It all started with The Crew. I was sat slack-jawed in front of E3 (probably in the middle of the night, thanks to the time difference) and watching trailer after trailer for our live blog. And then The Crew came up. I’m not normally a fan of driving games, unless they end with “Kart”, but the appeal of The Crew lay not in the driving but in the exploration. The prospect of flooring it across the whole United States, visiting the areas I knew from childhood family visits but had never seen in their full splendor, and tearing across the desert while Bruce Springsteen blasted out of the speakers was almost too much to resist.
It wasn’t the only game to get me that excited. Evolve promised enormous, highly tactical battles involving teamwork and quick responses to avoid being trampled by Lovecraftian horrors from the deep. Watch Dogs had promised a highly responsive, organic world, in which everyone and everything could be watched, tracked and messed with in the kind of existence we’d inhabit if 4Chan ruled the world.
I should have seen the eventual disappointment coming. No game can possibly do everything, and there were practical problems with all three of my dream versions of those games, but although some let downs are usual, the degree to which these three in particular blew every ounce of hype they’d accumulated was quite amazing. What went wrong is unique for each case, but it all starts at the same central point – they built themselves up to be something they never were. It’s an integral part of the games industry these days, and it may well be killing it.
The Crew was billed as a chance to explore the world’s fourth-largest country in a massive sandbox, but ended up being much smaller than it could have been. Driving the length of the map takes around the one-hour mark, and much of that space is filled with sand, snow, trees and other non-descript features. But the most annoying way the promise deviated from the reality wasn’t in the size of the map, but in its shape, because The Crew does not let you drive across the United States of America, it lets you drive across a small nation full of people with American accents which vaguely looks like the United States. In what world is Salt Lake City in the northern half of the country? Why is the South coast so warped? What was so wrong with San Diego and Denver that they had to strip them out altogether? Why is the game so heavily weighted to the coasts when the most interesting scenery and driving routes in the USA are in the middle?
These questions and more The Crew could have avoided with a bit more effort. There is absolutely no good reason for the absolutely warped map shape, nor for the lack of locations or map size. It’s not a question of disc space – this game’s Uplay edition is 14GB, not exactly monstrous for a sandbox game. There are RTS games and RPGs like Final Fantasy XIII which clock in at around four times that size, so it’s not as if they didn’t have ample room to provide more content.
One can only assume, then, that the extra content will be coming in a few months via everyone’s three least favourite letters: DLC. Instead of the game you paid full price for coming with all the stuff you expect from it, you’ll pay $1.99 a pop to add cities you haven’t thought about in years to a game which isn’t terribly exciting, pretty, feature-filled or stable (thanks to always-online connectivity) in the first place.
That brings us nicely onto Evolve, the next big disappointment and at time of writing only a few days from release. A team-based shooter which uses asymmetrical multiplayer to provide gameplay variety, developed by the people who made the excellent Left 4 Dead and featuring giant monster boss fights as its main mechanic should be the inevitable game of the year, but once again executive meddling and anti-consumer practices have left it a hollow shell of disappointment.
The problem, so ably put by my colleague Sian in one of our weekly podcasts, is that Evolve is a free-to-play game which you have to buy. The content received just by buying the game is so utterly limited as to not be worth it, and before so much as a screenshot had been released, the special editions started to pour out. To get all the content for the game (required, since the basic game features only four monsters and a small collection of maps) players will be required to purchase the game, and a season pass, totalling almost double the original cost.
This is a master class in how to appear so utterly money-hungry that the monsters in-game pale in comparison to the soulless husk that this game as a whole has become. There is no fun to be had with a game when safe in the knowledge that to continue having fun will hinge on paying for future updates. It is hugely damaging to the industry because it damages consumer confidence. If buyers cannot be sure that the product they are purchasing will still be a worthwhile purchase months down the line, they lose trust in the mainstream market and stop buying altogether. See the rise of the indie game in the last decade to see the inevitable result.
Watch Dogs wasn’t unbearably DLC-ridden but still stands as an example of promising the Earth when you can only deliver a hollow imitation. The ability to hack all technology and eavesdrop on phone conversations or personal information, done with a decent random number generator, could have given the world a sense of incredibly depth and the character a great sense of power. As it was, the hacking amounted to little more than quick time events and the game squandered every ounce of goodwill on heavy marketing and hype generation.
I have a strong suspicion that at one point there was more to Watch Dogs, but in an attempt to broaden its appeal to as wide an audience as possible in order to break sales records, they squandered every aspect that might have made it unique and artful. They threw away the chance at historical greatness in order to gain more short term sales – and in five years time, for all the sound and fury, hardly anyone will remember it existed.
It gets to the heart of a very difficult matter for our industry. Few major developers or publishers are interested in building a legacy, and the lack of long term thinking is hugely damaging to the mainstream industry, even while great for the indies. Games as whole products are popular, as are games that promise low and hit high – but increasingly it seems as though this message is anathema to those with a warped understanding of what makes players happy.