When ‘unfinished’ creates success

by Shane Dillon

WOULD you buy a new car that didn’t have any brakes? What about booking a flight where they hadn’t worked out how the landing gear would work, or even if it would work?
That sounds crazy – buying into something unfinished, with some fundamental issues still to be resolved – but it’s becoming an increasingly normalised part of gaming in recent years, with some of the world’s biggest games being anything but finished on their release.
You’d never, ever accept such experimentation in most real-world scenarios, but when it comes to virtual worlds – ah, that’s a very different matter.
There’s something about tinkering, adjusting and experimenting with a game’s largely finished format that can prove fascinating to gamers, leading them to ignore any ‘failings’ to focus on the raw potential that a title could have.
It’s not a new phenomenon; gamers have become (a little too) well used to post-release patches for games in the past decade in particular, with unfinished, buggy games subsequently getting a steady drip of updates which do everything from fixing major and minor bugs, to fixing stability issues and even adding in new features.
Where you wouldn’t accept a brakeless car, many gamers will accept a featureless game – or, rather, a game that’s clearly missing main features, but has the bones in place to bolt them on at a later stage.
Minecraft is probably the most famous example of this trend, with the world-conquering, world-building game of today being substantially different from its initial release, way back when.
Through its constant and continuing revisions and iterations, Minecraft’s creator – and subsequent owners, after ‘Notch’ sold his creation to Microsoft for a staggering $2BN – have substantially added to the game.
They’ve added the brakes, and fixed the landing gear, so to speak, but it’s been a journey that all those who bought into the game have been taken on, seeing regular updates adding new features, new graphics, and new ways to play.
This creative process tends to veer wildly into hits or misses, with extremes of success or failure swiftly following depending on how well (or badly) such updates and tinkering is implemented.
At one end of the scale, it’s barely a year since the infamous galaxy-exploring No Man’s Sky was released with an incredible amount of hype, only for it to very, very quickly crash and burn.
Hyped to the hilt, the end result was a game that had some great tech and striking visuals, but it rapidly became clear that its endlessly promised features were either completely missing, or watered-down versions, leading to the game being slated to the stars and beyond.
The game has since seen several updates, some of them major revisions of the core game, adding some substantial new features and bells and whistles – but, too little, too late, with gamers still furious with the developer, and the game now held up as an example of how not to market something.
The greatest lesson learned from that debacle was that it’s okay to give gamers extra features over time – but if you don’t deliver what they expect from day one, there’s a price to pay.
This gamble over gamer acceptance has some high stakes, with that notable failure balanced out by the spectacular success of current game du jour, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), currently setting the gaming internet ablaze as a red-hot property, despite being unfinished – and despite not even being officially released yet.
Best described as a competitive last-man-standing battle royale between up to 100 players, PUBG is still in development, and still in an unfinished state with its developers tinkering away with how the game plays, what features it needs, what its users like or dislike, and so on.
To go back to my intro, its developers, Bluehole, are still adding the brakes and tinkering with the landing gear – yet even so, PUBG has already sold (via early access) more than 10 million copies in just a few short months, making it a juggernaut hit, and one of the world’s most-watched games.
The games industry is watching PUBG’s runaway success with great interest, with several studio heads and top developers lauding its community-led approach to creating feature sets, and properly engaging with what gamers want.
With ever higher stakes and staggering costs for most games’ production, we can expect to see more cautious tinkering and ‘crowd-driven’ gaming popping up from here on in, as some companies look to capture a share of the PUBG magic.
In the meantime, just be glad that the real world doesn’t tend to adapt such experimental tinkering next time you sit in your car, or get on a plane …

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