There’s an undeniable excitement when buying a game at launch. Whether you've pre-ordered a physical copy, or are just downloading your shiny new game on day one, there’s nothing like that feeling of starting out fresh with the big game of the moment. You feel kind of like a pioneering explorer, trailblazing at the forefront of this new and potentially groundbreaking experience.
The thing is, grabbing new games on release is becoming a fool’s pursuit for a whole bunch of different reasons. With publishers, developers, and retailers throwing out more and more pre-order bonuses to push their day one sales, gamers are also being given less incentive than ever to want to play these games. Let me explain.
Just plain broken
The day one patch has become an increasingly accepted phenomenon in modern gaming. We have now come to expect that when we purchase a game — be it a physical copy or a digital download — we will need to allow time for it to update. It is an infuriating trend that’s more often than not a product of publishers forcing a firm release date on developers. As a result, the game is pushed to go ‘gold’ (i.e. be declared ‘ready’) before it is finished meaning that, on release, it is susceptible to graphical glitches and anomalies, and sometimes even game-breaking flaws.
This way of doing business is inconvenient, not to mention downright impolite to their customers. Retailers, and by extension, the game’s publishers, won’t hesitate to take your money, but when it comes to giving you a finished product on the date they have specified…Well, that isn’t much of a concern.
Moreover, then there are those times when on day one, even after patching, things just aren’t right, and it takes a long time and a constant stream of patches and updates before there’s improvement.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is the most recent and perhaps the most high profile example of this. The game was buggy at launch with some particularly severe glitches corrupting save files and even preventing progress in the game. Then there was the level of polish, which many saw as unacceptable, with the animation becoming the focus of most fans’ ire. In almost all areas, the game just didn’t feel finished, because it wasn’t.
Now, more than four months from launch, the game is in a much better position. In fact, if you were to purchase the game today — after it’s been updated — you’ll have a game that, while arguably falling far from the high standards set by the series (that’s another matter), at least feels like a decent, and above all, complete, experience. Also, it will almost definitely be much cheaper than when it was first released.
Far from fully-featured
Final Fantasy XV’s story doesn’t do much to help the case for buying games early, either. Though it was released in a far less broken state than Andromeda, the number of patches and updates made to it since launch indicate that even a game with a decade-long development cycle can release before its developers are thrilled with it.
Now, FFXV has a remodeled final act (the part of the game that felt the least accomplished) and a whole new multiplayer portion that wasn't there when the game was released. All of this new content, coupled with the likelihood of being able to pick up the game at a reduced price, means that now is the absolute best time to buy the game. More than eight months after it was originally released.
Wait longer, and you’ll be rewarded
That’s the message we’re receiving time and time again. Look at last year’s excellent Doom. At launch, you could pick up the season pass, which included all the extra multiplayer DLC released for the game. Now, a year on, that content is all free.
Yes, with single player games, there’s always the likelihood that an element of the plot will be spoiled for you. But if you can avoid those spoilers, and if the game is worth its salt, then there will be a ‘game of the year’ version released at some point, which will include the game, along with all of its extra content. Then you’ll be saving money, and picking up the best version of the game too. You know it makes sense.
Look at nearly all Ubisoft games, and there’s a similar trend. From The Division to For Honor, they all follow the game-as-service template, and all are better months down the line. If they survive…
What about multiplayer?
Surely multiplayer is an area where you’d want to jump in on day one, right?
Not necessarily. Let’s say you grab the next big multiplayer game at launch. What if, in a couple of months time, the player base has started to dwindle as everyone moves onto that inevitable next big thing? It’s a pretty common (and unpredictable) phenomenon—even great games sometimes struggle to keep a thriving player base, with only online behemoths like Call of Duty able to guarantee a large community with every new game.
I’m suggesting that if after a month or two the game’s community is still thriving, you’ll have a better indicator whether it’s more than just a flash in the pan. You might have some catching up to do, granted. But it might be worth it to avoid buying a game whose lifespan tails off dramatically after the initial launch buzz.
As the industry trend currently stands, gamers are being punished for being early adopters. These are the gamers who pay the full, often over-inflated asking price. They are also the gamers that publishers count on to make their launch figures look good, and contribute that crucial bit of word-of-mouth marketing which is worth a few million in second-week sales. What do these gamers get as a reward? Some BS pre-order bonus that in real terms, has zero value, and little else.
There’s always been the pressure to be part of the conversation when it comes to new games, and publishers and retailers will always trade on that to sell their products. But maybe, if this trend of releasing unfinished, compromised, or just plain broken games continues, gamers will begin to vote with their wallets and start watching those launches go on by without a purchase. And, if they do that in any significant numbers, the major players in the games industry will be forced to rethink their strategy, or risk losing fans, not just at launch, but for good. Because, lest they forget, the next big game is always just around the corner.