Backlogs Are Devaluing Video Games

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back·log
ˈbakˌlôɡ,ˈbakˌläɡ/
noun
an accumulation of something, especially uncompleted work or matters that need to be dealt with.


I finally finished Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. I’ve had the game on my shelf now since the day it came out. For some reason it was in my head at the time that this was a must-have title, and so made sure I’d have it on day one. It took two months before I finally put the game into my console—and I would imagine that this might be a similar situation for many other gamers when it comes to titles like the recent Mirror’s Edge.

I’ll be the first to admit that Catalyst didn’t send me into a need to ponder the wonders of the medium of video games. It didn’t move me emotionally, and I don’t know if I’ll ever play it again—but I enjoyed the hell out of it. I didn’t love it so much as to do a thorough analysis of the game (similar to what I’m currently writing for Metal Gear Solid V) and there are a number of critical perspectives I do have on this particular game; I could think of at least half-a-dozen specific ways the game could’ve been a better experience. Despite this, I made a commitment to actually finish this game—or at least complete the main story and as many of the side missions that seemed relevant to the plot. I can now put the game back in the box and sit it on my shelf as a game I completed—as opposed to something I have yet to start, or played a bit of before getting sucked into another game.

I often hear gamers talk about their “backlog” of endless games that they’ll someday get around to—though they’re often distracted because some mega-title is usually just around the corner. Of course sales on Steam, PSN and Xbox Live don’t make it much easier to stay focused on your current collection, I still feel that there’s a growing momentum among gamers to acquire as many games as possible without the actual intent of finishing it. I also feel that this is a much more serious issue in gaming than we’re actually admitting.

Somewhere in my collection of PlayStation 3 games rests a copy of the first-person-shooter known as Haze. Haze is a terrible game. It is purely awful for many, many reasons. It very well contributed to the demise of Free Radical, and probably irritated both Ubisoft and Sony as a result of its reception. Now I actually sought out the game specifically because it was awful. Similar to enjoying a bad film like Troll 2, I occasionally enjoy horrible video games for the purposes only of seeing just how bad something can be—and getting a greater perspective for myself as to what makes a great game so much different.

When it comes to Haze and other games, however, it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else actually say about the game. If we have purchased it, that is a win for the developers and publishers. It doesn’t matter if I eject the disc and fling it across the room (something I actually did about half-way through Dead Space 3). All that matters to the companies involved is that I spent money on the game. I could write an endless series of blog posts, one for every hour of every day, ripping the game apart and still, the game will be considered a success if enough people buy it.

Obviously this doesn’t just apply to horrible video games. I’d be willing to bet that most gamers reading this will have at least more than one title sitting on a shelf that they have yet to play, or only played a portion of it. Odds are these are games like Mirror’s Edge, or even something like, Watch Dogs or The Division—games that, while not necessarily considered outright failures, do not hold the same prestige as larger franchises do. These games do have their issues: The story-mode probably isn’t as long as it could be, or is too long and just feels like an endless chore, the plot might be a bit undercooked, and certain features such as combat or item management feel a little rushed and could’ve used more time. The issue, however, is that when we collectively buy these games without the intent of actually finishing them, we are encouraging the industry to continue making games that could’ve been better, or in some cases are a complete mess. Myself and everyone who purchased Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst sent a clear message to DICE and EA that we’re fundamentally okay with the game as it exists. Should we get a sequel (something I’d actually very much like to see), and we continue the trend of mindlessly purchasing a game, we will reinforce the idea that games only need to meet us halfway on our expectations. And when we purchase these games without at least finishing a main chunk of it, we ourselves are not even paying much attention to how games can overall improve their standards.

As I said earlier, Mirror’s Edge is in no way a horrible game. I enjoyed it from start to finish, but it could’ve used a lengthier story—and not just for the sake of time, but to explore more of the themes present in the game. More time could have been spent exploring Faith’s character and history—especially her family’s history—so that when critical moments happen in the plot, there’d be something more behind them. Even certain gameplay elements could’ve used more work; the combat could’ve been a but less clunky for my taste, and the environments could’ve dealt with a bit more variation for both aesthetics and gameplay. I understand that the city is supposed to be this orderly manifestation of corporate control, but it looks too clean and uniform to convey any sense of realism.

Purchasing a game like this and not actually playing it doesn’t serve the industry well. It sends a message that I was content enough to spend my money, and when a similar game comes along, I won’t have the experience from playing this one to inform me of how I should spend my money. And in all honesty, I might be somewhat hesitant to purchase another DICE game in the future because of my most recent experience; this isn’t because I think poorly of DICE—on the contrary, I think they’re a great studio, but I feel they could be doing better with certain franchises. As evidenced from my experience with Mirror’s Edge, I’m going to wait a until I see and hear a bit more to convince me that another game of theirs will be worth my money and time.

Only a quarter of everyone who owns Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst on PlayStation 4 have actually played through the entire campaign—according to the percentage on the trophy data (admittedly I’m not sure how that number is calculated, or if it’s region specific.) It makes me wonder just what the other 75 percent of gamers who own this game have done with it. Have they all sold their copies off? Or are they just sitting on a shelf? Why is this number so drastically low? With numbers this high, we are fundamentally sending a message to the industry: We won’t play the game all the way through, but we’ll still buy it. In other words: It really doesn’t matter if we rant about short games, DLC or microtransactions, because we’ll buy it anyway—just so we can complain about it again. The problem right now isn’t pre-order incentives, day-one DLC games and other modern annoyances, it’s that we’re mindlessly buying these games in the first place and not even finishing what’s on the disc.

I'm one of the few who have actually seen this part in Mirror's Edge: Catalyst.

I’m one of the few who have actually seen this part in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst.

I wish I could say this was only the case when it comes to less popular franchises like Mirror’s Edge, but upon completion of the The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, a game that receives endless praise for having so much content and making similar titles look like a joke, I couldn’t help but wonder why the trophy for completing the game was considered “Rare” on PlayStation. Only 28.2 percent of PlayStation gamers who own this game have finished it. This is upsetting: To start, Wild Hunt is without a doubt one of the greatest fantasy RPGs ever made, but it also makes me wonder: If we are all collectively bitching about games being too short and lacking meaningful content (which is usually sold to us in the form of microtransactions and DLC), then why the hell are we not completing games like The Witcher 3 which are actually giving us what we want? Even the expansion packs to The Witcher 3 aren’t being completed as much—and these are expansion packs that contain all the substance and length that we actually are willing to pay for. Only 9.2 percent of PlayStation gamers who own the first expansion, Hearts of Stone, have completed the main quest. I imagine the trophy for completing Blood & Wine isn’t too different—and this was nearly the size of a full-length game.

What is the incentive for the industry to invest more time and money into quality experiences? Though I found Mirror’s Edge to be a net-postitive experience, it could’ve been a much better game—and that opinion is informed by the fact that I’ve actually finished it. If or when a sequel is announced, I intend to pay closer attention to the development process of the game to determine if it’s worth my time and money. Games are meant to be played, not sit on a shelf and collect dust (or just take up space in a hard drive.) When they are purchased only to end up in backlog hell, they cease to be a game and just become an empty means of us handing over cash and rewarding games of diminishing quality.

So what are we doing here? What purpose does it serve to maintain our backlogs of games we still haven’t finished, continuing to hand our money over to an industry we’re growing ever-more distrustful of? We are essentially declaring that games are worth more of our money, and less of our time. We are maintaining a position that states we’d rather own a bunch of games than actually have played through and experienced them. It’s no wonder, in that case, that so many games are falling short of our expectations. What incentive is there for a developer to put more time into a game if, despite its length and amount of content, it gets purchased anyway to do little more than sit on a shelf and get played only a couple of times, and rarely to completion? Activision and Bungie will not care a wit if we’re collectively disappointed in the upcoming Rise of Iron expansion for Destiny if we purchase it anyway. Sales figures do not come with a percentage of people who played through and enjoyed the game. Perhaps if we all refuse to actually purchase Destiny 2 until it’s been out for awhile and enough people can confirm its the real deal, we’ll start to see some change.

It’s time we start taking our passion for games seriously. We need to make a pledge to purchase games with the intent of playing the hell out of them, instead of retiring them to the shelf before we’ve actually experienced the bulk of what it has to offer. By all means, if a game is truly awful, we should probably sell it or find it a new home—I’m not suggesting we power through shitty games—but I am suggesting we actually finish these titles from start to finish so that we can engage in a more informed conversation about what’s really lacking from today’s games. This, I hope, will not only make us more vocal in our criticism, but will also guide how we spend our money on future games.

– Eric


In case you missed that subtle hint a few paragraphs above, you might want to check out my ongoing series of articles analyzing Metal Gear Solid V.

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