Andrew in Steamland:
What Went Wrong
This was going to be a Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back review, but… it is, technically, it’s just that there were some hiccups along the way. Hiccups such as the game refusing to work under any circumstances. I know it must be a harsh shock to you that a Bubsy game was poorly made. While I anticipated some difficulties when I promised to review the game, I foolishly expected I would be able to complete at least one level without the game crashing. Instead, I was met with a crash to desktop every time I reached the end of a level, and frequently when trying to enter one, too. The only reason I saw any part of the game past the tutorial was because of its generous autosave system, which seems to be the one thing that works reliably. Not even the developer logos are consistent for me, with Accolade’s randomly switching between mono and stereo audio. It’s a bit of an ominous sign when I can’t even make it to a game’s main menu without worrying for its stability.
In other words, I spent a long time playing the tutorial and first two stages, with the game fighting me every step of the way. No amount of fiddling with the settings helped, and in fact lowering the graphical quality made it crash more often. It’s a shame, since the little I was able to play wasn’t awful. Woolies Strike Back isn’t good, but it is serviceable, which is more than can be said for the rest of the series. Bubsy has reasonable acceleration now, fall damage has been removed, a lunge attack has been added to Bubsy’s repertoire, enemies are easier to jump on, bonus rooms no longer teleport the player to a random place in the level, and the player has the option of disabling dialogue altogether. Conceptually, this game is exactly what was needed to fix Bubsy. Thought went into this. An effort was made. Maybe that’s worse than if Black Forest and Accolade treated it as the meme game it obviously is. Or maybe they did, save one tortured intern who never got the memo and injected a pitiful, homeopathic dose of effort into the project.
This is going to mark me as horribly out of touch with the gaming industry’s zeitgeist: I believe that, upon release, a game should be complete. The thing that differentiates an alpha or beta from a release version is that the latter is finished and functional. With Woolies Strike Back, neither is true. People have easily beaten the game in under 90 minutes. Foolish as it might be to engage in bean counting over how many minutes of enjoyment one can get per dollar spent, I still think 20 to 30 dollars for less than two hours of gameplay is questionable at best. It isn’t as if there are multiple characters to unlock or hidden levels to explore. There’s no challenge mode, no extra difficulty setting (unless cranking up the quip slider to maximum counts), and no reason to collect everything. Every level is strewn with yarn balls, as well as five keys that collectively open a vault containing more yarn balls. But all yarn does is add to the score. Was anyone champing at the bit to compete on the Bubsy yarn collecting leaderboards? Game publishers seem to think there’s prestige attached to the stupid things, considering Mighty No. 9, another single-player platformer, was delayed to add leaderboards. It smacks of distracting players from a lack of real content by crafting the illusion of competition with others, like the high scores aren’t going to be drowning in hackers within two hours of release.
Accolade promised a patch to fix the level loading crash issue, which neatly sidesteps the question of why the game was allowed to release in such a state. It’s cute that they wanted it to coincide with the anniversary of Bubsy 3D, but that doesn’t make the game any more playable. And this is, arguably, a better launch than most. Woolies Strike Back debuted at a 34% discount and no preorder DLC, day one DLC, or on-disc DLC, which have all become industry standard over the last few years. In the days of old, the game you bought was the game you got, and at most there would be an expansion pack in a couple years, priced lower than the base game and with a decent amount of content. Now we’re at the point where Bioware double dips by hiding story-essential characters ransom when all the assets are already on the disc. When I bought a game like Age of Empires, I owned the game. Now I own nothing. We’re all just renting licenses to access an engine, populated by whatever content the developer deems sufficient to draw us in so they can parcel out the rest of the game for several dollars apiece. Games aren’t products anymore, but platforms subject to alteration at any moment, created in an environment in which testing and quality control are treated lackadaisically when they’re considered at all.
Consider Sonic Forces, a game that was officially in development for four years and still released in such a state that it was impossible to play the PC version past the third level. It, like Woolies Strike Back, simply wouldn’t stop crashing. Sega Sammy is a 5.8 billion dollar company. That they, given four years, refuse to release a game as stable as, say, A Hat in Time (funded by $300,000 in Kickstarter pledges) is insulting. That’s how little they think of their customers. It isn’t a matter of them being unable to deliver an acceptable product, but of being unwilling to. And they do this because they can get away with it.
Sega is no stranger to botched PC releases. I have a theory about what happened, but for the moment I’ll stick to the facts and let you draw your own conclusions. Sonic Mania was scheduled for an August 15 multiplatform release. Four days before release, after the game had already gone gold, Sega announced that the PC version would be delayed two weeks for optimization. As compensation, those who preordered the game on Steam would receive a free copy of the original Sonic the Hedgehog on the 15th. This was no great loss to Sega, which had already made the game available for free on Android. Shortly after the announcement, Christian Whitehead, head of Mania’s dev team, made a cryptic tweet complaining about DRM. This was the subject of much speculation over the following two weeks. The console versions of Mania released on schedule, and despite a few technical quibbles and an aggravating soft lock glitch, there didn’t seem to be anything that warranted a two-week emergency delay. Then the 29th rolled around and PC owners were shocked to discover that Mania required a persistent online connection to work, displaying an error message if the player attempted to run it while in offline mode. This is characteristic of Denuvo, a particularly intrusive DRM scheme widely reviled for its negative impact on game performance. But how could that be, when neither Sonic Mania’s page on the Steam storefront nor the game’s EULA mentioned Denuvo? After receiving a deluge of complaints, Sega made an announcement heavily implying that these issues were merely an innocent oversight on the part of the dev team, prompting an irate message from Simon “Stealth” Thomley, one of Mania’s lead developers and owner of software developer Headcannon, in which he complained that Sega “already tried to pin the delay on us”. Many people who preordered Mania attempted to get a refund, which Valve allows as long as a game has been in a person’s Steam library for less than two weeks and has less than two hours’ playtime. Yet Mania owners were ineligible for a refund because when Sega added Sonic 1 to their library, it did so as a bundle with Sonic Mania. The two-week delay thus invalidated their refund requests. They were thus stuck with a game hobbled by DRM that was cracked within a week and, as of this writing, is still attached to the official release like a limpet.
I’m not saying Sega delayed Sonic Mania specifically to implement DRM that objectively made the game worse, lied about it, and knowingly took steps to block customers from getting their money back once they inevitably found out. But it does fit the facts, doesn’t it?
This is the state of gaming. Rather than admit any wrongdoing, Sega responded to fan complaints with an automated boilerplate response, then doubled down and made Denuvo part of Sonic Forces’ PC release as well. Other publishers are pushing the envelope even further; for Assassin’s Creed Origins, Ubisoft applied VMProtect on top of Denuvo, to prevent people from cracking the latter. Rather than acknowledge the futility of continuing to use a DRM program that has declined in effectiveness to the point that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was cracked and available on piracy sites 15 hours before release, companies prefer to apply DRM to their DRM. All this amid accusations that this double dose of digital sabotage reduces Origins’ performance by 30-40%. If not outright antipathy, then publishers certainly hold a callous disregard for their customers, as well as a total lack of scruples about exploiting them.
Maybe I’m an upset curmudgeon pointlessly screaming into the void, but that doesn’t make me wrong. When I got into gaming in the ’90s, there were no loot boxes. These days, players are expected to pony up real money to gamble for virtual items. Some games do their best to make it unavoidable, such as Shadow of War, which forces the player to endure hours of tedious grinding to complete the story if they don’t buy loot boxes, and Call of Duty: WWII making players spectate other players opening loot boxes. Even Team Fortress 2, great Mammon that it is, allows players to directly purchase the item they want. It also makes every weapon available through normal gameplay and only locks cosmetic items behind the paywall. But Shadow of War is a single-player game in which progression is tied to wagering real money on microtransactions. Yes, I’m aware it doesn’t meet the strict legal definition of gambling, but it’s still an unethical practice. I think it’s absurd that companies sell $100 special editions with exclusive preorder DLC, withhold more content for post-release DLC, then integrate microtransactions into the game, only to release a virtually identical game the next year. What’s sad about this arrangement is that millions of gamers are too young to know anything different. They look at this operant conditioning machine designed to strip mine their wallets and think it’s normal.
Don’t tell me this is acceptable because games cost more to make than they did 20 years ago. Budgets haven’t bloated because games are that much more expensive to develop, but because of the marketing edifice that pumps hundreds of millions of dollars annually into artificially generating hype. Mass Effect Andromeda allegedly cost 40 million dollars to make, an absurd number if you look at the game. It’s a hideous, glitch-ridden wreck slapped together by a team of interns and temp workers that was disbanded practically the moment the game went live. Where did the money go? To advertising. They licensed a flavor of the month pop song and carpet-bombed TV with ads containing no meaningful information about the game. The purpose of the AAA development cycle is to approximate as closely as possible Hollywood blockbusters: find a safe property that appeals to the broadest possible audience, then mercilessly run it into the ground with yearly, nigh-indistinguishable releases that are treated more as an event than an object of entertainment, let alone art. The platonic ideal is a bunch of disposable trash destined to be forgotten in a month so that it can make way for the next objet d’hype. It’s an open secret that AAA games are expected to make most of their money in the first couple weeks after launch, in contrast to indie games, which usually work on a slow burn as word of mouth boosts sales. With AAA games having no leg to stand on gameplay-wise, their chief advantages lie with brand recognition and hype, both of which are built through expensive marketing blitzes. The model is sustained by tapering off support soon after a game’s release, with a skeleton crew maintaining servers and cranking out a few more DLC packs while the rest of the dev team commences work on Skinner Box 14: A View to a Shill. With such a model, the stubborn adherence to obsolescent DRM bordering on malware makes sense, as publishers expect it to remain effective for the brief post-launch window in which the game is most profitable. Any sales made past that window are just gravy, since digital products such as DLC and loot boxes cost nothing to make and are infinitely reproducible. On top of all that, I’m skeptical of the idea that games are so much more expensive to produce for the simple reason that releases have been outrageously pared down over time. When I bought Civilization III, it came with a manual the size of a small paperback novel. The standard used to be that games came on a disc, which was placed in a cardboard box along with a manual and, sometimes, some extras like a map of the game world, which would then be physically shipped to a store. Companies had to carefully gauge demand lest they overstock and lose money, or understock and miss out on sales they otherwise might have made. All that goes out the window with digital distribution, which is now dominant in PC gaming and ascendant on consoles. Even if the increase in the cost of making games has been disproportionate to the increase in the price of games for the customer, profit margins have been positively affected by the shift to digital distribution.
I apologize if the point in this matryoshka doll of complaints has eluded you. What I’m trying to say is that people just don’t make games the way they used to. Some studios try, for which I’ll give them credit. But these are predominantly small operations that can’t achieve much more than what was cutting-edge 20 years ago. There are limits to what can be done with the funding and manpower available to Yacht Club Games or Studio MDHR. Once upon a time there was a constellation of mid-range developers, neither indie nor AAA, but those have been driven to extinction by Activision and EA, which have made brisk business buying up smaller studios, hollowing out the staffs, cutting corners on development, and shutting everything down when their franchises, now shadows of their former selves, stop selling. Do you remember SimCity, Dead Space, Command & Conquer, Ultima, Medal of Honor, Mercenaries, Destroy All Humans, the good Star Wars Battlefront games (and if ever there were an object lesson in the deterioration of gaming, Battlefront is it), Need for Speed, The Sims, and Dark Age of Camelot? All the studios responsible for those games are gone, thoughtlessly bought, gutted, and discarded. You can see the process in action with Bioware. None of the people who made Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, or the first Mass Effect are still present. The studio is just a name, which is its true value to EA. The dev team is just part of the hype, a buzzword to attach to commercials in hope of suckering in a few additional customers who naively associate the new game with older, better ones. Big publishers like EA don’t craft games, they excrete them.
I understand if the above doesn’t seem relevant to Accolade, the poor company left holding the bag for Bubsy. Believe it or not, there’s more to the story than washed-up developers playing the meme card for a brief spurt of attention. After the collapse of Accolade’s previous owner, Infogrames, it and a number of other studios and properties were acquired by Chinese intellectual property management firm Billionsoft. This is what the industry does in lieu of take risks on new franchises: it picks over the corpses of old MicroProse games, looking for something that strikes the right balance of cheap and marketable. Bubsy is but a leering, one-liner-spewing head on the hydra. Some vulture capitalist looked through a portfolio of games acquired by his firm, saw the words “Bubsy” and “hyped as the next Sonic the Hedgehog” – a phrase that actually appears in the description of Bubsy on Billionsoft’s site – and greenlit Woolies Strike Back on a shoestring budget. This is a fire-and-forget game, made for no other reason than they received the license as part of a package and might as well do something with it, no matter how pathetic.
And that, in summary, is what fucking went wrong.