Opinion: The Great WarZ Debacle – Is This What We Get For Tolerating Sub-Par Launches?

Open-world zombie title The WarZ has been the focus of a torrent of outrage, following a launch dogged by disappointment and misleading claims. Mark Butler wonders whether the recent success of other controversial titles has led to a situation where games companies are increasingly confident in putting out flawed or problematic products.

So then. The WarZ. Hammerpoint Interactive’s controversial new challenger to DayZ’s phenomenal success.

A challenger because, much like DayZ, it has been billed as a ruthless MMO survival-horror in which participants fight for their lives in an open, resource-shy landscape populated only by the bloodthirsty undead – as well as a number of fellow gun-toting desperates.

Controversial because, last month, there was an extraordinary explosion of online outrage aimed at the game and its creators.

Perusing Reddit in the week or so before Christmas, it was near-impossible to avoid the storm of vitriol being aimed at The WarZ and Hammerpoint. And it’s easy to understand why. The title’s release on Steam was swiftly dogged by accusations that the developers were advertising features and content that were simply not in the current game. In other words, they were arguably guilty of false advertising that was at best misleading and at worst blatantly dishonest, with gamers highlighting a number of erroneous errors.

The game’s Steam profile made no mention of it not being complete yet, despite it still being in the Alpha stage; features were being boldly advertised that were not currently in the existing build; and the size and scale of the experience was also being ludicrously exaggerated.

Resentment had actually been building long before these complaints. For weeks, disgruntled purchasers had been heavily criticising The WarZ for being nothing more than a shoddy port of War Inc., for having very few ongoing updates, and for being riddled with severe glitches (including static, non-moving zombies that can kill from 20 ft away). A significant proportion had expressed contempt that all of this was occurring in an experience that charges you to play, even though it isn’t complete yet.

Hammerpoint’s response to the debacle did them no favours. There were widespread complaints of unhappy forum users being censored or even banned and, in a shocking display of PR gaffery, executive producer Sergey Titov appeared to place the blame for the Steam controversy and wider criticisms on “extreme DayZ fanboys,” and people “misreading” the Steam details. Never before was a case of foot-in-mouth so clear cut.

In the end Valve removed The WarZ from sale on Steam – no small matter considering that Hammerpoint’s creation actually topped the platform’s best-sellers chart on Monday – and a disgruntled gaming community cried victory.

But perhaps it’s a little too premature to crack open the champagne and organise the ticker-tape parade just yet. Because despite this cautionary tale supposedly signalling dissenter triumph over a thoroughly questionable launch, it’s highly likely that we’ll see this kind of thing again. And soon.

After all, what makes a developer think that they can put out a poor product onto the market, make misleading claims about it, and then paint gamers as whiny brats when they are criticised for doing just that? Well, sadly, the truth is that we as consumers may be partly to blame for this sordid state of affairs.

In recent times, problematic launches have not just been tolerated by the gaming community – they have been actively rewarded. Despite rampant issues with server crashes and its controversial always-online requirements, Diablo III smashed sales records: with 3.5 million sales in the first day and 6.3 million after a week on the market. Games which have been widely attacked for their glitches and bugs have also nonetheless cleaned-up in the financial stakes of late, including zombie-actioner Dead Island- which went on to shift more than 4 million copies.

Just think about the countless major games in recent years that have been heavily criticised by reviewers and fans, provoked ire for their apparently cynical use of tactics such as Day One DLC, and failed to feature many of the things that had been promised in preview – yet have still gone on to rampant commercial success.  As a case-in-point, despite being slagged off by many before its actual release on Steam, The WarZ was still going great guns at the top of the Steam sales charts until its eventual removal.

Of course, many gamers have complained about the shortcomings and bugbears of these entities. They have angrily taken to forums, fired emails off to devs and even – in extreme cases – reported companies to Trading Standards. However, what most people haven’t done is voted with their wallets and refused to buy these games in the first place, or demanded refunds.

When you consider that a lot of consumers have bought these kinds of titles even when they’re aware of these issues, you have to wonder whether this has created a climate of complacency among games companies. Do they now believe that they can get away with selling woefully inadequate experiences to their audience, because we have proved that we will willingly shell out cash for games that are arguably incomplete or significantly inadequate, so long as they are well-publicised enough?

I’m not for a second suggesting that the fault for The WarZ debacle lies anywhere other than at Hammerpoint’s feet. And it is encouraging to see a gamer backlash produce such stunning results. Power to the people, and all that.

But a significant part of me does wonder whether we’d have seen quite the same situation if The WarZ had been a Triple A product from a big-name developer. Sub-par launches tend to be tolerated if fan expectations are high enough, and the production values glossy enough: and it’s arguable that this state of affairs has led to a situation where some games companies now view their target audience as nothing more than gullible mugs. They’ll get your money first, and patch the damn game later. Or not.

While the false advertising and PR disaster that has dogged WarZ may spin a cautionary tale for developers, it’s probably wishful thinking to believe that the days of liberty-taking launches are over.

 



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