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A New Trend in Games - Sell Broken and Unfinished Games, Lie to Your Customers (Part 1)

I'm a fan of video games. While being a grown up means I don't have a chance to play them as frequently as I used to, I still enjoy decompressing on the weekend with the old XBox and try to do it as much as I can. That said, I would rather jump out of an airplane without a parachute than pay $60 for a newly released console game. No matter how much I take home, its difficult for me to justify that  sort of expense. Every once in a while there are some titles that pique my interest and that at least tent me to break that rule. However, a disturbing trend among game developers has just about ensured that will never happened. I am referring to the trend in which a video game is released to the public without being finished.

I could go on for quite some time listing examples, but two particularly egregious examples have been well publicized recently. The first, Aliens: Colonial Marines. Take a look at the brief YouTube video below for an example of standard game play that customers can expect.

Over the course of two minutes, the video illustrates how every basic mechanic of the game is fundamentally broken. The weapons don't work - a player sets off a grenade in an elevator crowded with players and only he receives damage. Audio effects don't work - a player receives an audio excerpt to drive the narrative, however simply listening to the audio effect causes him to not be able to use his weapons, while enemies shoot at and kill his character. Restarting doesn't work - upon the character dying, some players are teleported to a sort of map screen of the level that prohibits them from playing. 

This is a product that is currently selling for between $50 to $100 (for the collectors edition) and was in development for several years. It has been made clear that additional features intended for the game, like the ability to direct AI-controlled team-mates, was scrapped to meet release dates. Release of the game has created a storm of finger pointing among the various corporations involved with development and distribution. Its a lemon - a product that is in essence flawed and broken. 

Shortly after Colonial Marines, another game was made available for purchase. This second game was more hotly anticipated and its failures more widely publicized. It represented the first sequel in over a decade to one of the most valuable IPs in gaming - a game whose audience represents just about everyone who used a computer during the 90's. I am referring to the new SimCity. 

In SimCity, players take control of a somewhat omniscient city planner / developer, attempting to build a thriving metropolis from the ground up. Players build infrastructure like roads, power plants and fire stations. They create commercial, residential and industrial zones that are then developed or condemned in relationship to demand. Tax rates and ordinances can be tweaked in the hopes of adjusting immigration and crime rates. There is no 'victory' to SimCity - the game can go on forever, and in fact there are examples of games running the same SimCity for many years. 

Developers promised this latest version would include the same core mechanics with modern graphics and entirely new features. Chief among the proposed innovations was the ability to zoom in and follow the life of a single SimCitizen. In a virtual city with a population of tens of thousands, this represented a truly novel idea - an AI so advanced that each one of these citizens would have their own SimLife, available for review of the player. Players could truly see the impact of their decisions on the day-to-day life of their citizens and react accordingly.

Maxis, the developer (now a division of Electronic Arts) followed up this claim with the caveat that such technological magic required that the game always be connected to the internet in order to play - even when players have the installation media available and only wish to play a single player game. This was required, claimed Maxis, because the huge leap forward in AI technology requierd the off-loading of processing to Maxis' servers. They were creating independent lives for tens of thousands of virtual avatars. No simple desktop computer could handle the processing needed to play God - cloud computing is needed for that (the irony of the industry term is worth a bit of a smirk). As Maxis' Lucy Bradshaw told the press: 

"With the way that the game works, we offload a significant amount of the calculations to our servers so that the computations are off the local PCs and are moved into the cloud. [...] "It wouldn't be possible to make the game offline without a significant amount of engineering work by our team."

People were excited. On opening day, Maxis/EA sold over a million copies. 

Then things started to fall apart.

Players noticed that single player games continued to run for extended periods of time without an internet connection. This indicated that the "always online" requirement didn't have anything to do with AI requirements at all. 

But it was worse than just dishonesty regarding the purpose of the gaming structure. Like Colonial Marines, promised gameplay simply didn't work. Ars Technica compiled a series of videos illustrating why. Below is a video of a SimCity that is running successfully with 20,000 citizens that have absolutely no industrial of commercial zoning. In other words, the city is running fine with 100% unemployment and no where to buy, say, food. You don't need to be an economist to realize that in a real city, that would be a problem.

Maybe thats just one bug. Here is a more specific example illustrating that the AI does not work. When following a SimCitizen traversing the city, the Sim merely walks back and forth across a single street repeatedly for hours.
Another video watching the daily travels of a SimCitizen (embedding issues mean a link is required - sorry). This one travels across the entire city seemingly at random instead of, say, going form its home to a job, shopping, or to another residential area.

In a nutshell - the developer said that the game needs an internet connection to help a game mechanic. That game mechanic does not work, and an internet connection is not required for that mechanic. Ars Technica quotes an anonymous SimCity developer confirming this:

"They are still acting as servers, doing some amount of computation to route messages of various types between both players and cities... but for the game itself? No, they’re not doing anything,"

So did Maxis/EA fess up to their mistakes, apologize for miscommunication  and vow to fix them? No. They continued to maintain the same line they had been - that online connections are required for gameplay. In light of what savy players and quotes from Maxis' own employees told Ars Technica, it is hard to see this as anything other than a bold faced lie to the gaming community at large and more specifically those who purchased the old Sim City based on promised game play.

In today's post, we summarized the problem and provided some recent examples of how games are broken and the behaviors that developers and distributors exhibit when they are confronted with evidence of a broken product. In Part 2, we will discuss why this is happening more often, what types of products are particularly effected, and how to avoid broken products.