Tobold's Blog
Monday, September 06, 2010
Does Mea Culpa work?

Imagine I wrote phrases like the following about a newly released game: "But the game wasn’t released early. The game was released poorly. Head in the sand syndrome imo." and "The point is, the issue here is far far worse than many of you think it is. I wish it was an issue of the game being released too early. That’s an easy thing for a company to “fix”. Elemental’s launch is the result of catastrophic poor judgment". You'd conclude that I was writing a hate review, ripping the game to shreds. But these harsh remarks in fact aren't from me, but from Stardock CEO Brad Wardell. And the last quote continues as "Elemental’s launch is the result of catastrophic poor judgment on my part."

After having been blasted by Stardock fans for saying much less harsh things about that game, the admission by Stardock's CEO that Elemental *really* was bad at launch has a certain gratification for me. Even self-described Elemental fanboi Darren, who gives an excellent description of the game says at the end: "Don’t get the game yet unless you are of the patient type who wants to help Stardock make the game better. I can’t recommend it for gamers who are not use to the Stardock beta process, cause we’re still in beta, IMHO. Wait until after Christmas to get the game if you want to “play it when it’s done”…cause it ain’t done yet. Get Civ 5 when it comes out…play some other games…but wait on Elemental for now. Stardock screwed up on the release of Elemental, and nothing can be done to reverse the damage that was done."

And there is the big question: "nothing can be done to reverse the damage that was done"? Do games ever get a second chance? Me, personally, I'd be willing to buy Elemental in lets say early 2011 if I hear reports that some patches fixed the game. I am willing to give kudos to Brad Wardell for his "Mea Culpa" admission and apology, we don't get many of those. And that forgiveness isn't limited to Elemental: If I read next year that Final Fantasy XIV plays very well on the PS3, I might buy that game for that platform (instead of the lousy PC port trickily released first).

But maybe I am more forgiving than other players. "Game X releases full of flaws!" is headline news, "Game X fixes flaws 6 months after release" might not even get reported anywhere but on specific fan sites for that game. The internet has a long memory, and everybody looking for reviews of Elemental will find the bad reviews written right after release, not the little known fan site reporting that patch 1.17 finally made all of the original complaints obsolete.

So how forgiving are you? Would you buy a game which had a catastrophic launch later, after major patches fixing most problems? Or does a game only get one chance to make a good first impression and is then disregarded forever?
My forgivefullness is 0%.

Why? Because companies that realse early try to steal my money. These companies know that the game is flawed; that promises have not been kept.
For example, I will not buy another Funcom game for that reason.

On the other hand, I buy almost anything else at release and do not care about costs. So I need some protective mechanism.

If money is running out and the game is not finished yet, a CEO always has the possibility to tell the consumers exactly that. Sure, it is hard. But it is possible. To do this afterwards is nice, but not good enough.

I will not start to play AoC or FFXIV ever. Not even if they turn out to be great MMOs after a few years.
I'm a bit tolerant on the issue. I CAN buy games at a later date than launch but rarely do it though (unless it's weekend deals on Steam or something like that). And with MMOs it's basically starting it at launch or not at all. So whichever way you turn it it's always bad to release a game in an unfinished state.

Jack Emmert from Cryptic recently stated roughly that it's hard to recover from a bad launch:

"I'd say what we're trying to do, and having learned from Star Trek Online and Champions, let me tell you my philosophy before STO and CO. Coming out of City of Heroes we launched to great acclaim, we got a lot of publicity, everybody loved it, but we didn't have crafting and we didn't have PvP. All there was to do was fight. Over the years everybody pinged us on this. We added PvP and didn't really gain any subscribers. We added crafting and we gained roughly ten thousand subscribers for three months and then it went back down. So in the grand scheme of things, what I learned is, if you didn't have a feature at launch, you might as well never have it. Whatever you're going to have at launch defines you as a game.

Coming into the launch of STO and Champions, I made sure we had something for everyone. Here was the problem. By following that philosophy, nothing was polished. We ended up having lots of half-done features in some quarters. What I forgot was, inasmuch as a consumer or a player, if it isn't there at launch it might as well not be there, well if it's in half-done or half-done well, that's what you get remembered for. The fact that STO and Champions have gotten better since their launch, we've added content, we've fixed bugs, we've responded to players, all that stuff isn't as important or as forceful as that initial interaction with the game."

>I am willing to give kudos to Brad Wardell for his "Mea Culpa" admission and apology, we don't get many of those

We've been getting more and more of these lately, from everybody: politicians, video game developers, movie makers, newscasters... fucking up and then apologizing for it is the new 'in' thing. Probably because it was so rare up until this decade.
I give extra points for companies who stick to their games after launch. It's as if they say "Our little brain child is a bit flawed but we love it and we will fix it." I appreciate this mentality much more than: "Ca$h Cow 1 didn't work so patch it, change the colors and resell it as Ca$h Cow 2: Reloaded." Which sounds like the financial strategy of most major brands nowadays EA/Sony et al.

I find myself giving second and third chances to games I uninstalled due to bugs (many times remain disappointed.) And additionally when reading an old review citing bugs as the major downfall I always try to get a fresher review or read if the bugs have been fixed so I can try it.

As far as MMOs go it is exciting to boldly go where few thousands have rushed before but due to the time investment involved I am more comfortable to wait and see if they manage to maintain for at least six months after launch.
If I like a game , I'll play it regardless of the flaws, provided its actually playable.

My second-best MMO experience ever (after Everquest) is Vanguard, which I played from beta3 and still play now. It had one of the worst launches ever, but I played no other games from launch day until nearly six months later and played more Vanguard than any other MMO for another year after that.

In many ways, it's games that run perfectly that I lose interest in fast. Perfection can often be quite dull.
I stopped playing Age of Conan early on, but have started again recently and am having a ball, I'm loving it and am really impressed at how much effort they've put in to this date and are continuing to do. Yes, it was bad of them to release so early and console game developers (at least until recently) did not have the luxury of patches.

In some circumstances I can forgive a company, if they're low on cash with development costs way above what they expected I can understand the need for some income to continue, sometimes it would be that or go under. I will admit though that I have no idea as to the financial circumstances of Funcom at the time of release.

Square Enix on the other hand is harder to swallow, their game release for the pc is beyond bad, and such a rotten port is inexcusable.
I do often play games way later than when they were launched and especially with some online games, I like to give them some time.
I started AoC earlier this year and I'm glad I never played it at the launch.

however, I'm very likely to buy a 6months- or year-old game second-hand rather than new. this doesn't affect subs-games obviously, but console.
The most common form of apology, the "I'm sorry that you were offended" apology just make things worse.

As for the rest, my tolerance for apologies depends on whether they are accompanied by concrete steps to remedy whatever made the apology necessary in the first place. Saying sorry because your product sucks doesn't help much if it isn't accompanied by a patch or something neat.
I'm with Nils. My forgiveness is 0%.

Not so much that I resent the cash grab that a premature release represents but simply because I have better things to do with my time than play bad games.

And no Mea Culpa doesn't work it's a completely stupid thing for a CEO to do. If the game is salvageable talk about its potential, if it's not talk about your next project (hi Cryptic!).

Telling people that your development of a game was awful not only sabotages the game but poisons your future games.

As gamers we only want to play the best games. MMO gamers even more so. For those of us who play some MMO, some offline it has to be awesome to drag us away from our friends (ie Dragon Age).
I think:

1. Give a refund to people that asked for it. no questions asked - you want your fans to continue to believe in Stardock as a long term company, and not a short-term money grab.

2. When the game is fully done, add some extras for the guys that sticked it out with you, and give it to them for free.

3. Offer the guys who bought it the first time but who had refunded, a severe discount to ask them to give you a second chance.

4. for everyone else, price it as they have right now, but at the later launch when it's ready. they wanted to wait, and they did wait, and got the better/ready product :-)
I'm perfectly willing to forgive if the game gets good later. The bigger problem is that there are games coming out all the time and if you don't make a good impression at release it isn't so much that I say "screw it I'm done forever" as it is I've just got too many other games I'm thinking about to really pay attention to an old game that finally released a decent patch.
It depends if I even hear that they fixed the issues. It also depends on the team working on the game. It also depends if the game is the kind that can be fixed.

At the same time, I'm very shrewd when I buy some games. I usually buy console games 6 months to 1 year after launch.

With computer games, I'm more likely to buy it as soon as I hear about it, but I also look at other games that the company has done, or who is involved.
If I purchase a game at launch and its unplayable then I have zero tolerance. I've been ripped off too many times in the past.

However, I don't mind trying games out after a year or two after launch if I have never tried them before. My track record with those kinds of games is pretty good.

If I had the self-disciple (which I don't, hehe) I would only buy/subscribe an MMO a year or more after launch. It seems to me that if an MMO is still operating a year later it usually is playable and enjoyable.

The problem with MMORPGs is really that it is a lot more fun to learn to play the game together with other people than to try to integrate into an existing community.
I would like to forgive but...

Stardock is a nice studio and I really liked GalCiv.

BUT, hey I like games that are "done". Much like the whole beta testing debacles. I really don't like to beta test because I am easily disappointed.

I AM very particular about game stability. If your "beta" crashes on me once... heh I guess I messed something up.

Twice... WTH?
Thrice... I am deinstalling your "beta" and calling it alpha.

Working in software on a daily basis gives you a certain impatence about quality.

What people don't really realize is that fundamental internals of the game (or system) have huge implications for overal utility (playability). The Final Fantasy thing speaks to the heart of two core issues.

1) What platform are you targeting.
2) What Engine are you using.

These are linked intimately at the START of design. You cannot (apparently) design a 4 button game like a pc game. I believe FF went for a neutral game that "could" be played on console and pc. However they seemed to sacrifice playability.

The SW Lead and Proj Manager should have picked their horses and rode them to the end.

This is why IT REALLY IS MANAGEMENTS fault. Management sets goals for software develpment to capture enough revenue to replay investment.

However, Games have a problem in that they have two major target platform customer bases with unique issues.

Which is why I respect Sony and Blizzard that they seem to put franchise games and tie them to platform (wow - PC, COD - Console are examples).

If you make key decisions early... quality will follow from a unified design philosophy... If you don't you get a fundamentally flawed software product.

So that is where I draw the line. If the product has severe fundamental flaws... I will never forgive the studio.

So sorry Stardock. hasta la vista baby
I have plenty of forgiveness but a short attention span so by the time the game is fixed, I've probably gotten into something else. Life is pain, princess.
Every single game that I've ever bought and enjoyed, has been the result of my own personal research while educating myself as a member of whatever community sites are available prior to launch.

I dont give a crap if Brad Wardell has the ability to clear his own concious. What I -do- care about is being lied to as a consumer, and I dont take such things lightly. Whether a company accepts culpability as Brad did, or whether they attempt the pass the buck scenario is of no concern to me, and I find it surprising that so many people are buying into the nonsense of the "postmortem blame game".

A game developer basically gets one shot with a release, and the importance of building a successful community on launch day cannot be understated where the "core supportive" playerbase is concerned.
Nils said: "Why? Because companies that realse early try to steal my money. "

But let's look at it from a utilitarian point of view:

You buy the game before it is finished.

The company uses your money to finish the game.

Everybody wins!

You have a very funny way of deciding what is and is not stealing. Basically it only has to do with who is getting screwed. You dishonestly pirating a game is not stealing, but a company that dishonestly releases an unfinished game is?
I bought the game at launch as an impulse buy (no pun intended). Normally I avoid buying games on launch day unless they are fully reviewed days before or wait a week after launch to read what people playing it think. My reasoning for buying it was that Stardock has an excellent reputation for supporting their games after launch.

I was disappointed with the game, but I knew to just be patient with it and in the last week Stardock has released a few patches to start bringing the game up to where it needs to be. Turn-based strategy games have a long lifespan and in a few months the game will be solid and stable. It may not ever end up being profitable for the company, but it is something I will and do enjoy to play.
-I would be okay with this if this particular individual had not pulled this before.

"it's fine, everything's fine, i don't know what yer talking about " eventually turning to "yer right, i was kind of fibbin' before, everything is not cool".

Once, okay. But twice from the same dev/personality? A pattern of misinformation?

No kudo to be had here.

Everyone appears to completely discount the possibility that this guy Wardell just, you know, means it. Why is that?

And in that same vein, I don't see why in this context past failures should guide future decisions. If developer X releases Game A in an unfinished and buggy state and I therefore refuse to buy their Game B, which turns out to be the Best. Game. Ever. Already on release. then I'm just punishing myself for no good reason whatsoever.

It's entertainment, yes? Not police work.
If I hadn't tried it at all then yes i would try it after hearing it has been fixed.

If I HAD tried it, then no I tend not to believe it when people say "but that is fixed now" I just think "yeah right" and cynically let my prior bad experience with the game keep me from trying it again.

The exception was DDO F2P, but that was years after I tried it when it first came out. So it took awhile to forget the bad experience of before.

I don't know if that makes sense, but that's how I am.
I could say "I play EVE, since beta--nuff said" but...

I was in EQ on release day and the servers were horrible then.

So any game deserves some forgiveness--and some deserve more than others. Stardock has an excellent reputation with me and I would be willing to give them (and Blizzard, Rock Star and Bioware) more slack than Funcom, Cryptic (despite good feelings from CoX).

There is also the realization that games--particularly MMOs are hugely complicated. That makes me a bit more willing to cut companies a bit more slack on some issues.
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