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Solving The AAA Crisis

More AAA console game releases are either being delayed or arriving with severe bugs - but there are ways to fix it

Leading AAA titles from major publishers have had rocky introductions this past week, including Assassin's Creed Unity from Ubisoft, Halo: The Master Chief Collection from Microsoft, and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric from Sega. Assassin's Creed Unity has multiple issues, including game crashes, faulty multiplayer, the main character falling through the ground or getting caught inside hay carts, many graphics slowdowns especially on PC... there's a laundry list of problems. That may sound bad (and it is), but many observers say Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric's issues are worse.

Then there's the highly anticipated Halo: The Master Chief Collection, where the multiplayer game (arguably the most important gameplay mode) has been pretty much broken for days after launch, despite several "fixes" that have been pushed out - and that's not even mentioning many other game issues that fans have noticed while waiting for the multiplayer mode to finally work reliably. The situation is finally getting better, but the game is still limiting the types of multiplayer games you can get into in order to make matchmaking better.

It's not just in the last week or two that major releases from established publishers have had problems. Sony's DriveClub, one of the title Sony showed at the PS4 launch, was delayed several times and now has released with so many problems that Sony is promising some free DLC to make it up to fans.

The other symptom of the problem is the rash of delays plaguing major titles over the last year. Yes, delays have long been a not-uncommon occurrence in game development (some would say it's been the rule rather than the exception), but this last year has been unusual by any standard. Watch Dogs was moved out nine months from its initial launch. Take-Two's Evolve has been moved in 2015 from its original holiday 2014 ship date. Nearly all of the most anticipated exclusive titles for the PS4 this fall have been delayed (The Order: 1886, BloodBorne, Deep Down... the list goes on). Other big titles that have been delayed: Batman: Arkham Knight has moved in 2015, along with EA's Battlefield: Hardline, The Witcher 3, Dying Light, Tom Clancy's The Division, Mad Max, Quantum Break - all were originally slated to appear in 2014, and are now looking to release in 2015.

"Retailers are to blame. Or, more precisely, the publishers' drive to satisfy the demands of the retail channel are making delays and poor game quality more of an issue"

These delays are having ripple effects, too. Microsoft has delayed the start of its Halo Championship eSports competition for a week, hoping to resolve the multiplayer difficulties by then. Marketing plans are being affected, with many expenditures being much less effective since the timing gets thrown off by the delays.

It's becoming increasingly rare for AAA games to ship on time and actually be a good game from the start. Every major publisher has had to deal with game delays or serious issues over the last year. This is not one company's problem - it's affecting console development in general. Why is this happening, and what can be done about it?

Part of the problem rests with the transition to developing for the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. There are the usual difficulties involved with new consoles, new tools, and learning how to take best advantage of the new hardware. The problem goes deeper than this, though. Developers are struggling to come up with games that really show off the new hardware - ideally, from the console maker's perspective, games that really make customers want to buy a new console. That's a tall order, so budgets have grown, teams are urged to be more ambitious in their designs, and it becomes harder to meet deadlines as a result. New IPs are being developed for the new consoles, which adds even more difficulty to the task.

But there's a deeper problem in play, one that's been an issue for the games industry for decades, but it's becoming more important recently as the game industry has grown and diversified.

Retailers are to blame.

Or, more precisely, the publishers' drive to satisfy the demands of the retail channel are making delays and poor game quality more of an issue. This has become more of a problem as online and mobile games - especially free-to-play games - don't have these same issues.

How does working to please the retail channel hurt game development? Traditionally publishers have seen pre-orders for retail delivery as a key indicator for overall sales, and thus try to put pre-order programs in place far in advance. That often includes special collector's editions or pre-order bonuses, now being tailored for each retail chain in many cases (some titles have dozens of different versions because of this). This process forces publishers to commit to deadlines far in advance, and causes great reluctance to push out delivery dates. Now that patches and fixes can be sent out to console games as often as necessary, there's temptation to just ship the game and make the fixes over the following week or two. "How bad can it be?" is no doubt being bandied around the board room.

Holiday selling periods are even more to blame, as publishers routinely build multi-year development schedules around a holiday launch. Despite retailers like GameStop publicly wishing that major game releases would be more evenly spread out through the year, we continue to see publishers try to jam all of their AAA releases into the holiday quarter. That's because retail sales are highest at that time, and there are a good number of games being purchased as gift items. It's not clear how much less any given game might sell in its lifetime because it wasn't released during the holiday season, but publishers prefer not to risk it.

Hitting product delivery dates is important because of the need to build inventory for retail stores. Estimating the quantity of product needed for retail makes a huge difference to profit margins; building the right amount can save millions of dollars. Conversely, being too far off (in either direction) can cost millions of dollars. And there's manufacturing lag time to consider, too. While lead times have shortened for fairly standard components (down to weeks), when you do a collector's edition some of the pieces could take months to produce. If you build these pieces too soon, you could be sitting on inventory for months... and that all impacts the bottom line.

Contrast all of this with online games like League of Legends or World of Tanks. Major new features are introduced over time (like the Summoner's Rift map revision recently pushed out in League of Legends), and fixes are rolled out regularly. But there's no rush for that initial release, since there's no benefit to promising an exact date more than a week or two in advance. If the developers need a few more weeks or even months, no problem.

Mobile games have it even easier. The standard practice, when a game is getting ready to launch, is to "soft launch" the title in a small country (like New Zealand) in order to work out many issues like gameplay, monetization, and to get user feedback. Games can spend weeks or months being tuned in that environment, and then when the numbers indicate the title is ready, it's rolled out to major markets. Thus mobile games, done properly, are rarely plagued by massive problems on release in the same way that major console releases have been.

What can be done for the AAA console game to avoid these issues? First of all, having the courage to move a title's release date out when it needs to is critical. Ubisoft is glad to have moved Watch Dogs; it was painful, but it was clearly the right decision. No doubt Electronic Arts is feeling pain over moving Battlefield: Hardline out to next year, but already the company is saying the game is much, much better for it, and ultimately that will be to the company's benefit. For public companies, though, moving a major product ship date (especially if that single product represents a big share of sales) can mean the difference between a good quarter and a terrible quarter - it's not an easy decision to make, and it can have long-term effects on the company's share price and its overall business.

That's an argument for spreading a public company's revenue over a broader product portfolio, which would provide more ability to move ship dates when needed. For an extreme example, look no further than Take-Two. When Grand Theft Auto V released last year, the company had an amazing quarter. That same quarter this year saw revenue fall by nearly 90 percent. That's a difficult thing to manage for a public company, as investors like more steady and reliable revenue and profit growth.

"In the long term, publishers need to start moving to a post-physical product world anyway - and that can mean rethinking the entire concept of the product"

Second, rethink the whole pre-order process. Customers are getting wary of ordering ahead of time after being burned so often lately. The percentage of console titles sold as full digital downloads is increasing, and as that happens pushing pre-orders should become less important. Companies should be able to get a good indication of demand through social channels. Yes, pre-orders give retailers a good idea of how much product to order, and that influences how much inventory the publisher creates. Perhaps there's a better way to organize this process, though, that doesn't have the effect of pushing products out before they are ready.

One of the major differences between digital and physical products is the ability to resell the physical product or lend it to a friend. Microsoft had some interesting ideas along this line prior to the Xbox One launch, but ended up changing direction after a decidedly mixed initial response. Still, those ideas deserve revisiting. For that matter, Sony has already started something along that line with the Share Play feature where a friend can join you in a game on the PS4 for a while, without the need to own a copy. More features for digital versions of games will help drive adoption of that format, and perhaps alleviate some of the pressure to release a game on a strict timetable.

In the long term, publishers need to start moving to a post-physical product world anyway - and that can mean rethinking the entire concept of the product. Retail packaging has forced us into thinking we need more than $60 worth of value in each package, which means bigger worlds, more gameplay modes, more missions, maps, content of all kinds - and more places for delay to occur. Couple that with the increasing desire to see major franchises released on a yearly schedule, and you're asking for either more delays or lower-quality software, or both.

Let's think about some new IP that doesn't need to jam $100 worth of value into a $60 box... maybe it's a $30 value in a $15 download, and it only took a year to build with a smaller team. And if it's purely digital, does it really matter what day or week or month it launches? Does every AAA title really have to launch in November?

Yes, retailers are important partners and will continue to be in the future. But don't sacrifice game quality on the altar of retailers. Read the comments that customers are posting about some of these bug-plagued game releases, and you'll see there's plenty of anger out there. When the games get fixed things will calm down... but that's not the same as never having caused a problem. Marketers have an important role in convincing the rest of the company to focus on quality, and bringing the voice of the consumers into the discussions on release dates. Everyone in the industry has a stake in trying to make games better overall, because problems with major games reflect badly on all of us. The industry must work together to find some solutions to this issue.

Latest comments (21)

This is a disconnect between marketing and development. Pressure to set early launch dates for competitive reasons - and countered by the complexities of making 'AAA' games, possibly coupled with development cost pressures (smaller teams, less experienced developers, etc).

Unity is the most interesting one to me: it seems like such a big, ambitious project - and with such a big brand - and it seems to have been a disaster so far (scores, bugs, etc).

Its one thing if they are "happy with sales", but they won't be happy if they kill the brand.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 2 years ago
Interesting article. :)

I would argue pre-ordering is the lesser issue - incentives especially are really only a recent thing (in the past, what, decade or so? Less than that even.). But the Festive Period? Ahhh...

It's one of those things which, were it any other issue, you'd cry foul if publishers colluded about. But there is genuinely not enough money in people's pockets November/December to buy all the games they want, and publishers need to make a concerted effort - perhaps including talking amongst themselves - to shift away from this period. It will not only give consumers breathing space for their wallets, but it'll maximise revenue - stagger releases throughout the year and you have less consumers forced to make a decision one game over the other, with the discarded choice being picked up in a sale, or second-hand.

But then, publishers have a lot to improve with releasing games - the "Tuesday release in the States/Friday release in Europe" system plays into pirate's hands a little, as by the time Friday comes, games are often cracked using the US release. And shifting to digital won't help if servers buckle under the load - up until recently even Steam servers routinely collapsed at the number of people trying to download/play.
Let's think about some new IP that doesn't need to jam $100 worth of value into a $60 box... maybe it's a $30 value in a $15 download, and it only took a year to build with a smaller team. And if it's purely digital, does it really matter what day or week or month it launches? Does every AAA title really have to launch in November?
This would be interesting. I fully agree with the statement, but I wonder how much pressure it would put on indies. I'm sure a lot of indies laugh themselves silly at the AAA games releasing now, when they're aiming to release April/May/June, but when it changes? Hmmmm.
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee2 years ago
A famous man once said this.
A delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.
Personally, I think some of these releases have been totally unforgiveable. The quality bar should be higher and not lower than it was several years ago. The ability to patch a title, or delay reviews until release are no way to make up for an unfinished product.
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Show all comments (21)
Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios2 years ago
lol. we have to be the only industry where people who don't know what they're doing, get paid money.

Prey 2 was cancelled, because the developers didn't know how to make a fun video game (everyone on a salary)

Doom 4 had to be restarted, because the people developing it, didn't know how to make a fun game (everyone on a salary)

Can you give the money to people, who DO know how to make a fun game? Larger publishers have a monopoly on the industry.

If you can't make a good, fun game, get out of the industry.

You are making consumers suffer, give them something good. You have obscene wealth, take your time, get it right, then release it.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Marty Howe on 20th November 2014 1:11pm

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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital2 years ago
I wonder how stuff like this can ever pass the FQA/Certification processes with Sony and Microsoft. We get failed because of stuff like typos, or errors in the documentation. Actually, I know how, but I complain anyway :-)

The article named a dozen very good reasons why publishers release unfinished games.
Retailers are not to blame. Customers are. If I buy a game and it is a buggy mess and I complain and then, next year, I buy a sequel from the same publisher and it is a buggy mess and I complain... I am to blame. The moment the customers decide to punish publishers with their wallets, we may start getting release-worth games again. Not sooner.

I personally wait six months for every new release to get fixed and discounted. So, when I play ACU, it will be a great, polished, bug-free game for 20$.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 2 years ago
Retailers are not to blame. Customers are. If I buy a game and it is a buggy mess and I complain and then, next year, I buy a sequel from the same publisher and it is a buggy mess and I complain... I am to blame.
Yeah, I can see that. One of the many pirate quotes is "I bought X by the same developer, it was a buggy mess, I'll pirate now and buy when it's fixed and discounted." Of course, by that time, the consumer has moved on, and it's a lost sale.

That said, let's not ignore the elephant in the room, especially at this time of year: Lack of knowledge. So many parents/brothers/sisters/friends/partners go into Game/HMV/Gamestop and buy something as a present because they think it'll be good - "It's the 7th AssCreed game, my bro loved the last one, I'll get this for him!" And I doubt that many employees would talk a consumer out of buying a 50 game, no matter what they knew about it. So, multiply that by the number of consoles and PCs out there, and you have something that is, superficially, the consumer's fault - lack of knowledge - being taken advantage of by publishers and retailers.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 20th November 2014 2:05pm

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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games2 years ago
@Marty. That's what you get when the industry only wants to hire game developers with little experience (twenty something years olds) and avoids hiring game developers with years of experience (over 35 year olds).
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief2 years ago
My goodness, but it does seem to me that this comment thread (unlike the article), shows a lack of understanding of the multiple different, competing, practical pressures on game development, marketing, financing and distribution.
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital2 years ago
I really have to side with game publishers here. It is much better to release a game, that is 95% ready, in a good time, at the peak of the marketing campaign, then wait extra few months, deliver 99% ready game and take a massive hit in sales.

Really, when you have a project that is worth $100 million in development and marketing, would you risk endangering that investment to satisfy a few loud bloggers and YouTubers, when 99% of your customers don't care about a few bugs?

That's what I mean by "Customers are to blame". If buggy releases actually WERE a significant problem, people would not buy games. But people mostly don't mind (the silent majority).

I have approved games for release, that I knew contained game-breaking, save-corrupting bugs, because otherwise we would miss our release window. A few people politely complained, then we released a patch and a lot of people were grateful and wrote to us how much they appreciate we care about our fans.

Bugs are not an issue, customers don't mind.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jakub Mikyska on 20th November 2014 4:04pm

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Caleb Hale Journalist 2 years ago
@Jakub,

A harsh but true reality, most likely. And now that both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One can download updates and patches on the sly (provided they are connected to the Internet), I'm willing to bet a good chunk of the consumer base never realizes their game is basically being completed behind the scenes while they are playing it.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 2 years ago
A few people politely complained, then we released a patch and a lot of people were grateful and wrote to us how much they appreciate we care about our fans.
Blah. Gaming in a nutshell - "Thanks for making the game playable".

No offense, just hate this consumer mentality. You go and buy a hoover, or a DVD player, or a hi-fi, and if it doesn't work, you return it. Gaming? Consumers have been "tweaked" to accept broken games on release.
I'm willing to bet a good chunk of the consumer base never realizes their game is basically being completed behind the scenes while they are playing it.
ADSL/200kbps down, here in a neighbourhood of Sheffield, only 15 minutes walk from the city centre. You notice every little piece of bandwidth that's used, when you're on such a slow speed.
Bugs are not an issue, customers don't mind.
Yeah, they do. They just have better things to do than complain to the developers/publishers. Like work/pick kids up/cook dinner/pay bills. Who wants to chase-up issues that should never have been in the game in the first place, after all that? :/ (Generalising here, mind you). Feeding back into what I said about broken hoovers, etc - I wonder if games were as easy to return as a broken hoover or hi-fi, would more people ask for a refund?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 20th November 2014 4:17pm

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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital2 years ago
Dear Morville,

make a game, invest A LOT of money in it, spend at least a year making it, have it working well, except for a few issues, like frame drops in extreme situations, or extremely rare freezes with no obvious cause and release it in good time, release a patch two weeks later, throw a party, have enough money to pay your developers for another year and repeat.

OR postpone the release, fix those pesky bugs, release your game against GTA, or COD, or simply miss the promised release date, get applauded by bloggers & critics, see that nobody buys your game because they play GTA or COD, tell your developers they have to find another job, throw yourself under a subway train.

Tough choice.
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Robert Ilott Build & CM Engineer, Criterion Games2 years ago
I think this is quite important actually.

Does it matter if the game is released broken in Chapter 6 when it goes to manufacturing? If you know it can be patched on day one - do you gamble that no-one is going to get that far before the patch goes out? What if it can't be patched on day one? Is the game itself online only - are the people buying it likely to be hooked up to the internet in order to patch it?

What impact does the current data structure have on the ability to patch the game? Should you make that last minute change to the data structure in order to decrease the size of potential patches in the future or do you ship it now in a stable condition, knowing that *if* a bug is found, the consumer will have to download a much bigger patch to resolve it?

Can you fix up data at runtime meaning the consumer just needs a new executable or does it need to be rebuilt by an army of machines and pushed to the consumer as a huge data blob?

These are all things that have to be considered before the final thing goes out the door and sometimes the answers are unpleasant but necessary.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 2 years ago
@ Jakub

But this is the point of the article, right? It's saying that tough choices do actually have to be made at some point in the future.

I get that small problems sneak-in - especially with PC games or RPGs - but at what point did the industry turn from "We had to release it now or we'd be financially ruined" to just taking the piss and disrespecting the consumer? (excuse my language. :) ) Reading a thread on NeoGAF, one AssCreed fan literally cannot play Unity on PC. It crashes at exactly the same point. Over. And over. And over. And over.

And over.

Doesn't that strike you as bad? Not just for Ubi and the franchise, but the industry as a whole - that it's something deemed "acceptable". Our cooker broke not long ago - the cooling system didn't work, so after 10 minutes, it switched itself off as an emergency failsafe. "Crashed" if you like. We complained, we got it fixed. What can the guy who wants to play Unity do?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 20th November 2014 4:36pm

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Anthony Chan2 years ago
I have to admit, I do see Jakub's point of view. Publishers who believe timing is more important than releasing a polished game is more important are just plain horrible. However, they do have a point (even though it's a gamble). Battlefield 3 released with issues, ones that generated hate mail and rage-quit posts. But does that mean Battlefield 4 sold less? Nope. Battlefield 4 still has issues. Do you think this will affect the sales of the next installment of Battlefield? I predict not.

This happens, simply because customers are much more lenient with video games. A good franchise does not equal a good game. And unfortunately, a large silent majority buy franchises and brands, not games on their individual merit. (this could explain why it is so hard for an indie to find the same level of success as a AAA franchise).

So buggy messes, I do agree are because of consumer attitudes the issue. Also the fact, that retailers have stupid policies on returns. They treat games like underwear (though understandably to prevent piracy). Once opened cannot be returned. Only option is to trade it in. I have had a game that I lost the receipt, and Gamestop advise they could not process the return, but I could trade it in for 50% value. So Morville, the idea of returning broken products to the retailer is not really the fault of publisher or consumer but the faulty policies of retailers.

Either way, this topic is a double edged sword. There are publishers who take their time and produce amazing games (i.e. Blizzard). Blizzard, I think delays every game they make. No game they have announced has launched on time (with the exception of WoW expansions). And there are gamers who sit on both sides of the fence. There are quite a few who actually are encouraging Blizzard to release Hearthstone for Android with bugs just so they can play. Blizzard based on its "it is ready when it is ready" policy of course resists that urge. However they could have taken the broken game approach and capitalized on Hearthstone's momentum to start monetizing the franchise on the android platform. There will be enough hungry players who will make micro-transactions out the ying-yang that would justify a flawed release. So again, if the franchise is good enough, gamers will accept games even in their unfinished form. People will complain, but their actions show they really don't care (when they buy the sequel).
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 2 years ago
At this point, I think it'd be useful to remind ourselves that "gamers" is a wide demographic. Assuming one-size-fits-all for how people respond to bugs is silly. I've been arguing pro-consumer, based on how people treat other hardware/entertainment, but even I acknowledge that "Consumers have been "tweaked" to accept broken games on release", and are thus less likely to complain. But to extrapolate that lack of complaints = not caring is not something we should do. Just because people accept something, doesn't necessarily mean it's good, or acceptable in the wider scheme of things.

(Directed at no-one in particular, btw. :) )
So Morville, the idea of returning broken products to the retailer is not really the fault of publisher or consumer but the faulty policies of retailers.
This is true. :)

Thinking out loud:

Those policies are in place, why? To protect the retailers from loss? On a large-scale, customers returning a product that's faulty would cause retailers to complain to publishers, due to loss of income relating to faulty products? (I honestly don't know, hence the question mark, and the thinking out loud. :) )

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 20th November 2014 6:18pm

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Anthony Chan2 years ago
@Morville I totally agree with your assessment with "gamers". I normally try not to group everybody under one broad type as it is silly. However from a marketing standpoint, the target is always the masses, and "correctly stereotyping" unfortunately does have its value when making market decisions. The rule is first and foremost make the most money. Money is only lost if you lose general customer faith in the brand (i.e. Toyota and their recalls).

I was trying to make the point that though publishers often alienate individual customers by releasing shoddy products, they can take calculated risks with the brand. If the brand will not suffer a loss of confidence, then releasing shoddy products to install earnings where shareholders expect to see them takes priority. For example releasing a Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto installment 98% complete is not only acceptable but encouraged. Why continue to incur costs when debugging, patching, and rebalancing happens regardless of how polished the product is after release. Just because the product is 100% does not mean the consumer does not expect a patch or balancing. So why not give the product to the consumer first and have them help get to the final 100% (which with the scale AAA games are created today is actually impossible).

I agree the attitude towards consumers is not right and downright abusive in some cases. However, the risk is not consumer dissatisfaction with the specific product but more with the brand. Unfortunately some brands seem to have thicker armor than others.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 20th November 2014 7:12pm

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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee2 years ago
Retailers are not to blame. Customers are.
Customers should be the last people to blame. A few people vetoing a product in a year's time isn't going to do anything really. This idea also doesn't take into account why people are buying these high budget games to begin with, they may be like nothing on the market.

A game could be the most amazing quality product one year and its sequel could have all sorts of issues. You don't really know what the next year or next iteration will bring. On top of that, factors such as reviews can be misleading. Even a flawed product may be universally critically acclaimed.

Ultimately when we make games and publish them, we have a responsibility for the quality.
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital2 years ago
I will say it again, because it needs to be said again:

This debate is strictly academical. Our customers are more interested in getting a character costume with their pre-order then they are concerned about possible bugs.

Customers are the ones bringing money to the industry and they say they don't mind bugs. We can debate here about what is right and what is wrong, but the customers don't care. Customers decide about what is right and what is wrong. And there is obviously nothing wrong with releasing a buggy mess instead of a game. If that was wrong, Ubisoft would be out of business. They are not. Customer spoke. Deal with it.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 2 years ago
Yes. You're right. Both in the sense it's an academic argument, and in how the majority of customers treat games.

But neither of those things mean the industry shouldn't consider its trajectory. There's only so long this'll carry on - it may be it'll be months, or even years before it bites publishers in the ass. But I think it's foolish and short-sighted to just shrug and say "It's okay", without having a game-plan for the future. And if the game-plan is solid, why not enact it before you have to? *shrugs* :)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 20th November 2014 9:17pm

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Reilly Davis2 years ago
in the old days 9 out of 10 current games would not even get passed for production there were much higher standards i dont know why its acceptable practice now, but i suppose it comes down to the most wealthy business model, which is microsoft they release an operating system full of bugs with the intention of getting complaints which they then fix in a business version and fix a couple in the consumer edition to keep people happy
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