A new game is deleting players’ loot. This crap shouldn’t be normal.

For people who love video games, the story of the week has been Outriders and its troubled launch. By now it’s an all-too-familiar story of a brand new release showing up on day one in rough shape. What’s a gamer to do in these situations? Unfortunately, the only obvious option is typically “nothing.”

The game, from Bulletstorm developer People Can Fly, came out on April 1 with a host of problems trailing it. Glitches left many dealing with repeated crashes. Server issues kept players offline for hours at a time. When they finally did get online, people started to ask, understandably, why such a story-driven and seemingly offline-friendly game required an always-online connection — a question that People Can Fly still hasn’t adequately answered, it should be said.

But the biggest issue by far is a nasty technical hiccup that, under certain, not entirely clear circumstances, completely wipes out all the loot players have collected. Worse, the issue seems to be most prevalent among players who have reached the latest stages of the game and who, by extension, have spent the most time playing. 

Outriders is an action-RPG that’s a bit like Destiny meets Diablo. Which is to say, loot — namely, the weapons and armor you pick up along the way — is central to the DNA of this experience. You’re meant to amass large piles of stuff, all color-coded by rarity, and then sort through everything in search of the stats and capabilities that best suit the character you’re playing and the way you’ve built out their space magic powers.

No one’s clear on exactly what causes the “delete your whole inventory” glitch. It may or may not be tied to the online matchmaking that occurs when you try to play with other people online. That’s how it came for me. 

I was joining a multiplayer “Expedition,” the major post-story activity for players to obsess over, and when my Outrider appeared in game he was stripped down to his underoos and his inventory was completely barren. According to Steam, I have 57.8 hours played in Outriders. Everything picked up during those almost 60 hours was suddenly all gone.

R.I.P. all of my sweet, sweet loot.

R.I.P. all of my sweet, sweet loot.

Image: screenshot: people can fly

People Can Fly was already overwhelmed dealing with all the other technical problems when the inventory glitch started making the rounds, a day or two post-release. When it finally did address the problem, the studio said the only thing it could: We’re sorry and we’re working on a fix

Though the same update warned that it wouldn’t be a total fix; lower-tier loot is likely lost for good, and worse, the gear that does get restored likely won’t have the same stats it dropped at. In a game like this, driven by loot drops and an player efforts to create the most effective character “build,” the promise of a semi-restored inventory isn’t terribly exciting. This is the kind of game where you might sift through a dozen of the same gun in search of a perfect stat “roll.” So reshuffled stats amount to progress lost.

I’m not here to yell at People Can Fly over this. Yes, the studio bears responsibility for a technically broken game release, but reserve your frustration for the studio executives. Rank-and-file team members who are laboring to get fixes out deserve our appreciation and patience, especially after working through Easter weekend to get Outriders into mostly working order.

That said, weren’t we just in this exact spot five months ago? When Cyberpunk 2077 arrived in Dec. 2020, it came, like Outriders, after a long string of delays and it arrived in unacceptably poor shape, also like Outriders. I reviewed Cyberpunk on a powerful gaming PC with a top-tier Nvidia graphics card and it was a buggy ride for me. For many others, particularly those playing on older PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles, the game was effectively unplayable.

Then, as now, critics worked to look past the technical issues — which are only ever temporary — to see the game underneath. It seems the most fair thing to do, right? Especially at a time when even industry outsiders are starting to fully understand the human cost of game development. There’s a natural impulse to not penalize an entire studio for fixable problems, even severe ones. And plenty of games bounce back after a rough start.

The gaming story of the week has been Outriders and its troubled launch. 

Cyberpunk strained that paradigm to its limit. Here was a game that had been in development for close to a decade and that had been subject to multiple delays. Developer CD Projekt Red promised a smooth experience even on older hardware, but that wasn’t the post-release reality at all. The studio had also hyped up features that were strangely absent or undercooked in the final release. And overall performance was an absolute mess, even for people running on powerful hardware.

The aftermath left more than one critic feeling like CDPR had intentionally played the media to create a misleading impression about Cyberpunk 2077 ahead of its release. More insidiously, the explosion of drama set the stage for a rather sleepy and uncontroversial result when a similar situation happened again five months later with Outriders. It’s the most broken new game release I’ve encountered since Cyberpunk, and the two together were more messed up at launch than just about any other game I’ve reviewed to date.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking these are two isolated incidents, however. For a great many years, major big-budget video games have been released with myriad technical woes right from the start. Bethesda Softworks’ long-awaited online take on the Fallout series, Fallout 76, was a disaster when it launched in 2018 — and Bethesda has since admitted to knowing it would be. A year later, Electronic Arts released BioWare’s own loot-focused action-RPG in space: Anthem. That, too, was an enormous mess — and a known disaster-in-the-making, as reporting has subsequently revealed.

It goes even further back, too. Fans of a certain age no doubt remember Fallout: New Vegas, the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360-era game that launched it 2010. It wasn’t nearly as broken as our most recent examples, but it was a technical mess at launch to the point that it even spurred the same question I’m asking now: Where’s the outrage?

A lot of the issues here go back to the human cost factor, since it takes a small army of people to make a big-budget game and those people are ultimately working under a deadline. But it’s publishing executives working with studio leadership to set those deadlines, and dates are often dictated more by financial considerations than quality considerations. Especially since this is a kind of product that can be fixed and rehabbed after a rough start.

But as plenty of games (like Outriders) have shown, the ability to put out patches is hardly a catch-all fix. Some games simply need more time than they’re given before they’re released. They don’t always get that time because of business decisions that don’t take into account the actual process — which is unpredictable and driven in large part by creative problem solving.

Don't let the shiny technoscape fool you, "Cyberpunk 2077" was a disastrous mess at launch.

Don’t let the shiny technoscape fool you, “Cyberpunk 2077” was a disastrous mess at launch.

That leaves those of us who buy games in an unpleasant spot where we can end up getting stuck with a broken product until fixes happen. To highlight another example, I still haven’t finished my playthrough of South Park: The Fractured But Whole — a game that released in 2017 — because I ran into a bug that completely halted progress about three-quarters of the way through the story. That bug was never fixed in a way that let me continue, and throwing away 15 hours just to start over wasn’t going to happen.

There are no guarantees that you’ll receive a working product when you buy a just-released game in 2021. The big blockbusters are often the scariest too, since there are so many more considerations that go into a decision between delaying release vs. pushing out a not-quite-finished creation. And for every story like Cyberpunk, where refunds were offered, there are a dozen others where players are just expected to deal with it.

It’s a tricky problem to solve, in part because there are no formal protections in place for game consumers. That, in turn, has created an industry hype machine that leans on press and influencers — as well as in-house messaging (think livestreams and trailer premieres) — to convince would-be players that they need to get in there on day one. Our entire system of pre-order bonuses is built around getting people to pony up for a game before they know how the finished product turned out.

I don’t have any expectation that this kind of ingrained system is going to change overnight, or ever. Consider an example like Outriders, which posted great numbers at launch even coming five months after the Cyberpunk debacle. The industry hasn’t self-corrected because the status quo continues to work fine; people may get angry at a rocky launch, but not in a way that impacts the bottom line.

So what can you do? Try to resist the lure of pre-order bonuses and day one purchases. Seek out critics who are coming down on the opposite side of public opinion and consider what they have to say, too. When you end up buying a game that has problems, definitely do not bring your anger to individual creators on social media, but do communicate respectfully with studios and publishers to make sure your dissatisfaction is heard.

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