Patchwork

BF4-1For the last few months, I engaged in a ritual where the results were always the same; I popped in Battlefield 4 and played a handful of matches before it crashed my PS4, abandoned the experience I earned or randomly booted me out. I’d abandon my session out of frustration, but I always felt compelled to return and give it another go. Despite its best efforts, Battlefield 4 works beautifully when every piece comes together, with its incredible scale of destruction and mechanics that pride teamwork over lone wolves. I was convinced that DICE would eventually get their act together, deliver the right patches and make the game into the true contender it always set out to be.

Four months later, DICE began its Player Appreciation Month, 28 days of double XP and other meaningless virtual goodies in an attempt to woo its scorned players back into the fold. On its very first day, Battlefield 4 crashed my PS4 no fewer than three times, disconnected me in the middle of a match, “forgot” the experience points I had accrued over 30 minutes and deleted my campaign progress for the third and final time. This comedy of errors was enough to break the spell; I knew that Battlefield 4 would never be fixed, and quietly retired it from my rotation.

When I purchase a $60 sequel to one of the biggest franchises in gaming, published by a behemoth like EA, there’s a certain level of commitment I expect from them. I’m not asking them to endlessly toil for my whims, and I have a fair amount of patience when it comes to correcting unforeseen problems as long as everything is stable within a month.

After taking part in the launches of 1 console, 5-7 MMOs, the accursed Diablo III, and a countless number of first-person shooters, I’m well aware that right out of the gate, almost everything can (and will) go wrong. That isn’t to say developers are lazy and unprepared; they pull out all the stops, from server queues to rolling out copies for one region at a time, but even the strongest structure buckles under the weight of thousands of players hammering away at once.

ArkhamOriginsAttempting to prevent post-release woes is a must, but the wizened developer prepares a strike team for post-launch support, “just in case.” Whenever a texture vanishes or a player’s gun malfunctions, these IT heroes are ready with email addresses, Twitter accounts and phone lines prepared to sort the problem. After the dust settles, the developers draft a statement thanking the community for its patience and making amends for any number of technical hiccups.

Occasionally, the downtime is worse than a mere few days of connection issues and requires a more substantial answer than an apology letter. PlayStation Network went offline for two months after it was compromised by hackers. Online functionality is an integral part of any console, and Sony recognized that when they finished gluing the pieces back together, they would have to pull out the big guns to appease their customers. They handed out several fantastic games and 60 day memberships for their ever-popular PlayStation Plus service. When the going got rough, they bent over backwards to restore goodwill and assure everyone that this would never happen again.

If Sony’s response was a nice dinner on the boss’s own dime, then WB Games’ answer to Batman: Arkham Origins’ myriad problems was a punch to the gut. The Dark Knight’s most recent adventure released in various states of disrepair for a significant number of players, but after a few cursory patches, they called it quits to focus on other projects. Specifically, WB Games announced it canceled the team’s bug-fixing efforts so they could release new paid DLC for their far-from-stable title. This gigantic corporation made it perfectly clear that they knew their game was broken, but would rather sell you more stuff than fix what you already bought. WB Games continues to receive justifiable flack for their callous behavior, and it’ll likely affect trust in the games they publish for years to come.

Battlefield 4 initially seemed to fall on Sony’s side of the spectrum. Shortly after it launched, EA and DICE were well aware that their latest game was completely busted. When a specific map’s explosive set piece prompts the computers of all 64 players to crash simultaneously, an overwhelming backlash is practically inevitable. EA’s customer support was working at breakneck speed, tackling reports from countless players and dropping massive patches on the regular. They clearly looked like they knew what they were doing, and most corners of the Internet expressed confidence that Battlefield 4 would soon be in tip-top shape.

BF4-2Despite DICE’s visible efforts to smooth things out, the game’s dire condition didn’t seem to be improving. From here, EA made quite the dramatic gesture; in their lengthy apology letter, they promised all DLC development would be postponed until the game was in an acceptable state. One would hope that this would be everyone’s policy in the first place, announcing it in a public way reaffirmed that they truly meant business. Devoting the whole team to fixing the game felt noble, and I was all but convinced that in the span of a month, everything would be hunky-dory.

After their bold proclamation, DICE went silent, presumably doubling down on their much-needed repairs. Then a month passed, followed by another month. Soon, a brand-new expansion was marketed, released and sold to the public, while keeping mum on the state of their $60 game. We’re fast approaching the 6 month mark, and according to DICE’s “Top Issues Tracker” (last updated on March 19th), they haven’t even fixed a bug that accounts for “a large amount of crashes on X360!” They clearly aren’t in any position to sell new levels, yet here we are, witnessing DICE and EA do so when they promised otherwise.

It’s abundantly clear that some developers will shirk their duties and run off with the money, but how do we determine whether their responses are sufficient when the most visible examples either go above and beyond or shrug their shoulders and leave players to fend for themselves? By compensating our frustrations with tangible benefits like games and extended memberships, Sony’s actions spoke louder than any written statement; likewise, DICE’s words meant nothing because they were never followed through.

If nothing else, we should buy games based only on what they are at the moment, and never in the hopes of what they might be in the future. This especially applies to Early Access games on Steam; prepare to be stuck with an indefinitely unfinished game if the developer folds or skips town. And when dealing with any new release, give it a few weeks to see what issues crop up and whether they’re resolved by the team. You might miss out on playing the latest release at midnight, but at least you won’t shell out wads of cash for an abandoned game!

Meanwhile, EA is hard at work on games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Sims 4. One can only wonder if disingenuous apology letters are now a cornerstone of the EA development process.