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Testers Wanted

posted on December 14th, 2005 by jay
Where'd the grass go?
I assure you the whole play field should not be black.

I have seen very little sunlight over the past few days because of a game called Civilization 4. It’s still unclear whether it is an improvement for the series or if it beats the almighty Alpha Centuari, but it is damned good fun and super addictive. Because I NEED to keep playing, its technical flaws really get under my skin. I’m not talking about lacking textures, low polygon counts or jagged edges. The Play disc being mislabeled is just a hint of the upcoming misery that many gamers have suffered through to get their Civ fix.

My computer is above the minimum requirements, yet there is still a massive slowdown with the graphics set to the lowest level. Sometimes the game stalls for a solid 2 or 3 minutes. Weird white graphic glitches appeared pretty regularly, so I headed over to the major Civ site to find out what the hell was going on. It turns out a lot of people, or a few very vocal people, were having all sorts of problems. ATI graphics cards, which you probably have if you don’t have an Nvidia one, caused a lot of errors. Some people couldn’t install the game and there were murmurs of a possible memory leak.

We waited for a patch. The patch came, was buggy, so it then went. A second working patch, or a patch of the patch, if you’d prefer, came out a few days later and seems to address many or most of the problems customers were having. I still get graphical glitches but the game also runs faster so I’m content. I am not content about the state of the game at release, though, and no one should be.

Run!
Soren Johnson is obviously evil.

The agreement the user accepts when installing actually says that Firaxis never guarantees it will fix anything and has no responsibility to make the multiplayer work at all. Some people cannot separate criticism towards stuff like this bullshit user agreement from criticisms about how a game plays. You are probably conservative gamers; please see the Gaming Politics article. Civ 4 is amazingly fun and me saying Firaxis are a bunch of douche bags for caving in to their publisher and releasing this unfinished game (I always blame the publishers because I naively believe developers are all inherently creative people who only want what’s best for games) are not contradictory.

Sid and Soren aren’t the only douche bags, though. The handful of PC games I’ve played over the years and an ear to the ground tell me enough to know that many games come out broken or at least not ready. Diablo 2 didn’t drop polearms when it was released, Torment had a memory leak, and Fallout 2 was crashtastic (but at least the patch deleted your old saves). People complaining about Civ 4 often get the response, “This game works well compared to xxx at release.” This is a shitty excuse and a clear sign that there’s something wrong with the industry. People are willing to buy and then defend the fact that they bought a broken product. They take pride in doing verbal battle for the people they just handed money to for incomplete products. Well I love the games I just listed but the release now, patch later mentality is absurd.

What can be done about it? That depends on what the actual causes are. Defenders of buggy software say it is impossible to test a game on all possible system configurations. Apparently, it’s impossible to get someone with an ATI card on your test team. This sounds like a legitimate issue, so I will suggest a possible solution that I stole from someone on a message board. Create a universal testing lab or better yet, independent test companies whose only job is testing software on as many possible computers as possible. This probably already exists and their existence but lack of use ties nicely into the next reason buggy games come out.

ITEM1 bug
The game is ancient but it’s a good example of a great game with more bugs than my apartment.

A game that comes out now makes more than a game that comes out later. Take 2, knowing this, pushed the release date of Civ. 4 up to make up for company losses. If there were (or is) a magical test lab with every computer ever most publishers still wouldn’t pay the money to have their games made flawless. They don’t care because we don’t. We keep buying products that have bugs (and expansion packs with content that was cut out of the original) so publishers have very little incentive to bust their asses making games that don’t need to be patched. Developers are either as greedy or bent over a barrel by their publishers so we cannot expect them to help us.

So with no one on the consumer’s side what are we to do? Get a job in publishing. Or we can boycott. I know that’s always my suggestion, but bricks through store windows just aren’t as cool anymore. Imagine people didn’t buy a game until after its first patch came out. Every new title would have dead sales for a few weeks and publishers would start to notice people don’t like buying an incomplete product. This could prompt them to make sure a game’s actually bug free on its release date. Obviously this would never work because it’s hard enough to get 5 people over to play video games, let alone start an actual boycott. But I will stop buying games early and it will change absolutely nothing. It will make me feel a little bit better, though. Plus I called a legend of game design, whose work I deeply respect, a douche bag. That has to count for something.

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