It's difficult to remember a week that provided a more damning statement on the current state of the AAA video game industry; over the course of just a few days, the new entries in three of the most beloved series of the last quarter of a decade have left fans reeling in a wash of technical difficulties, overt bugs and — crucially — unfinished games.
First there was Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, a new take on the venerable Hedgehog-based franchise developed by Big Red Button Entertainment. The reveal of the game's character designs earlier in the year caused some trepidation from fans, but few could have expected that the final product would near the infamy of 2006's Sonic the Hedgehog — but that's the situation that we're looking at.
Sonic Boom is ridden with the same problems that the series has suffered from for some time, as well as some new issues; extraneous characters like Shadow the Hedgehog turn up and are still as feeble as ever. The sense of speed that once defined the series is absent and a host of bugs and glitches pervade every inch of the game.
People flocked to a Twitch stream earlier this week when one player discovered a means of exploiting shoddy coding to complete the game in an hour. Pausing the game as Knuckles the Echidna jumps resets his double jump ability, allowing the player to jump infinitely and circumvent any and every obstacle throughout the game.
The Sonic Boom controversy was followed by the much-anticipated release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection on Tuesday. The series-spanning anthology was meant to be a way for developers 343 Industries to get back in the good graces of fans of the series who were disappointed by Halo 4, but once again technical issues have spoiled the party for many.
A 15 GB update greeted players upon starting up the game for the first time, and even after that much of the experience was unplayable (video below of our own staff trying to play online). Reports are circulating that the game's multiplayer — its biggest selling point for many — is undergoing serious issues, with even the simple act of being placed into a game proving to be a struggle.
Then there's Assassin's Creed: Unity, released on the same day as Halo, boasting even more bugs. Whether it's the player character falling through floors, the skin disappearing off an NPC's face, framerate issues or the game's vaunted co-operative mode causing it to crash, many players have already elected to seek a refund for a game that seems to be broken.
So what do all three of these games have in common? Aside from all having engendered nothing less than contempt from their fanbase with a lesser quality product, they all have a followup set for 2015. This is what comes from the industry trend of an enforced yearly release cycle; sub-par products released by studios stretched far beyond their limit.
It says a great deal that one of the series that many would suggest helped to proliferate the yearly release model, Call of Duty, shipped its first installment with a three-year development cycle this year and ended up with a well-received game for that fact. The mad rush to get a product on the shelves for a certain date has long been a test for developers, but with the advent of day one updates and the like, the definition of a 'finished product' is becoming shakier and shakier.
The three titles released this week are far from the only games to demonstrate the thin ice that the industry is treading upon; you only have to look at the Destiny saga or the game-breaking patch released for Alien: Isolation this week for more examples. It's a question of quantity vs. quality — and while quantity can work out well for publishers who have more games to sell in the short term, consumers faced with a broader selection of unfinished, unworthy games aren't likely to stand for it in the long run. That's why we have analysts talking about brand damage to Call of Duty and Battlefield due to previous entries
For a video game fan, seeing the industry tear itself apart like this is somehow reminiscent of looking at an Assassin's Creed: Unity character model; what you want to see is a stunningly well-realized rendition of something familiar — instead you find a glitched-out mess staring back at you through dead eyes, desperate to be put out of its misery.
Did we mention that Assassin's Creed Unity has ludicrous microtransactions? Also don't forget to buy the DLC season's pass. Priorities.