Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
When will they learn?

Of the top 20 best-selling PC games of 2008, 5 were various versions of World of Warcraft, and 3 were version of the Sims 2. Another Blizzard game, the original Diablo, still made it on the list at rank 19, eleven years after release. We discussed yesterday how Blizzard kept up a stream of best-selling games by taking proven concepts and polishing them to perfection, while the competition often tried more innovative things, but implemented them badly.

Even one of the most-talked about PC games of 2008, GTA 4, came with tons of bugs, and wouldn't even run on many graphics cards. Especially MMOs are often released in a half-finished state, scare their early adopters away with lots of bugs, and then never recover from the initial bad publicity. When will the other makers of PC games, especially MMORPGs, learn to only release games "when they are done"?

There is obvious pressure from the business side to release games early. But even the dumbest business manager should have learned by now that releasing a game in a shoddy state is not a recipe for success. Especially in the age of the internet, forums, and blogs, all your marketing can't overcome bad word of mouth. If your first customers aren't happy with the state your game is in, you'll get less buyers overall. And in every other industry that is understood, you don't see the latest model of car delivered without windshield wipers or faulty lights, because there wasn't enough time to finish the product. Why is that still accepted practice in the video game industry? Blizzard is laughing all the way to the bank, having a near-monopoly on quality. Why does it take the competition so long to figure that simple business reality out?
1) Sell your idea with a short development time.
2) Get in over your head.
3) Try to get more time.
4) Investors and managers get jittery and demand some return now.
5) Release bad product, grab some money, wonder why it failed.

A shorter development time means it's cheaper to make and the profits start coming in sooner. Investors like seeing money soon. People in general dislike deferred rewards and will take smaller ones if they are sooner.

At this point I think part of the advantage Blizzard has is that they know that this works. They have learned that they can survive sitting on a product for a while, losing potential revenues, until it is done. I'd imagine they also have a good piece of spare change left over from each previous success. This gets bigger each time and now that Blizzard has the cash cow of WoW, they can afford to take a very long time to get the next thing right, whether it is a new single-player game, MMO, or expansion.

Other companies may be trying to beat WoW not by having similar quality but a different sort of experience, they're trying to do it by being faster. Get the product out fast, grab people before WoW does. Every minute of development time is another potential new MMO customer who starts WoW.
Every minute of development time is another potential new MMO customer who starts WoW.

lol, i never thought about it in that sense, but it's totally true. the longer you waffle, the more prone you are to miss your window of opportunity. and YET, i play the best games. I have no issue jumping ship to something better, it's just that something better never comes ;)
I work in the IT industry and it's a common problem. The reason stuff is released with bugs is because fixing all of the bugs takes a vast amount of time, a lot longer than anyone thinks. Bottom line is that this time is under-estimed and under-appreciated and most companies probably just run out of time and budget.
Don't forget most companies have a zillion games to market, while blizzard only produces 1 game per 2 years or so ;)
I notice Age of Conan and Warhammer are 4 + 5 on that list of 2008 top sellers. Shows if someone can get a decent start in the MMO market they could do well as those two got killed by high expectations and player backlash even though i still think WAR is well placed but not sure if Conan can come back from all the really bad press.

Really good to see Sins Of A Solar Empire on there, good game plus stardock are a great publisher as they seem vocal in their support of PC gaming and doing exactly what Tobald said, with things like gamers rights etc etc.
It's interesting that you've chosen to focus this post and the last strictly on Blizzard with respect to quality. I'd argue that you're encouraging a couple of obvious misconceptions here:

1. Other developers like Bioware (although it's now an EA property) and Bethesda Softworks, among others, have proven track records of putting out high quality, polished releases that sell well and get great press. They just didn't release much in 2008, leaving Blizzard with much less competition. :)

2. If you look at publishers as a whole as opposed to comparing Blizzard to EA or Activision or Ubisoft or whoever else, then we should really be looking at Vivendi's performance as a whole and not just one of their development studios.

Interesting data nonetheless.
Spore is on that list? Pfff, most overrated game of last year. The list shows what a poor year it was for pc gaming. Just count the games released in 2008: 7 games of 20 (fast count). Two of those being an mmorpg flop. People buy more old games then new ones! Although of course online gaming sales aren't included. Should add a few bonus points to left 4 dead for example.

As for releasing software with bugs. You can't fix all bugs. You fix the most important ones and if those are fixed, you release. Releasing with tons of bugs will of course seriously backfire...
actually, Blizzard has a better marketing. They only announce games when it's playable on a certain level (not sure if you can talk about alpha/beta here). When thy do they have about 1.5 years to deliver the product, which in experience is a rather good timeframe.
Other gamecompanies reveal games when they are still in design-phase, so the hype is skyrocketing even before
it's in alpha-stage.
Scott Jennings' take on this is that studios literally cannot get the funding to stay open long enough to finish their games. There's a conflict between "this feature would make the game much better" and "this feature would take way too long" that most studios seem to have trouble grasping.
"Blizzard is laughing all the way to the bank, having a near-monopoly on quality."

For a month+ after they launched the game, every time someone started the centaur attack event in the Barrens THE ZONE CRASHED. How is that a monopoly on quality? Just because so much time has passed that we don't remember guilds having to take turns on Vael so the server didn't crash doesn't mean they have some monopoly on quality.
One of the problems, I think, that many companies just can't cut it is that they build up so much steam getting ready for release, showing off all these features, and something happens somewhere during the process and they end up gutting sections of the game.

A lot of games are being released with many features taken out, and then they promise to either patch them later, or they end up selling them in mini releases, which is absurd, seeing that they should of been in the game in the beginning.

One of the problems I always had with WoW when I played, was that they kept promising features, which got put on the backburner, and now are finally being released in an expansion, instead of patched in.

Idk, just my 2 cents.
I don't get why people fall back on the "WoW had problems at launch too!" line so often. New games aren't competing with WoW @ launch. They are trying to go toe to toe with WoW after years of development, bug fixes and two paid expansions.

This mentality needs to be stamped out and maybe then studios will be able to stand up to the money men and get more development time.

Oh and STOP CHARGING THE SAME AMOUNT AS WOW DOES AND NOT DELIVERING AN EQUALLY ENJOYABLE EXPERIENCE. Seriously. If you know that your game is going to have problems right out of the box then why not include 60 days of free play instead of only 30? Buy the first 3 months up front and get the next 3 free? Anything to keep your players with the game installed and updated on their hard drive for as long as possible.
Could one of the problems be the fact that many top execs don't play games so they don't know quality to begin with?
Games are bad for the same reason movies are bad: a lack of respect for the consumer and a focus on the sale and not the product. How many games are released based on a licensed property with nothing more than screenshots of cutscenes on the box? Too many. How many games are aimed at a 36-year-old marketing exec's idea of what a 17-year-old semi-literate mall-rat wants to play? Too many. But maybe there's a reason for it. Maybe people DO buy the cutscene-ridden movie tie-ins featuring trash-talking adolescents and their hip monkey sidekicks? At least enough must buy them to make them pay for themselves. We should be thankful that there is at least a niche market for quality games. The crap allows an industry to exist that creates the infrastructure that makes it possible to produce a few gems.

I have to add to someone's comment about Spore. What a turd that game was. Truly there was nothing there -- all style, no substance. Most flash strategy games are more interesting. I have a feeling they ripped most of the content out of the game before release so they would have material to fill an endless succession of 'expansion packs'. But I can tell you they won't get any more money out of me.

Everyone seems to understand that software will always be buggy to some degree. The difference between some buggy code and your Pools of Radiance (a game that simply didn't work for most people out of the box) is the bottom line, not the time it takes to make sure the game can actually be playable.


Almost 12 million people are playing WoW in its current state. This is the game that the competition is going up against, not the WoW from four years ago.


My limited experience with Bethesda is with the Elder Scrolls series, and every one of those games that I have played had some really crazy bugs, one of the earlier games was barely playable at all. Looking good with cutting edge graphics is not the same quality issue as having a stable and playable game.

I cannot stress how much I agree with Green Armadillo, Shareholders/investors dictate the parent company while the parent company dictates the studio. I believe the studio WANTS to make a good game, but when push comes to shove they are simply not allowed to do so. Shareholders want their money yesterday.


Those other companies MUST produce dozens of failures each year to find the nuggets that will pay the shareholders by the 4th quarter. Blizzard stumbled onto their winning nuggets early on and have simply decided to milk them for all their worth without watering down the brand names too much. What if those other companies stopped competing over volume and began competing over quality?
Pretty much nail on the head. However until consumers, us, stop buying crap the developers are going to keep making it.

1. MMO's compete against WoW today, not 4 years ago.
2. As you said that was fixed realitivly fast. WAR's T4 still suffers from horrible lag.
What worries me is that things might be moving in the opposite direction. Rather than other companies stepping up the quality of their output, Blizzard seem to be dropping theirs. Patch 3.0.8 has many bugs that would previously have been squashed by by their quality control team and it seems that 3.0.9 isn't going to PTR at all.

I do hope they aren't getting lazy. The so-called WOW-killers may not be able to finish it off, but death by suicide is looking like a distinct possibility.
It really is an almost childish lesson. I agree Tobold, there is no reason why they shouldn't have learned except bad money planning followed by more bad money planning.
Actually, it's because few companies has a war chest of that size. Blizzard got lucky with a huge hit early, and decided to pursue this strategy. But you can ONLY pursue this strategy if you have the cash. You cannot bootstrap to it very easily. (Bioware and Valve are examples of two other companies that have managed this).

So most companies engage in a form of "satisficing" where they make the best game they can given the financial reality. They cannot "hold it until it is perfect" because they cannot afford to. Even larger companies that seem very wealthy often cannot because they have committed to more titles.

People tend to forget that Blizzard was actually up for sale before WoW came out, and that had things not gone well, it could easily have sunk their parent company at the time. Relying on always making hits is very dangerous; even if you hold 'em until you think they are perfect, they might not find an audience. Now that they have WoW, they can afford misses, but before they couldn't.
@Raph Koster

Is this what you are referring to? I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Vivendi's over-all gaming division was losing money but they felt that they could sell high with Blizzard being the highlight of the sale. I don't think Blizzard was losing money or that Blizzard itself was up for sale, but the gaming division was losing and Vivendi was trying to make a quick buck while they could. Kind of like trying to get rid of all of your bad apples but only really advertising the golden ones.
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