When is a Game Done?

When is a Game Done?

When is a game done, officially? When is a game the final and complete product? It used to be that the answer was, "When it comes out." Now? Now things are strange.

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Minecraft will be done when they release a goddamn modding API, which was supposed to be released several versions ago. Everything else that could be imagined will subsequently be added by modders.

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.

This is a really good point, and it's really well phrased. I've found two different solutions (using example games):

The Minecraft Way
This is a game that is not finished, and quite possibly will never be finished. And that's OK, because the game is done. Notch could walk away right now and the game would still be fully playable. The base of the game (the mining and the crafting) is done, and has been done since it was first 'released'. There are always new objects being added, new mobs and recipes, and a number of other things that add to the game, but nothing that seems like a part of the game that was not available before, but was necessary for it to be finished. It's a completed house that extensions keep being added to, rather than a half-built pile that doesn't provide anything.

The Fallout Way
I like Fallout games, and Bethesda in general. I'm never going to buy them at release. The games are buggy, nigh-unplayable nightmares that are no fun. However, given time, they will patch bugs (at least the most egregious), and more importantly they will add worthwhile DLC. My New Vegas Ultimate Edition is great because not only is it patched enough that I can play it without destroying valuable electronics in the process, but because it introduces great content that, while not really changing how the game is played technically, adds a lot of new story elements (characters, settings, etc) and hours of new content that can be tackled at my leisure. Plus, it's cheaper to buy it after a few months/used. I get a great experience, but Bethesda isn't assured of getting my money.

Thunderous Cacophony:
The Minecraft Way
This is a game that is not finished, and quite possibly will never be finished. And that's OK, because the game is done. Notch could walk away right now and the game would still be fully playable. The base of the game (the mining and the crafting) is done, and has been done since it was first 'released'. There are always new objects being added, new mobs and recipes, and a number of other things that add to the game, but nothing that seems like a part of the game that was not available before, but was necessary for it to be finished. It's a completed house that extensions keep being added to, rather than a half-built pile that doesn't provide anything.

It's odd, because I've considered Minecraft "Done" for a long time for this very reason. All the core mechanics are there, and even the new additions do not change the fundamental experience. Everything added to the game essentially fits into the "Free DLC" category. Some of it, like The Nether or The End, could even be considered Expansion Pack level additions. None of it, however, changes how the game is played or detracts from the original core experience.

The biggest change to the game to have ever been made was the addition of "hunger" but even that utilized the existing food system, and it fit the existing theme of a survival game.

Really, when should I buy a game that might interest me? Some pretty good games I have played are (still) in early access. On one hand when I play (or even finish) it now, I might miss out on a few features and additional polish. On the other hand, if I don't like it as much now, I could stop playing and check again in a few months. It is also pretty hard to determine if I might like a game because traditional reviewers either don't cover early access games at all or only make one quick look video/article about it that doesn't help me discern the quality of the game, especially when that video/snippet is a few months old.

One thing that I find especially annoying about early access games is that there seems to be very little drive to actually finish them: Patch cycles seem to get longer, forum posts by the devs sparser and sometimes when checking out an early access title, the last patch is sometimes a few months old already.

It feels like they should just be done with it already and "release" it when it isn't 100% perfect rather than just sitting on it for years. As a designer you will probably never be completely fine with the state of your product because as its designer you notice all the small imperfections that nobody but the most scrutinizing observers (which probably are also the game's biggest fans) would even notice.
Which brings me to another thing: Please release Good Robot already! :(
(Or put it on early access :D )

"Mods popped up, and popular ideas from the modding community were folded into the core game."

I have to disagree with this part of the article, the reason Minecraft did so well was because right from the start it had the core gameplay mechanics in place, and over time it added not to those mechanics, but to the polish around it.

"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."

There are only 2 developers I can think about who are doing that (one of which sites the other as the reason why they are doing it). That isn't people wondering what Early Access is for, that's devs trying to pump out every penny they can from customers before anyone realizes they can't deliver on their promises.

"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"

Too bad, you missed a chance to call out Early Access on the problem it is and how it's another bane to the industry as a whole.

TiberiusEsuriens:

Thunderous Cacophony:
The Minecraft Way
This is a game that is not finished, and quite possibly will never be finished. And that's OK, because the game is done. Notch could walk away right now and the game would still be fully playable. The base of the game (the mining and the crafting) is done, and has been done since it was first 'released'. There are always new objects being added, new mobs and recipes, and a number of other things that add to the game, but nothing that seems like a part of the game that was not available before, but was necessary for it to be finished. It's a completed house that extensions keep being added to, rather than a half-built pile that doesn't provide anything.

It's odd, because I've considered Minecraft "Done" for a long time for this very reason. All the core mechanics are there, and even the new additions do not change the fundamental experience. Everything added to the game essentially fits into the "Free DLC" category. Some of it, like The Nether or The End, could even be considered Expansion Pack level additions. None of it, however, changes how the game is played or detracts from the original core experience.

The biggest change to the game to have ever been made was the addition of "hunger" but even that utilized the existing food system, and it fit the existing theme of a survival game.

And that, my friends, is why Minecraft did what no others (except DayZ but for other reasons) have been able to be such a massive success even in it's pre-alpha release: the core game was done, and it was only additions to it which where made. This is in sharp contras to games like DayZ, Dust and others which come out but don't have many/most/all of what was supposed to be in the game for the core mechanics.

Right there with ya, except...

Shamus Young:
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.

Is it weird that my gut reaction to this was "seriously, who does that?". Twenty-odd years ago (when I was a child), I would have laughed derisively at that sort of uninformed consumerism... now it just makes me sigh with frustration.

Mind you, I do probably pass over a lot of titles I would enjoy, but it's just entertainment... and I do find them years after their release often enough.

I solved most of those decision problems with a few optimizations: I don't buy games developed by EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft and Activision (pretty much the motley collection of the screw game customers club). Which leaves a lot of games that may well be published by some of the above (and thus are still suspect). It does focus on many indie games while leaving room for larger game developers that I trust.

I don't always enjoy having to dig into the forums to find out if the game is finished enough for myself but I will do it. I no longer purchase a game that isn't done. Most games get one play through, paying to help debug a game, or worse pay more all while expecting major updates to make it work ... well not with my money you're not. Not everybody is Notch.

Isn't the Extended Cut for Mass Effect 3 basically what Notch did with Minecraft? They charged for what was a complete product and heard the feedback and gave a free update to address those issues, for they didn't radically alter the game or even add anything outside of cinematic moments.

Personally I consider both Early Access and Project Greenlight a blight on the gaming community, there are a few good examples of it being used properly (and Minecraft is one), but there are so many horrible ones that are making it look like they are trying to fleece their customers.

I agree it's a slightly puzzling and paradoxical situation where something like "Starbound" is considered an unfinished game, and labels it's self as such, when all the core mechanics are fully functional and it plays pretty beautifully but a broken unplayable mess like Battlefield 4 is considered a fully fledged release with no disclaimer about the state of it's completion.

Early access has a LOT of problems (as covered by Jim Sterling) and the "Buyer Beware" aspect of it needs to be made more clear. The best solution would be to have a separate store page for Early Access games with it's own ToS ans clear guidelines that this is a place where a game might even not be functional at all. If anything Early Access needs to be LESS mainstream than it has become because people need to be clear that a game they have bought might never be finished and even if it is 'finished' it might never have all the promised features. Those who have bought a game in early access need to be okay with this, if you are not okay with this you have no business buying early access.

There also needs to be a clear indicator of degree of completion so players know both how much a game is playable right now and how much a game is going to improve from it's current state. Something like star-bound would be able to say the core game is pretty much finished and so your experience will overall be pretty polished and representative of final gameplay whereas something like Rust would say core mechanics, assets and even ideas are still in pipeline.

The model is very promising but in it's current form very open to abuse and much more narrow than people seem to be taking it as.

If I see 'Early Access' on a game, I don't buy it. I refuse to pay money for a beta, or even worse, an alpha test. I'll wait until the game is actually finished.
I also question how useful Early Access is because in general, I don't think fans offer very useful feedback. They rarely know what they want, and they aren't game developers.

I'm speaking through my own experience only here, obviously, but I have picked up a couple of Early Access titles for various reasons. Because I like the developer and want to support their vision(Double Fine's Spacebase DF-9), or because I think the premise is strong enough even in Alpha (Prison Architect) and I've had Early Access games that plain sucked and made me feel ripped off (Godus, even to this day feels like a Carpal Tunnel farming system).

Ultimately though the onus was on me to know if it was worth it. And in a way it still was worth it. When the game is complete I still think it will be fun to play, and I still don't really regret the purchase. When it does come out I'll have gotten it cheaper and in the meantime my Steam page is full of games I bought during a sale and never even loaded. Technically, it's doing better than those games because at least I played it once.

I think some PC gamers, or at least this PC gamer, is interested not only in games, but in how games are made. I'm a fan of games, but also a fan of the gaming industry. And getting a chance to see how the sausage is made is an experience with value to some. It's not for everyone, naturally. The first Alpha of Spacebase was all but unplayable. But it showed enough of the potential early on and it's fun seeing the things they add each time they update. Seeing new jobs appear or new events occur after the latest update.

I put Early Access firmly in the "Buyer Beware" camp. I cannot count how many people I've seen complaining on forums about known bugs. And I mean it's fine to be cross, but ultimately if they had known what they were purchasing or at least understood what it meant they could have avoided the game until later in the cycle and maybe not had an experience with negative results.

To me, a game is done when they start selling it for money. Is it Early Access? Too fucking bad, you're being judged as if it was a completed release.

When they say its done. If you want to regard games as art then you gotta go by the same rules, a painting isn't done until the painter tells you its done. You are also nothing short of a "tard" if you buy an unfinished painting and the painter decides not to go to your house to finish it up for free like he said he would.

Good question. First to go into when I think it is done we need to note that now-a-days with expansions and updates there are two important times for a game; when it is ready, and when it is done.

A game should be ready when it is released, this means that it is functionally sound, beta tested, and granting a handful of bugs is blemish free. A game is done when there is no more intentions to update, much less add more content through DLC.

For those interested enough to be reading you can probably guess where the snide comment will be aimed. I personally feel that some companies are trying to push the idea that it is ok to release a game at full retail price in such an abhorrent state that is isn't even ready until 2 months after release. That shouldn't be acceptable, take the extra handful of months to get the game ready, respect is garnered that way.

Uhm... I really dont think Mass Effect 3 should be referenced as being incomplete at launch. The Extended cut was not a patch to fix problems or add in elements to the game that was not available at release. It was a reaction to pacify gamers and beat them over the head with the ending they didnt get the first time around. It wasnt some bit of software that just didnt make it in under deadline. It was only even thought of after the screaming and bloodlust began.

Also I think its kind of a silly question to begin with. A game is "Done" when the developer is done developing for it. If you buy it before it is done, you bought an unfinished product. Matters not if it is an indie minecraft knock off in alpha... Or buying skyrim on 11.11.11 An incomplete product is an incomplete product.

And the fact that people keep rewarding it by buying incompleted products is encouraging more of it, to the point that now consumers are letting and encouraging games being transformed into subscriptions.

With the exception of very few games, "Early Access" sends up a warning flag for me. I admit to a certain amount of bias, but for the most part I can't be bothered to play a game that hasn't reached the point where its developers said, "Okay, this is where we wanted to go with it." If they're saying, "We're still on our way to that point," it just (perhaps unfairly) strikes me as bad form to release in that state. The exceptions I mentioned are games that could pass for a finished product as they stand, like Kerbal Space Program as some people mentioned, and obviously Minecraft.

DLC can be more or less the same story. Case in point: Civilization V. The vanilla version, although fun (in my humble opinion), has so little to offer compared to what Gods & Kings and Brave New World added. So in that case the game was finished to begin with and then vastly improved upon.

I would like to point out that this kind of development is by no means a new thing. Just look at roguelikes, RPGMaker games, GameMaker games, BYOND games, open source games, etc. These games were always community driven, and developed out of love for the game. There would never be a point where the game would be "finished", because developing the game was the goal! Minecraft simply was one of these kinds of games that happened to be picked up by the mainstream, and then the developer decided to charge money.

I think what really needs to happen, is for publishers like Steam to create decent programmes where such "game enthusiast developers" are properly supported. That is, methods for developers to come in touch with communities, *without* having to actually sell a "popular product", as is the case with Steam Greenlight. Steam Greenlight produces crap like Guise of the Wolf, what we need is the ability to try Guise of the Wolf for free, then decide whether the concept is good or not, then decide whether to fund development of the game.

Another thing that needs to happen in this regard is milestone-based funding. I mean, this is already pretty commonplace in the IT industry. You/your company is hired to implement some kind of software. But if you get all the money in advance, your employer can't "pull out" if he realizes you're doing a shit job, and if you only get the money afterward, your programmers will have nothing to eat until the product is finished. So you make a contract about implementing part of the program, and you get paid for that. That way, you can pay your programmers straight away, and if you do a poor job, your employer won't hire you to finish the rest of the product, so you'll be motivated to do a good job.

You could not finish the main quest in Fallout 2 if you didn't have the patch, luckily it wasn't that difficult to do but was always a bit of a hassle and still is.

Tarfeather:
I would like to point out that this kind of development is by no means a new thing. Just look at roguelikes, RPGMaker games, GameMaker games, BYOND games, open source games, etc. These games were always community driven, and developed out of love for the game. There would never be a point where the game would be "finished", because developing the game was the goal! Minecraft simply was one of these kinds of games that happened to be picked up by the mainstream, and then the developer decided to charge money.

I think what really needs to happen, is for publishers like Steam to create decent programmes where such "game enthusiast developers" are properly supported. That is, methods for developers to come in touch with communities, *without* having to actually sell a "popular product", as is the case with Steam Greenlight. Steam Greenlight produces crap like Guise of the Wolf, what we need is the ability to try Guise of the Wolf for free, then decide whether the concept is good or not, then decide whether to fund development of the game.

Indeed, the new thing is not the open development process. The new thing is that it has become acceptable to put a price tag on these kinds of products.

I don't buy into early access games myself, mostly because I don't want to spoil a potentially good game by playing it in an unfinished state.

While I consider paid early access programs questionable, I do consider the trend of AAA games shipping unfinished to be completely unacceptable. The worst examples are those where the community is expected to fix the game after release through modding. Yes I'm looking at you Bethesda and Creative Assembly.
Software can always be thought of as incomplete, because improvements are easy to make. But a commercial product should ship in a reasonably polished state. Adding extra bells and whistles is fine and dandy as long as it's not used as an excuse for releasing too early.

In the end it's the consumers and the gaming press who is to blame. We have become acceptant of this behaviour, and the companies naturally take advantage of this. When we are paying the full price equivalent of a game we are not part of a development community, we are simply customers. We should expect the same as we do with any other product.

WendelI:
When they say its done. If you want to regard games as art then you gotta go by the same rules, a painting isn't done until the painter tells you its done. You are also nothing short of a "tard" if you buy an unfinished painting and the painter decides not to go to your house to finish it up for free like he said he would.

Actually, at least in my country, if you paid the painter and he did say that he would finish the painting (why would you call it for "free" if you've already paid for it?), then he has to finish it. If it's impossible, then he must give you your money back.

I never pay for """early access""" games because I tend to hate the game forever if I don't like it's current state, but I don't see why it should be any different.

Yes, but...

It's easy to forget that, even in this day and age, reliable broadband access is not universal. It's probably acceptable to assume that a PC gamer can download patches on an as-needed basis. Even if they don't have broadband, they will still have access to the Internet via modem. That's also a safe assumption for downloaded games on consoles; if you were able to down load the title in the first place, you can download the patches.

Where it is not acceptable to sell a game with a day-one patch is console games sold on physical media. Publishers clearly think that it is fine to sell a disk with an incomplete or broken game, but I believe that once the game goes gold, it should represent the publisher's best effort to get a game out the door that is complete and playable. Are after-the-fact patches going to be necessary? Absolutely. Not every bug can be chased down in QA and sometimes something needs to be changed because it just wasn't all that well thought-out (for example, the original endings of Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 3). Still, someone who - for whatever reason - can only play the game that shipped on the disk should have a complete and relatively frustration-free experience.

I'm actually OK with day-one DLC, provided it's clearly something in addition to the core game and not integral to it. (I'm looking at you, From Ashes.)

This is simply why I don't buy games at release very often. Unlike many consumers, its not the high release day price thats offputting, but the risk of playing an incomplete product. There are more than enough games being released every day for me to spend my time on (plus games I've missed on Steam and GoG, and that's before you even get to other pasttimes) and I do not appreciate it being wasted with bugs and unexpected virtual roadworks. I like to consume games like books or movies (this incidentally is why I feel Portal 1 is one of the greatest games ever made: it was self contained, didn't outstay its welcome, and even had an optional set of special features). Seriously, I'm willing to slap down release day prices on games instead of waiting a year and picking up a Director's Cut, Game of the Year, Complete Edition or something in a sale, but I need a guarentee that the product is complete, and there are few (Western) developers I trust with this anymore.

Ah, the long-forgotten golden age of PC gaming! I remember eagerly setting aside time to download the multiple giant patches for One Must Fall 2097 in 1994. They patched in the entire multiplayer mode.

What I love is the fact that these 'early access' games are considered unfinished, however their prices fluctuate constantly. I always am shocked when I see an early access game on sale, or a sudden price drop, and feel sorry for those who bought it.

It sounds to me like it's a product of the 'easy money grabbing' culture that fringes the gaming industry. Years ago someone would make an indie game and it would usually be free on a demo disk, or some sort of freeware, and then with better internet would be on a site like newgrounds... If it was a bigger game then you wouldn't expect to pay very much, and you may get involved with helping to alpha test or beta test the game.

Now you have a culture where you PAY for something that is less deep and less playable than your average mid 00's free online game (seriously... No, Luca No is apparently classed as an XBLA game! :S) and you also have to privalage to pay for a beta test of a game, where you don't even always have the ability to directly feed back to the Dev... you just leave your thoughts in a dusty forum somewhere and hope someone sees it!

I agree... there need to be standards and rules laid down for this before it gets silly! What is stopping scammers creating this 'fake game concept' selling it to people and then claiming that it can't be completed? What defence do we have, as consumers, against someone or something like this? Will we see more action from Steam, PSN and XBL and the like to ensure quality and insurance against poor or mis-sold games? I hope so!

When it comes out with all the features it has promised and everything works as intended. If it promises no features, there must at least be no serious bugs, but if it promises things like mod support and extra mechanics, those must work properly too. A lot of games are unfinished these days.

The way I hear it, technically speaking, no game is ever done: you just put it through as many iterations of refinement as your budget allows. Granted, I could see that getting rather difficult if you've already ironed out all the core features and are hesitant to introduce any more for fear of feature creep, so perhaps there eventually reaches a point where further iterations aren't worth the effort... that doesn't happen very often because rarely is anyone given that kind of budget (and, when they are, we still might end up with something like Duke Nukem Forever and Daikatana).

If you think people buying unfinished games is a problem, I say that decision lies with the consumers. As long as they're willing to pay for a thing, they are financially incentivizing people to sell it. For example, if you went to kickstarter and bought into a game concept, then you just contributed to making this a world a place where people sell game concepts instead of games. If consumers stop doing this for some reason, then I think we'll see a marked decrease in unfinished game sales.

But the real interesting thing about this is that unfinished games would never sell unless there was a demand for them, and what creates that demand? Hype alone, you say? You're not being specific enough: what is the consumer hyped about? I'm going to say something they want that they can't get any other way. That's the kicker about kickstarters: those developers are promising concepts the game market won't normally provide.

Basically, the fact that people are willing to buy unfinished games is indicative of just how bad cloned, boring game concepts have become where the market can be simultaneously flooded with finished games and having people willing to buy games that aren't even finished yet. Remember when we used to complain about clones? We don't anymore, because the problem has become so pronounced it is now the norm. In such a terrible environment, it's really no wonder that people are kicking over $60 in Kickstarter for something that may well be vaporware.

So here's a potential solution on the developer end of the problem: if you were a whole lot better at your job, maybe the consumers would have enough good, finished games around that there would be no demand for unfinished kickstarter products.

I've loved the Minecraft approach and would love to see it emulated elsewhere, even if that means some missteps. I got in on it for $5 if I remember correctly. While the core gameplay was in place, it didn't compare to what's out now in terms of depth. What made it worth the money then was that it was a stable build. Within the parameters of the game as it existed then, it was complete and I was satisfied with getting to experience a new game.

It's been an absolute delight to see each new iteration come down the pike, and the game is absolutely worth more than I originally paid for it. I would not have wanted to pay whatever it's current price when I started as some sort of 'down payment' on features which didn't exist. Nor would I have paid for the additional features as DLC. But in terms of getting funding for a work in progress, I think it's great for a game to allow supporters to pay what it's worth at early points in development.

That idea of paying for a stable build is really key to my regarding a game as a success or failure. I don't mind patches that tweak gameplay and personally haven't gotten burned by a game not working without a patch. (yet) On the other hand, I'm not generally an early adopter of games because I like to see how they perform for others before I throw my money at them. Caveat emptor and all that.

Incidentally, Titanfall for the 360 has me waffling on the day one buy for exactly this reason. I simply can't disregard EA's track record.

For now the only thing to do is hold developers to the standard of being very up front and honest about the current state of the game when you are dealing with anything early access or beta/alpha. As long as I can make an informed decision based on the description provided by the developer/publisher then I think this system of release can work well, for some people at least.
There are enough people who will not buy an early access or beta game that I don't think we have to worry about every game being released this way. Consumers overall are sharper then people give them credit for and after having a few bad experiences with early access most will learn to be wary when even considering an early access game.

geldonyetich:

If you think people buying unfinished games is a problem, I say that decision lies with the consumers. As long as they're willing to pay for a thing, they are financially incentivizing people to sell it. For example, if you went to kickstarter and bought into a game concept, then you just contributed to making this a world a place where people sell game concepts instead of games.

Not that simple, really. I myself prefer the crowd-sourcing approach to the sell your soul to publisher for bag of money approach. Problem is, kickstarter is really bad at encouraging their creators to actually keep their promise(no milestones and many other issues), and while there are more sensible crowd-funding sites around, hardly anybody puts their project on there.

So, yes, the decision lies with "the consumers", but not at all with a single consumer. As a single consumer, much like in politics, you can only choose the least evil, you can't actually go for the solution you yourself think to be ideal.

Tarfeather:

geldonyetich:

If you think people buying unfinished games is a problem, I say that decision lies with the consumers. As long as they're willing to pay for a thing, they are financially incentivizing people to sell it. For example, if you went to kickstarter and bought into a game concept, then you just contributed to making this a world a place where people sell game concepts instead of games.

Not that simple, really. I myself prefer the crowd-sourcing approach to the sell your soul to publisher for bag of money approach. Problem is, kickstarter is really bad at encouraging their creators to actually keep their promise(no milestones and many other issues), and while there are more sensible crowd-funding sites around, hardly anybody puts their project on there.

So, yes, the decision lies with "the consumers", but not at all with a single consumer. As a single consumer, much like in politics, you can only choose the least evil, you can't actually go for the solution you yourself think to be ideal.

Nothing in life is necessarily simple, but you're not going to effectively refute that you've contributed to an environment where developers are financially incentivized to sell unfinished games simply because you had a reason to do it. This being the entire drive of what you quoted from me, you have framed your message in that context.

So lets just say, yes, you're definitely doing this, but these are reasons why. Fair enough... that's what the rest of my message was about, after all. What you call "selling your soul to the publisher," I call the AAA games environment being one that has become something too poorly conductive to creating games worthwhile to play.

Kickstarter provides a potentially promising alternative, yes, but bear in mind we're commenting on an article by Shamus Young that talks about how the sale of unfinished games is, on some ways, a whole new low entirely.

 

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