Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Buying New Games

Last week saw the launch of the newest SimCity game which had great reviews from the gaming media. The launch ended up being a complete and utter disaster. SimCity is designed with DRM requiring you to log in to the EA servers before you can play the game. You need to stay connected or you won't be able to save your game. The servers were completely overwhelmed. People couldn't connect, they couldn't find out how long it would be until they could connect, and even once they did connect they had problems playing. I heard about how you could lose connection to the server without knowing it. You'd play happily for hours but as soon as you tried to save the game you were screwed. EA has been scrambling to try to fix the problems. They've been adding more servers, they've been throwing free stuff at the masses. But the bottom line is they got most people's money on launch day and they're not giving it back so I have to believe the suits interested in the bottom line are content.

I've had discussions with a few people about it, and in each case I've been reiterating my stance that buying a new game right away is a trap. Video game companies, especially PC game companies, have seemingly given up on selling finished products. Even games that are reasonably fun at launch (once you get beyond any server issues) aren't done. Diablo III and Civilization V, for example, have both seen huge content/balance patches which made them significantly better games. The way I look at it I have plenty of games I want to play and not nearly enough time to play them all. So why should I spend time waiting for a server to let me in? Why should I play a game before they iterate it into a polished state?

Now, anyone who read yesterday's post will know that I went out and bought StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm even before it launched. I've preinstalled it and I can't wait to get home and play it. This is seemingly at odds with what I just said. Part of this is going to be that I have no willpower/am a hypocrite I'm sure, but there is a bigger thing in play. My experience has been that Blizzard expansions launch in a polished state. World of Warcraft, as I understand, was a bit of a disaster at launch. Not nearly enough server capacity or copies of the game in stores. I started playing that game a few months later so I missed the problems. I have been there, at launch, for all of the subsequent expansions. The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria. All of them have been fantastic. Not perfect, mind you, and MoP in particular had a brutally bad quest right at the start. But even that problematic quest only cost me what, 45 minutes of frustration? I spent longer than that trying to log into Ultima Online!

Why have all those expansions had solid launches? Well, part of it is going to be a willingness on Blizzard's part to wait until the expansion is actually done. But part of it is also going to be their ability to really test most of the new features. How? They launch them in pieces on the live servers in advance. How did we know the new talent trees were going to work in Cataclysm? They had everyone on the live servers using them for a month before they launched Cataclysm! There are also some people are also really committed to killing bosses first. So when they put them up for a 2 hour window on the test servers you know they're going to get tested by some really dedicated players who see that 2 hour window as potentially the key to a world or server first kill.

Which brings us to StarCraft II. It actually had, if memory serves, a super smooth launch itself. Why? A combination of the above coupled with an offline mode. Blizzard had every intention of making StarCraft II a huge thing in eSports, and part of that intention required them to launch a polished game. Not just polished in the sense that you could play the game without crashing. No, they needed it to be polished in the sense that every race, every unit, was balanced. The game wouldn't have taken off as an eSport if the Zerg won every game with a zergling rush and they knew it. So they were more than willing to iterate in testing until they got it to a good state. They ran big tournaments on the test servers. There was a lot of prize money up for grabs for people who got good in the beta. This meant they got a lot of dedicated testers who were willing to find balance issues and abuse them for cash. On top of it all, the one thing you couldn't test in the beta, the single player campaign, didn't require a permanent online connection. You couldn't get achievements if you played offline, but you could totally play your single player game without an internet connection if you wanted. So even if their servers had gone down during the launch a lot of the players would be able to play just fine.

So, yes, I am pretty much done with buying new games at launch. I may well pick up the new SimCity in a couple months if things smooth out, but maybe I just won't feel like adding it to my huge list of things I want to play. But I had faith in Heart of the Swarm being a good game at launch, and one I do really want on my list of things to play. So I got it right away. I didn't take the day off work to play it, but a quick internet search makes me think I could have done that without worries. I searched for a variety of crash related terms for Heart of the Swarm and didn't find a single complaint from anyone. Contrast that with the deluge when searching for SimCity crashes!

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