Experienced Points

Experienced Points
When is a Game Done?

Shamus Young | 11 Feb 2014 19:00
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Kerbal Space Program On The Moon

Now the line between "done" and "not done" is completely arbitrary. Kerbal Space Program is an indie game still in active development, and it's amazingly polished and full of gameplay. Sim City was a AAA game from a publisher, and it was still broken months after its "release". Mass Effect 3 was supposedly "done" when it came out, but then they made it "more done" when they added the Extended Cut DLC. As of this writing there are over 300 unfinished games for sale on Steam through the Early Access program, with hundreds more taking part in the Greenlight program. Some of them feel like fully playable games, and some of them are little more than a title screen and a promise.

People can't even agree on what Early Access to a game means. Some developers offer the game for cheap because the game isn't done and so you're not getting a full product. Other developers increase the price during development, with the expectation that early adopters are the most hard-core fans and therefore willing to pay more for the privilege of playing the game first.

This puts the user in a difficult position. When should I buy a game? I don't want to play all the way through a game, get to the end, and then find out a week later a bunch of new mid-game content has been added and I'll have to play through all over again to see it. I don't want to pass on a game now if it's going to go up in price later. I don't want to pay extra just to help beta-test a game, and I really don't want to buy a half-finished game that is abandoned by the developer without ever being completed. I don't want to invest a couple of hours into a game only to run into a dead-end because the rest of the game doesn't exist yet.

The result is that we know less than ever before about what we're getting when we buy a game. The line between active development and finished product has been all but obliterated.

You can say that people should research before they buy, and I agree with that in principle. But that's not really how people shop for games. People tend to (want to) shop for games the way you shop for other entertainment: Browse around, look for something amusing, and buy it. They generally don't want to crawl down into the forums and read a bunch of threads just to figure out what parts of a game exist and what parts are still stuck inside the designer's head. Which means some people buy when they shouldn't, and other people pass over a title when they don't need to.

I don't want to make it sound like I'm railing against Early Access games or ongoing updates. It's not that these things are bad, it's just that they're different and the market is still trying to figure out how to sort the good from the bad. Right now there aren't any standards for what a game needs to have before it's allowed to go on sale, and everyone has a different expectation about what they can (or should) expect from a developer after release.

But in the long run? This "blurry finish line" approach to game development is probably a good thing. The Minecraft-style development cycle can be really healthy for games. Rather than picking a demographic and hiring a focus group to represent them, developers can see what audience finds their game and engage with those players to find out what they think is lacking. There's an opportunity here to correct flaws before they become set in stone and focus efforts on the parts of the game people care about the most. We have the potential to get better games in the long run, although in the short run things are likely to be a little strange and chaotic.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning.

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