When big games launch badly: Breaking the 'vicious cycle'

A fresh look at the aspects of game development that drive so many games -- especially big-budget AAA productions -- out the door before they're ready, and what developers can do to prevent it.
Every year some games ship before they're ready, but the last few months seem like they've been especially rough for big-budget game launches. Between October and November Sony, Microsoft and Ubisoft each released tentpole titles with significant performance issues, faulty multiplayer systems and other glaring technical problems. The troubling launch trifecta of Driveclub, Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Assassin's Creed Unity inspired us to take a fresh look at the aspects of game development that drive so many games -- especially big-budget productions -- out the door before they're ready, and what developers can do to prevent it. As you might expect, many developers who currently work at large studios and are thus well-equipped to comment on the issue were less than comfortable speaking openly on the issue. This is understandable; we're talking about AAA launches troubling enough that high-ranking executives from Sony, Ubisoft and 343 Industries issued public apologies and, at least in Ubisoft's case, stop selling season passes while placating disaffected customers with free games. When your boss steps up to apologize for a problem, it's probably not the best career move to come forward and explain why you think it happened. However, some former AAA developers who are now their own bosses were more than happy to share their thoughts on what's wrong with the state of big-budget development. The common sentiment: rising costs of game development perpetuates and amplifies a production cycle that sees developers being pushed to make ambitious games on schedules that are out of their hands.

We're stuck in a vicious cycle

"This is an age-old software development issue: reasonable scope on a reasonable schedule," says Keith Fuller, an experienced developer and production consultant who spent over a decade working on Activision projects like Jedi Academy, Quake 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops before going independent. "Our ongoing inability to properly address it is rooted in leadership issues."
Image courtesy of Clinton Keith
In this case, "leadership issues" refers to business strategies that see game companies capitalizing on successful franchises by pushing developers to produce bigger, better sequels at regular intervals tied to strict marketing plans in the hopes of reliably reaping big profits. When they work, they work well; Activision has published at least one Call of Duty game every year since 2003, and the franchise has brought in over $10 billion in revenue to date. But shooting for that level of success puts unhealthy pressure on developers; when a company like Square Enix proclaims that Tomb Raider failed to meet sales expectations despite selling 3.6 million copies, says Fuller, it suggests that management is laying unreasonable expectations on the people making games. "Even the largest publishers aren't prepared to take a bath on today's mega-titles," says Keith. "When I was at Raven Software we had an Activision C-level executive visit us and explain during a Q&A that, were it up to him, he never would've greenlit Uncharted 2 because there wasn't enough profit in it." The demand for big profits also tends to bind AAA developers into a marketing schedule that
"Developers get the short end of both sticks: death marches and the blame for low quality."
leaves them little room for fixing unforeseen problems. The more money a company has riding on a tentpole release, the more likely a developer will be made to swallow their pride, hit their ship date and scramble to fix known issues after launch. "Developers rarely get to tell Marketing 'We can ship it now, we fixed all the bugs,'" notes Fuller. "Rather, the marketing department will tell you when you're launching regardless of fixing bugs. If you want that arrangement to change, figure out how to sell millions of units without telling anyone your game exists." And as pressure to make a big launch-day splash rises, game companies push developers to prioritize flashy, marketable gameplay features over stability. "The last game I worked on as a studio dev was Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Activision's legal team would go into cardiac arrest if I shared with you how few months before launch that game was almost entirely unplayable," says Fuller. "That's due to the pressure of annual franchise installments and the competitive landscape." Other ex-AAA veterans agree. "Teams are pressured to hit scope, schedule and cost goals up front that are unreasonable," says consultant and former High Moon CTO Clinton Keith, "Beyond a point, not even crunching helps." "As a result of all this, the team releases an inferior game, which doesn't sell well and damages the brand," adds Keith, offering the chart embedded above as illustration. "The stakeholders/shareholders respond by applying more pressure to management, who then apply more pressure to development."

Managing development debt

What these two Keiths are saying echoes the complaints of other developers I've spoken to over the years. "When things went up and games started costing $50 or $100 million, people got crazy," inXile and Interplay founder Brian Fargo told me earlier this year. "Now it's very hard to recoup." But perhaps some studios can also take steps to be more proactive in sorting out potential
"Most developers are not addressing development debt appropriately."
technical problems early, before they become "known shippable" problems. "Most developers are not addressing development debt appropriately," says Keith. In his experience, studios most commonly rack up "technical debt" like bugs, unoptimized tech and systems that need playtesting. "It's called debt because it has an interest rate associated with it, like financial debt; the longer you go before you pay off this debt, the most costly it becomes to pay it off. This can be especially harmful for games that have a fixed ship date, says Keith, because "teams usually underestimate the debt or delay addressing it; as a result, debt repayment is shortened and the game shipped with many defects." Perhaps it might also be wise for big-budget studios to take a page from those who have seen success on Kickstarter/Steam's Early Access service, and be more aggressive about getting their games in front of lots of people before launch day. "As the games become more complex there is a greater likelihood of creating issues," says Fargo when I ask for his thoughts on the topic. "No amount of QA testing can compete with 100,000 or a million people playing it." Still, our recurring problem with bungled big-budget launches probably won't be solved by alpha testing, or developers spending more time and resources on QA. "Addressing this cycle is beyond the realm of development and it's sad that we think this is a development issue," says Keith. "Developers get the short end of both sticks: death marches and the blame for low quality. The solution is to address this culture."

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