Modern game developers have a luxury that their predecessors would practically kill to have access to: the ability to change their games post-launch. The incorporation of the internet into video games truly must have been a dream come true for the development community. No longer would they be stuck with the version of the game they had to ship. No longer would bugs, glitches and exploits have to be permanent features. No longer would they have to scramble to make sure that the game getting released was the best possible version of itself. Video game developers have a difficult job to begin with, so gaining the ability to continue development in post must have come as something of a godsend to them. The fact that further development and fixes can come after launch, however, doesn’t mean the gaming community won’t judge a game’s initial release. Post-release patches or not, video games still only get one launch day. If the product isn’t in good shape at launch, then all the fixes and changes in the world aren’t going to save it.
Patching games post-release has been around for several years at this point. We saw it begin in the seventh console generation with the likes of DLC packs and stability patches. After only a couple of years, games started getting day one patches and extensive post release updates as both developers and publishers figured out what exactly they could do with this newfound power. Somewhere along the line though, figuring out what one could do turned into figuring out what one could get away with. This gave rise to many controversial practices like microtransactions, on-disc DLC and day one DLC. It also created the “patch it later” culture that’s all but taken over these past several years. Many developers still do their best to release a good product at launch, but many others now operate under the idea that they don’t necessarily need to do that anymore. It’s a dangerous assumption to make.
Between 2014 and 2018, we’ve seen high-profile release after high-profile release get brought to market in either an unfinished or under-cooked state. Aside from notable exceptions like The Division, the story plays out the same every time this happens. The game gets panned at launch. Players complain about being sold something that wasn’t what was advertised to them, and gaming news outlets pick the game apart as they attempt to decipher exactly what was delivered and what had to happen for it to launch in such a state. The developer then comes out, apologizes and promises to support the game and make it better in the future. After that, the once promising and exciting game is either forgotten completely once the community moves onto the next big thing or dragged through the digital mud for a few months as the developers are mocked and ridiculed for trying to save a game that’s essentially become a lost cause. It’s happened time and again, and yet nobody is willing to learn what should be a painfully obvious lesson. Launch day still matters and first impressions remain extremely important.
One need not search very hard to find an example, just take a look at No Man’s Sky. After the absolute disaster that was the game’s initial launch in 2016, the game has seen updates both small and massive as Hello Games dutifully worked to make it into something closer to what was originally promised. In 2018, No Man’s Sky is much, much more than what it was in 2016 and it’s going to be getting yet another massive update, titled “NEXT” this summer. The game has more content, better mechanics, better UI and is plainly a much better game now than it was then. If it had launched in its current state or even the state it’ll be in after the summer update, then it would not be the cautionary tale it is today. It might have even received some praise from happy players who’d decided to pick it up. That’s not what happened, though, and it’s become a story that most of us are very familiar with now. No Man’s Sky launched in a terrible state in 2016 and no matter how good it is now or will become in the future, the game will never win back most of the people it betrayed two years ago. They’ve all moved on. There are too many other, newer, games competing for their attention. They cannot afford to give No Man’s Sky another chance. It had its chance and it blew it spectacularly.
There is an overused quote from Shigeru Miyamoto that goes something like “a delayed game is eventually good. A rushed game is forever bad.” The quote comes from the N64-era when games could not be feasibly fixed after launch. Even though that’s no longer the case, it’s still an applicable sentiment when it comes to a game’s reputation. Once a game is labeled as bad, nothing beyond fast and dramatic actions have any chance of saving it. Bungie is re-learning this with Destiny 2 and Rare is learning it with Sea of Thieves. Just like No Man’s Sky, both of these games were massively and perhaps even irreparably harmed by launching in incomplete states. Both were labeled as “bad” and it’s going to take more than an apology and some updates months after the fact to keep them from being discarded by the greater gaming community like No Man’s Sky was.
The ability to fix or even fundamentally change a game after launch is a remarkable thing to have, but one shouldn’t think of it as something with the power to save that game once it’s failed. Even if the game gets fixed — even if one manages to turn a failure into something truly special — the reality is that most gamers won’t care. Unlike many publishers and developers out there, most gaming consumers don’t see a triple-A or even an indie game’s launch day as its beginning. They see it for what it is: a product they’re being charged to play. If that product is bad at launch, then it will always be bad in their minds. Most of them won’t be willing to come back once it’s fixed and many others will become distrusting or even resentful towards the publisher that sold it to them. First impressions matter and any improvements made afterward will always come too late.