Broken Toys

August 21, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro

It’s long been known among my friends that up until the recent generation of consoles I was a cheat hound. I can recall only a few games that I played 100% legit; mainly titles like Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid, whose experiences would’ve been exponentially impacted by being invulnerable or having infinite ammo. While I’ve already expressed my views on cheating in games in a previous article, the main reason I used to do so was that our games used to be much sloppier than they are today.

Regularly it would be accepted that every game would have bugs, often game-breaking ones, that had to be avoided in order to play the game. Often these were small things, such as a character becoming stuck on a doorframe or an enemy not spawning when it’s supposed to; but occasionally the bugs would be so catastrophic they required a full game or console restart, often resulting in lost data.

It’s interesting to note that while controls, mechanics, animation, graphics, sound design, production design and story have all been improved, developed and pushed to their very boundaries over this generation, bugs are still an issue. Why haven’t developers cracked the final problem and produced what seems to be the impossible: a bug-free game?
Crossed wires
For those of you who know shite-all about games development, here’s a little nutshell rundown of how bugs are created and why they’re such a problem.

A game is comprised of numerous component parts, often packaged together in easy-to-use toolkits called ‘engines’. These engines can be used by many studios to produce sometimes very different games and it saves a lot of time. Back at the dawn of gaming developers had to program every single line of game code from scratch; a gruelling task for just the simple games of the time and an almost impossible one these days.

Often the engines are clean as a whistle, with tools and mechanics that have been designed to work together. It’s when a coder or designer begins to exact their own creativity over the engine that problems arise. New lines of code and new mechanics can conflict with existing ones in unusual and unpredictable ways, causing strange in-game occurrences that can often break the game entirely. At a guess, I’d say that every game on your shelf was a broken piece of shit at some point in its life, before the QA department got hold of it.

Quality Assurance is the process of making sure that the game not only works as advertised but that there are no bugs that ruin the experience or make it otherwise unplayable. Legions of gamers will sit in rooms, often hundreds of miles away from the development studio, and play through early builds of the game looking for bugs, glitches and broken mechanics.

Often a game’s end quality is determined by the level of professionalism in the QA process; some QA companies will be more scrutinising than others. The idea is that after a period in the QA lab a game will be free from bugs and issues. The reality, as we know, is far from that.

A typical, super-fun QA lab...

The main issue is that when one bug is fixed there’s every possibility that fix will create a brand new bug. It’s like a puzzle and the only way to solve it is one step at a time. The more time a game has in QA, the more likely it is to be clean. It’s no great mystery why many rushed movie tie-in games are broken, buggy messes. They were thrown through QA at astronomical speeds, because getting them on the shelf was more important than making sure they worked properly.

Even the most expert of developers working with the top QA teams in the world have little chance of producing a 100% bug-free game. We’ve had some great attempts; the Arkham series, Assassins Creed, Red Dead Redemption. All games with but a few minor bugs that don’t impact their exemplary experiences much at all. However, sometimes it’s baffling how enormous bugs somehow manage to make it out the door.

Yes, you read right. Even in 2012, with some of the most talented and creative people in gaming EVER now working in the industry, with technology far beyond anything we could have imagined 10 years ago, there are still an alarming amount of game-ruining bugs present. Here are some glaring examples…

Mass Effect 3
I’ll start with a recent fuck-up; the Mass Effect 3 Import Bug. This bug, that essentially prevented long-time players of the series from importing the face of their Shepard into the third game, sent the Mass Effect community into a whirlwind of outrage and fury. Many, including myself, refused to play the game until it was fixed and a website was even set up to promote awareness of the severity of the issue.

Some gamers and publications didn’t understand our issue; the bug only applied to players who had a Shepard right from the first game. Considering the massive boost in fans when the second game came out and the equally large increase upon release of the third, this accounted for only a small percentage of Mass Effect players. Some suggested we simply put up and shut up, make our Shepards again and play the damn game. Everything else was imported; experience, choices made, surviving crew members, love interests.

Yet they were missing the point, or should I say, the points. Firstly we, the loyal fans of the series, should not have to sacrifice our character’s looks to play the final game. Secondly, as the above website perfectly articulates, playing the third game with a brand new Shepard after spending anywhere between 90 and 200 hours looking at a face we recognise would feel totally wrong.

Bioware handled the issue like true dicks; by posting a simpering semi-apology on their forums and suggesting PC players use a well-known but pretty useless program to reconstruct their Shepard. It took weeks of constant campaigning, boycotting and raging to spur Bioware into action and even then they could give us no ETA on a fix for the bug. So myself and many others were left with a brand new game we could not play.

The big question is how such an enormous bug could have possibly got through QA. Are you seriously going to tell me that you NEVER, not ONCE tried importing a character that had been through both previous games? That removing many of the facial features from the character creator wouldn’t affect characters created with many of those features? It’s very hard to believe that this was an honest mistake, such is the gravity of the bug. This disbelief led to a few conspiracy theories.

Some thought that Bioware were worried that long-time players would be less-than-interested in the new multiplayer component (which courted its own controversy among the community) and so hatched a plan to push them into playing it. They either created the import bug or just neglected to fix it. This meant that the only way loyal fans could play the game would be to have a go on the multiplayer. I did, as big many of my friends who were also boycotting the single-player.

This trickery would provide the initial boost in numbers that was needed to justify the inclusion of a multiplayer mode in a game that has always been part of the stable of series that just didn’t fucking need it. While it’s a little too cynical (even for me) to think Bioware would risk their reputation to push a multiplayer mode, with EA breathing down their necks, anything is possible.

The bug was finally fixed, over a month after the game was released. By that time, I had lost interest. Bioware’s repeated neglect of its loyal fans and numerous false-starts and rumours had worn me out. I couldn’t be bothered to hope anymore. It was at that point the patch was released and I was overjoyed to finally be able to play the game with my Shepard. While the game was fantastic, all the bullshit with the import bug tarnished the experience. Instead of being filled with excitement and anticipation when I started the game I was almost disappointed. My opinion of Bioware had been so soured that playing Mass Effect 3 felt like a cop-out, like I was just having scraps from the table.

While I’d previously thought of them as a great developer looking after me and giving me another amazing experience, I now felt like I’d been forgotten, then ignored, then finally pandered to. Like a whining child finally getting the ice cream he wanted.

Silent Hill: Downpour
This is a more recent find in my personal timeline and has some of the most crippling bugs I’ve experienced this generation.

I get the game from LoveFilm and, being a life-long Silent Hill fan who was more than disappointed with the awful Homecoming, excitedly dashed it into my disc tray. Not 5 minutes into the game and I was stuck. A pop-up tutorial box told me to press A to open the door. So I did. Despite repeated presses of the button in numerous different positions around the door I could not get new lead character Murphy to open the bastard thing. So I quit back to the main menu and tried again to no avail.

Looking it up on the internet I found I was not alone; this was a common bug experienced by many. I was shocked and amazed at this news. How could such a monumental bug that had been experienced by so many make it past QA and out the door? A full console restart sorted the issue but the point still stands.

Later on and I experience another game-breaker. Searching the basement of a dilapidated diner, I find a lift. Murphy grumbles that he needs a handle to operate it so I jog around the sizeable area looking for said handle. After what seemed like hours of searching to no avail, I once again refered to the internet. Apparently I needed a length of wire, not a handle, and it was sitting on a barrel in a room I’d checked with a fine-toothed comb. So I return to the room and look exactly where the handy picture indicates; no wire. Nothing there at all.

So I search for the issue and once again, it’s a commonly known bug. An essential item failing to spawn, thereby preventing progress. The solution? Another system restart, although this time there were as many people claiming this didn’t work for them as there were people professing it’s usefulness.

Even further in the game and after a particularly cool on-rails section I get a frozen loading screen. So I reset the console, as per habit, and sit through the sequence again. Exactly as before, the loading screen freezes. So, like a mug, I reset again and watch the sequence once more. Still freezes.

The internet gives me bad news; it’s a semi-rare but not unheard of corruption that is impossible to fix. Because the game saves as it’s loading, the corruption is saved also. This means that the only way to get rid of it is to start the game again and even then there’s every chance it’ll happen a second time. I’d had enough and sent the game back the next day.

It’s such a shame, because I was really enjoying it. After the oddly disjointed experience of Silent Hill 4 and the shoddy attempt that was Homecoming, I was overjoyed to find Downpour was as close to the trademark mix of tricky combat and disturbing scenes than any game since Silent Hill 3. The story was good (although Murphy seemed a bit of a dick), and I was enjoying the puzzles. To let such monumental bugs slip out is unforgivable and has more than likely caused many people like me to give up on the game before it’s even got started. I never even got to Silent Hill.

Pushing it out
What makes this worse is the advent of patching and reliance on online services. Publishers can now release unfinished games in the knowledge that if someone finds a glaring bug (or enough people make a fuss about it) then they can sling the developer a few more quid to fix it with a patch. This is nothing new in the PC world, with games being tweaked and fixed with patches and updates for decades, but now it’s invaded the console world we’re seeing an increasing reliance on this post-release doctoring.

Numerous high-profile games have been released as buggy, unplayable pieces of shit (still to critical acclaim mind) and then hastily fixed at a later date. The obvious example being Fallout: New Vegas; a game smaller than its predecessor but so overloaded that after a while it was generally accepted that EVERYONE would experience crashing and freezing on The Strip. There is no way Obsidian could have missed that; they just figured they’d fix it later. After a very long wait a patch was apparently released, but my copy still takes over a minute to load The Strip and crashes with alarming regularity.

This patching trend causes a massive problem for the millions of people who don’t have Xbox LIVE or even the internet. The fact you’re reading this probably means YOU have the internet, but there are still many across the UK and the world who don’t. It’s hard to imagine that in 2012, with technology continually amazing us, that there’s anyone out there without Google but it’s true. So what are they supposed to do? Developers are leaving them with broken games and giving them no way to fix them.

A friend of mine moved back to his parent’s house about a year ago and they refuse to pay for the internet. They have no use for it personally so why would they? He also can’t afford the monthly Virgin bill on his meagre salary and so he’s stuck with an Xbox that’s completely cut off. The amount of times he’s complained to me about a game crashing, freezing, bugging out or being broken to which my only reply can be ‘Well mate they did do a patch for that about a week ago’, with a sort of sympathetic wince. It’s ridiculous.

Worst part is, I haven't even installed the game!

Sometimes developers don’t even need a reason to release enormous, compulsory updates. Battlefield 3 upon release, had by far the best competitive multiplayer of any shooter ever. It was lauded by critics for being tactical, exhilarating and much sweeter than Modern Warfare. So there was no reason to fuck with it, right? Wrong. For some unknown reason, a few months down the line, DICE released a mammoth 2.1GB update. Apparently it was to ‘make Battlefield play even better’, although you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.

Why push such a big update to fix something that was never broken? Beats me. Another huge update was released more recently to support rentable, private servers on the console versions, which has apparently created a split culture in which the rich and popular get to play on lag-free, carefully maintained servers while the rest of us have to deal with the slow, often unreliable dedicated DICE servers. Whether this is true or not is debatable but the point still stands that if a developer is prepared to release almost 6GB worth of updates to ‘fix’ a critically acclaimed game, where is the line?

No end in sight
While I’ve likely made it out to be a huge issue (and it is), many developers and publishers manage to release mostly complete games that often only require small updates, usually coinciding with a Dashboard update or some other Microsoft bollocks. There are still some out there who retain the ideal that there is value in a good product; throwing out unfinished shit is just not cricket. Unfortunately it seems these true believers are being drowned out, and often sacked as a result of the current climate.

Time is of the essence, and a publisher generally doesn’t give two shits how pure and clean the game is as long as it sells and they make money. When you have Activision boss Bobby Kotick claiming he doesn’t play games any more because, and I quote, “…if I was regularly playing MW2, I would not be able to stop it. It would be at the expense of my regular responsibilities”, and the games industry becoming a desperate struggle between creative developers and money-obsessed publishers, it’s not hard to see why we keep getting broken games hitting our shelves.

I see a future where we get a shadow of a game on release day, with promises of the ‘full experience’ coming up in the future. Minecraft is a perfect example of how that system works incredibly well. You give gamers a basic, beta version of your game, make them pay for it and then promise them constant updates. Over the course of 2 years you release said updates, many of which are minor changes and then you finally announce the game is done.

You keep updating it however, promising that one day it’ll be complete and stringing the world along. It also doesn’t hurt to encourage community mods and then steal the best ones. Minecraft will never be finished because Notch knows that as soon as it’s done, interest will wane, the revenue stream will begin to dry up and he’ll actually have to come up with another idea.

I hope that the economy gets better and there’s more time and money to allow developers to finish their games for us. I hope the culture of releasing broken games takes an upturn and the resulting backlash causes a sort of industry-wide condemnation of developers who sling out unfinished shit. Maybe it’ll happen. I’m guessing not, though.