Obsidian Entertainment is a development house that is known for taking other people’s hand-me-downs and turning out unfinished sequels. In 2004, they made Knights of the Old Republic 2, a sequel to BioWare’s smash hit from just a year earlier. The game was filled with glitches, bugs, unfinished quest lines, and if you search around a bit you’ll see it frequently scores in people’s Top 10 lists of Worst Videogame Endings Ever. People blamed publisher LucasArts for shipping the game before it was ready. And since the game came out just eighteen months after the original, this seems like a pretty fair charge. After all, it’s a safe bet that there were a few months between the release of the first game and the initiation of work on the second. So you’re talking about doing a game in just a year, with a new team, using new (to them) tools. There is just no way that was going to end in triumph.
In 2006 they gave us Neverwinter Nights 2, a sequel to another BioWare title. As before, the game was shipped with a lot of rough edges on it. It had immense load times, frequent load times, crashes, broken scripting, terrible camera controls, bad AI, and a host of other issues. And once again, it had an ending so bad it frequently scores in various “Worst Endings” lists. Once again, people blamed the publisher. (Which was Atari this time around.)
After that they released some expansion packs. But they were expansion packs to a broken game with a reprehensible ending, so I didn’t play them. Even if the expansion “fixes everything that was wrong with the original game,” I didn’t feel like rewarding them for their misbehavior.
Then this year Obsidian released Alpha Protocol. I really liked what they did with the decision-making gameplay in Alpha Protocol, and I will say that it was the most polished game Obsidian has shipped. But it was still buggy.
Which brings us to their latest game, Fallout: New Vegas. Let me tell you about New Vegas …
In my second or third session with the game, I spent a good three hours making my way to a town called Novac and from there into an industrial facility to do a quest like you do in these sorts of games. I’d met a few annoying glitches on the way: Some minor interface bugs, but nothing crazy or show stopping. Just the sort of sloppy work and lack of polish I was expecting from Obsidian. Then I found myself talking to a ghoul who wanted me to go look for his girlfriend. I said “sure thing” and we parted amicably, but as soon as the conversation ended he tried to kill me. (Reading up on this later, it appears this is a common bug. Another user reported that their NPC companion instantly one-shotted the ghoul and blew his head clear off as soon as they ended the conversation. Kind of hilarious, actually.) I’d really wanted to do the quest, so I reloaded my previous save so I could try the conversation again. And the game crashed. Not a nice, clean crash, but one of those awful lockups where you have to fight to bring up Task Manager so you can kill the game manually. Then I re-started the game and found that all of my saves – quick save slot, auto-save slot, and the manual save slot – had all been reverted to what they were three hours ago. The last three hours of gameplay had been obliterated.
I’ve followed several forum threads on this, and they involve a lot of guessing and a lot of workarounds. Some solutions work for some people but not for others. The upshot of the problem is that the game makes backups of your saves at some point. Then at another point it restores the backups for no reason, clobbering the newer saves. Every single time I launch the game my quick-save slot is replaced with the very first quick-save I ever created. It’s anyone’s guess as to what the hell they were trying to accomplish with this “feature.” At first people blamed it on Steam and cloud saves, but it’s since become apparent that Steam isn’t involved. New Vegas, all by itself, resets your progress every time you run it. You can get around it, once you go to the forums and read what to do.
A few hours later I forgave the game and came back. I managed to win a $16,000 jackpot at the slot machines. (An exceptionally unlikely spin.) And then the game insta-crashed on me. This was like scratching off a winning lottery ticket and then getting hit by a car. A car driven by Obsidian Entertainment.
Now you could argue that Obsidian is up against a tough job here. Sandbox worlds are huge, complex beasts and it’s probably impossible to test every possible thread of every quest in every situation. Nobody else outside of Bethesda is even trying to build games like this. A broken quest here or there is annoying, but I’m sympathetic to the idea that maybe these games need to be released into the wild before some obscure situations can be identified and fixed.
And as someone who has spent over a decade writing software, I’m also sympathetic to the problems of releasing games on the PC. It’s murder finding out that your game has some problem that only affects people using a particular (rare) breed of soundcard who are running Windows XP Home but haven’t updated to the latest service pack. You can’t test your software on every possible version of Windows, with every possible graphics card, with every possible soundcard, with every possible configuration of drivers and service packs. (That’s why games often require you to be running the latest Direct X with the latest service pack with the latest drivers. Often you don’t need that stuff, but by only testing on that equipment they can reduce the number of question marks they’ll have to deal with when facing problems.)
But even if we give Obsidian a pass for the crashes and broken quest triggers, this save game business is absurd. This is saving data and retrieving it. This is not rocket science and this is something that should just work. More importantly, this is absolutely something that they should have found before the game went gold. There is simply no excuse. This problem is obvious and widespread. Any degree of playtesting would have revealed it.
Obsidian did manage to put out a patch Thursday morning. (Although I haven’t checked to see if the save game bug was fixed yet.) But let’s not forget that while the game only launched four days ago, it likely went gold months ago. They have had all that time to perform further testing. In the last two months, has not even one person sat down with the final build of the game and, you know, played it? Given Obsidian’s extremely checkered history, didn’t anyone think it was worthwhile to have at least one person playing the game and rounding up bug reports?
This save game bug is a slap in the face. Not just because of how dire it is. (Naturally it’s incredibly painful to see hours of your progress wiped out.) But also because of how easy it is to spot and how trivial it ought to be to fix. The game is restoring backups of old saves? Let’s not do that! Next! That the bug exists is bad enough, but it’s even worse that nobody knew about it until after launch day, when it was discovered by paying customers. Instead of having a day one patch for the game, Obsidian is making the rest of us wait for the fix.
Once only a problem for PC gamers, the baleful days of release-then-patch have finally come to consoles as well. Yet Obsidian can’t even hold themselves to these falling standards. After repeatedly taking our money for broken games, Obsidian is showing that they still don’t care and that they haven’t learned a thing. After seven years, they still haven’t changed their methods and still refuse to develop even the most rudimentary QA system. (Or if they have one, it must be deeply dysfunctional to miss out on stuff like this.)
I guess Obsidian figures that they don’t need to hire QA testers when they can charge us $60 for the pleasure.
I want my $60 back.
And my three hours.
And my 16,000 bottlecaps.