If most of the last decade was relatively positive for video games, then 2014 was the brown note.
It was the year Irrational Games, the makers of BioShock, closed down. EA shut down servers for more than 50 games. A ton of long awaited games launched in incredibly buggy, sometimes outright broken states. Halo: Master Chief Collection took years to iron out the bugs. And then there was that disaster.
Finding new ways to be disappointed
Remember the launch of Destiny, playing the biggest of AAA shooters only to discover all the game’s lore through a mobile app? Or one of the most shockingly phoned in voice over performances? Or realising that major games like Rise of the Tomb Raider would be an Xbox exclusive for a year, which Microsoft wasn’t entirely clear about from the off, so people thought it was an Xbox exclusive permanently for a while.
And Sony started spending big – not on exclusives, just exclusive content. Certain Destiny strikes, ships and weapons were locked off for a full year, a strategy Sony deployed in later years with Call of Duty to everyone’s annoyance.
It was a time when the dollar was still relatively good for Australians, so buying games digitally was real easy to do. Until publishers got upset they weren’t making as much money as before, so they just gouged the living shit out of Australians. Civilization: Beyond Earth, a game that would have disappointed without the shadow of Alpha Centauri, went from $US49.95 one day to $US89.95 the next. Watch Dogs went from $US59.95 to $US74.95, a change Ubisoft chalked up to a “pricing error”.
A pricing error that was rectified one week before launch.
The Australia Tax still lives on, and even when marketplaces started supporting the Australian dollar the old-world pricing approach didn’t really die out. And that fabled R18+ rating for games? Well, that didn’t work out quite the way everyone hoped.
The censoring of Left 4 Dead 2 was one of the more depressing parts of Australia's struggle for an R18+ rating -- a brilliant video game completely butchered and broken in order to make it through at MA15+. But we've just gotten word that on August 29, almost five years after the game's initial release, the complete uncensored version of Left 4 Dead 2 finally made it through classification.Read more
Bugs, bugs everywhere
Remember when people were excited for Driveclub, the racing game that was meant to launch with the PS4? That eventually got postponed by a whole year? The game that was so bugged that Sony promised to release a free version through PlayStation Plus, only for that to get delayed so much that it was “postponed until further notice”, because Sony wasn’t sure the game’s servers could handle more people jumping on.
Things, as it turned out, were so bad that the server code and architecture had to be completely rewritten. “The stress-testing was not designed correctly,” Shuhei Yoshida, the then president of Sony Worldwide Studios, told Kotaku at the time.
And that’s only the start of a shockingly bad year. Assassin’s Creed: Unity also showed players that publishers were happy to let them spend an extra $US100 on microtransactions after paying full price for the game in the first place. If that wasn’t annoying enough, remember the part where only certain chests could be unlocked by connecting to an app on your phone? Or those Five Nights At Freddy’s style texture glitches?
And even when Ubisoft tried to fix it, things didn’t go according to plan. A ~7GB patch designed to correct frame rate and other stability issues, for some magical reason, was 40GB for Xbox One users. Ubisoft Montreal head Yannis Mallat ended up apologising and offering up free DLC, along with a free copy Far Cry 4, The Crew, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, Rayman Legends or Just Dance 2015 for free if they still shelled out for the season pass.
Unity wasn’t alone either. Most publishers would have given up on Halo: Master Chief Collection was barely functional at launch, with players presented with half hour queue times for matchmaking. Even when 343 Industries promised to make it better, players were still getting crashes and never-ending matchmaking queues, so 343 Industries apologised a second time. It wasn’t completely rectified after a month, so the studio started beta testing their patches just to make sure.
It’d gotten so bad, that 343 addressed the issue directly in their FAQs:
Q: Why are you testing the content update in the Xbox One Preview program? Don’t you have internal playtesting for the very same purpose?
A: In recent weeks, 343 Industries has been conducting extensive internal testing of the upcoming content update. However, given the scale of the update, which includes changes to the Halo: The Master Chief Collection matchmaking experience and party system, we are opening it up to members of the Xbox One Preview program to provide additional testing in an “at home” environment to ensure the official release is the best possible experience for players.
The brand damage was incalculable, and Halo 5 was just around the corner. The multiplayer woes did improve by then, but Halo: MCC still needed fixing. And for years, it remained totally broken. “We ended up in a precarious situation where there was no way to make more fixes without potentially breaking something else or making things worse,” Halo series director Frank O’Connor wrote in 2017.
“I should be clear here, that in terms of chicken/egg scenarios, fixing the existing “vanilla” Xbox One MCC was the Chicken that laid the Xbox One X enhanced version egg. Without the ability and opportunity to reconfigure and fix this thing, we wouldn’t touch an Xbox One update,” he explained.
Imagine being a fan who bought Halo: MCC in 2014, only to read that three years later.
And the list went on. Watch Dogs, after plenty of its own delays and some over-the-top hype – including a promo package that saw the Sydney Ninemsn newsroom being evacuated because they thought it was a bomb threat. Advanced Warfare, the Call of Duty game hyped to the hills because of Kevin Spacey’s appearance, was buggered on PC. (And, as it turns out, one of the more hated COD games in a while.)
Then you’ve got the platforms themselves. PS4 users had their consoles hard-locked after the 2.00 software update. Even then, there was the bigger problem that Sony advertised the PS4 as having a suspend/resume functionality. In February 2013. A feature that wasn’t introduced until March 2015. The PlayStation network completely crapped out over Christmas that year. Xbox Live went down too, thanks to the Lizard Squad hacker group, with one of the members eventually being charged with more than 50,700 cases of “computer crimes” in 2015.
Old franchises dying the most miserable of deaths
Remember when the idea of Dungeon Keeper coming back was exciting? And then people discovered it’d been completely butchered by the most aggressive microtransaction model imaginable, a product so bad that EA would eventually close the studio responsible that same year.
After spending the better part of two years covering the mobile gaming beat for Kotaku, I found myself puzzled over the anger surrounding the free-to-play features and rating policies of EA Mobile's new Dungeon Keeper game. Then it hit me -- you guys must be new.Read more
Dungeon Keeper has only returned through spiritual indie successors, although EA did briefly make the game free for all through Origin years later. Mythic had already shut down Warhammer Online a year before, a crying shame in its own right. (If you want to know more about how that collapsed, PC Gamer’s Jody Macgregor has a great yarn. Funnily enough, the studio behind the Dungeon Keeper disaster for this would eventually form a new indie studio that made Enter the Gungeon, one of the most beloved games on Steam in the last decade.)
And remember the Thief reboot? Alternatively, it’s probably better if you don’t.
Federal funding for Aussie video games died
The industry is still fighting to have the Australian Interactive Games Fund reinstated. The fund supported 36 separate games and 10 studios in Australia with only half of its $20 million budget (since the Liberals cut the remainder of its funding in 2014). And yet, despite that relative pittance compared to the sums thrown around by government, the fund was a bonafide success.
Screen Australia’s chief operating officer told a parliamentary committee that the $3.7 million from the AIGF “provided generated total production budgets of $14 million”. Morgan Jaffit, founder of the former Defiant Development, said the studio received $650,000 in funds over three years, an amount which the studio was “roughly equivalent to the tax” they were due to pay in 2016.
To put that in context, PayPal’s local arm paid $36,809 in tax this year, while Atlassian and Afterpay paid a combined $0 despite having taxable incomes of more than $150 million.
Games like Shooty Skies, Hand of Fate, Armello and Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock were all created with contributions from the fund. It was one of the Armello developers, League of Geeks co-founder Trent Kusters, who said it best:
But I guess when you’re dedicated to fucking the elderly, the disabled, students, the unemployed, education, families and Australia’s youth, destroying a $10m games fund is all just in a day’s work. Hey! New jets though!
Yesterday, as part of the budget the Federal Government pulled its $10 million of funding for the Australian Interactive Media Fund, meaning that the Government is no longer providing any funding for games in Australia. We spoke to some members of the local industry to get their reaction to the news.Read more
It would take almost a full decade before the Federal Government would see the value in video games once more. We’re still waiting to see the actual details of how that’ll be implemented, though, and whether indie studios will be able to take advantage of the incentives.
Some good games appeared, though
There were some bright spots in the rough, of course. Counter-Strike bounced back in a big way, with Valve having fully recovered from CS:GO‘s shaky launch by adding new maps, a better matchmaking system and the game-changing CZ75-Auto pistol, as well as the excellent Operation Phoenix.
Indies had a good year where the AAA titles failed. Endless Legend is still one of the best takes on the 4X genre, and Divinity: Original Sin would lay the groundwork for Larian to double down on Divinity: Original Sin 2. GTA 5‘s first person mode absolutely transformed the experience, giving the game a whole new identity that’s still being explored today.
Blizzard had a stellar year: the failed Project Titan was replaced with Overwatch and one of the best introduction cinematics of the decade. Hearthstone was an instant hit, fully launching in 2014 with an iOS and Android ports shortly after. But the real star ended up being the return of Diablo 3 with a console re-release that completely transformed the experience. It couldn’t wipe out the memories of how bad Diablo 3‘s launch was, but it was a step on the road to redemption.
Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis system still hasn’t been reverse-engineered by other devs with any success. Final Fantasy 15 actually appeared, giving everyone closure from the whole Final Fantasy Versus XIII saga. Xbox started to get its shit together, with Phil Spencer taking over as head of the division in 2014. (Microsoft would later reward Spencer’s success in turning around the Xbox brand with a promotion into the company’s senior leadership.)
All in all, coupled with the never ending fracturing of the gaming world that continues to reverberate today, 2014 was a stinker of a year. It was a year where the new consoles were still searching for solid ground, one where publishers were pushing the uncomfortable boundaries of what fans would accept, and one where trust quickly found itself in short supply. The good news is that things eventually got a little better: The Witcher 3 and Bloodborne were just around the corner.
Not only will this year mark the end of a generation, it'll also mark the end of one of the momentous decades gaming has ever seen. Blockbusters became blockbuster platforms, but we also saw indies become gargantuans in their own right with the rise of Steam. But before the decade saw in a new console generation, the emergence of consumer level VR, augmented reality in your pocket, 100GB+ downloads becoming normal and microtransactions a way of life, everyone had a date with the Illusive Man.Read more