Early access games aren’t the end of the world

It seems like I can’t hop on the Humble Store or Steam without seeing a new game being pitched to me. I say “pitched” because I’m not being proffered fully-realized and functional games–rather, I’m being asked to be an investor in the product. In return, I get to beta (or alpha) test these games before they’re even released. Yay! Ignoring for a minute that at the age of ten this would have sounded like the dream situation, this trend is horrifically jarring to me. I reckon it is to anybody who grew up in the 90s and early 2000s.

When I was a kid, you waited and waited and waited for a game to be released. During its long development time (unless you’re Oddword: Abe’s Exoddus) the developers paid (GASP!) testers to endlessly play their games in an attempt to break and exploit them. Games like Final Fantasy 7, with hours and hours of gameplay, would ship to you fully polished and flawless*. We didn’t have early access, and we were grateful!

I had a problematic obsession with throwing barrels on alligators when I was little. I had anger issues.

I had a problematic obsession with throwing barrels on alligators when I was little. I had anger issues.

Don’t look for an asterisk at the end of the page. There’s no annotation. The truth of the matter is, even with extensive testing, games still shipped with bugs. Some were better than others, but there was always something broken. If you were playing a console game, you were basically boned (fact: Basically Boned is the name of an 80s tribute band I’m working on) when it came to fixes–if you were a PC gamer, you’d get a few patches eventually.

I used to think that this was the perfect way to make a game–in fact, I thought this as recently as last Saturday. And then I started to think. And then I started to think some more. And then I remembered SimCity. And then I remembered Diablo III. And then I remember everything about Skyrim.

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Looking at recent AAA Game developers in recent history, it’s difficult to not be left with the impression that they’re not devoting a ton of time to fixing bugs prior to release. With the advent of new technologies that have made it much easier to fix bugs post-release, it kind of seems like “pay-to-beta” is kind of what we’re doing anyway. It’s almost like some cigar-wielding exec said aloud, “Hey, let’s cut the ‘tester’ budget, release a game that’s barely limping forward, use our customers as unwilling crowd-source beta testers, and fix the stuff when they whine. I mean, what can they really do to stop us?”

While I don’t necessarily like the idea of having to pay for a game before it’s finished, I have to commend independent developers (who generally lack the huge financial backers of the AAA industry) for being upfront about it. Nobody’s forcing me to buy these games that are open for “early release,” and as long as the people paying for them are convinced that it’s a legitimate way to support an indie developer rather than encourage a blind and ruthless moneygrabbing expedition, good on them. Plus, who knows, maybe we’ll get another Minecraft out of it.

And if I have to choose between games that blackmail you into paying them through microtransactions and buying a game that looks interesting before it’s released, I can guarantee you that I’m going to pick the latter.

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How Skyrim made me a lazy gamer

Hi, I’m Austin Hourigan and I’m a Bethesdaholic.

No, seriously, ever since I played my first Elder Scrolls Game (Morrowind) I’ve been hooked on the sweeping, engaging, and immersive worlds that Bethesda is capable of creating. Every time a new game comes out, I play it extensively (except for the Oblivion-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named). Fallout 3, New Vegas, Morrowind, Skyrim– PUT THEM ALL IN MY MOUTH.

I’m going to talk about cigarettes for a second. It’s relevant, yes, but I’m also jonesing right now. I used to smoke cigarettes. Well, I still do, but I used to really smoke cigarettes, you know? A pack-a-day type deal. It got to the point where I wasn’t even sure I liked them anymore, but I kept smoking anyway, in spite of the pain I was having in my left lung, because I didn’t know any other way.

That’s the way I am with Bethesda games. As much as I love Skyrim, I’m not sure why I play it sometimes, or if I even like it. But it’s pretty and it gives me slow motion decapitation and bloody chest hair, so I guess there are upsides. But like a cigarette nicotine high, the feeling fades and I end up feeling unsatisfied.

Gimme that sweet, irradiated, ashland flavor.

I finally got around to playing the Dragonborn DLC for Skyrim and it was like a punch right in the feels for me. The DLC plot takes you to Solstheim, which is kind of a border island between Morrowind and Skyrim that was also a setting for the Morrowind expansion Blooodmoon. As an additional nostalgic touch of doom, Bethesda made sure to make the ambient world music the Morrowind tunes instead of the Skyrim ones. Seeing a silt strider was pretty much a nail in the coffin for me, and I had to boot up my Steam version of Morrowind that I bought months ago when it was on sale.

And then I had to immediately shut it off because the dated graphics destroyed my eyes.

Four failed mods, seven dozen google searches, two fresh reinstalls, one Morrowind Overhaul, and several hours later, I booted Morrowind up and my cock nearly blasted off out of my pants with excitement as I gazed upon this new world that I remembered from ages past.

Azura’s tits that looks fetching awesome.

After breezing through the character creation stuff, stealing everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor and selling it, I wanted to head to Balmora with my pockets heavy with money. So I hopped on a Silt Strider and joined the Fighter’s guild and accepted my first mission. And I stood there waiting for my little Skyrim waypoint quest arrow to appear.

Um.

“Where’s my little ‘stand under this point to beat the quest’ arrow? You know, the one that Skryim, Fallout, Mass Effect, X3, Diablo III, Arkham Asylum, and every other game under the sun has?” I said aloud to myself, even though nobody else was in the room.

Oh right. Those don’t exist in Morrowind. So how do you know where to find who you’re supposed to kill/rob/whatever? You get directions, like you would in real life trying to find the 200 Acres Pumpkin Patch that doesn’t have an actual address. They don’t even have the decency to give you GPS coordinates.

Here’s how a typical set of quest directions go in Morrowind:

“Oh, you know, just follow Old McCraggy Road (named after the old man who used to hurl feces at passers by while yelling obscenities about cliff racers) until you see a fork in the road. Take the slightly narrower-looking fork (I can’t remember if it’s on the right or the left) and keep waking about 50 paces and turn around. You should see a tree that looks like a penisdongle. Go east from there and you should see a pile of dirt. You’re halfway there, and you’ll have to look for a tomb somewhere around there. Just don’t go into the wrong one or a Bonelord will claw out your eyeballs.”

“I hearby declare that you shall forever be able to find Gimothran Ancestral Tomb as long as you swear to never have sex ever!

And like real life when you’re following some senile farmer’s directions, you’re going to get lost, either because the directions are unreliable or because you mistook one landmark for another. That’s just how they do it out in the Wasteland of Vvardenfell. When you got to that point, you usually had to bust out your Vvardenfell map that came packaged with the disk (the nerdier among us kept it readily available for perusal on our walls). You thought that map was just cool wall swag to further preserve your virginity? Hell no! You’re going to need that map, son.

After I shook off the initial shock of not having my hand held by the game I was playing, I opened up my in-game journal and started walking, occasionally looking back and then up and around, like some awkward Cyrodilic tourist trying to find the nearest Chipotle. No wonder everyone calls me “Outlander.”

At this point I’d settle for Qdoba.

I didn’t realize until I started playing Morrowind again just how complacent and passive modern gaming made me.

This is how I play Skyrim:

1. Go to person who looks like they have a quest.
2. Accept quest.
3. Ignore what person is saying.
4. Follow the arrow.
5. Kill everything between me and the arrow.
6. ???? (I’m sure I’ll figure it out when I get there.)
7. Profit
8. Go back to step 1

I’m hardly paying attention anymore. I’m just kind of breezing past this beautiful landscape in order to rush to the end goal. Granted, part of this is because I’ve been playing the game for hundreds of hours by now and I don’t have time for idle crap like sight-seeing, but one of the reasons Morrowind was so immersive (aside from just having an amazingly impressive amount of detail) is that it forced you to pay attention to the world around you. You couldn’t afford to have tunnel vision if you wanted to stay alive, let alone prosper financially and sexually.

I’m not necessarily saying that modern gaming is inferior to old gaming. Conveyance has been a huge issue in gaming, and there have been plenty of times in Morrowind where I had to undergo an organized search pattern and explore every crypt I come across within a certain radius in order to complete one simple quest.

But at the same time I find waypoints in video games to be patronizing and non-immersive. They pull me out of the game. It’s like the developers are knocking on my fourth wall and saying, “Hey, go here. Somehow you have a sixth sense on where to go. Don’t ask us. Don’t question it. Um. Dovakiin is psychic. There. Now play the game and chop off some heads.”

I’d like to see AAA games move away from holding our hands too fervently and find a healthy balance between accurate conveyance while still preserving challenge and novelty. The current trend doesn’t seem to favor this, though, and more and more games seem to be getting their actual challenge neutered.

I hope I’m wrong.