A Brief History of Disastrous Game Launches – and How to Keep Your Title Off This List

Posted Jul 12th, 2022

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most beloved American films of all time, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. E.T. was by all accounts a smashing success to the tune of $800 Million at the box office and cemented Stephen Spielberg as one of the most talented young filmmakers in the world. The film bathed us in nostalgia for neighborhood bike rides and proved for ambitious studio heads that film merchandise could be a viable revenue stream, rivaled perhaps only by ticket receipts themselves. The film even birthed the iconic logo for Amblin Entertainment. Yes, in the year 1982, the adorable little alien was everywhere. But they didn’t get everything right.

‘E.T. the Extra Terrestrial’ (the video game) was far less successful than its film companion, it is widely considered one of the worst video games of all time. The reason for the game’s failure was generally blamed on rushed production. Coded in a matter of weeks to beat the holiday rush, only one million of the five million copies produced were sold, and thus the legend of the ‘Atari burial’ was born.

Infamously, unsold cartridges of the game were buried in a New Mexico desert that had previously been known as the site of the first atomic bomb test in 1945. Poor E.T. just wanted to phone home, but ended up in a radioactive landfill.

This was not the last, but the first of many disastrous video game launches that would follow in subsequent decades, and while the Atari folks certainly didn’t save time for QA testing on the E.T. launch, they also didn’t have the tools available to them that developers do today. Let’s look at some other horrific launches, and see how they could have been avoided by testing. 

When we look at modern disasters, the names you will hear are always the same: Cyberpunk 2077, No Man’s Sky, Fallout 76, and Star Wars Battlefront 2.

Sometimes the complaints are about managing expectations (No Man’s Sky), sometimes the negative reviews point out the predatory nature of microtransactions (Battlefront 2), but the majority of the grievances revolve around the fact that the game is simply not ready. Crashes, bugs, glitchy graphics… sometimes entire components of the game are missing. Halo: Master Chief Collection was released with no multiplayer functionality, for example. Poor gaming releases have become so commonplace, that we have almost grown to expect a lack of content and functionality at launch. Large swaths of the gaming community won’t even touch a new game until it has received a few patches and updates.

And frankly, that’s ridiculous. Has the industry fallen so far that fans are now just accepting a mediocre product? Understandably, there are time constraints and developers are working up to the eleventh hour attempting to deliver a great game, but it’s not just the specific title that is at stake.

The truth is, there is more on the line than just a single product. An entire brand reputation can be destroyed by one bad entry. CD Project Red and Bethesda used to be the darlings of the gaming industry. CDPR put out The Witcher trilogy, for crying out loud! The Cyberpunk launch took that reputation (that took years to create) behind the shed and shot it. Sure, the Keanu Reeves ad campaign was cool, but the game simply didn’t work.

Now the entire community holds their collective breath to see what these two studios will do next. A bad launch doesn’t just tank one game, it harms every future title.

The great tragedy of all of this is that the games eventually turn out pretty good, sometimes great! Final Fantasy 14 is a perfect example of this, at release, it was considered a disappointment, but a thousand updates later, people love it! But folks in the industry know they are shedding users with poor launches. Sure, the diehards will stick around, but in a world where every experience matters, a company cannot simply tank a launch and hope their loyal fans will be forgiving.

In a consumer report commissioned by Sauce Labs, 20% of the respondents said they bail immediately when they encounter any kind of bug online. If you are a major video game publisher, that means if you launch a buggy title, 20% of your users evaporate in a Thanos ‘snap.’

To make matters worse, 65% of respondents said they were willing to wait four hours or less for a resolution. While that might be enough time to issue a fix on a mobile app, it’s rarely enough time to fix a major video game. Eleven percent of those surveyed said they were willing to wait two business days, so I suppose if a gaming company can patch an error within 48 hours, then about 1 in 10 of their users will be happy. Not quite cause for celebration…

Continuously testing your users’ patience is not a winning strategy. (That’s not the type of testing we are advocating for) Alternatively, if you continually delight them and exceed their expectations, you will build loyalty. 

So…how does one release a game that doesn’t end up on lists like this, or even worse, literally buried in the trash? That’s the million-dollar question.

The obvious answer is to test, early and often. Four decades ago, the creators of ‘ET’ the video game didn’t have the tools gaming testers have now. By leveraging testing solutions like Sauce Labs and Backtrace, game publishers can leverage features like error monitoring and crash reporting for console or mobile games. Doing so can help developers find bugs before the release date. Instead of using paying customers as beta testers, studios can simply release a high-quality product that works. What a novel concept! With an increase in quality, companies can retain players, improve their reputation, and as a result - ship more products. 

The market cap of the gaming industry is estimated at $200 Billion now and is projected to reach $435 Billion by 2028. Clearly, gaming is no longer the niche market folks once thought it was. There is real money at stake and in gaming, your reputation is everything. By leveraging Sauce Labs, companies can have the digital confidence to release a title in a highly competitive market and know that their reputation is safe. Every experience matters as does every release. You only get one shot to make a great first impression on the millions of gamers around the world, leverage Sauce Labs and Backtrace to make sure that your game appears in the news for the right reasons and doesn’t become a dubious footnote in the history of gaming. 



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Sauce Labs


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