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5 Lessons The Gaming Industry Could Learn For 2017

As 2016 comes to a close, it's time to look back at the shortcomings, triumphs and controversies of the industry.

As far as releases go, it's been a busy one for gaming; new IP's have entered the arena, and have caused waves for both good and bad reasons. Franchise giants have also reappeared, and have managed to collapse in spectacular fashion, or shone brightly when expected to fail. We've compiled a round up of this years biggest lessons, and set them out in the guide below.

Lesson 1: Accepting when and where change is needed.

The Call of Duty franchise is one that spans 13 years, and coincidentally 13 titles. From 2005 onward, Activision has published a game per year as part of this series giant, with the reception between some being drastically critical and high in praise alike. However, with each new title, comes an overabundance of familiarity, which has been both embraced and mocked by fans and general gamers, leading the franchise to head toward McCall of Duty sense of status that prides quantity over quality.  

Enter: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. The games announcement was hit with a mixed reception from the industry, when it was announced that purchases of the game would come bundled with a remastered edition of the fan favorite Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The main controversy was sparked when it was revealed that the only way of gaining access to the remaster was to purchase the newest title, with no option to buy it separately. To some, this indicated a wavering front on Activision's faith in the franchise's ability to pull the crowds in amidst an influx of well designed and highly popular competitive FPS games on the market. The move mirrored Activision's tactics of trying to sway consumers with dangling nostalgia carrots; similar to Blizzard's World of Warcraft series, which has also focused on bringing back fan favourite foes and allies in an attempt to reel the players back in. 

At the games release, it received a generous score from critics, but was rebuked sharply by fans, especially on PC (which was largely in part to technical shortcomings and performance issues). While the game went on to sell just under 2 million copies in it's first week, the overall sales were down 50% on the previous years Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. While Activision tried to downplay the drop in sales due to Black Ops carrying more brand weight in the name (Despite both series featuring the more prominently known Call of Duty title), the writing was clear on the wall for all to see; the series was turning stagnant, and consumers were reacting to this with their wallets. 

The multiplayer was also criticized heavily for it's lack of innovation, which was reflected in dwindling player numbers, whilst other multiplayer heavy titles like Overwatch and Battlefield 1 only continued to thrive, proving that Activision need to drastically alter the CoD Formula in it's upcoming titles. With internet access being more readily available than ever, the competitive online market is booming. While FPS games can still hold incredibly well when tied together with reactive gameplay or well designed stories, the multiplayer elements now have more of a hold on a products shelf life than ever before. 

But what about when changes are implemented and ultimately work? Well, this is what leads us to perhaps one of the biggest surprise successes of the year, Watch_Dogs 2. While the first installment of the series introduced some interesting elements to the open world genre, it lacked any real depth and polish to seal it as an overall success. Tied together with a weak story, unlikable lead character, and a whole clusterfuck of controversy surrounding hidden 'E3' graphics and downgrades, the game fell short of making a strong stand as a brand new IP. 

Watch_Dogs 2 was received by a cautious market, which was reflected in sales that reportedly mirrored only 80% of that of the original. While the damage had already been done, the game received a much more positive reception from the general consumer, with PC gamers also praising the graphical fidelity and performance of the title. Ubisoft Montreal had learned some harsh lessons from the first installment, and had removed the previously focused  sense of doom and gloom from the sequel, and instead replaced it with a narrative that managed to not take itself too seriously. The characters were also replaced with more likable personas, a far cry from the originals Aiden Pearce, who's apathetic attitude and constant regretting over the past did too much to quell player enthusiasm. While the story still didn't manage to break boundaries, the narrative felt like an enjoyable parody of itself at times, which was heavily complemented by a more fluid and driven gameplay experience. While the game sales projections were lowered by Ubisoft, the change also demonstrates that they are willing to listen to their audience, and communicate ideas on both a design and development level in order to create a more enjoyable experience for their consumer base. Hopefully, this change will help drive sales for the game as content is developed for it, and will also demonstrate a return of faith in consumers, which can only lead to better sales for future installments, a lesson that Activision should explore should they want to avoid driving Call of Duty into the ground.

 

Lesson 2: Ambiguous Marketing Doesn't Always Have A Happy Ending

No Man's Sky. By simply throwing the name of this title into any popular forum, you will find yourself ducking under a torrent of alternating opinions and emotions, ranging from blind hatred to senseless fanboy-ism.  

While the title was originally announced by the independent studio Hello Games in 2014, details of the core gameplay mechanics were kept under much tighter wraps until very recently. The details were kept so far from the public, in fact, that numerous "What actually is No Man's Sky?" articles surfaced across the internet, with gamers arguing over fundamentals which are normally made a lot clearer earlier on in the marketing process. Vague interviews with the company founder, Sean Murray, only served to further the conspiracy flames, as his limited answers and boyish grins did very little to fill in the gameplay blanks. While this lack of certainty filled a number of people with doubt over the upcoming title, it also became the main fuel for the self-propelled hype train that was inevitably born from the independent title. Due to the ambiguous gameplay details, people ended up filling in the blanks themselves; pulling in sparse details from limited gameplay videos and interviews in order to surmise the finer details and ultimate direction of the narrative.

It is impossible to deny that Hello Games didn't become aware of the mass hype that had amassed for their title, but what remains unclear is whether or not they deliberately played on peoples hopeful expectations in order to further drive the marketing for their game. Later interviews were just as vague, and un-edited footage from the 'live' build of the game wasn't actually displayed until a few hours before the title's launch, which was hosted by the studio themselves. While this set of events rang very loud alarm bells among some consumers, the game still went on to enjoy commercial success in it's first week, accumulating huge sales across PS4 and PC. However, once the gameplay elements, or thereby lack of, became abundantly clear, the sales engine came to a drastic slow down over the following weeks. Many gamers took to Reddit and official forums in order to vent their anger over the title, some citing previous interviews and quotes in order to back up the bulk of their claims of lies told about the game. 

This was made worse by a lack of any real form of communication from Hello Games, with their previously active Twitter account staying silent for months, leading the Sub-Reddit r/nomansskythegame to create a running thread that announced the number of days the studio had stayed silent for. Just before day 100, the Studio finally made an official statement, along with information surrounding a new 'Founders Update', which added base-building elements to the game, as well as seeking to address some issues raised by players. While the patch was received well by some fans, it became quickly clear that long term damage to the title has been done, with daily concurrent players quickly dropping back down the their regular lows, and forums becoming sparsely filled areas of "Look at what I found" screenshots.

While Hello Games' intentions may have never been insidious, their poor handling of the games marketing and post release process ultimately sealed their short term fate as a developer, with many likening Sean Murray's ability to over promise with that of Lionhead Studios founder, Peter Molyneux. The process of staying quiet post release may have been as a result of Murray's antics, in an attempt to avoid any further damage to the games reputation.

The incident serves as a warning to both consumers and independent developers; to keep open a healthy dialogue during the development and post release stages. Arguably, if Hello Games had been more honest with their audience about what the game would and wouldn't feature before release, then it could have received a better reception, and could still be enjoying a healthier, albeit slower climb of sales, with a steady flow of content still in the works.

 

Lesson 3: DLC Doesn't Have To Be Anti-Consumer

Skip back to 2015, and DLC had almost cemented itself as a dirty word. Used by many publishers to slice off chunks of main games in order to segregate and further product sales, DLC was seen as a lazy attempt to gain extra consumer cash. What used to be unlockable items, skins and weapons through coveted sense of achievement, were now locked behind pre-order or post release paywalls. While DLC caused a divide of opinion between gamers, one thing became apparently clear; DLC was here to stay. 

2016, however, would go on to prove that DLC didn't have to be the spawn of the devil that some claimed it to be, with titles such as The Witcher 3 and Overwatch proving that content could be free or made to a high standard (or both!). This year saw the release of the final expansion for the critically acclaimed Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, Blood and Wine. This expansion added an entirely new area to the already vast in-game world, along with at least 20 hours of main story and side quest content. The world was built from the ground up, with the atmosphere, environment and aesthetics feeling familiar yet completely different from the narrative of the main story. The new content was so expansive, that some fans argued the DLC featured more content than other major release titles that year, and the DLC itself went on to win awards later in the year. To top it off, the content was put on the market for just under $15, boasting more value than any other major title DLC released in recent memory.

Overwatch developers, Blizzard, had previously promised that all future game modes, maps and playable characters introduced to the game post release would be made available for free. So far, they've kept true to their word, with 2 new characters being added, as well as 1 new map, and a large host of seasonal themed game modes and environments. While the content is effectively 'free', Blizzard have not lowered their ability to create high quality content, with each new addition feeling fresh and unique to the title. Some of the seasonal game modes, which have disappeared after their respective event has ended, have been praised for being incredibly fun, with some players petitioning for the game modes to be added as permanent features. The game does provide players with in-game loot boxes, which contain cosmetic content only, and can be obtained through in-game methods, or with real money. The events, modes and new characters that Blizzard has introduced so far has benefited both the players and the developers immensely, with the game earning Blizzard a staggering $585.6 million in less than 7 months. This ethic proves that a game can enjoy huge commercial success, without pinning customers down to shell out more money to play new content.  

 

Lesson 4: Early Access Needs To Be Regulated Responsibly

It's only been several years since 'Early Access' titles became a prominent feature on Steam, although crowdfunded projects have been around since long before then. While some Early Access games have been the focal point for debate, the method of kickstarting independent game development has undeniably paved the way for some incredible titles. Some of the most famous of which are arguably Minecraft, Kerbal Space Program, Terraria and Don't Starve, so on that basis, the method is tried and tested, so it can work. Unfortunately, that doesn't always mean that it does, and can lead to small development teams underestimating the work and money involved in lifting their ideas into creation, and that's where it all starts to go horribly wrong.

The Early Access platform that Steam offers is an evolving beast, and an interesting one at that. While Steam's recent refund policy has helped alleviate some of the issues caused by developers mis-selling their products to consumers, it ultimately has no bearing on products that end up failing during the development cycle. In a supposed 'Guidelines Document' to developers obtained by PC Gamer earlier this year, Valve states "Do not make specific promises about future events.For example, there is no way you can know exactly when the game will be finished, that the game will be finished, or that planned future additions will definitely happen. Do not ask your customers to bet on the future of your game. Customers should be buying your game based on its current state, not on promises of a future that may or may not be realized." The statement is fairly open ended, but its message is simple: Cover your ass. The document also lacks any reference to penalties that would be incurred on developers should they not follow any of mentioned rules, and suggests a fairly laid back approach to has the system is regulated. In simplistic terms, as long as your project doesn't promise to have x features (including release) released by y date, then it's pretty much fair game on how you handle your own store front. Consumers are entitled to a refund, but as long as it conforms to Steam's current refund policy, of two hours or less play time and fourteen days or less since the purchase was made.

The problem with the above is glaringly obvious; the system is just begging to be abused, and according to some fans, it already has been and it's likely that it will continue to do so. As a merchant and store front, Steam needs to take more of a hands on approach when it comes to ensuring the ethnicity and practice of the developers and publishers that use their platform to sell games. Time-frames should be identified with developers as part of the process of applying to release a title into Early Access, with the promise of reviews should development cycles not match those targets. 

As we see more games released into Early Access, we also see developers constantly testing the waters in regards to what they can get away with. Most notably of these is Wildcard Studios, the developers and publishers behind ARK: Survival Evolved. They released their Scorched Earth expansion, which caused surprise and anger among fans and gamers, bemused as to why the added content wasn't put into the development of the unfinished game instead. The answer, obviously, is money, and the studio got away with it. This can only pave the way for other studios to start doing the same, and in next to no time, it'll be common practice for 'Early Access' titles to provide such a feature.

 

Lesson 5: Paid Mods Can Work, But Must Benefit All Parties

Valve and Bethesda created a small uprising in 2015 when they announced that paid for mods would be introduced to Skyrim through Steam. Shortly after the announcement, paywall variations of previously popular mods began to surface through the client, and an internet battle or words quickly ensued. After an influx or negative reviews, and quickly growing petitions were formed online, Valve removed the paid feature only a few days after the original announcement, and issued a statement saying that "We've done this because it's clear we didn't understand exactly what we were doing,". While this seemed to appease most of the angry fans, Valve also made it clear that they would be reviewing the process, and had every intention of introducing it via alternative means in the future.

Because of the rapidly changing face of the industry, and constant demand for increased profits; paid mods will inevitably hit the digital store fronts again, and this time it'll be for good. It has almost been two years since the original idea was canned by Valve, so there's every possibility that the feature could return again in 2017. 

So what needs to happen if it does? Valve (or any other storefront, for that matter), needs to better communicate their intentions with their customers before launching these new schemes. Customer feedback as well as support is vital for a new paid for feature to thrive, and it opens up a healthy relationship between the merchant and consumer. The system of 'modders' selling content also needs to be regulated, as the previous endeavor saw weapon packs and small re-skins being added to Skyrim for questionably high prices, which could only encourage others to do the same, leading to a stagnant and anti-consumer market.

But it works both ways. When clicking the 'Subscribe' button on a mod, it becomes quite easy to quickly forget about the time, effort and in some cases financial resources that some modders pour into their work. For some, it is a hobby, while for others it is a means to an end, with their work providing substance to their development and coding portfolio. While some modding websites, such as Nexus Mods, allows content creators to supply a PayPal link for donations, these are not compulsory, and are sparsely used in relation to how many downloads their work receives. By creating an environment that is both fair for modders and consumers, it offers up an exciting opportunity for potentially better quality mods to be provided for some of our favourite games. 

 

Thank you for making it this far! 2016 has been an interesting year for gaming, and it has left the door open for what could be an incredibly interesting for gamers and developers alike. 

What lessons do you think the industry could take into the New Year? Let us know in the comments below.

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