but was roundly dinged for its approach to microtransactions, serious matchmaking issues, an influx of cheaters ruining games, and not enough content? Ring a bell? The game’s launch sales were seen as disappointing. Siege was ripe to become the type of game that underperforms in its opening weeks, only to be discarded in favor of a sequel or reboot that tries to take some lessons from what went wrong and avoid them the next time.

Instead, Ubisoft doubled down on “games as a service”—it wasn’t lip service. Matchmaking got better, bugs were squashed, players got kicked if they killed teammates, a anti-cheating system was implemented eight months after launch, and the game add new maps (for free) throughout the next year. (The season pass included access to new soldiers, or “operators.”) The game was adding players as it went along.

Siege just entered its third year of post-release support, and gained traction as an esport. Ubisoft is attempting to pull the same resurrection story for its melee, For Honor, which also faltered at launch. There’s evidence it seems to be working, too.

I’m not arguing every game is capable of this, nor is every game even to be patched, updated, and altered to make up for whatever muddy first impression it leaves. But it’s increasingly clear first impressions aren’t everything, or, at the very least, there’s an opportunity for players to come back around, so long as the game in question has a there, there. Personally, anyway, it means I’m going to start keeping a more open mind.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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