The most infamous disaster in gaming history has inspired pop culture and sparked an excavation in New Mexico to prove it wasn’t an urban legend. The failures of 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari 2600 are legendary: the game was a buggy disaster that mostly entailed falling into and crawling out of an endless string of holes. The movie tie-in was such a bust that thousands of unsold copies ended up in a landfill and became an infamous lesson in failure. It’s also something unlikely to ever happen again in an industry where no game is truly unfixable.
In an industry more crowded than ever, modern video games are often released as works in progress. Even the most well-made and crowd-pleasing game may contain small bugs and require updates. These patches fix problems and add new experiences to the game that create added value. And while they open the door for frustrating add-on cost with DLC and microtransactions, in the right hands it’s a system prevents outright disasters like E.T. from ever happening again.
That doesn’t mean gaming is without disappointing titles. Bad games still hit the market and highly-anticipated titles can still miss the mark. But those failures can sometimes be mitigated, and given time some games have risen to the level many hoped they’d reach when their first looks caused reason for excitement in the first place. The clearest example of a game that underwhelmed after sky-high expectations was No Man’s Sky, which was released in 2016 to a decidedly lukewarm reaction amid a mountain of hype and anticipation. The 2013 reveal trailer promised to be real footage from the game, which populated its vast planets and ecosystems as entirely procedural.
No Man’s Sky promised a universe of 18 quintillion planets filled with diverse wildlife and secrets to uncover. The hype was so big after its E3 trailer that Hello Games got death threats when the game was delayed a few months. And the actual release, though reviewed positively by some, largely disappointed. Multiplayer was put on the shelf for years, one of many features missing from the initial pitch. The vast universe of the game felt sparse and empty, and once you got over the visuals of random planets and creatures, there just wasn’t a whole lot to do.
For many who spent $60 on release day, buyer’s remorse was instantaneous. To this day the hype and marketing has negatively impacted the reputation of a game that’s changed considerably in the nearly four years since its release. In that time, Hello Games has rolled out many of its initial promises and then some. I bought it in September 2019 for $20 and got more than my money’s worth. The game is sprawling and expansive — earlier that month, it put out its Beyond update. Players can now grow “living ships” out of eggs and take part in multiple narrative arcs, with both solo and multiplayer missions.
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It’s far from perfect, and can tend to be grindy and sparse in moments. Even now, it still has its bugs and quirks — the animation can be janky and I’ve had some freezes and save glitches that have frustratingly lost me a few hours of play — but it’s a title that also has missions and objectives actually worth losing. If you were to take the product for what it is, not knowing its reputation for initial failure, you’d be more than satisfied by the title it’s become. It just took years of development, much of it coming after the gamers who gave it a try because of its initial hype largely came away disappointed. For those that might give it a try when it hits Xbox Game Pass in June, they might have a completely different reaction to it than they would have on PC in 2016.
For games that struggled out of the gate, getting those users back is a difficult challenge. This spring saw a major expansion to Fallout 76, another title that made more news for what it lacked than what it was. Billed as four times bigger than Fallout 4, Bethesda braced fans for “spectacular” issues that were inevitable with a MMORPG version of Fallout. And the issues did come, along with some more basic complaints that Fallout 76: Wastelanders aimed to remedy.
Fallout 76 was an attempt at making a very different kind of Fallout game, though it came with the traditional catchy music and marketing of major Fallout release full of promise. But what Bethesda learned is that gamers wanted things they were used to getting from those games: namely, non-player characters to flesh out the lore and feel of a world. Without those elements, the game’s bugs and issues were even more apparent in a much more barren post-apocalyptic landscape. And so Wastelanders brings with it a raft of new NPCs that have “returned” to the West Virginia gamers first explored and found full of dangerous creatures and robots but completely devoid of living NPCs.
“With Wastelanders we got to take the bold vision of the original game and fill it in so it’s closer to the game that a lot of our fans wanted all along,” said Jeff Gardiner, project lead for Wastelanders at Bethesda. “Hopefully we did it in such a way that the people that already love it have reasons to enjoy it even more.”
If you’ve already played through hours of Fallout 76, the Wastelanders update now adds a Miscellaneous mission back at Vault 76 where you encounter treasure hunters looking for something in the still-sealed vault. From there, the NPC-filled mission fills out. And if you’re giving 76 a try for the first time with Wastelanders, your journey in the game begins by encountering these NPCs seconds after you emerge, as if they’ve always been there.
“We layered them in organically,” said Ferret Baudoin, lead designer of Fallout 76. “A year has passed and the world has changed with the arrival of outsiders adding another layer of history and interest to Appalchia.”
Much has been made of the problems gamers have found in Fallout 76 in its first year, but those that worked on it said the community that’s formed around the game — even if it tends to dive into the absurd — has a direct impact on whether improvements actually get made in a title.
“I know I’m going to sound corny, but we’re blessed,” Baudoin said, noting the active community in Fallout 76 despite its rough first year. “They’re dedicated, passionate, and have built a real community. Their feedback made a world of difference and has made Wastelanders shine all the brighter.”
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Other developers say the key element in a game improving well after its release date is fan support, even if they’re not entirely satisfied with the result, because it’s likely the feeling is mutual.
“Hopefully your team cares and wants to make that adjustment to support those fans,” said Blake Low, a senior environment artist at V1 Interactive. Low’s team is working to release a first person shooter called Disintegration this summer, but he’s a Bungie alum that’s worked on Halo titles and Destiny 2, which has seen its own raft of updates and expansions in the years since its 2017 release. Many of those came after fan outcry over the life of the game, something that comes with the territory when it comes to modern titles.
“That’s something we’re trying to do right now. Be out there, be listening and continue that post-launch. And see what fans want,” Low said of Disintegration. “We’re not really talking about any DLC plans but we know we’re going to support the game post-launch. and it’s really based on what the fans want. So it is definitely important that the team cares. It makes the fans care more, too.”
Another V1 employee compared games like No Man’s Sky and Anthem — which will also see its core gameplay entirely reworked after a much-hyped but overall disappointing launch — to ET, but with a key difference. Unlike the Atari game forever trapped by its source code, the modern disappointments can always find second life after launch. As long, of course, as gamers are willing to return to give the game another chance.