Death to the Broken AAA

Death to the Broken AAA

Death to the Broken AAA

Posted by Lawrence Rennie

26 Jan, 2021


It’s been a tumultuous launch for CD Projekt Red’s (CDPR) cybernetic future darling, Cyberpunk 2077. The game has made unprecedented headlines yet again after news broke that Sony was pulling the largely broken and bugged game from its digital stores—a move that has never before been made on this scale for a AAA game. 

This latest infraction comes as a dramatic—and frankly, damning—response to CDPR’s attempt to push the onus of reconciliation onto Sony and Microsoft with a statement suggesting the console giants would freely refund the price of Cyberpunk for those unhappy with its experience. This directive to consumers appeared to come with no—or at least very little—communication and prior agreement with Sony and Microsoft themselves. Hence, Sony has opted to make an example of CDPR and Cyberpunk.

The message of this unprecedented withdrawal is clear: the video game industry will no longer accept unfinished AAA titles in the marketplace. 

The last decade has seen a worrying upward trend of games releasing with a mess of problems still unfixed by launch, with vacant promises from massive studios that should be embarrassed at such acts to “patch” them later. The expectation is for AAA titles to be a complete package with a full polish and a huge budget that can and should be able to cater to any concerns players may have. Instead, in just the last few years, we have had huge titles and franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed Unity, Arkham Knight, Fallout 76 and No Man’s Sky releasing with a slate of game-breaking technical problems unbecoming of their large budgets and studios. 

At one point this kind of slovenly industry practice would rightfully have seemed untenable, and yet we find ourselves in a bizarre situation whereby it appears commonplace. But how did this practice come to be over the last decade? How did it become normal for AAA titles to need patches after launch? And will this latest implosion from CDPR be its damning finality?

Blocky Beginnings 

To understand how we reached this point, we need to go back to May 2009 and the conception of a little ol’ game called Minecraft

Minecraft was initially released as a barebones early test build (pre-alpha), mostly as a proof of concept to various gaming and developer forums to gauge feedback. By 2010 the game released its alpha build, meaning the game was still far from completion but nevertheless saw an unexpected number of sales. The game’s popularity grew substantially over the next six months, and by the time of its beta release (again, still an unfinished testing phase) in December 2010, Minecraft was pushing close to 1 million sales. 

With no official publisher or marketing power behind it, the blocky adventure title was spreading largely by word of mouth and, likely, the coinciding of gaming personalities and “let’s plays” becoming an ever-increasing media form on YouTube, with Minecraft proving to be a popular watch. In November 2011, Minecraft “officially” released and announced around 4 million purchases worldwide. 

For indie developers and the wider games industry, it appeared Minecraft had captured lightning in a bottle. Even upon its official release, the game was still largely unfinished, and it still receives regular updates even today. Regardless, its huge sales and popularity suggested that smaller games could have a chance at wild success even while technically lacking or incomplete. No longer was a fully furnished and complete game required to become successful in the market. Minecraft had changed the, uh, game.

And so a new trend was born. From Minecraft came a slew of indie titles released in early builds with their developers hoping to find a fan base and some commercial support while they continued to work on the game. The “kickstarted” game became a regular occurrence with developers sometimes opting for financial backing and a customer base even before the first lines of code were written—which is another alarming conversation for another time.

Early build games swamped the PC market over the next decade with a few every now and then making it out into the same wildlands of commercial success charted by Minecraft. Games such as Day Z, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and ARK: Survival Evolved, to name a few, were successful in finding dedicated player bases during their alpha and beta test phases, which ensured their subsequent popularity and success. Of course, for every Minecraft that makes it into the big time, a hundred other titles fade into obscurity. 

Nevertheless, the ability to find such support while still unreleased was a dream come true for the indie game industry. It made complete sense as a business strategy too. 

However, with these rumbles happening at the bottom of the stack, it was only a matter of time until the tremors reached the upper echelons of the video game industry, affecting how larger studio titles were approached going forward. 

Bugged, Broken and Booming: How the AAA Industry Abused the System 

The 2010’s saw a new generation of consoles come to the fore that, quite unlike the jump from the PlayStation 2 to the PlayStation 3, signified a far bigger generational leap in power and industry thinking. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4’s new selling points were primarily online connectivity and a focus on digital downloads. With consoles now required to remain in an always-online state, games were no longer concretely affixed to their original design. Post launch, games could continue to be easily updated and changed by developers through digital patches, even long after initial release. 

This opened up new potential for how game development could be approached and also for the types of games that could be developed. The “live service” game, for example, was a new possibility created by the new always-on state of consoles, meaning games like Destiny and The Division became commonplace.  

This also had repercussions for how the technical state of games could be approached. Niggling bugs not caught in QA testing could be fixed after launch. If players were taking issue with the performance of, say, a gun in an online shooter, developers could easily alter the code to “nerf” or boost a particular element. Community-found cheats could be quickly nipped, and graphics could also continue to be improved slightly after launch. This was all well and great, but evidently, things started to get lax. 

Minecraft and the indie industry boom showed that players were not overly bothered by a few little technical issues here and there as long as there was promise of later improvements. It became apparent that games could still hold a customer base even while technically deficient. This line of thinking bled into how massive AAA publishers approached game development. Investor demands to push a game into release for particular quarterly returns were now easier to meet, since the game could be forced out in a “mostly ready” state while the devs continued to iron out kinks on the backend post launch. 

The existence of the “day-one patch” intended to fix a few underlying bugs that remained at launch became part and parcel of the industry. But, as with all things, small malfeasances proliferated until they exploded into a more drastic issue. 

Cyberpunk 2077 may be the latest AAA game to launch in such an unfinished state as to be labeled essentially broken, and it may be the most dramatic example in terms of scale and industry disappointment, but it is by no means the first. 

With the increased corner cutting of AAA development, it was only a matter of time until a few outliers pushed the boat out too far and made headlines with an entirely broken game launch. To my mind, the first noteworthy title to make an unadulterated mess of things was Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Unity in 2014. Ubisoft’s insistence on releasing an Assassin’s Creed (AC) game each year meant this sort of cataclysm was inevitable. 

AC Unity’s release was initially delayed by a month, with senior producer Vincent Pontbriand stating that “we realized we were near the target but still needed a bit more time to hone some of the details to make sure Assassin’s Creed Unity is exceptional.” Despite delays there was still not enough time for even a day-one patch to save things, so Unity was pushed out as a technically deficient title requiring multiple apologies and compensatory offerings on the publisher’s behalf. Sound familiar?

Other guilty titles have already been mentioned. Rocksteady’s Arkham Knight was delayed twice, and even then the eventual release included a Windows version that was virtually unplayable and which had to be pulled from digital stores by the game’s publisher, Warner Bros. Interactive (WBI). The damning quote from WBI that encapsulates the central issue here states that, though fully aware of its problems, they released the game anyway since they “believed it was good enough.” 

Fallout 76’s release was met by a litany of technical issues and negative reaction against its design. Niggling bugs have—quite ridiculously considering the studio’s size—come to be expected of Bethesda titles, but Fallout 76 went well beyond the realm of acceptable infractions. Even now, amid many technical patches and game-changing updates, Fallout 76 continues to have its share of issues.

No Man’s Sky was another messy high-profile launch. Though not strictly a AAA title, due to all the industry buzz around the game it received the full backing of Sony to publish. Much like Cyberpunk 2077, No Man’s Sky (NMS) was a lesson in metering expectations within your own bounds. Much of the criticism of NMS was due to its inflated marketing and overhyped promises, with the game falling well short of the mark, alongside a slew of technical issues. NMS has used the Minecraft model to continually release updates, slowly but surely turning it into the game once promised, but its catastrophic launch has largely tarnished its brand forevermore. 

Is Cyberpunk 2077 the Final Straw?

This nearly decade-long history of fractured AAA launches paved the way for someone to cock it up even bigger than ever before and potentially topple the whole poorly balanced house of (broken) cards altogether. Cyberpunk 2077’s prime issue stems from the intense years-long lead-up to its release. CDPR’s game is no less bugged or broken than any of the other aforementioned titles, but expectations were so much larger and hence its fall much harder. 

The intensity of the industry’s reaction and Sony’s dramatic store pull is part of a seam-bursting release of pent-up frustration that has built up over the last few years due to similarly botched launches. The line had to be drawn somewhere eventually, and unfortunately for CDPR, their mess was late enough and attention grabbing enough for Sony to make an example of them.

With Cyberpunk being pulled from the PlayStation Store, we can only hope that the message will finally ring clearly to every other industry developer and publisher. Unfinished AAA games will no longer be accepted. The days of rushed, broken releases and backend fixes are to be consigned to eternal condemnation, their practice remembered as an unfortunate but short-lived black spot on the industry’s history.


About Author

Lawrence Rennie

Lawrence is a Scottish-born writer with a love of games and films that he fortunately turned into a career grumbling about online. When not firing away the hours buried in a game or film he also co-writes 'Mechastopheles', an original comic series published by the UK’s leading comic magazine 2000AD as a naturally born-grumpy Scot; however, he asks that you don’t ask him too much about it though! Lawrence’s other musings include podcasts, fitness, his cat, and one day developing his own screenplay.

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