The Disappointing Decisions that Burnt 2018

2018 will go down as one of the best in video game history, diverse in its portfolio of quality titles both in the AAA and indie spaces. But if there’s anything we’ve learnt from being a human being, there’s always a negative moment that follows a positive one, doing its best to steal the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Last year definitely had its fair share of disappointing and confusing decisions, from studio closures to terrible E3 presentations (I’m looking at you EA), to the idea of a video game about how to date a woman … yeah, that happened. But let’s narrow this down to the few more important yet equally poor moments of the past year that could have been avoided with a little forward thinking.

Wyatt Cheng (Principle Designer, Diablo) on stage at Blizzcon 2018

The Diablo Immortal Blizzcon Reveal

Let’s clear up a few things first. Diablo as a mobile game isn’t a bad thing, whether it turns out that way or not. Sure, not everything translates well to a touch screen phone, but a game where hammering a mouse key over and over to do endless amounts of damage shouldn’t be all that difficult to translate if in the right hands.

No, the real problem here stemmed from Blizzard’s decision to end its biggest and wholly controlled presentation of the year with Diablo Immortal instead of any potential confirmation of a Diablo sequel on PC or console.

What transpired wasn’t at all what Blizzard was hoping for, with various fans confused and angry that their favourite series had been ‘demoted’ to their phone instead of a high-powered PC as was seemingly teased and somewhat promised by Blizzard over the previous year.

Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Blizzard’s decision to make Diablo Immortal (I’m all for it) but what should have been an exciting time for Diablo fans turned into a storm of controversy not only in the reveal but in the meme generating Q&A that followed.

“the hype in just knowing a long-requested game is in development can lead to plenty of goodwill”

It wasn’t misleading as some might suggest, but a little forethought could have and should have avoided it. For one, finish your show in the same vein as, say, Bethesda’s E3 2016. That presentation previewed the highly anticipated Fallout 4 and followed it up with a surprise mobile game in Fallout Shelter, released a few hours later. Granted Fallout Shelter was free to play and that aided the cause, but it clearly worked.

Secondly, don’t tease something you know people want and not even mention it outside of a ‘we’re working on it’. Again, Bethesda teased both The Elder Scrolls VI and Starfield at E3 last year (arguably both as a cover for the leaked Rage 2) with only the logos to show for it, as did Nintendo the year prior with Metroid Prime 4. Confirmation was all that was really needed.

Now of course that doesn’t always work, in fact sometimes it can backfire (anyone know where the Final Fantasy VII remake is?), but the hype in just knowing a long-requested game is in development can lead to plenty of goodwill. Lord knows Blizzard needed it at Blizzcon.

Bethesda’s Fallout 76

Speaking of Bethesda, they themselves have plenty of wounds that need mending after a poor end to a somewhat awkward year.

Just like Diablo Immortal, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of an online Fallout game. Even Interplay, the original Fallout IP holders, had the idea for one back in 2006. But what follows is an almost complete account of the many, many bad decisions that ruined any chance of success for Fallout 76 in 2018.

Ready?

*Deep breath in*

An awkward and partially confusing E3 reveal; An online Beta test with very few sessions once or twice a week at inappropriate times for international players a month out from launch; an open letter to fans suggesting we should all expect a buggy and somewhat broken game; launching in said buggy and broken state before going super cheap during Black Friday sales; the canvas bag debacle in the collector’s edition; the mishandling of customer information due to their support ticket system for the canvas bags and – I think you get the point.

There’s so much that can be learnt from this entire situation and obvious changes that should be made (for example, maybe releasing Fallout 76 as an early access title instead of a full priced retail game), so instead of going on about that let’s step back a moment and ask a different question; was Fallout 76 a poorly designed stopgap?

To answer that, you need not look any further than the two previously mentioned projects; The Elder Scrolls VI and Starfield.

Not that there’s any suggestion that there weren’t enough resources to work on all three games at the same time, but when there are priorities to complete, bills to pay and investors to please, sometimes your hands are forced. Let this entire scenario be a lesson to every developer who tries to wring out what’s left of a dried-up old sponge.

On another note, really want to visit West Virginia now.

Sony’s 2018

Sony has done a remarkable job to turn things around after a sometimes difficult PS3 era. They’ve built up trust with their audience (aided via Microsoft’s own mistakes, of course), focused on software that people wanted and some we didn’t know we needed, and improved upon previous hardware and software architecture to great results.

2018 continued that trend, thanks largely to God of War and Marvel’s Spider-Man, but there were a few shortcomings along the way that made some ponder whether Sony had reached its peak and were heading down the other side of the mountain.

First off there’s Fortnite. Easily the biggest and most talked about game of the past two years, Fortnite has seemingly altered the landscape on multiple fronts, not least of which within the concept of cross-platform play. Nintendo and Microsoft were quick to capitalise on Epic’s success story, ensuring fans could play across Xbox and Switch platforms among others – except the PS4.

The biggest console on the market was left out of the newly formed party thanks to a partial stubborn streak or as Sony put it, ‘PS4 is the best place to play’. Thankfully that decision was rightly reversed, but not before plenty of finger pointing and a few tongue-in-cheek responses at Sony’s expense.

Secondly, Sony’s relationship with E3 took an unusual turn following a stranger than normal 2018 presentation. They changed a few things up, and granted there’s nothing wrong with that, but it didn’t exactly go as well as some might have anticipated.

On top of that, Sony won’t be back to E3 in 2019. At all.

Finally, there’s the PlayStation Classic, a sure-fire hit if ever there was one … except it wasn’t. Some bad design choices and a clear lack of quality titles amongst the 20 available games led to poorer than expected sales and a quick drop in price not long after launch.

Maybe it was bound to happen. Sony’s been on a high for a while now and they’re surely not about to throw away that lead. Yet, and it’s a big one, if they’re not careful they could let success get to their heads in almost the same fashion it did after the outright dominant PS2 gave way to the awkward PS3. Those were dark days, people, dark days.

“Crunch culture is real, and it really shouldn’t be.”

Rockstar’s Crunch Time

Red Dead Redemption 2 was one of if not the biggest release of 2018, but with it came a very difficult realisation of game development. Crunch culture is real, and it really shouldn’t be.

Jason Schreier’s in-depth article on the behind the scenes issues surrounding Red Dead 2’s development brought to light something that’s common knowledge in general work circles but hasn’t been as discussed within game development.

We seem to forget that all the amazing pieces of entertainment that we’ve had the pleasure of putting our time into once work is over, are the very same projects that many hundreds of thousands of people the world over have spent countless hours of their own on.

In Rockstar’s case, it was an eye opener. The long anticipated Red Dead sequel suddenly became the ‘were the horse balls really worth working on’ kind of conversation, and not the good kind. Questions were raised over whether the sacrifices many of the development team made were worth the immense detail found within Rockstar’s sequel.

Whether the industry will change its tune is one thing, but will Rockstar? The company has always been largely quiet when it comes to anything outside of new releases or their many, many updates to Grand Theft Auto. Since the details came to light, Rockstar didn’t exactly go out of their way to improve relations, though a few reports suggesting crunch time is mandatory within the company were discredited by Rockstar Games publishing boss Jennifer Kolbe.

The broader and more hopeful story revolves around the formation of a video game union in the UK, the first of its kind, in the hope of making life easier on the many employees within the industry. It won’t be the last, and that can only lead to better conditions for everyone involved.

Rockstar on the other hand? Well, they certainly made a lot of money. Here’s hoping they make a few alterations for whatever they decide to work on next.

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