Dec 31, 2011

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Has the Internet Ruined Gaming?

Has the Internet Ruined Gaming?

Let’s take a trip back in time. The year was 2002. A bright-eyed eleven-year-old named Kyle had just received a Game Boy Advance game called The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Never one to turn down a Middle-Earth experience (or video game, for that matter), Kyle eagerly popped the diminutive cartridge into his Nintendo portable. While far from perfect and often a bore, Fellowship of the Ring nevertheless held his interest as a companion to the book.

Until it froze.

With two-thirds of the game complete, Kyle hit a game-breaking glitch that caused Fellowship to freeze at a crucial doorway in the Mines of Moria. Confused, he shut the system off, reloaded his save, and tried again. Same result. With varying tactics and movements, Kyle tried to make his way through the doorway without causing a freeze, to no avail. Kyle even went as far as to replay the game, starting from scratch on multiple occasions in case the file itself had become corrupted along the way. Every time, at the same doorway, the game froze.

At that age, it never occurred to me to look up my problem on the Internet. Living in rural Wisconsin doomed me to a dial-up connection, and I had never experienced a situation where a game I owned was simply unable to be completed. Thankfully, Fellowship of the Ring for the GBA was a rather low-profile release, but its unfinished state garnered a blitzkrieg of negative reviews. As I found out recently, this game-breaking bug was never truly addressed or remedied – with the game on store shelves, and no way of patching or re-releasing it, Black Label Games could only give gamers who were hungry enough to search online a flimsy workaround. To this day, I’ve never finished Fellowship of the Ring - it was a fundamentally broken game in a time where such a product was condemned for even existing.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has shipped over 10 million copies since release. Nearly two months out, PS3 players patiently wait for a fix that will make the game playable.

What have we come to? Millions of people own this game and are experiencing the kind of problems that simply shouldn’t be there. Broken quests. Frequent freezes. Corrupt save files. There may not be a consistent theme to Skyrim’s problems, but they are no less apparent or game-breaking because of it. If all of Skyrim’s Achievements can’t be earned because an NPC has disappeared, the game is broken. If it’s impossible to play for longer than 30 minutes before the framerate devolves to slideshow levels, the game is broken. And yet,  Skyrim has garnered Game of the Year awards and nominations from nearly every major gaming press outlet.

When did this become OK? It’s now customary practice among gamers to advise each other against purchasing a game on release day because a fair number of bugs and problems are expected. The ubiquity of an Internet connection for home consoles has allowed publishers to force deadlines upon developers, with the knowledge that any issues still present can probably be ironed out later with patches. As gamers, are we really OK with buying a game and knowing that it’s not going to work? 

Allow me to pose this question: if the very first boss of Shadow of the Colossus had sank into the ground and disappeared for 70% of players, would the game not have been crucified? Would it have even come close to being the legendary artistic hallmark in gaming that it is today? Imagine that the moment of Aerith’s death – an emotional milestone for many gamers – had been ruined when a placeholder cutscene with stick figures was loaded instead. Crono never travels through time because the pillars of light don’t function. Solid Snake never saves Meryl; the torture scene glitches and sends the player directly to their cell. Red can’t defeat the sixth Gym Leader. In the eighth castle, Princess Peach is nowhere to be found.

These may be sensational examples, but the logic holds true today. Developers and publishers operate on the assumption that every console gamer has access to a fast and stable Internet connection. Here’s a hint: they don’t. For nine months out of the year, I attend Uni and enjoy one of the fastest wired connections the country has to offer. The other three months? A 3G Verizon signal is converted to Wi-Fi and powers five devices simultaneously. Ever tried updating your PS3 firmware or downloading an XBLA game on a 3G connection? How about participating in the Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta, or downloading the 170 MB (!) day-one patch for Battlefield 3? Before Battlefield’s release, DICE’s David Goldfarb stated that this day-one patch contained “all the final stuff,” including game elements the developer didn’t have time to include before Battlefield 3 went gold.

You read that right. Battlefield 3 went gold before it was finished.

I understand that Battlefield 3 has always been marketed and developed with a multiplayer focus. I get that. Maybe the day-one patch had nothing to do with the game’s lambasted single-player campaign. For anyone who has experienced an unpatched game, this argument holds no weight. Enemy NPCs in Uncharted 3′s co-op campaign literally vanish. Black Ops killstreaks don’t work in splitscreen multiplayer. Textures for the Xbox 360 version of Skyrim look awful when the game is installed. Scripted events in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword fail to trigger and the game can’t be completed. Without mailing Nintendo your Metroid: Other M save data, a crucial door may never open.

Most can deal with these issues, but what if the problems went deeper? Shepard can’t recruit Rex because his NPC behavior is programmed incorrectly. The period of time in which a Deus Ex boss is vulnerable never initiates, and the game can’t be completed. When GLaDOS’s first audio file as a potato plays, Portal 2 freezes. These games may be more complex than those of generations past (and cost a whole lot more money to make), but the pressure to innovate and ambition needed to do so were just as powerful back then. Don’t believe me? Look no further than Andy Gavin’s fantastic series on the development of Crash Bandicoot.

There was a time when games were finished and polished on release. Games like Fellowship of the Ring were an exception, not the rule. Now, in light of the Internet’s ability to artificially extend deadlines and correct mistakes, we excuse the outright laziness of developers who fall back on the crutch of patches. Before having an online console was expected, game-breaking glitches and bugs would have changed the landscape and history of gaming. Now that day-one patches and unfinished games have become the industry standard, the trajectory of gaming history is changing.

In my review for Vivid Gamer, I gave Skyrim a 9.5. I reviewed the game, not the product. Despite the unbelievable state it was shipped in, Skyrim manages to be an excellent game. Bethesda’s latest is a technological marvel; its world is huge and its systems complex. Still, given the hardware and expectations of the time, there’s little doubt that Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time were greater achievements. Both of those games, alongside countless others from before the age of patches, have ascended to the absolute pinnacle of gaming’s hierarchy. They are classics. As good as Skyrim is, I’ll never be able to call it a classic.

The difference? Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time worked. Nearly two months out from release, I can’t say the same for Skyrim.