ÖFrom The TrenchesÖ

Why Games are buggy and lateÖ

Part II.

In the last installment of From the Trenches I talked about the technical reasons why games are late.

In a nutshell, it boiled down to engineers not being able to estimate the amount of time it takes to get a game done completely and changing specifications mid project (i.e. oh, now we need to add 3D support and multi player is that okay?).

This month weíll talk about some of the more dubious reasons why games are late.

Now, before I begin, let me say that as a game developer, I live in fear of the game magazines because they can squash me like a bug and say mean and nasty things about the things I work on and I have no recourse. And when I refer to magazine, I mean the media in general (webzines and print magazines).

I mean, you wonít hear me speak out that Gamepen, OGR, Gamecenter, and Adrenaline Vault have still not reviewed Entrepreneur despite receiving review copies. And despite it being on the top 100 most popular games as I write this and in spite of it being one of the less than 500 PC game title SCUs that appear at your local CompUSA/EB each year I wonít speak out on that either.

I could use this space to slam them for lazy reporting and giving up review space so that yet another preview on Daikatana or whatever itís called could be done. I could do that but I wonít because that would only prove how Iím jealous of those marketing machinesÖ

Now why would a mere game developer mind being in an industry where the media will whine that there isnít enough diversity in gamesÖ While having a preview for the third version of a clone of some other sequel while at the same time not bothering to review the independent publishing studio games even if those games are at the store at while their preview games wonít be out for years Ė if at all?

My point is, in the first few issues of From the Trenches, we established that the game industry is growing up. But the media portion of it has not which is why these big corporations are able to manipulate them so effectively. Iím speaking generally here by the way, Iíd point out some of the game magazines that are wise to this except that those I didnít mention would obviously be pointed out as the more gullible ones.

With this all established, letís talk about games being late and buggy.

First of all, late is a matter of perspective. If I know that Iím going to have something done in say November but I strongly imply that itís going to be done in the June before that November and the game comes out in November. Is it late?

The game media has created an environment where game publishers are rewarded for, shall we say, being overly optimistic on their ship dates.

Worse yet, many journalists are too lazy to find out the real anticipated ship dates on games. This data is always available if the company is publicly traded. So when PC StrategyGameCenter tells us that SimPreyblo 3000 is going to be out by Christmas of 1998, a journalist could check out the corporate stock reports and see that SimPreyblo 3000 wonít be out until 2Q99 at the earliest despite the marketing rhetoric.

Of course, itís a lot tougher to do research than to just copy and paste a press release from the Word 97 document into Quark express and throw it into a magazine. Thus, we end up with games getting 2 years of previews and having their release dates "pushed back" when in fact the marketing guys knew all along that the game was not going to be out when they implied it would.

Youíll note that I use the word "imply" instead of "lie". In my experience, companies rarely lie about release dates. They say things like "Well, we hope to have this out by Christmas of this year with any luck." And this is true, Iím sure that they would love to have it out by Christmas but at the same time, they probably hope that faster than light space travel will be ready by Christmas this year as well.

In fact, Iíd like to use this free space provided by Gamepen to say that my employer, Stardock, hopes to have Galactic Federations, Elemental, Monopolization, and World all out by Christmas. We really hope they make it out in time for Christmas of 1998. Of course, no code has been written on these games but we can hope canít we?

In order to understand why they would do this we need to have a primer on how the game market works now.

Presently, in 1998 you have basically three types of games: AAA, A, and B games. Youíll hear about these terms from time to time so letís define them.

AAA game means games that have almost unlimited budgets and are media events. Blizzard is the AAA game company these days. They wonít release anything that doesnít fall under AAA. They killed Warcraft Adventures not because it was a bad game but because it would have been only an "A" rated game.

AAA, A, and B level games have nothing to do with how good the game is. If I wrote the worldís greatest space invaderís clone today and even if it had great graphics, great sound, and was totally rock solid, it would still be a B class game. Only a handful of games each year make it out as AAA because the bar is so high to be a AAA game. It costs millions of dollars to create a AAA game. My personal favorite game, Total Annihilation, barely makes it out as a AAA game because it didnít have full motion video through out, the units didnít talk. Itís a AAA game still but just barely. So even the best and funnest games may not be AAA games. Starcraft is a great example of a AAA game and Iíll use it because itís also an excellent game.

Games like Entrepreneur, Panzer General and Warlords III would be great examples of A games. They may be as fun or even funner than AAA games but donít have the budgets behind them of a Starcraft. No full motion video between every level, they are about the game, not the game and experience.

Deer Hunter is a great example of a B class game in quality. Cheap to make. And where Deer Hunter changed the world was in discovering that a B level game can now make as much money, if not more than a AAA game. And believe me, the game designers of AAA game companies are probably sweating a bit about Deer Hunter. Because corporations are about profit and if they can make more money cranking out B titles they will. But thatís for another discussion entirely.

Historically, AAA, A, and B games represented how much money youíd put in and get back. A AAA game may cost a ton to create but they bring back the big bucks. They are the games of the year, they are the 2 million plus unit sellers. Myst, Dialbo, and Starcraft, these are AAA games.

So how do they achieve this? Well first of all, they need magazine coverage and lots of it to help ensure tons of pre-orders to the retailers to ensure that when they come out, they have 20 units per store stocking levels.

Now, how does one get a lot of magazine coverage? Well, for one thing, you need to get previews of your game in the major magazines. Then you need to get the first looks, then the reviews, then the hints sections, then the cheat codes sections.

Here is a basic plan for marketing your game if you want AAA coverage:

Stage 1: Get a story in the game magazines about your "concept". Throw in a few sketches that one of your artists has cranked up. State that your game will be out the following yearís Christmas.

Stage 2: Get the magazines to do an interview with you where they ask you the tough questions like what type of car you drive, how fast it goes, etc. This should ideally be 2 to 3 months after stage 1. You still stick to the stage 1 "target release date".

Stage 3: Provide each magazine with a "scoop" of the very first screenshots (mock-ups in reality with Photoshop) from your game. "Never before seenÖ" and throughout the screenshots have tons of discussion of the deeper story of your game. "Sure, itís a first person shooter but itís also about friendship and the bond between you and your gunÖ"

Stage 4: First preview. This is where you get all the magazines to cover you in the "Best games of <insert following year>" where you get listed.

Stage 5: Indepth preview prior to E3 where you get tons of coverage again. This should be around April time frame.

Stage 6: Post-E3 preview coverage, sticking to the following Christmas as the target release date.

Stage 7: Announce you are delaying it to the following Christmas since you are committed to quality and donít want to "rush" anything.

Stage 8: Repeat Stage 5,6,7.

Stage 9: Release the game buggy with some features removed (but still in the docs) because if you wait another year, the technology will be outdated and itís Christmas time. Fix it with patches.

Now, one might ask, how could the magazines have possibly been gullible enough to think that theyíd actually be able to go from concept to a full blown next generation game in just a year? Well, thatís where the blame is shifted to you, the game magazine buyer. Previews sell magazines. Itís a documented fact. Putting yet another picture of Laura Croft on the cover of PC GamingPlus magazine sells a lot of copies. Nevermind that whatever game in question isnít much different than the last version, people will buy those copies up off the news stand and thatís what counts.

So if you want things to change, people will need to communicate what types of previews they donít like. For me, I think the Stage 1 previews are ridiculous. I could care less about seeing some sketch and a design document especially if its not a very original game design (sorry, a first person shooter is not a new concept). Instead of having 3 pages of useless junk about game designerís plans (game designers are a dime a dozen), why not cover more games? According to the new issue of Computer Gaming World, 3800 games were released in 1998. How many of those games even got a mention in the press? Why does something like Dominion get coverage (another C&C clone) but the dozens of other C&C clones I saw at E3 that had better graphics get no mention at all?

People on the Internet often try to paint the press as corrupt, having been bought off. This is not the case in my view. The problem has more to do with laziness touched by a sense of wanting to be part of the "cool gamer crowd". Getting to hang out with John Romero is cool, doing a review of some barely heard of game is not perceived as being cool. Iíd also point out that at the end of the day, the game reviews do tend to be pretty accurate. Bad games do tend to get negative reviews. Itís just a pity that those bad games got 20+ pages of preview coverage over the previous 3 years.

And that is why games are late in a nutshell from a marketing standpoint. Because even a bad game, having received 3 years of preview coverage is going to sell a ton of copies. The marketing machines know this and their job is to ensure the financial success of the games they market. The best way to get preview coverage is to be vague about the actual release date. Thus, when the game doesnít come out when the marketers implied it would, people look at it as being late.

And when the time comes that they absolutely have to release the game (usually at Christmas), the game will usually get shipped even if it is a buggy mess. AAA titles generally have to be released at Christmas or certainly in 4th Quarter / 1st Quarter when the store traffic is at its highest and if the game is just about done but not quite, itís still going to be released and fixed with patches because thereís no real penalty for releasing a buggy game.

Next month: A look at on-line gaming. Why so many games suffer the "Thereís nobody playing" syndrome. More accurately, it has more to do with the mistaken belief that on-line gaming is currently a huge phenomenon when it isnít. It will be but not yet. And I say this as someone who lives on the Zone, TEN, Battle.Net, 4+ hours a day.

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Brad Wardell

Brad Wardell is a Game Designer and engineer at Stardock Systems Inc.

Past projects have included:

Galactic Civilizations which he designed and wrote most of.

Entrepreneur which he designed and wrote the computer AI of.

Wardellís development expertise is in writing computer game AI.

Wardell is also the project manager of Object Desktop, a desktop environment for Windows 95/NT at Stardock.