It’s Weird How Some Games Are Now Too Big To Fail

It’s Weird How Some Games Are Now Too Big To Fail
Image: Fallout 76

For nearly the entire history of video games, most title’s lifespans would play out the same cruel, Darwinian way: they would come out and either live or die, sometimes with spectacular consequences. No second chances.

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This was true of first cartridge and then disc-based games, which would either fly off the shelf or not, but has persisted even into the digital age, where the cost of modern development and keeping servers up and running mean games could be killed off within months of their release if they weren’t an instant hit.

More recently, though, we’ve begun to see a growing number of exceptions to this rule. Games that release to a storm of critical abuse, or a litany of technical failures (or both!), which may have sold well initially thanks to pre-orders but blown any chance of continued sales thanks to their crumminess, and instead of meeting their demise are kept around, as though they’re too big to fail, with more money and time and work being pumped into them until they get better.

Image: No Man’s Sky Image: No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky is a great example of this. Dangerously over-hyped, it arrived in 2016 in a fairly basic state that left a lot of people feeling like the game they were promised and the game they got were from different planets. Things did not go well.

But instead of being remembered as a failure frozen in time, a Spore for the modern age, the team at Hello Games were afforded the time and money to keep working on it, in an effort to actually make the thing that everyone thought they’d be getting in the first place. So they just kept releasing new content, adding new features, making the experience bigger and better by the month.

By 2019, we were writing stories like “The unexpected success of No Man’s Sky. In 2020, No Man’s Skyonce the subject of 14-thousand vote Reddit threads called “Where’s the No Man’s Sky we were sold on?” — was taking out the “Best Ongoing Game” prize at The Game Awards over big-money competitors like Apex Legends, Fortnite and Destiny 2.

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Fallout 76 is another one. An unmitigated catastrophe at launch, the game did almost nothing right. It was a technical mess, but also had fundamental design issues, the kind that naturally stem from trying to cobble together a game that nobody asked for just to cram a square-shaped intellectual property into a lucrative, round-shaped genre hole.

It should have died. It deserved to die. But the strength of its brand — and more importantly the depths of the coffers of its publisher Bethesda — meant that was never going to happen. If Fallout 76 couldn’t be a good game at launch, then it would be a good game at some point.

Just like No Man’s Sky, Bethesda have spent years tweaking, adding and fixing things in the game, zeroing in on the kind of stuff people love and papering over the bits they don’t. And just like No Man’s Sky, we’re now at the point where a game we once mocked openly is getting Kotaku game diaries written about it called “They Finally Did It: Fallout 76 Is Pretty Good Now.

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For a third, slightly different example, let’s look at Anthem. The latest project from BioWare, the same people behind Mass Effect and Dragon Age, Anthem was, in theory, supposed to be an innovative blend of Destiny’s social gunplay and BioWare’s own patented story-telling.

It released as a complete mess, a pale imitation of Destiny in almost every way, and what publishers EA were hoping would become a dependable source of revenue from perhaps their single most important developers has instead become a punchline, to the point where retailers have been selling the game for $US1 ($1) just to clear out the stock.

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Where at least No Man’s Sky and Fallout 76 had a redemptive arc to their story, Anthem’s attempted reboot has so far come to nothing, and amidst other turmoil at BioWare inspires little hope in the team ever being able to turn it into even a decent game, let alone a success.

But that’s just the thing. It failed, like those other games, and yet it is still here, like those other games, because its publisher has simply decided that it can not fail, and so will just keep developing it and pumping money into it until that changes. This is a quintessential tragedy of modern AAA game development: if Anthem hasn’t been cancelled then it’s not a failure, and if it’s not a failure, then by some perverse metrics it’s a success.

On the one hand, the optimistic one, this is great! We have more good games to play than we would have otherwise. Publishers being too swift to kill games and shut down servers has been a real bummer in the past (RIP, Disney Infinity), and so if some games needed some extra, more public time in the oven, and they were better for it, then so be it.

After all, every game I’ve spoken about here has one thing in common: an online focus. There’s only so much work you can in-house and with limited testing before unleashing an online game on the real world, and seeing how people actually react under everyday networking and social conditions. Sometimes a game just needs to hit the streets, get some feedback, retool and come back a better experience.

Image: Anthem Image: Anthem

If you’re a fan of the reborn No Man’s Sky, Fallout 76 or even to a less extreme degree games like Rainbow Six Siege and Warframe, this is undeniably a good thing, as some of your favourites wouldn’t be here without the emergent trend of unkillable video games.

On the other more pessimistic hand, though, this also sucks? It’s such a privilege for a broken and poorly-designed game to be backed by a billionaire corporation and be able to survive a bad launch. There are countless other games that could have been truly great with some extra work, lost to us forever because they were independent, or published by smaller companies that aren’t called Ubisoft or Electronic Arts.

And even for the games that do have that luxury, going back to the drawing board is shit for the people making them, who have to return to the coalface and sometimes even go back to full-scale development on a game that was supposed to be done with, which can be bad for work conditions and even worse for morale.

Maybe it’s one of those, maybe it’s just both, but it doesn’t matter what we think of the trend when it’s simply here. Welcome to the age of the undying video game, where if you don’t like a major release at launch…maybe one day you will.

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  • This long tail of support for games is great for me since I generally play games between 12 – 24 months after release so now I get to skip all the buggy mess and internet outrage and just enjoy a game that’s been fixed over time.

  • And then there is Star Citizen, who despite not having a product, and with no prospects of a product in the foreseeable future, still manages to generate support and hype, and raise large sums of cash.

    Sea of Thieves is another example of a game that was seriously flawed at release – looked great but contained virtually no content – but continued updates and support has improved that. It’s still a bit two dimensional (has no depth) but is far better than it was Day 1.

    Supporting flawed releases is, I guess, the AAA version of Early Release. Smaller publishers release their game early, supposedly to help them raise funds to finish the game. AAA games, instead, release a POS, then patch it into something acceptable. Often the ‘early’ releases from the smaller publishers are in a much better state than the AAA examples you’ve talked about here.

    What this may lead to, however, is a move away from Day 1 buyer’s frenzy. Rather than paying full price for a flawed release more and more people will waiting a while and buy the updated and improved game for less. Some of the comments RE: 2077 have suggested exactly this.

    • Another example? DayZ.

      I’ve played it since the mod. A game that started out with plenty of content, got stripped back to utterly zero (or even less!) then has proceeded to add back sweet f*** all. It’s still an utter mess of a game, a broken, broken mess of a game. It’s got less than half the content they promised to put back in and it’s still a relative success for Bohemia… go figure.

      • My goto example is Metal Gear Survive. In a franchise so loved, it was so bad people instantly forgot it existed so thoroughly they didnt even want to give it attention by voting it Worst Game of 2018. When it came time to talk about Worst Game that year, people had to be reminded it actually came out in 2018…

  • ESO, FFXIV, 2 more examples of too big to fail. D3 was a mess at launch as well with the real money auction house, bleh.
    Playing a lot of WH40K:Inquisitor – Martyr lately, a gem of a tactical arpg. It too was very ordinary at launch, but was rescued with a major overhaul in v2.0.
    WoW – one shit expansion after another for years, but the lemmings just keep throwin their wallets at them, *sigh*.

    • I’m in the minority on this, but I didnt mind D3’s RMAH personally.

      Did it work? No. But it was worth trying. Games dont advance unless developers try new things, and when they try new things, it doesnt always work. And consider that they least they had the good sense to get rid of it, unlike a lot of developers who are too stubborn to see their mistakes.

      I looked at it as the opposite of microtransactions myself, and didnt see much harm in it. Most games look at ways to get money out of you, and not the other way around. The RMAH did get money from the player, in the form of their 10% cut (or whatever it was) but money was still going back to the player. Not many games do that, and it was a much better option than the microtransactions that have crept into games since.

      In my mind that was worth the effort even if it didnt work out.

  • It’s not something you really see anywhere else either.

    Samsung had some issues with a few phones running slightly warm(!) and that was the end of the Note 7.

    Some people hated the GoT ending, or Lost ending, or many other tv shows, and they never reshoot those.

    Same with movies, the Snyder cut of Justice League is an example of a movie being changed to what the people wanted but many movies are poorly received and that ends that franchise.

    In some ways I love the preservation aspect of old games I own the disks for, no patches, they had to be spot on when released.

    But it is pretty cool that a game can be released, hated, then patched so much based on feedback that it becomes a success! I put about 200 hours into FO76 and loved it, probably about 50 into NMS, would’ve not played them at all were it not for the extensive patches.

    • And yet football teams can survive rebuild after rebuild after rebuild and still they fans keep coming back.

      Carlton – I’m looking at you!

    • “the Snyder cut of Justice League is an example of a movie being changed to what the people wanted”

      It’s kinda not… it’s an example of HBOMax needing content, and the Snyder Cut was a property that was easily accessible for them, and an inroad into a pre-existing universe for WB…

      • I think the Snyder cut is worth doing, whether it works or not. They’re basically getting $200m worth of show for $10m or so.

        The way things have worked out, it became pretty much a no brainer, largely for what you say – they needed content, and this was sitting there ideally suited to that end.

        For me its an interesting test of what they could do in the future. So many films have hours of content shot and not used that they could completely change a movie. Or could drastically change tone and context with small changes.

        Think Passengers for example. Start the movie with Jennifer Lawrence waking up to find Chris Pratt already awake, then move to the reveal before going back to Pratt’s part of the story. It becomes a much darker story that way.

        Or Infinity War/End Game where the time travel happens first, and it ends with Thanos’s snap, meaning he wins completely. What If, or different cuts can totally change the experience, and get a lot more mileage out of the investment.

        The Snyder cut is an easy exercise to do this sort of thing, because of how the movie making played out. Snyder leaving, Whedon stepping in, etc etc. But its not the only movie it could be done with.

        • It’s absolutely worth doing. Morally and financially. Morally, because Snyder deserves his vision to be seen, financially, because WB already made their money back, 20-30mil of it more to get a whole new 4 hour film which will make bank? Absolutely. On top of that, allegedly more of the money they’re outlaying is going into an ‘Ayer cut’ of Suicide Squad to be shown on HBOMax. That, I cannot wait for 🙂

  • I think its the other way around “they are too big, and will fail”
    Somewhere along the line, someone part of the executive staff pushes for a deadline when the game is not ready despite having all the time in the world to do it… and they will release a failed product.

    Can they recover? Yes
    But is it successful (not a failure)? Thats for the accounting department to determine.

    Marvel Avengers lost $50 million dollars, any attempt to fix it is more money they are hemoraghing, so at some point it is either a money sink they keep polishing.

  • I think the fundamental problem is that larger games can’t fail, cause they are pre-ordered.
    Since Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo… very strongly and even defiantly refuse to give refunds to everyone (despite some regional laws like Australia saying they cant refuse).

    Fallout 76 was a weird failure/success, they set their release timeline to a fixed contract term they signed with their merchandising and sponsors (which included Microsoft)… so the executives decided delaying the game was NOT an option as it would severally penalise revenue that quarter. But why? Bethesda was desperate for cashflow??? Were they hemoraging money to staff and production and falling short on revenue from sales.

    Since Microsoft was sponsoring the advertising campaigns for F76, and they saw how bad F76 failed, they got to peak behind the curtain and saw and opportunity and purchased the whole company. So question is was it the plan to sabotage the game to sell the company.

  • What still annoys me about FO76 is the lag, shooting stuff and having delayed reactions is immersion breaking.

    I know some people have amazing internet and don’t experience this, but with all the houses and nbn connections over had over the FO76 time period. Its been consistently laggy connection wise. I play it basically single player so it makes it worse.

  • The current state of anthem is such a shame, I remember being so hyped when it was announced and how enamoured I was when I first dove in however it was not to be. It felt like an alpha and from I hear now it hasn’t gotten much better.

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