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Analysis: 2011 - The Year Of Publisher Screwups

Analysis: 2011 - The Year Of Publisher Screwups Exclusive

September 7, 2011 | By Chris Morris




[It's only September, but 2011 already has no shortage of publisher screwups -- Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris chalks it up to "growing pains" of the new age of digital gaming.]

When gaming historians look back at 2011 sometime down the road, there's going to be plenty to examine.

What might fascinate them most, though, will have nothing to do with the sustained decline in brick and mortar retail sales or the growing strength of digital distribution. It won't even be the emergence of privacy issues. Instead, 2011 may well be remembered as the year publishers kept screwing up.

You don't have to look too far to find examples. Ubisoft takes this week's prize after fumbling the implementation of "Uplay Passport" for Driver: San Francisco - just months after raising players' ire by insisting the program would be mandatory to access the game's multiplayer mode.

An honorable mention nod goes to Deep Silver for releasing a buggy, incorrect version of Dead Island on Steam. And while not directly a publisher screwup, a flub by a third-party fulfillment website used by Codemasters and AMD exposed what could be hundreds of thousands of redeem codes to Dirt 3.

Obviously, Sony is the odds on favorite for the year's crown with the April security breach and the Dick Van Dyke-like stumbling of its public handling of the event.

And let's not forget Nintendo, which opted to launch the 3DS at an overly high price without the support of any key franchises. Now, Nintendo hopes its $80 price cut, issued just a few months after 3DS' debut, will help smooth things over.

Companies, of course, make mistakes, but this year seems especially error-prone. Coincidences happen, but rarely on this large a scale. And while it's entirely possible there's no logical order to the stumbles and screwups, I'm chalking 'em up to the launch of the new generation.

Traditionally at this point in the console cycle, a new round of systems is hitting the market, and most publisher mistakes are glossed over, since gamers and reporters are so happy to have something new and shiny to fawn (and fight) over that they don't pay the errors a lot of heed.

But this time around, new systems from Sony and Microsoft are still locked deep in the R&D departments of those companies. And Nintendo's Wii follow-up is still being fine-tuned (likely for the next year or so). But that hasn't stopped the next generation from beginning, only this time, it's the rise of the digital age.

That's reflected in most of the flubs above. Codemasters and AMD's redemption codes weren't adequately locked down by its external partner (though it appears that hosting the game on Steam might save their collective bacon). Deep Silver didn't have adequate QA in place to ensure the right version of the game was posted live. Sony? Their security protocols couldn't stand up to advanced hackers.

Even Ubisoft was tripped up in its digital plans, though thanks largely to an old school printing error. As for Nintendo, well, who knows what the hell it was thinking.

The realization that digital distribution was a viable (not tangential) income stream happened a while ago. And games like Call of Duty have shown the monetization value of online components for several years now. But it's only in the past two years or so that the industry at large has really started making a concerted, collective effort to move in that direction.

That sort of shift brings growing pains. Only this time, there's no new fancy equipment to distract us, making the mistakes of 2011 seem, in large part, bigger than they are. Unfortunately, another side effect of those pains is when the mistakes are big, the companies have seemed unprepared to adequately and immediately handle the fallout.

What's encouraging, though, is there's also an upside to the comedy of errors we're seeing this year -- and that's the reaction of publishers to the issues.

Sony's initial reaction to the hacking may end up being a course in how not to do crisis PR, but it has since rebounded, adding 3 million new members since restoring service and luring a former homeland security official to help ensure its system stays safe.

Nintendo slashed prices instead of sticking by its guns and will make sure the 3DS has plenty of AAA software support during the holidays. Ubisoft dropped the Uplay Passport requirements immediately, losing any chance to monetize used sales, but earning them gamer goodwill. Even Deep Silver quickly acknowledged its mistake, promising to make it up to early adopters, and is rushing to swap out builds.

Maybe -- just maybe -- instead of this being a year that goes down as being analogous to a bad episode of the Keystone Kops, gaming historians will remember 2011 as the time publishers figured out how to learn from their mistakes.


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