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Publishers shouldn’t count on ‘redemption arcs’ to save their games

Everyone loves an underdog story. The tale of someone picking themselves up, facing down adversity, and overcoming the odds is one we as a society never seem to get tired of for how inspirational they can be. For video games, redemption arcs have been a bit more complicated.

On one hand, there are some titles that have managed to turn their fate around. These are games where developers didn’t give up after a bad launch, making good on their promises to keep on improving the title until it is what it really always should have been. On the other hand, those game redemption arcs can take years to come to fruition. Heading into 2022, the gaming landscape is no longer a sustainable place for those long-tail success stories.

The redeemed

A group of astronauts looking at an alien horizon.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Perhaps the best thing about gaming in the modern age is how easy it is for developers to address issues in a game after it’s launched. Back in the cartridge and early disk-based gaming era, the games sold were static. Unless developers decided to release a new physical version with changes — a costly and extreme measure — the final, printed game had to be in ship shape with the time, money, and resources the studios had to produce it. Now it’s more of a rarity for a game to come out without a day one patch of some kind, let alone a roadmap of future DLC.

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This convenience has saved some games from catastrophe. Players always points to No Man’s Sky, and for good reason. It was hyped up beyond reasonable expectation by the game’s developers and players eagerly bought in. When it launched and was almost nothing like what fans expected, the blowback was cataclysmic. If Hello Games didn’t — or couldn’t — do something, it may not have had a future in games. The developers put their heads down and got to work pumping out free expansion after free expansion until the game met, and went further beyond, what was initially promised.

The examples don’t stop there. Final Fantasy XIV, Destiny 2, Rainbow Six Siege, and more all came out at various levels of disappointment, but thanks to continued efforts by the teams behind them, they’re all more popular now than ever before. Even so, it’s only gotten harder for these types of turnarounds to happen, and by next year I doubt it will be possible anymore.

The best time to plant a tree

Soldiers jump off a building in Battlefield 2042.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In an ideal world, games would launch in fine shape and then get better over time — no need for a “redemption” arc at all. That’s not the reality we live in. Some games just won’t come together like the developers wanted, whether it be because of rushed launched timelines or plans simply falling through. That was exactly what happened with those “gold standard” titles like No Man’s Sky, but it’s becoming harder for games to complete that journey.

It’s an issue of time. Those games came out years ago, or even a decade in Final Fantasy XIV’s case. They’ve had the years needed to win back goodwill and players with improvements. How can a brand new MMO like New World compete with a game with FFXIV at launch? A game with three or four years of development time can’t possibly offer as much as another that had that same development time, plus five or six more years of support after that.

For a recent example, just look at Battlefield 2042, which has had a rocky launch. Why pay full price for a game that might get better a year or two down the road when there are shooters that actually work well and are complete coming out at a faster rate than ever? Why not stick to a game like Rainbow Six Siege that has already gone through those growing pains? For the most part, gamers have caught on to that fact, too. Battlefield 2042‘s player base has fallen off a cliff since launch and it’s hard to imagine them coming back anytime soon.

It’s important to note that this is a Battlefield game we’re talking about, not some unknown or new IP like No Man’s Sky. If one of the biggest shooter franchises of all time can’t hold its players, what hope does any other game have that dares come out in a rough state?

A character rides a motorcycle down a vacant street in Cyberpunk 2077.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It doesn’t help that gamers are more skeptical than ever. We know developers have seen these success stories and assume, whether right or wrong, that putting a game like Battlefield 2042 out in an unfinished state is a calculated move. It can feel like publishers want to rush out a game out early, getting as many early sales as possible, and then slowly fixing it over time and getting pats on the back for the gradual improvement. It’s a strategy that backfired for CD Projekt Red with Cyberpunk 2077, making players hypersensitive to the tactic.

What’s worse is that there’s no guarantee that developers even will fix these games long-term. We were told — even given a full road map — for how Anthem would fix its issues and become a full experience, and but the game’s big update was canceled before that came to fruition. That game is a dead husk and always will be.

2022

First impressions are going to be everything in 2022. I don’t need to rattle off the absolute killer lineup of titles coming out in the first half of the year alone to tell you that any game that dares come out in a broken state won’t be given the time of day. There are too many functional, older games players are already hooked on, and the competition for new games is reaching a fever pitch.

It was a different landscape when Final Fantasy XIV first launched and nearly died on the vine. It lost a ton of players, just like we see now with Battlefield 2042, but competition looked very different even just a few years ago. The MMO space, for example, basically just had World of Warcraft on top and a few stragglers fighting over the scraps. In Battlefield 2042‘s case, it launched right next to the yearly Call of Duty release and Halo Infinite just weeks apart.

That’s not even considering the free-to-play market drawing more and more attention. It’s not a good look at all when a free game not only works better but has more content than a full-priced game like Battlefield 2042. Looking at them in a vacuum, Battlefield 2042 and all those games that got their glow-ups aren’t all that different, but expectations, competition, and gamers wising up have made it so much more difficult for a game to earn trust back.

The market just isn’t in a place where players need to settle on a lesser experience and hope it gets better anymore. It’s just easier to move on from a broken game and never return. Who has the time when are so many other games to play? Video game “redemption” stories could become a thing of the past, with more titles going the way of Anthem if they don’t get it right the first time.

Jesse Lennox
Jesse Lennox loves writing, games, and complaining about not having time to write and play games. He knows the names of more…
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