Thursday, June 02, 2005

Boiling Point

I can do the review of Boiling Point in five words: what a fascinating, shitty mess.

Well, I can actually do it in four—just remove “fascinating.”

What is Boiling Point? Combine the atmosphere of Tropico with the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto. It’s not exactly Grand Theft Auto in South America, but it has that kind of gameplay freedom. It’s campy in an excellent, B-movie kind of way, the game world is enormous, and the diversity of missions is very impressive.

So why am I so pissed off?

Boiling Point is the apex predator of the failure of game developers and publishers to establish a good-faith relationship with the consumer. It’s a relationship in which developers and publishers wail and cry about piracy while at the same time they’ve effectively eliminated the ability of consumers to return unplayable games.

I’m outraged about people stealing games, too, because it’s wrong, and I’ve written about that at length in the past. But I’m equally outraged that publishers keep releasing steaming piles that we pay $50 for in good faith—and can’t return. That’s wrong as well, but no one in the gaming industry seems to want to talk about that.

Is there any other business in the world allowed to operate like this? If the hardware industry operated like the gaming industry, I’d go to Home Depot to buy a hammer and it would be hidden inside a box. When I opened up the box and found that four inches of the handle was missing, rendering the hammer useless, I’d take it back to Home Depot and they’d say “Well, they’re working on the handle.” So a month later I’d get sent a new handle that was a half inch longer than the first. Two weeks later, the hammer manufacturers would say that there would be no more work done on the handle, and the hammer developers would post on message boards saying that sales of the defective hammer were so poor that they weren’t worth fixing. Then I’d go back to Home Dept and they’d say “Sorry. No returns.”

Is that not the most $@&*-ed up thing you’ve ever heard in your life?

But games aren’t hammers, you might say. They’re more like films and music, and you can’t return opened DVD’s or CD’s, either (in most places in the U.S., anyway). Absolutely true. But I guarantee you if CD’s and DVD’s were released in the same condition that many computer games are, all hell would break loose. CD’s that listed fourteen titles on the disc and inside there were only eight? Or that had thirty-second gaps during song? Or that locked up your CD player every ten minutes?

I’m discussing this now because of Boiling Point. This game was released not in late beta state, not even in early beta state, but in alpha. There is no way this game could be considered even early beta quality. It makes Pirates of the Caribbean look polished (congratulations, Bethesda, you’re off the hook—now Boiling Point will be the new low bar of shame).

The bugs are so endemic that it’s impossible to even list them in any rational manner. Would you like to hear the nicely recorded dialogue? To do that, you’ll have to turn the music up until it’s far too loud, because they use the same volume control, and the level of the pre-recorded dialogue is roughly half as loud as it should be compared to the music. Or maybe you’d like to hear about my character parking a car and having a pedestrian walk into it—killing him. Killed by walking into a parked car. Nice pool of blood, by the way. That’s going to cost me reputation points, I’m sure. Maybe you’d be interested in the story of how I drove past some government troops (I think they were government troops) in the first fifteen minutes of the game and they start shooting at me, even though my relationship with them was, at that time, “neutral.”

Driving is delightful, since your field of vision is so narrow that if a car is approaching from your left, you’ll never see it, and it will hit you. Good luck getting insurance in this country, too. And yes, there’s a third-person view available for “some vehicles,” but why even HAVE a first-person driving view if it’s unusable?

Maybe it was five system lockups in an hour. Maybe that’s what broke my back.

How often do games crash on my system? Essentially, never. I never put anything exotic in my system and I keep it extremely “clean” just so I won’t have a crashing problem, and I never have—until now.

Believe me, I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’m sure that a comprehensive list of the significant bugs in this game would take two single-spaced pages, at least. Probably more.

This is a perfect example of how the game industry is broken. And it’s not something that anyone wants to talk about—not the publishers, not the developers, not the mainstream gaming press. How often have you seen an article in a print magazine or major gaming site about the frequently heinous condition of games at release? Almost never, because gaming “journalists,” with rare exceptions, are identical to their counterparts at “Access Hollywood” and “Entertainment Tonight”—their job is to create excitement, not be objective. Yes, reviewers will mention that an individual game is buggy, but it’s treated like a game-specific phenomena instead of the industry-wide problem that it’s become. Game publishers feel no pressure to ship relatively bug-free games because they know that consumers can’t return them. It’s no more complicated than that.

Why doesn’t this happen with console games? It does, but not nearly to the degree that it happens with PC games, and I’m guessing the reason is that the console manufacturers have a certification process. The game goes from the publisher to the console manufacturer, it’s tested, and it’s certified (or rejected). It’s not rigorous enough, but at least it’s something. PC games have nothing, really—it’s up to the sole discretion of the publisher.

Here’s my guess on how disasters like this happen. The publisher has some kind of deal with the developer to fund the project. The developer doesn’t accurately estimate how much time it’s going to take to complete the game, so the publisher is faced with the choice of sinking more money into the game or releasing it as-is. If the publisher has decided that the game doesn’t have enough commercial potential, they may decide to put the game out there in whatever sorry condition it happens to be in, because it’s cheaper for them to lose a few sales of a game than it is to fund another six months (or more) of development.

Again, if we could return these games, it would be tough to make this strategy work. But since we can’t, it’s open season. On us.

Now I’ve had publishers e-mail me and tell me it’s the developer’s fault. And I’ve had developers e-mail and tell me it’s the publisher’s fault. As a consumer, though, I don’t give a damn whose fault it is—the outcome, for me, is the same.

Boiling Point, remarkably, has some brilliant ideas. It looks like an extremely interesting, thoughtful game design. It’s a potentially fascinating world. But the game could be half as thoughtful and twice as finished and it would be a far better game than it is now, because right now, it’s worthless. If someone walks up and offers me a great idea with a half-assed implementation or a bag of crap, I’ll take the bag.

At least it can make my grass green.

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