Believe it or not, there was once a time when games didn’t launch in broken states. Pretty much any game you picked up off the shelves at your local GameStop would run perfectly fine without any performance issues. Nowadays, it’s almost uncommon to see titles without bugs and performance issues at launch.
Developers are more willing than ever to launch titles in utterly unplayable states, a problem that has skyrocketed over the past few years. Brands we’ve come to expect quality titles from are dropping unplayable messes at launch, only to release an apology message stating they will be “patching it over the next few months.” This issue has so many complex layers, as it isn’t just surface level at all. To analyze and fully comprehend how this practice started, we’ll first dive back to its origins.
The Origins of Software Updates
The early origins of console gaming ran off of ROM Cartridges, which had to be finalized forever before shipping. Companies could not modify anything about these once shipped, meaning that there were never updates. The game was what the game was, and that was that. When the PlayStation 1 came into town in 1994, it transitioned the gaming world to CDs from decades of cartridge-based gaming. Our problem didn’t start here, but this opened up the possibility for the inevitable.
Up to the point of the Sega Dreamcast, the internet had no relation to video games. Consoles couldn’t connect to it, and multiplayer games were all local. The Dreamcast changed that, however, adding the ability to connect to the internet and play games online. This forever changed the gaming landscape, as we all know, and prompted the ability for Halo on Microsoft’s Xbox to cement online play forever.
With the internet came the ability to transfer data from point A to point B. Naturally, this eventually led to the ability to send software over to consoles for already-released titles. Unreal Championship on the Xbox was the first game ever to receive a downloadable update on a console. This patch fixed some performance issues that were occurring with the game. This new revelation allowed companies to modify their software after releasing it, which was never able to be done before with physical cartridges or discs.
The feature was used on all consoles going forward, especially with the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 systems. Compared to today, their use of this feature was different, however. Developers utilized software updates to fix bugs or issues that slipped through QA or add new features free of charge. This ability to update titles was not used as an excuse to release unplayable games at full price. No update was meant to completely transform a game, as going Gold and shipping the game meant finality. I can’t even remember any titles that had launched disastrously and resorted to updates in this generation. The problem started to show in the PlayStation 4 / Xbox One era.
Broken Launches Begin
This PS4/XBO gen had a few games that were just flat-out broken at launch. The most notorious one that is still talked about to this day is No Man’s Sky. There are dozens of reasons to explain what happened there that would stretch thousands of words, so I will keep it to the game was a disaster at launch and built itself credibility with each update.
The other main titles that were notorious for bad launches were Assassin’s Creed Unity, Anthem, Fallout 76, Final Fantasy XIV, and Halo Master Chief Collection. These titles came and went, with each receiving loads of updates to get the title up to speed and where it should have been at launch. The thing about these games is that they didn’t cause a tumbling effect of broken launches. Sure, they existed; however, other developers didn’t follow in their footsteps. We weren’t seeing bad launches across the board like we are now.
This all changed when Cyberpunk 2077 was released, opening up to one of the worst video game launches ever. It all starts with the iconic yellow apology graphic.
The Cyberpunk Effect
December 2020 was an insane time for video games if you had any remote knowledge of CD PROJEKT’s Cyberpunk 2077. This game was being praised as the greatest game of all time and a true “landmark” months before release. This all changed on release day, where the world learned the truth about Cyberpunk’s playable state.
The game was only playable on high-end PCs, with anything less than an RTX 2080 running into issues. Additionally, the game’s console releases were flat-out broken and legitimately unplayable. We’ve seen this type of problem happen before; however, considering 13 million players bought the game on launch day, how do you handle this type of situation? The answer was a yellow PNG with a written apology from the heads of the studio.
As of now, the game runs fine and is loved by fans around the world. Spinoffs like Cyberpunk Edgerunners were extremely beloved and successful, and a brand new DLC expansion starring Idris Elba is due out this year. It might have worked out in the end, but why launch in the state they did?
This single moment would cause countless apology graphics to be posted over the last three years, with there seemingly being a massive uptick, especially recently. Since Cyberpunk was able to sell so many copies despite being unplayable, other studio executives have taken this as the green light to go ahead and push out broken titles. It’s no longer common to have smooth and bug-free launches; instead, we’re met with messes that take months to clean up. Why did it ever get to this point?
2023 Game Launches
2023 has been a wild and packed year for gaming thus far. We’ve gotten dozens of massive titles, with plenty more on the way for the year’s second half. Within these, dozens of games have launched completely and utterly broken. This week, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum was released to some claiming it was “easily the worst game of the year.” Why is this? Because the game is broken and looks absolutely nothing like the footage shown previously. Digital Trends could not even review the game because it was “too broken.” Take a look at the variety of statements we’ve gotten surrounding launch states from AAA titles this year alone.
We saw Jedi: Survivor and The Last of Us Part I release completely unplayable on PC, with just an apology message posted that they’ll “fix it”. How did we ever get to the point of launching games in this state?
The reason for bad game launches could be pinpointed to quite a few problems, but everything has derived from the Cyberpunk situation years ago. This has led to the praising of games that launch in good states. Most recently, Nintendo released Tears of the Kingdom earlier this month. After six years, the sequel to one of the most praised games ever was utterly flawless and bug-free. I’ve still yet to run into a bug within the dozens of hours I’ve explored. Since launch, dozens have taken to Twitter to thank Nintendo for releasing a playable game at launch. This also goes for Resident Evil 4, Dead Island 2, and Dead Space, which were released this year by Capcom, Deep Silver, and EA Motive, respectively.
I’ve seen countless people praise these titles and developers like saints simply because the game launched bug-free. And honestly? It’s a sad sight. We didn’t have to praise developers for releasing playable games before, as most games came with quality performance and minimal bugs. Nowadays, it’s almost the standard to release a game with issues that will be ironed out after launch.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be celebrating the developers releasing quality games with minimal issues at launch – we should. These developers put out a quality product that should be the standard. 2023 has led many to expect each game to be broken at launch. Sadly, it’s come to this point, but the practice of releasing a playable game with minimal bugs at launch should always come before anything else. That begs the question, though, what are Nintendo, Capcom, and others doing to prevent these disastrous launches?
The answer is simply giving the developers the necessary time while maintaining an excellent quality assurance system. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was practically finished in March 2022 when it was delayed to Spring 2023. Why delay it, then? Simple – polish. The developers at Nintendo EPD took one year to polish and iron out all of the bugs with the game’s unreal and incredibly innovative physics engine. Publishers nowadays get ahead of themselves, committing to release dates that developers won’t be able to hit properly. This is derived from management in most cases, often ones who don’t care nor understand the true lengths of game development. Nintendo is a rare case, as the “Seal of Quality” still lives on.
The unfortunate reality of this whole situation is that many developers don’t have the luxury of letting a team polish for an extra year like Nintendo. The cost of development has skyrocketed over the past five years and isn’t letting up anytime soon. Most smaller companies don’t have the financial ability to hold off on releasing broken games, which leads to them rushing them out the door. However, these situations aren’t acceptable for developers like Sony, EA, and other massive companies.
The only way to stop this practice is by not supporting broken or unplayable titles at launch. Money is the only influence we have, which is a good and bad thing, as seen with Cyberpunk 2077. We know it’s possible to release games in good, playable condition across all platforms. While it might take more time and resources than some companies want to give, the hard-working developers deserve to launch their titles in a good state, and so do the players who spend their money on these games.
It’s really sad looking at the state of game launches today, and I hope this practice is halted soon. Enough is enough. While it might not be likely, all anyone can do is not support the practice and continue to call out companies who choose to launch their games like this, especially as more games cost $70.