Incomplete Games: The History of a Shady Practice

Incomplete Games: The History of a Shady Practice

From E.T. to Final Fantasy XV

S.G. Brown

Written by for Features on

Many modern gamers might be too young to remember those fully-complete marvels of gaming goodness that formed the early gamescape prior to the rise of DLC and patches for missing and broken game content.

Essentially, while PC gamers were weaned on patches, updates and fixes to their games (due in part to their various system hardware configurations), early console gamers were fortunate to share identical hardware specifications and logically reaped the benefits of consistent machine performance, easily-definable frame rates and mostly complete, error-free products.

Photo: some of my PlayStation 2 RPG collection
Part of my collection of games from a simpler time

With the advent of the internet and the ongoing advances of gaming hardware technologies, every newer generation of console hardware is designed to more clearly embrace downloadable content in the form of updates, patches to fix errors and bugs and expansions. Oddly, while recent technologies make modern interactive experiences unlike anything prior, many recent game design documents have fallen short of any previously understood industry standards (the commonalities originally devised and set by early gaming pioneers, designers, artists, writers and developers). More specifically, these standards were implemented to ensure that complete and cohesive gaming experiences were delivered and (hopefully) bug-free.

Recently and with little controversy, games moved from being understood as nearly complete and self-contained products to intellectual properties often described as a service under a defined End User License Agreement which also became an imposed legal contract between the publisher and the gamer. In other words, the description of any game software was quietly and subtly changed along with the applicable laws regulating its sale, rental and use. Game content was no longer a fixed, fit-for-purpose media product delivered exclusively under regional retail regulations, laws and trade enforcements. Games are now considered an ephemeral concept: an evolving intellectual property that frequently has ill-defined parameters but could still be protected under copyright regulations. Games are no longer self-contained products sold on disc or cartridge. They are fluid, evolving, and mutable imagined concepts without apparent curtailments and not bound by trade regulations surrounding manufacture and distribution of durable goods.

Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization screenshot
Sword Art Online remains a fairly solid series in such an error-prone genre

During the rise of early video game culture, console hardware improvements both limited and promoted developer ingenuity, creativity and adaptability. Developers and publishers were routinely challenged to efficiently utilize the most recent console hardware capabilities for an effective interactive storytelling gaming experience that could also be delivered via available media such as disc or cartridge. While game content size, scope and scale were limited by available formats, developers often sought to push and advance their creative skills and simultaneously press the available hardware to its fullest output possible.

Of course, like many artistic pursuits, some released games would later be heralded as achievements of form, function and fun while still others would tank and fall into a literal hole much like one of the biggest failures in commercial gaming history: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for Atari 2600. As a partial result of the North American video game crash of 1983, Atari was sold off by their parent company Warner Communications. Long believed to be only an urban legend, the supposed burial of nearly one million unsold games in the New Mexico desert by Atari was later fully verified as fact by company officials.

Today, lackluster, broken or incomplete games can be easily updated, patched or even completely reworked from beginning to end. Unsold or failed product doesn't need to be dumped in a hole to escape critique. Since video games are now considered an evolving and evolutionary intellectual property or concept delivered as a service and not a finite product, they don't even have to be finished upon delivery to the user nor even functional or fit-for-purpose as a complete product. Games are now delivered through digital download, physical media or more routinely, a hybrid of both: a physical install combined with downloadable updates and enhancements.

The Elder Scrolls Online screenshot
The Elder Scrolls Online evolved dramatically since its debut

Worldwide, there have been approximately 4000 games released for PlayStation 2 by the end of 2014. Hundreds of those games were non-structured and featured intricate RPG mechanics. Many of these often included stories told through impressive FMV cutscenes separated by gameplay segments. They are complicated games indeed yet very few of them were released prematurely, incomplete, broken or in need of major revision or hotfix updates. They were complete products and mostly error-free experiences playable from beginning to end without game-stopping bugs in need of revision.

With the widespread successes of PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (both impacted by internet protocols enabling faster downloads), game developers began to take flexible advantage of the transformative nature of content, updates and patches. Simply put, developers routinely began frequently shipping incomplete or buggy games alongside their stated full intentions of further releasing hierarchical post-launch updates in an effort to remedy or mitigate soon-discovered software failures. This resulted in often rushed development. An example of early launch problems is Fallout: New Vegas. Despite receiving a positive critical reception, it was initially plagued by a myriad of technical issues that further hampered the gameplay experience upon release until later remedied through emergency patching. Another title that launched with great technical issues was Assassin's Creed: Unity. Released in 2014, Unity received overall mixed reviews during its launch window. Heaped with criticism targeting its lack of originality, rampant bugs, poor controls and numerous graphical issues, Unity greatly needed sweeping game revisions.

Probably the most egregious modern example of a game gone awry might be the haphazard launch of Final Fantasy XIV during September 2010. Overwhelmingly panned by critics and gamers alike, Square Enix president Yoichi Wada soon ordered a complete revision of the game that would later be released during August of 2013 under the name Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn which was further guided by Naoki Yoshida as producer and director. A Realm Reborn featured a new game engine, interface, gameplay mechanics and a completely original storyline in addition to rebuilt playable game environments. Now functional and with an estimated subscriber base of nearly 6 million individuals, A Realm Reborn also benefited from a 2015 expansion pack with yet another one scheduled for June 2017. It's true that massively multiplayer online games constantly evolve and are expected to be expanded by original design. However, scrapping an earlier iteration and completely redesigning the entirety of a game's basic content is rare, usually cost-prohibitive and often results in subsequent delays and later cancellations.

Final Fantasy XV screenshot
Noctis and pals wouldn't be so happy if their precious Regalia was incomplete

Unlike MMOs, single player games (particularly RPGs) are generally not completely redesigned post-launch. Speaking of which, Square Enix recently released Final Fantasy XV. While critically well-received (except for here at Video Chums) and garnering nominations for Game of the Year at various outlets, it will be consistently updated throughout the next year according to lead developer and game director Hajime Tabata. Oddly, despite it being primarily a single player RPG, Tabata discussed planned game "improvements" and expected DLC expansions that will include cooperative gameplay plus a possible avatar system and new playable characters, cutscenes, areas, gear and timed events very similar to ones found in MMO games.

Many gamers enthusiastically applauded Tabata for these projected game changes that will also likely entail combat rebalancing, a redesign of a specific subpar segment, and more fan service. Conversely, game pundits argued that many of these projected additions should have been present at launch. Through ubiquitous season passes, patches, DLCs, expansions and added multiplayer content post-launch, what's often advertised in the media as a complete experience might be missing more than a little content. In fact, during the first month after Final Fantasy XV's launch, it received nearly 14 gigabytes of patches and updates. With modern console gaming, the physical media may exist on your shelf but the expected game might not yet be written and may only exist as a future promise from the developer.

Final Fantasy XV: Moogle Chocobo Carnival trailer 1:30
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