More Finished Games?

Comments of the most curious nature came out of Gaijin Games’ Alex Neuse’s interview with GameSetWatch. To provide you with a block quote:

I think that the indie scene is out of control. There are SO many games being made, it’s hard to keep track of them all. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as a gamer who loves to play a game through to completion, I find it hard to set aside the time to give these games the play time they deserve.

In the future of the indie scene, I hope to see more games actually get finished and make it to market. I’m sick of playing half-done games that are riddled with bugs. Like all consumers, I like products that work and that are complete experiences.

We’re now going to spend some length of time unfuddling this absolutely baffling statement.

Okay, so, immediate point: there were lots of really compelling indies released in 2010, which makes Jim Sterling’s response to this comment absolutely ridiculous (and I usually have a man crush a mile wide on the man). I mean, if we’re just talking real, Triple A indie experiences this past year, we have Super Meat Boy (up for game of the year from Sterling’s site), Limbo (ditto), VVVVVV (a game which received a ten from same site), Desktop Dungeons, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, Hydorah, Gaijin’s four offerings, Solium Infernum, Super Crate Box, and, oh, before we forget, Minecraft. That’s more absolutely fantastic titles than I got from mainstream, triple A gaming all year, and I had only gotten warmed up.

But let’s not turn this into a rag on Jim Sterling festival, because there’s enough of that and the man is a paragon of working integrity in the games journo community. No, let’s go back to the comment. That there need to be more games that get finished and make it to market. Obviously, what this is a dig at is the practice, recently, of games developers releasing their games while still in Alpha, usually at a discounted price, and getting fan feedback to make improvements.

Is this a bad practice? Sometimes. There’s good and “bad” scenarios for it. Where a pre-release is intelligent is where it allows for small studios to commit to really large scale projects. For instance, Minecraft is a fully-featured game that feels like it’s the work of a lot of people, and yet came from primarily one guy. A prolonged release schedule allowed Minecraft to really evolve into a good game, and it tiered nicely in popularity. In early alpha, it was a hardcore, “Hey you’ve heard of this?” back alley shady type thing. Then it got further along, and it blew up, and sold a lot of copies. Now, it’s a mainstream success, bigger than a lot of big budget games. It’s not even “finished” yet, but I’d say it’s as finished as Diablo II was when it came out. What it’s getting is continual expansion, as new ideas are added and things are developed out. Even when I jumped in back in the summer, it was a very complete experience, without a majority of bugs.

Where this sort of method is “bad” is with a game like Cortex Command, known as a member of the Humble Indie Bundle 2. Cortex Command has been around since 2006, and hasn’t…really moved too far beyond its original beginnings. People purchased the game in the hope that they’d be able to one day play the complete things, but the only real effort forward in the past year or so was making an “official” release for the Humble Bundle. Obviously, this is a betrayal of trust, and that’s the issue with this sort of release: when you ask your customers to pre-order a product and it doesn’t reach completion, it’s a difficult situation.

However, I feel that’s not a particularly common situation. What I feel like these comments are a reaction to, actually, is Magicka, which would be a tragedy. Magicka is a recently released wizard dungeon crawler, that got some post-release “hype” because it was relatively broken on release. This has led some corners of the internet to comment on how these smaller developers love rushing shitty products to market, like Stardock did with Elemental. And my response has always been the same: it’s just like EA did with Battlefield: Bad Company 2, where the PC matchmaking was *completely* broken for a week and a half, just like Bethesda did with Fallout: New Vegas, where my companions would run off at expontentially increasing speeds whenever I fast traveled unless I immediately talked to them, and how my favorite companion was initially level locked as an oversight, just like how pretty much every major game these days is launched broken.

Quite frankly, most indie games have been remarkable in how stable and bug free they’ve been at launch. Atom Zombie Smasher offered me no bugs in hours of playtime. Not even minor annoyances, the kind we expect from games nowadays. While Magicka may have had broken net code, single player it crashed significantly less to desktop than big budget, many years old blockbuster Dragon Age: Origins, which crashes fairly often on my PC. Even Minecraft has never crashed for me in twenty hours of playtime, something that cannot be said of Red Dead Redemption.

So yes, if you browse around the periphery of the indie games circuit, you might find a lot of incomplete, bug ridden games. This is okay, these are the indie equivalents of Sniper: Ghost Warrior. When you stack indies up against the big boys, head to head, though, the indies come out ahead in producing finished products without scads of bugs, which is equally impressive and horrifying. And while I would, of course, appreciate all indies to be polished, finished products on release, I understand the economic reality of many of these developers requires quick releases with short turnaround and slow building hype. That’s fine. It’s very understandable.

And while indies are, by no means, absolutely better than big budget games, it would be completely incorrect to claim that indies are less finished than the big budgets, which never actually finish themselves, anyway. I’d rather have an unfinished game with the promise of future content for free than to buy a buggy opus that requires me to plunk down more cash to get to the end of the game.