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Broken video games are the new norm, what developers need to do to fix that

Today's cutting edge of game consoles brought with them living worlds, new ways to interact with entertainment and experiences that weave seamlessly with vast social networks. They also created a new norm: Selling not a finished game, but the promise of one.

More often than not, blockbuster video games tend to ship incomplete.

Sometimes that means the game needs an update the minute you pop it into your console; sometimes it means the polish and promise of a game won't arrive for days or weeks; sometimes it means the game is completely broken until an update can be sent out.

Of more than two dozen big titles I looked at from this year — both ones created in-house for the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, or by third-party developers — all of them required a patch to either fix issues, or deliver upon promises made in the run up to a game.

That includes games like Halo: The Master Chief Collection, DriveClub and Dragon Age: Inquisition. Even games that launched relatively smoothly, like Destiny, Grand Theft Auto 5 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, ended up with early patches to fix problems big and small.

Most recently, Ubisoft has been plagued by a double whammy of releases sidelined by game-breaking bugs and glitches.

Assassin's Creed Unity released with at least two dozen problems, according to the developer, and Far Cry 4 has had to ask some gamers to delete and reinstall the game to fix problems.

Ubisoft's woes, while not unique to the current state of the industry, are an excellent example of what may be causing the problems.

Back in 2013, as the publisher and developer started to roll out its big next-gen titles, a common theme started to crop up: Games like Far Cry 3, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, The Crew, Watch Dogs and Tom Clancy's The Division were all either open world games, or leaning heavily on a blend of single and multiplayer experiences.

As 2014 rolled around, Far Cry 4 and Assassin's Creed Unity continued that push.

And it wasn't a coincidence.

With that evolution of play, needs to come an evolution of design and testing.

It was, I was told at the time, driven in part by the company's successes with that open-ended form of gameplay, in part by a top-down push by the company's leadership and in part by the new technology of the PS4 and Xbox One.

"Living worlds," one of Ubisoft's creative directors told me, is going to be the thing that makes these new consoles seem so much better than the previous generation.

"When the 360 and PS3 came out, I still had a cathode ray tube TV at home," the director told me at the time. "I upgraded to an HD TV for that generation. This generation for me is always going to be about this seamless online and what better way to make that live than open world games?"

And it isn't just Ubisoft that seems to view the power of open worlds and the blending of single-player and online multiplayer as the driving force behind next-gen gaming.

Games like Destiny, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Grand Theft Auto 5, all lean heavily on multiplayer. Some, like Destiny, even do its best to remove the line between single and multiplayer gaming.

And that's the problem these developers are running into. While all major publishers have armies of testers working through their games before they go live, it's impossible or impractical to thoroughly test a bottled up living world.

The only way that can be done is by releasing portions of the game for free, for a limited time, and packing that gameplay with as many people as possible.

Right now that sort of beta test is considered a bit of a one-off, or even marketed as a reward for particularly franchise-loyal fans, but if publishers want to stay in the living world building business, they're going to need to make that the norm. We're already starting to see a bit of that. Bloodborne, Battlefield Hardline, Halo 5, The Crew, are all getting pre-release, online stress tests. But it needs to become the norm.

Players won't continue to put up with paying to be game testers, being asked by publishers to help track down issues and load and reload patches for titles they paid to play. But flip that idea, and I'm sure plenty of gamers will beg to get a first look at a game for free, in exchange for their diligent testing and reporting.

Games should and need to evolve. Creating experiences that feel more alive, that use other players in the place of computer-controlled characters, is a wonderful advance in entertainment, and even a bit of a wild-eyed social experiment. But with that evolution of play, needs to come an evolution of design and testing.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.

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