Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

What Does “Release” Mean Anymore?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 2, 2014

I used to be able to keep up with what I thought was a sizable chunk of at least what I considered “major” indie RPG releases in a year. Major meaning … like, not something a kid wrote in a week of owning RPG Maker and “released” via link on some forum post somewhere. Now I’d estimate five times as many releases on just the PC alone as there were five years ago. I could focus all my efforts just keeping track of them all (a task which, thankfully, Craig Stern seems happy to attempt over at IndieRPGs.com).

WL2logoAs 2013 came to an end, I briefly attempted to reconstruct – with some searching – a partial list of games that:

1) Count as an indie release,
2) Count as a role-playing game, and
3) Were released in 2013.

In the words of Doc Emmett Brown dealing with his own comprehension of events occurring in a given timeline, “Great Scott!”

The argument over what constitutes “indie” has raged for over a decade, and it’s not going to be concluded any time soon. If anything, it has gotten more confusing, as the whole “indie / non-indie” spectrum has broadened considerably, encompassing a dizzying range of ways in which games are made and brought to market. The argument over what constitutes an RPG has raged for even longer, although it remains narrower in scope. But the features making a game an RPG have always been a little vague, and game genres have interbred so much now that it’s really impossible to draw a clear line – it’s just something that has to be done by feel. That’s difficult to do without actually sitting down and playing a game – a game that sounds like an RPG on paper might not play like one at all, and vice versa.

So 1 and 2 are hard enough, but at least #3 can help narrow the field a bit, right? We at least know when a game has been released!

planetaryannihilationWell, no. Not really.

The last couple of years has seen a substantial increase in the number of games that are commercially released while they are still in mid-development. Dubbed “Early Access” on Steam, or “pre-release” or “beta access” or “alpha funded” or whatever the developer or distributor wants to call them, these are games released to the general public early before they are… uh, released. Before they are done. You can look at it a number of ways, from customers paying for the privilege of testing for the developer, all the way to the chance to get a game at a substantial discount and a chance to influence the direction of the final product. Both are valid. As a developer, it’s always nice to get some desperately-needed funding coming in the latter stages of development.

I don’t really want to label the situation as “good” or “bad” right now. Again, this isn’t something new. Spacewar! made the rounds in the university circuit in the late 60’s and early 70’s, constantly getting updated and tweaked by many different developers. It eventually some version landed in the University of Utah computer system and inspired one fellow by the name of Nolan Bushnell to create what would eventually become this whole video game industry in the first place. And anybody who has been a PC gamer for any length of time is familiar with the release / patch cycle. Many a company has released a game to the stores that wasn’t ready to be called “version 1.0” yet, desperate for sales revenue so they could actually afford to patch their product to a reasonable level of functionality. One could argue the whole “early access” thing allows companies to do the same thing more honestly.

EarlyAccessBut it sure makes tracking release dates a pain in the butt.

It also sucks to have paid for a product that appears to have been abandoned.

So how much does it really matter when a game was “officially” released? Or whether or not a game is “officially” released right now?

For me – with the wall of unplayed games I’m facing right now courtesy of all of the special sales and bundles over the last few years – it’s unlikely that a game is going to get a second chance to make a first impression. If I play a game now that I’m not officially contributing to some kind of beta test for, it’ll either hook me so that I keep playing, or get discarded forever. It’s likely that I’ll overlook the improvements with future updates if the game didn’t excite me right off the bat. A game can go from “cool” to “more cool” in my mind with updates, but not from “lame” to “cool.” I’ll miss the move.

This is how I operate, and I know it. I’ve even avoiding playing some games that I already have “early access” to as a Kickstarter backer, unless I have been specifically asked for feedback.

zomboidIt also erodes the newsworthiness of an actual, official game release. Stamping a game “1.0” is not much of an event when it’s already out and being played. But it’s most like the release of most indie games is anything most sites would consider newsworthy, anyway. And in many ways, the pre-release / constant update process is really more reflective of how games are really made, anyhow.

For me, it feels like the “cons” outweigh the “pros,” but that may be because I’m kinda stuck in the old way of doing things where things like official release dates actually matter, and labeling something as complete or “1.0” actually means something. They are handy for writing up retrospectives, game-of-the-year articles, or and comparing similar games that were released close together, but I’m not sure what else. Does anybody care when Chess was truly first invented?

Certainly, with my game-playing habits, I’m constantly playing games that range anywhere from just-released to twenty (or more) years old, and all that matters is that the game is new to me. Part of me says that this is the way things are going to keep going – getting more muddled – and I should just get on board and roll with it. After decades of being saturated with the marketing lie that newer games are somehow magically superior and more worthy than their predecessors, maybe this obscuring of the meaning of “release” is just what we need to focus back on the quality of the game, not its recency.


Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Cuthalion said,

    Interesting. I suppose there are some advantages, though I kind of prefer to have a game that’s actually done.

    “maybe this obscuring of the meaning of “release” is just what we need to focus back on the quality of the game, not its recency.” I had never thought of that. Hm…

  • McTeddy said,

    I’m not all that fond of the modern… ummm… post-release dev cycle. I understand that collecting money with beta releases helps with the development, but I can’t see the process going down any good path.

    Yeah… it was great that developers could patch their game to fix it, but where did the process lead? Developers shipping incomplete games that require day one patches. My X-Box isn’t connecting to the internet… so I’m stuck with alot of broken games.

    Combine that problem with the number of games that just die during development. Can we really trust that these developers asking for “Beta money” are going to finish and that I didn’t throw my money away?

    But admittedly, I could very well be wrong on this. I’m no expert on the topic… just a very uncomfortable observer.

  • Brian said,

    anyone that has ever compared…say… ruse, to something like starcraft or even original warcraft is likely to notice that except for a higher resolution, newer games and commercial 1.0’s are distinctly and dramatically INFERIOR to ‘the old stuff’ mechanically nowadays. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it carries through for many groundbreaking titles.

    Smaller commercial makers are fighting back, somewhat ineffectually, by re-releasing ‘HD’ versions of their oldies (such as stronghold). This is a positive trend, IMO, because they start with a proven game, avoid some of the costly development cycle, and show people how good the sheer mechanics of the ‘oldies’ were. The problems, of course, is that it’s still somewhat expensive, and usually you cannot charge much more than what the original is going for NOW.

    I would like to see more of the bigger developers attempt the whole HD overhaul on some of their better titles, since often the ‘oldies’ are still controlled by johnny noname in his basement who inherited the rights from his pop after his business flopped, and thinks they are worth a hundred some odd million just because the game did well in 1986.

  • Anon said,

    Good points, Brian, but while I generally like the idea of HD-remakes most of them don’t really click with me. The reason is: I have played more or less the same game before – and there are *very* few games I play twice.
    If I haven’t played a game before that now has a HD-remake I’ll gladly try that out (unless they screwed it up), though. That’s why I think that HD-remakes are mostly good for new players and sometimes it’s probably the only chance for some “old guys” to still make money in the modern market (most HD-remakes seem to be mainstream games).

    CRPGs in 2013:
    Now that’s an interesting subject, as I haven’t seen *any* PC release from a major publisher (Activision, EA, Ubisoft etc.) in 2013.
    There were probably several Japanese releases for consoles but I’m stumped to name anything for the PC. Did I miss something?

    I know that there are several things announced for 2014 – but except a new Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls Online (both of no interest to me personally) pretty much everything comes from indies, kickstarted or not.

    This “mainstream drought” can have several reasons:

    – There isn’t a mainstream market (volume of sales per game less than $50 Million) for CRPGs anymore so that budgets have to be smaller – hence Kickstarter, used by studios that either failed in the mainstream market recently (Obsidian…) or try to resurrect themselves.

    – The mainstream consoles just got replaced by a new generation. Mainstream game development happens for consoles first and CRPG-development lasts a long time – so we will see the first efforts in early 2015 (the Skyrim successor may take five years and come in 2016…).

    What do you think?

  • Gary said,

    Thanks for posting this.. The “Early Access” and Kickstarter phenomonon were necessary for some indie developers to get up and running but now that Pandora’s Box is open it has become widely abused.. 10 years ago if I asked you for upfront money for something that is unfinished and expected you to work as a beta tester for free you would have laughed at me.. Now idiots spend 60 dollars to beta test Wateland 2, a game I am excited for but awaiting release.. These are just symptoms of a more widespread disease: the degradation of ethics and standards in society..

  • Dave Allen said,

    “Released” means “let go of”. A game is released when the development team has “let go” of patching it. I know when a game is released when “Gold Edition” – or something similar – is added to the title.

  • Xenovore said,

    My take on early access (and similarly Kickstarter) is “Hell no!”

    Sorry, but I am absolutely not paying money for an unfinished product! Too many issues there: Will the game actually be completed? Will I like the game-play? Will it have a decent UI? Will it run well on my system?

    So, if you want to go this route, either “early access” or Kickstarter, you’d better have a demo. Because static screenshots and concept art mean absolutely nothing any more; and video is only marginally better. I want — I need to try out the game-play and UI! It might have amazing visuals and an awesome story, but plays like total crap. Or it looks like total crap, but actually has amazing game-play. Either way, how can I tell what I’m getting?

    So, unless I’m able to try the game out and see for myself, no way I’m spending any cash on it. Maybe later down the road, after the game has actually been released (and preferably has some favorable reviews), I’ll reconsider. Until then, hell no!

    (Note that I’m primarily talking about indie games from unproven developers. For AAA games, I’m more willing to purchase a game before trying it because there’s usually a proven track record there. E.g. Doom was good, so Quake is probably good. Or Oblivion was good; Skyrim is probably good. Or Half Life 2 was good; Left 4 Dead is probably good. Etc. But there are exceptions there too. Really, everybody should be providing playable demos!)