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You’re Not Owed A Perfect Game

We’ve convinced ourselves that every game needs continuous work until it’s perfect — and that’s harming the industry

James O'Connor
Aug 3, 2019 · 6 min read

Do you remember Past Cure? No? That’s okay. It released early last year, it wasn’t well-liked, and so it disappeared. That probably should have been the end of it. A few months after the game’s release, I received a press release telling me that Past Cure had received a massive update. Here’s an excerpt: “changes include new story elements, cinematics, redesigned levels, reworked sanity meter, and the addition of new abilities; allowing you to interact more with the environment and experience Ian’s story in a more compelling and engaging way.”

As I read what Phantom 8 — the eight person design team behind Past Cure — had done to improve their game, I couldn’t help but sigh. Not because the game was beyond help — truthfully, I’ve never played it. Perhaps it’s great now, after all those changes.

What bothered me then, and still bothers me now, is the increasingly prominent belief that games owe their players a certain level of quality. That games must be good, and if they’re not, the people who created them must go back to work on them until they are. What bothers me is that Phantom 8 couldn’t just release a game, see it fail, sigh, and immediately get to work on something new (and hopefully better).

This is a pattern I’ve seen repeat a few times over the last few years, but this one really stuck out to me. No one was going to re-review the game; no critical or commercial reappraisal was coming. These developers clearly felt an obligation to their customers, and perhaps to themselves, and I just wish that this wasn’t the case.

The criticism that players direct at developers for releasing a game that is anything less than stellar is disproportionate, and there’s no excuse for it. A critical review is one thing; the earnest demand that the developer fix their game is another.

Here’s something I want people to consider: developers that release games for commercial sale are not actually obligated to make those games good. If the game launches, and it’s not very good, they’re under no obligation to make it better. If it works, and they haven’t scammed you, then the fact that the game you bought is bad isn’t a tragedy that must be rectified.

This is, I understand, an unpalatable suggestion, especially coming from a critic who often plays and reviews games they don’t particularly like. But it’s a shift in thinking that would, I think, be helpful for the whole industry. I believe that players and developers need to collectively re-examine their relationship and find ways to make it less toxic.

The criticism that players direct at developers for releasing a game that is anything less than stellar is disproportionate, and there’s no excuse for it. A critical review is one thing; the earnest demand that the developer fix their game is another.

We’ve all seen movies we didn’t like. We’ve read books that weren’t very good. We’ve gone out for meals that were lacking in flavour. But — unless you’re one of those people who keeps tweeting at Rian Johnson, or you’re someone’s embarrassing uncle who is rude to wait staff — we mostly understand that it would be wild to ask the people who made these things to go back and bring us a better version, for free, as soon as possible. Perhaps the author, or the director, or the restaurant will struggle if they consistently produce poor experiences, but usually it’s better for them to create something new rather than trying to fix the thing that already didn’t work.

Yes, games are often more expensive than any of those things. But even at their absolute most, they’re not that much more expensive, are they? The price of a new game has never risen in my life time, beyond the occasional temporary bump when a new console releases — in fact, it’s never been cheaper to buy and play games. And yet it feels sometimes like we treat our games like a new homeware appliance, or a new car — a major and important decision that must deliver exactly what we need from it, rather than a piece of art we took a financial gamble on enjoying.

But — unless you’re one of those people who keeps tweeting at Rian Johnson, or you’re someone’s embarrassing uncle who is rude to wait staff — we mostly understand that it would be wild to ask the people who made these things to go back and bring us a better version, for free, as soon as possible.

These days, our concept of what constitutes a truly ‘bad’ game has shifted. The major studios are creating fewer games — expectations have changed, and now the aim is to have a few major titles that are perpetually updated rather than to try out a lot of different ideas to see what sticks.

Middle-ground failures, meanwhile, have become a rarity. The ‘AA’ mid-budget market has eroded, and the fully-fledged licensed products on mobile and PC that used to sustain small studios (despite reviewing poorly) have turned into mobile games that are largely ignored by press. The games that get attention are the handful of indie darlings that really break through — often because they’re absurdly good, because the developers just about died making them — or the games from the major publishers that we all expect to be not just good, but the perfect realisation of their intent.

We don’t look at games — or, at least, our understanding of what games are, which will inevitably completely overlook hundreds of creators who don’t fit into the established molds — and see a spectrum. We see games that are perfect, and games that are garbage until the developer goes back to fix them, and often not a lot in-between.

We end up in this weird place where people tut and shake their heads when Mass Effect Andromeda stopped releasing patches and updates after a few months, declaring the game done, and that it was time to move on. This is a healthy thing for a studio to do, though — to accept that the thing they made isn’t perfect, but that the time to stop working on it had come.

Listen — capitalism has us all convinced that we need to be perfect, and that we need to hold everyone to an impossible standard, because earning money and staying alive should involve unreasonable toil and sacrifice. We’re all busy and tired, and when we have time to relax, we must see absolute evidence that the people who created things for us to enjoy are just as busy and tired. And that shouldn’t be. It should be okay for games to fail. A first-time developer shouldn’t have to create a masterpiece. An established studio should be alright to make a game that’s just okay and move on. An actual turd of a game just isn’t that big of a deal. And if we don’t stop pretending otherwise, the whole industry’s going to suffer.

By the way — if you didn’t enjoy this article, I’m sorry. But not that sorry. I won’t change it.

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Cover photo by Lorenzo Herrera.

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