games for windows, unplugged

One of the defining elements of the success of the Xbox and Xbox 360 has been its online service, Xbox Live. From the start it was barebones and hardly more than functional, even by the standards of the time. Nevertheless, it launched what is now the modern era of online console gaming, and is widely reputed for its ease of use, robustness, and large user base. Naturally, Microsoft wanted to capitalize on this by carrying it over to Windows, and thus was born Games for Windows Live.

Naturally, the people in charge of GFWL apparently took the long list of XBL’s successes and felt motivated to completely contradict, if not entirely invalidate them. The GFWL software was clunky, difficult to use, and often redundant. The only thing worse than the standalone executable was the in-game overlay. Often it would fail to appear, or require an update that essentially locked-up the computer it was running on. To make things worse, the overlay and standalone program ran on separate codebases; often both required individual updates, or games could not be played online (or sometimes at all). But GFWL’s greatest magic trick is making save files disappear into thin air. I had this happen myself, in Grand Theft Auto IV, when it lost a save with 36 hours’ progress.

At any rate, by the beginning of this year, the writing was on the wall, and publishers and developers were beginning to read it. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City have already dropped GFWL entirely, as has BioShock 2; Arkham Origins ditched it in mid-development. Capcom has just hopped on the trolley, announcing that it will begin removing the software from its games as well.

Now, it looks like the great experiment is over. With the decision to integrate Xbox Live into Windows 8, things already looked ominous. Two months ago Microsoft announced that the point system will be discontinued. Information was leaked on an update page for Age of Empires Online stating that the GFWL service itself will be discontinued by July 2014 (this page was quickly updated to omit this information). The next stage was to close the GFWL Marketplace, ending purchase of existing titles on the service, and effectively putting it on life support until the coup de grace can be administered sometime next year. Now it’s just a matter of time.

This is all something of a modern Shakespearean tragedy–or a comedy, I can’t decide. It’s both saddening and hilarious, the way Microsoft turned what could have been the next revolution of online gaming and took it to Boondoggle Level Market Garden, and now they’re beating a tactical withdrawal to the fortress of Xbox Live, hoping to reform and organize for another charge. But with Valve’s offensive rolling across the terrain like a Soviet tank division, and competing armies gathering on the fringes of the battlefield, I don’t foresee another major assault by Microsoft anytime soon.

But things change. With a new general, the tide may yet turn.

beta moderne

I feel it’s time for a PSA.

Prior to the current century, the software development cycle was well understood. A product went through a few major phases–primarily pre-alpha, alpha, beta, release candidate, and final release–during which bugs and other issues would be progressively weeded out, and new features added. Alpha and beta releases were done purely on test conditions; interested parties would fill out applications with system specs and testers would be picked from among those applicants. The purpose was clear: those chosen were, in effect, software testers, and would provide detailed feedback on their experience, in particular anything that didn’t work as planned. The developers would take this information, make the appropriate changes to the code, push out patches, and await more feedback.

This understanding seems to have been lost at some point in the past several years.

These days, “betas” are more like previews. They are sold as sneak peeks to games with preorders (Battlefield 4 and Bad Company 2 did this), or as a bonus with an entirely unrelated game (the Halo 3 multiplayer beta access came with copies of Crackdown). It’s become marketing.

To me, it’s absurd. It’s like selling tickets to a feature that is composed entirely of dailies of a movie, with no clean-up or post-processing applied. Would people have paid as much to see the raw film of Lord of the Rings? I don’t think they would. Every product needs polish, and no one wants to buy an unfinished product (unless they plan on finishing it themselves).

It’s an unfinished game, that’s all there is to it. These people playing are expected by developers and programmers to effectively test it and report issues, but they are expected by publishers and retailers to simply buy it. Many of those getting into these betas are not going into them keeping the mindset that it is incomplete. Forums become jammed with complaints that the game fails to launch, or textures pop too much, or certain skills don’t function correctly. Proper bug reports aren’t filed, even in situations when an interface to report bugs is made easily available and its use is actively encouraged by the game.

One memorable beta I took part in was that for Wrath of the Lich King. What made it memorable was the constant complaints in-game. Chat didn’t go more than a few minutes without someone whining about a mob, encounter, or effect not triggering as advertised, or textures not loading properly, or something else not working as it should. Did these people file a bug report, or contact a mod? No, they just bitched in chat or forums that were rarely (if ever) monitored by developers.

Times like this, I wish all betas were closed. But then, the primary advantage of an open beta is to have a much larger sample size, to cover as many different hardware configurations as possible. It strikes me as something of a conundrum. Publishers aren’t abandoning the marketing of betas anytime soon, and as long as they sell them like products or previews many of the players involved with them will fail to consider that they need to treat it for what it is–A god damned beta.