The last few years have seen big live games create dramatic stories, both through their own tribulations and the experiences of the players who love them.
Stop me if you've heard this one before.
An online game, created by a well-respected developer, and/or as part of a beloved franchise, and/or that is breathlessly anticipated, launches with major technical issues and receives a raft of negative reviews. From there, things get worse. Maybe some features that were promised aren't in the game. Maybe the game is unplayably buggy. Maybe fans can spot the difference between canvas and nylon.
Whatever the reason, the game becomes a punching bag. Articles keep coming out. Fans keep complaining online. Players who bought the game on Day 1 expecting a polished product are outraged. People who didn't buy the game are amused. And a highly anticipated, very expensive game now has a reputation for being a Dumpster fire.
All eyes are on the developer. Can they possibly turn this thing around?
That question has been asked and answered quite a few times in the past decade. Final Fantasy XIV, Destiny, No Man's Sky: these games, and many more, have proven that no launch is too disastrous to recover from. Yet, with the explosion of the indie scene over the last decade and the democratization of game development through accessible platforms like Steam and itch.io, there has never been more great stuff to play at all times.
So what makes players stick with games that launch buggy or broken? What motivates players to return to a game daily even when connectivity issues mean they sometimes can't even actually play it? Why do players spend time talking about games on message boards and social media when the rest of the gaming world has already moved on, dismissing these titles as "dead games"?
To answer that question, we took to Reddit and Twitter looking for players that are passionate about the games that make a bad first impression. Some have witnessed their game of choice find redemption. No Man's Sky and Final Fantasy XIV players have been through the worst of it and now get to enjoy playing some of the best live service games available. Others--like the folks posting in r/GhostReconBreakpoint, r/AnthemTheGame, and r/fo76--are still waiting for their comeback. All in all, we spoke with roughly 40 players who believe that games can, and often do, get better over time.
The Rocky Launch
As recently as September 2019, the cycle began again.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, the latest entry in Ubisoft's long-running stealth-action series, is the most recent service game to launch to negative reviews and disappointing sales. We gave it a 4 back in September, praising its infiltration mechanics and satisfying headshots, but feeling that, overall, it was a mish-mash of half-hearted ideas. The negative press and low sales were loud enough that Ubisoft pushed multiple big games into the next fiscal year. Much of the broader Ghost Recon community has avoided Ghost Recon Breakpoint, instead opting to stick with its still-active predecessor, Ghost Recon: Wildlands.
Breakpoint hasn't really moved beyond this phase. Though Ubisoft put out a patch In November that made more than 100 changes, the loot-shooter still has a long way to go, and still has yet to prove, for many players, that there's a reason that it needs to exist at all, in a world where The Division 2 and Ghost Recon: Wildlands--games that came from the same publisher and feature many similar mechanics--still have active communities.
"I felt a genuine wave of relief when I heard the rotors of the AH-6 overhead and knew my buddies had come to rescue me."
Even so, some players have found plenty to enjoy (and post about). Breakpoint player Mizu, an active member of the r/GhostReconBreakpoint subreddit, told GameSpot about the time her team's transport ended up on the business end of a surface-to-air missile launcher.
"The pilot knew he couldn't out-maneuver it in the great big transport he was flying, so he called for everyone to bail out," she said. "All four of us managed to successfully evacuate before the missile struck, but we were scattered across the mountains. The others landed pretty close to each other, but I got lost in the mist and ended up boots down on a mountain several kilometers away.
"Our routine faction mission grind was interrupted by an impromptu rescue operation while the others scrambled to regroup and commandeer an AH-6 to pick me up. Meanwhile, I'd been spotted by an Azreal (a surveillance drone) while I was falling down the mountain and was forced to find an impromptu defensive position in an abandoned cabin. I think that was one of the moments I felt most immersed. Trying to beat back the Wolves who were hunting me, and the Sentinel patrols that had been alerted by the sounds of our firefight. I felt a genuine wave of relief when I heard the rotors of the AH-6 overhead and knew my buddies had come to rescue me. It's the things you didn't expect or plan for that shine the most. You can only have those kinds of experiences in an open-world like this."
In a reactive game like Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, bugs can even become part of the charm. Interesting stories often result as unwieldy jank pairs with functioning systems. If the joy of Breakpoint is in "things you didn't expect or plan," moments of bugginess can contribute to the fun.
"My buddy and I were trying to capture a Sentinel Captain a little while ago. We needed him alive so I shot him in the leg," Mizu remembered. "He exploded."
More often, however, bugs--"spectacular" though they may be--are just bugs, and communities persist in spite of them.
In a time of frequent, turbulent Internet outrage, a game's very real, critique-worthy flaws are often both amplified and obscured by the vitriolic hatred, abuse, and harassment that angry fans hurl at developers. That is, of course, true for live games as well. But while puddles shrinking in Marvel's Spider-Man or the National Dex being removed from Pokémon Sword and Shield stirred the ire of small portions of each game's fanbase, a disastrous launch for a massive AAA live game invites the ridicule of the entire game-playing Internet.
And under that level of increased scrutiny, mistakes seem to snowball. For example, Fallout 76 was critically panned upon release. It was hampered at the start by a lack of NPCs, an empty-feeling world, and severe technical issues. Bethesda worked hard to address those troubles--one patch in January included fixes for 150 bugs--but often ended up playing Whack-a-Mole with the game's problems. When Bethesda fixed one bug, it broke the game in new ways. This was exacerbated by missteps outside the confines of the game's virtual Appalachia. Bethesda sent some fans who paid for the $200 Power Armor Edition nylon bags instead of the promised canvas ones, sparking outrage. Then the company leaked the personal information of numerous customers.
One year after release, Fallout 76 is no longer on fire. But that doesn't mean that the game has turned around completely. In October, Bethesda began selling Fallout 1st--a $12.99-a-month subscription service that granted paying players access to private servers and a private scrapbox--on the same day that rave reviews hit for Obsidian's Fallout spiritual successor, The Outer Worlds. The decision to add a subscription service to the struggling game was roundly mocked on the Internet, despite the real utility it offered for fans.
Even in a situation like this, during which the community is divided on Fallout 1st, avid players highlight the reasons that, for many, Fallout 76 is worth sticking with. A group of more than 300 Fallout 76 players used their Fallout 1st subscriptions as a jumping-off point for roleplay, forming the Apocalyptic Aristocracy. They leaned into the accusations of elitism that accompanied a subscription, posing for posh group pictures and, tongue firmly in-cheek, referring to players who didn't shell out for the subscription as "peasants." Like Fallout's vault dwellers, these players made the best of a bad situation. And that's what Fallout 76 roleplayers have been doing since launch--carving out their own unique, flashy identities in the wasteland.
"I have a memory of a guy wearing a full Power Armor set sporting a minigun showing up in my camp demanding I 'pay my taxes' or he will destroy my base. This was before they removed camp damage from the game," said itscmillertime, a Reddit user who has been playing Fallout 76 since a week after launch. "I found the whole thing pretty hilarious until his minigun started to wind up. I logged out before he could damage more than a wall. I give him credit for creativity at least."
Fallout 76, building on the foundation of 20 years of role-playing games, naturally attracts players who are interested in fully embodying their characters. Anthem, while a major departure from the single-player, choice-focused RPGs BioWare had developed in the past, similarly draws in players who want to show off. While it's difficult to roleplay a character in Anthem, customization options make it fairly easy to design an extremely cool Javelin (the in-game Iron Man-esque exo-suit). Both games provide an outlet for self-expression.
"One would think, 'How could anyone like a game that's so repetitive with its missions?' Indeed it is, but for me it's not about that," said Sam "JetstreamSAM-I-M" Safi, a frequent poster on the Anthem-centric subreddit r/FashionLancers. "This game, to me, feels more like showing off what you have. There are people who share the legendary items they achieve in the game and there are other people commenting about how much they are looking for that. And when the time comes when they do achieve it [they feel satisfied]."
"Although there are no mics and you travel the cosmos solo, you feel the comradery."
But sometimes communities are just plain nice, and the No Man's Sky fandom is famously kind. The game launched with a dearth of content that turned off many players expecting a space-faring adventure across a huge, endlessly interesting universe. But in response to those criticisms, Hello Games released several free updates over years, eventually completely reshaping their game.
In 2019, a group of generous fans, led by Reddit user Cameron G, raised thousands of dollars to purchase a billboard reading, "Thank You, Hello Games," outside the developer's Guildford office. After the crowdfunding campaign closed, the group used the extra money to buy lunch and beer for the development team and then donated the remaining cash to the Sydney Children's Hospitals Foundation.
In-game, players are often similarly big-hearted.
"One day while in the Nexus, my wife needed my help, [so] I left my character AFK and when I returned someone has gifted me 250 million units worth of items," said Reddit user IrascibleClown. "It made the game a little less stressful since, I play in survival, and now I pass things on to newer players. Although there are no mics and you travel the cosmos solo, you feel the comradery."
Righting the Ship
Every rocky launch holds the potential for eventual redemption. Reddit user SirGuinnesshad, talking about Anthem, put it succinctly: "I've seen enough games turn a rough launch around that I still have hope."
For Final Fantasy XIV players who have stuck around since the initial launch in 2010, that kind of hope has been richly rewarded.
"It felt incredible to be on the ground floor," said Ryan "Nova" Litteral, who has been playing FFXIV since its 1.0 release. "It truly felt like the developers appreciated us and tried to recognize our dedication with the Legacy subscriptions and tattoos; some of the very few things in-game that are still truly exclusive."
"It's like being in a secret club and recognizing other members while you're out and about," he said. "Even after [A Realm Reborn] launched and the various expansions have been released, the game has still continued to grow and evolve and that same feeling is here. With every expansion launch, I'm reminded of how good it feels to be there for Day 1 with so many people around the world. Not to mention the fact that the game itself actually introduced me to my fiancée. We met each other raiding the Omega Savage series during Stormblood, clear across the country from each other. Now we've moved in together, it's years later, and we're set to be married in Hawaii in September 2020. So many great things in my life that came to be because of Final Fantasy--a game that absolutely flopped in the beginning but rose from the ashes and became something great."
Not everyone finds their soulmate because of a game, of course. But every live game has the potential to grow and change and exceed expectations. Communities pop up in unexpected places and the fans who flock to service games are admirably resilient.
We will almost never move past rocky launches, entirely. As Kotaku's Jason Schreier tweeted regarding Bungie's rough launch for Destiny 2: Shadowkeep (in response to a request for an expose on why all live games seem to have some degree of issues at launch): "On day one the game might have 4x as many players as it will on every subsequent day. It's cheaper to have a rough launch day than it is to maintain more servers than you actually need. (Also this shit is really hard)."
Live games are massive undertakings. Artists and engineers from a variety of disciplines come together to try to create something from nothing, then attempt to build and maintain an infrastructure that will allow them to share that something with millions of people at once. It will never be easy. But there will always be players who manage to see the beauty through the cracks.