Can we collectively accept that? Marketing, developers, and players alike? Launch is launch. When your game launches, it has launched. If I can reach another decade on this planet without ever hearing the term “soft launch” again except as a historical footnote, I will be… well, I don’t know that I’ll be happy, but I’ll certainly be happy with that particular development.
Unfortunately, I appear to be on the wrong side of this. Early access and points related have disrupted the very concept of a launch state, and developers have been working hard to redefine “launch” as an arbitrary goal line rather than a term referring to the point when a game is bought and paid for. But I think more so than the ambiguity of testing terms, the way we’ve diluted the idea of launch has really had an impact on our perceptions of products and the state of a game.
On some level, this is a matter of trying to fight a tide of progress regarding every aspect of software development. When I was a kid, software was available to the public only when it was released, pressed into a hard copy, and shipped to stores. That last one more or less determined availability. I got lucky and bought a copy of Xenogears for a pittance because my local gaming stores had ordered a surfeit of the game and very few people wanted it in the area; by contrast, I never once saw a copy of Einhander at retail. Stories that I have heard indicate my experience is the exact inverse of typical.
But now that’s not an issue any more. I didn’t pre-order my copy of World of Warcraft: Legion out of a fear of not having enough copies around; heck, I didn’t even bother with a physical copy, which will quite possibly make this the first WoW expansion where I’ve not bought any sort of expansion box. When I bought my copy of DOOM for my computer, the installation disc basically just flagged my Steam account to download the game; it certainly isn’t necessary to play the game further. I specifically bought a big memory card for my 3DS so that I’d never need to purchase another physical cartridge for the system. Digital distribution is here, and it’s ubiquitous.
It’s natural, then, that more companies would want to get people in on the act of playing games ahead of time. Heck, the idea sounds intoxicating. Why wait half a year to play this game you’re looking forward to? Why not play its early development build now?
I’ve got no problem with that. But as soon as you open that door, the reality is that your game has launched. It’s out in the wild. You are asking people to pay money for your product; you have an obligation to provide a product worth paying money for, or at least accept that your game is in a state that allows paying customers to evaluate it as a finished product.
Daybreak Games has been really giving this one a kicking with H1Z1, which has wound up becoming two completely different games while still in early access. It’s almost entirely the result of the developers seeing the playerbase split and polarize, and rather than expecting that ahead of time or hashing it out in the process of internal development, players had a front-row seat and a paying ticket to discuss the state of the game. I’m not saying that splitting the game in two was a bad decision, but that it really shouldn’t have been a decision made in the middle of a game that was already accepting player money.
The whole thing gets compounded with far too many Kickstarter titles, with both Shroud of the Avatar and Star Citizen trafficking on the idea that these games will never really be finished. Which is technically true, yes; an online game that keeps receiving updates isn’t done. But it does reach a launch state. Final Fantasy XI has been updating for years, including after its active story developments ostensibly ended, but no one would argue that the game hasn’t launched. That’s one of the big selling points of an updating game, that it can still change.
Stuff gets finished. It reaches a state at which the core of the game is done. That’s launch. If you’re going to ask for $20 for your game, you have reached a state wherein your game should be worthy of $20; part of the anger at Landmark, I think, comes from the simple fact that fans were sold a game that was meant to do certain things only to be later told that it would not do any of those things. Online games change! It’s their nature! But being told “you’re being sold an early version of a game that will eventually do X” and then having that altered to “it will never do X” feels very different than being sold an ostensibly launch-ready game with a stated plan of “this will eventually be able to do X, it can’t right now” only to have those plans evaporate.
And especially in the era of digital distribution and more fluid releases, launch is important. I can download and play a lot of games that are in testing right now. There’s not as many clear lines separating the test phases of a free-to-play game from its actual launch; it’s why we at MOP ultimately just decided that if your game is taking money from a cash shop, it’s launched for Betawatch purposes. Even then there are a lot of unclear areas and corner cases because the launch state and test state blur pretty close together when there’s no actual box being prepared for shelves.
Shying away from saying “this is launch” feels like a compromise of the worst sort, trying to stretch the time-honored defense of “it’s just beta” miles beyond its breaking point. It creates a nigh-on mythical state of “launch” wherein all problems will be completely solved, wholly disregarding the fact that online games by their very nature will forever be evolving. It also allows studios to hype up each new milestone as another step toward launch, like some unwieldy Zeno’s hype train.
And there are studios that handle this with some decency. I’m not a fan of how Jagex handled Transformers Universe, but when it became clear that the game was never going to launch, the people who had pre-ordered the launch title were refunded. The game people had pre-ordered was not coming out, and test access was a perk, not the point of money. Kickstarter games already occupy a grey area for this, although I’d argue that Kickstarter-based concerns stop being a going thing once the game is in testing and asking for money from other people. As much as I and others mocked Neverwinter for its whole soft launch bit, at least it did accept that the “soft launch” was a launch in its own right.
But a launch shouldn’t be something with asterisks, and it’s past time to just accept launch dates. Acknowledge that yes, if you’re willing to take money for the game, it’s in a launch state. Judge the games you’re playing as if they’re in their launch state when they ask you to pay in. Demand firm launch dates rather than allowing a permanent languishing in beta.
If there are no more wipes incoming and you’re paying money to play the game? It’s a launched game. Calling it anything else is window dressing.