Multibillion-dollar video game industry facing tougher scrutiny from consumers

TORONTO – The video game industry is raking in record profits, but many developers are facing criticism as recent big-budget releases have been rushed to market with technical problems.

Ubisoft CEO Yannis Mallat issued a mea culpa earlier this month for the November release of “Assassin’s Creed Unity,” acknowledging that the overall quality of the game “was diminished by bugs and unexpected technical issues.”

“I want to sincerely apologize on behalf of Ubisoft and the entire ‘Assassin’s Creed’ team,” said Mallat’s statement. “These problems took away from your enjoyment of the game, and kept many of you from experiencing the game at its fullest potential.”

The company — which has development offices in Toronto and Montreal that employ more than 2,000 people — intends to offer free downloadable content or a free game for those who bought the product before it was patched with a software update.

“I think it’s admirable, but no doubt a blemish on what should be their flagship product of the year. But they’re certainly not alone in shipping a game that’s not finished,” said Toronto-based syndicated video game critic Marc Saltzman.

Aaryn Flynn, general manager of Bioware Canada, says Ubisoft’s apology is a step in the right direction for developers.

“We all have to take responsibility for where our games are and fan reaction good or bad, so I think it’s a good thing to do,” he said, adding that the recent release of “Dragon Age: Inquisition” needed to be patched on release day for technical issues. “But the complexity and the fidelity and the level of work that goes into these games is the highest it’s ever been — it’s sky high.”

Saltzman notes a disturbing “ship now, fix later” trend where developers are taking advantage of customers’ Internet bandwidth to repair a game after it’s already been released.

American video game industry consultant and author Scott Steinberg says the Ubisoft decision to publicly apologize was “very rare” for any company, and believes the move will set a precedent in the industry.

“I think you probably will see more and more companies, if errors of this magnitude are encountered, being called upon to address the issue,” he said. “But even if you can throw an army of people at trying to stamp out these bugs — as wide of a net as you can cast — things are still going to slip through.”

With more than 40 per cent of games released in November and December, Saltzman says many companies set unrealistic deadlines ahead of the holidays.

Adds Flynn: “I don’t think developers have ever had more ambition than they do now, so it’s about finding a way to match that ambition with what’s operationally possible. … So sometimes that requires a delay, sometimes that requires a Day 1 patch, sometimes it’s both. So it’s just about making sure that you strike the right balance amongst all those things you’ve got to do.”

When a game is delayed or isn’t up to snuff, reaction can be swift.

“With social media it’s so fast to disseminate information, and if there’s some bad experiences these companies could be shooting themselves (in the foot) because word catches on really fast,” says Saltzman.

“The Witcher 3,” another highly anticipated 2015 release from Polish video game developer CD Projekt RED, was delayed from this fall to Feb. 24, 2015, and recently pushed to May 19, 2015.

“These companies have so many people to answer to that when things are delayed they are the ones that suffer; their investors get upset, their stock prices fall and the public themselves turn on them pretty quickly,” says Brendan Frye, editor-in-chief of Canadian video game publication CG Magazine.

“These issues are going to persist unless consumers start demanding (developers) do make the change, take the time to finish it, and people have to understand that things that are built well take time.”