Anthem's launch and the power of the sunk-cost fallacy | Opinion
Bioware's latest is one of the most egregiously unfinished and broken launches in many years, but these games often get free pass - for now
Anthem is a broken world. Left unfinished by its creators, it bears the marks and scars of the processes they used to build it, its dramatic landscapes abruptly interrupted by technical monstrosities. Its occupants are a hardy but dwindling bunch who gamely struggle against the chaos created when the world's creators halted their task too early.
God, I love a good meta-narrative.
Look, Anthem is broken as hell. There's little point in prosecuting the case for the game being released unfinished; that's documented extensively and exhaustively in articles, blogs, forum threads and YouTube videos.
It's far from uncommon for games to launch with bugs and "quirks", but Anthem is genuinely an egregious case. It's not just odd quirks, scripting problems or minor frustrations -- from serious technical flaws leading to crashes and needlessly dropped network connections, through to a baffling and immensely frustrating set of decisions around the game's UI, including some that result in actual gameplay often being several interminably long loading screens away, Anthem is in a disastrous state.
"Online games are entirely reliant on mugs like me being willing to part with cash for an unfinished game, then come back later in the hope that it's decent now -- and if so, hey, all's forgiven"
It's so bad on PS4 in particular that Sony also has questions to answer; its technical testing processes aren't meant to ensure that games are good, but they're meant to ensure that they work and can't damage people's consoles, something which Anthem seems to be quite capable of doing in some cases. Perhaps Anthem passed those tests -- in which case the tests are clearly insufficient and in need of revision -- or perhaps it didn't; I'm sure it's commercially difficult to tell a company like EA that its much-vaunted and expensively marketed launch date can't be met because its software sucks, but it would have been the right thing to do.
We can all argue until the cows come home about the merits of walled gardens and gatekeepers, but if we are going to have gatekeepers, shouldn't they at least do a decent job of keeping the gate?
This isn't to say that Anthem is a bad game; it is a broken and unfinished game, but if anything it is rendered all the more frustrating by the fact that its technical failings mar or block off the experience of a hugely promising game and a fascinating world. Reviews have not been kind to Anthem, which is fair enough -- a reviewer's task is to assess what exists in the here and now, rather than musing over foundations and thinking about how the house might look when it's finished
-- but we all know that these big online titles develop and blossom as they go along.
That's been a persistent question about reviewing online games for decades; how do you effectively do justice to a game that keeps changing? Some of them launch in a good state and improve; others launch lacking content or with some poorly thought out aspects but quickly evolve into something excellent (Destiny 2 is a great recent example). Granted, few start out quite as much of an ugly duckling as Anthem, but even Final Fantasy XIV is a genuinely great game now and it had arguably the roughest start of any major online game of the modern era. For many players who invest in such a game at the start, seeing the potential in a broken product and the great game that shines at the heart of the rough, uncut rock is part of the process.
Why is that? Straight up, it's sunk-cost fallacy, and I should lay my cards on the table at this point -- I'm in the throes of that fallacy right now. I dropped £80 on the special edition of Anthem -- dress up a clever fantasy concept in sci-fi trappings and a loot compulsion cycle and you'll take me for my last penny every time -- and stopped playing it after a few days. Like many people, I have limited time to play games and a game which is going to piss away that time by crashing, hanging, or disconnecting, then making me redo missions from the start, with all the attendant enormous load delays, is not a game that's going to stay on the top of the pile for very long. The final straw was a handful of hangs during the absolutely baffling load delay which you get before seeing the results screen at the end of a mission; I haven't touched the game since then.
Yet I know I'll be back, and that's where this experience is interesting from a commercial perspective. Anthem is a mess right now, but it's sold fairly well by all accounts; there are lots of people out there in the same position as I am, with £80 sunk into a game that's clearly not in a fit state to be played (okay, more like £60 for the majority who probably have better sense at not being attracted by shiny things of extremely questionable value).
"On rental services, a game that launches broken will be tried, rejected and forgotten by the time the developers can get it into a fit state"
Because of that sunk cost, however, those people are effectively a captive audience; a few months down the line, when BioWare actually fixes a decent chunk of this nonsense and the media starts cautiously talking about Anthem being finally in the state it should have been at launch, all the players like me will come back. We spent the money already; once the game is fixed, we'll want to get the value from that. The frustration we feel now is real, and the negative word of mouth is absolutely hurting the game -- but in the long run a game like Anthem can win back its audience if it eventually lives up to its promise.
BioWare and EA know that, of course; I'm sure there were plenty of people there who were unhappy at pushing Anthem out to market in this state but were overruled by the commercial logic which says that patches and updates can rescue an online game once you've pulled in an initial audience. I wonder, though, for how long this logic will hold. It's entirely reliant on mugs like me being willing to part with significant cash for an unfinished game, then come back a few months later in the hopes that the game we bought is decent now -- and if so, hey, all's forgiven and we're willing word of mouth evangelists, preaching to the world about how they won't believe how good Anthem (or Destiny 2, or FFXIV, or whatever it may be) is now.
What happens to that cycle in a world where we're not paying that much up front for games? As every other kind of media moves to a rental model -- Netflix, Spotify, Amazon's Prime service for Kindle -- and that kind of commercial model gains a beachhead in games through Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass system, it's pretty clear where we're headed. I don't think buying games as a concept will disappear any time soon -- I mean, people still buy Blu-Rays and box sets, albums and books -- but it's likely that a significant proportion of consumers, perhaps a majority, will find themselves consuming games through a Netflix-like rental paradigm within the coming five to ten years.
Much has been discussed about what that will do to video games in general, but one conversation I've yet to see involves the question of what happens to a buggy, unfinished game in that scenario. That's something rental services have never had to contend with; films, albums and books are not released in technically unfinished states and updated later.
By removing the compulsion created by the sunk-cost fallacy, it's quite likely that these kinds of games will lose their second bite at the cherry -- a game that launches broken will be tried, rejected and forgotten by the time the developers can get it into a fit state. Players on a rental service will have no sense of attachment or investment in the game and will have plenty of newer and shinier toys to distract them by that point.
To some extent, Anthem is an experiment in this field; some players on PC are playing the game through the Origin subscription service, so the difference in their behaviour compared to the behaviour of players who bought the game outright will be interesting to observe (assuming any of that data is available). However, they're likely a very small fraction of the player base, so they won't puncture the critical mass of "invested" players in this case.
The real test will be what happens to games like Anthem in a few years when rental services have become the default consumption paradigm for a large number of players. One day, a publisher is going to try to do something that's always worked -- foisting an unfinished game onto the public at full price and relying on sunk-cost fallacy to keep them on board until things can be fixed up -- and discover that the old tricks no longer have power. It's not just the world of Anthem that's evolving in violent and unpredictable ways, after all.