I don't buy games on launch day. On the occasion that get a game during a kickstarter, or pre order, or buy a game that's in early access, I usually won't play it until weeks or even months after release. Partly that's because I have other things that need doing and my game playing time is limited. Partly it's because I'm really cheap and prefer to wait until games are on sale. The real reason though, is that I know a few things about creative work.
I’ve worked on projects with deadlines and projects with “deadlines”. Projects that seem to drag on for ages, even if you are technically on schedule. Had these projects been produce, you wouldn’t have gone anywhere near them. They started to smell pretty funky after the 3rd round of client revisions. While you are working on those types of projects, you know it’s a death spiral. There is no way that anything remotely resembling the initial concept pitch will ever exit the other side of the creative digestive tract. Still you work on it, hoping against all good sense and reason, that something good will come of all your work. When the deadline is dictated by someone with no idea how production is going, or worse, someone who does, but would rather not confront the client with the bad news that more time is needed, the result is inevitable. No one has ever shit a diamond.
Recently Warner Bros. pulled the PC version of Batman Arkham Knight to, you know, finish it. I mentioned on twitter that I thought this was a brave move. Most of the media that I have seen weigh in on this particular bit of news seemed to think that the coincidental timing of the Steam reimbursement program might have had something to do with it. Only the threat of an economic squeeze could possibly have made them pull a game from the market. Of course, that makes very little sense. The amount of people who actually return defective products is incredibly low. Even if Warner Bros. had to pay a fee for each refunded copy of Batman, if 90% of their customers returned the game, the other 10% would cover the cost. Admittedly I don’t have any real numbers here, and none of the involved parties are likely to release any, but there is almost no situation where they lose money continuing to sell this game.
What they would lose, is customer respect. The recent series of Batman games has been very well received. They are solid fun narrative action games, that treat the Batman and surrounding cadre of characters with honest respect. Even in the age of the superhero blockbuster movie, this is uncommon. On the current consoles, this most recent release has also been well received. There have been criticisms of certain choices the developers made, but it is roundly considered to be a good game. The PC version was made available for sale in a state that most would call not done. Since the PC version of most games where the console is the main platform will only account for a small amount of the overall sales, it seems the PC port was done quickly and not especially well.
PC port is sort of a misnomer. At one time a game might be programed and created for a vastly different architecture than the common x86 pc. Game consoles used custom processor chips, graphics chips, and even memory. Making that same game code run on a PC meant rewriting a lot of it to work with different architectures and libraries. They had to be truly ported. Current consoles are custom PCs. Specific parts, but none that are exotic. This Batman game, no matter what version, runs on a PC.
Making anything takes time. If you want to make a thing with a bunch of other people working on it as well, it takes scheduling, and planning, and looking ahead. People are famously terrible at planning more than a few days, or even hours, into the future. Nothing ever happens just as you plan it, and the more flexibility you build into your schedule the better. People have built some things on this planet, and off of it, at a staggeringly massive scale. It can be done, but it’s never going to go absolutely smoothly.
The developers of Batman where given a deadline to release 3 versions of this game. The core of the different version of each game would be identical, but the specific edge cases inherent in the different platforms would require attention. Most importantly, they would require time. Time I would suspect they asked for and were not given. After already adding many months to the development time of the game, someone decided that on one specific date all of the versions of the game would be released.
Of course I understand that at some point you need to stop creating a product and actually start selling it if you ever hope to make any money at all. The problem is, you need to be very upfront and honest about that. Early access and paid betas have proven that people are willing to put up with a lot, if you are honest with them. They will pay money for your broken game, if you admit with your palms upturned, that yes, this game is not going to work perfectly. What they won’t do is forgive you if you lie to them.
Pulling a game from the market until you can fix the problems with it is probably the closest to an apology as any consumer focused corporation will ever get. They will earn no money for selling this game, and they will have to pay to fix it. In the end the game will likely sell well and all of this will be forgotten. In another 3 months when the developers have had time to fix a lot of small bugs and glitches, the game will play as well as it ever will, but they will have missed the marketing blitz and other tie ins that likely dictated the deadline in the first place. We have to be ready for that. The timeline of months or years of potential game sales need to be built into the product from the bottom up. People will play your game, and love it, in ways that can’t be predicted by blockbuster centric marketing. Trust that your customers are smart, and don’t lie to them. If you need a bit more time, say so.
I just hope that whoever made the decision to pull Batman from Steam, also wrote an apology to all the developers for releasing it when it wasn’t ready.
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