It's Okay for Developers to Let Their Games Die

January 17, 2024
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A wise man, by which I mean a backstabbing gangster, once asked whether it’s better to live life in peace and die smelling faintly of urine or to go down for all times in a blaze of glory smelling near like posies. While it’s not my place to tell you which one of those is better in the real world, I can tell you that these days, it seems like a few too many game developers are substantially more interested in living the easy life. When Destiny 2 launched on Steam back in 2019, it became a cultural cornerstone almost overnight. Its unique blend of science fiction storytelling, solid shooting and MMO elements gave gamers something they’d wanted since the original Halo titles, and as a result, it had almost 300,000 players in October of that year. However, since then, controversial updates and redesigns have caused its player count to drop steadily, with the only notable upticks being when a new expansion pack is available. It’s a stretch to say that Bungie’s latest title will be smelling like proverbial piss anytime soon, but mark my words that it will eventually, because its developers didn’t know when to let the game die, and they aren’t the only ones.

If you like television, you’ve no doubt watched the early episodes of The Walking Dead, but did you know that there’s 11 bloody seasons of it now? What was once one of the most-watched serials on the air has long since turned into a shadow of its former self, because its showrunners wouldn't let it end until last year. It could’ve wrapped up around season three and been remembered as one of most interesting pieces of post apocalyptic media ever produced, but because its writers and producers kept needlessly adding more characters and content that nobody asked for, it will instead be regarded as anything but. And, to bring this back to the topic at hand, the same will likely be true for a lot of video games that have continued to receive senseless content drops well after they should’ve faded into our collective memories.

Just so that we’re clear, I’m well aware that Destiny 2 (and Rainbow Six Siege, Rust, and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, all of which have received countless overalls in the five or more years they’ve been around) won’t be dying anytime soon. A quick look at SteamCharts shows that they’re actually among the most played games on the platform, with each of them averaging player counts that are near, or well into, the triple digits. I’m also aware that they’re some of the most profitable titles in video gaming history, with each one almost single-handedly keeping their development studios afloat. But, as anyone who’s ever set foot in a nursing home can tell you, being rich and having lots of visitors isn’t the be-all-end-all in life if you smell like piss. What is, in this humble games journalist’s opinion, is how they’re remembered once they do disappear into obscurity.

Fun fact, I took this screenshot four bloody years ago, when Siege was “only” six years old

And, as someone whose job technically involves studying these sorts of things, I don’t foresee anyone looking back on the aforementioned list of titles with anything but apathy. They were all fun at launch to be sure, and occasionally one of their updates warrants re-installing them, but they also aren’t the cultural powerhouses that they once were. If you play them, I’m willing to bet my meagre salary that you do so because you’re more or less addicted to them, or failing that, just haven’t found anything else you fancy quite as much. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but imagine what their developers could’ve created if they weren’t focused on one specific game.

Over a decade ago, Bungie made Halo 3, Ubisoft invented the mass-market stealth action genre with Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed, and Facepunch Studios launched Garry’s Mod. KRAFTON Inc., just to be clear, hasn’t done anything interesting before or after PUBG, but still. If the development teams let their respective cash cows die, not only would it likely mean that those cows would be remembered as something truly great, but they could go on to do interesting things. Respawn Entertainment did; they made Titanfall and Titanfall 2, then focused on Apex Legends for a bit, and somewhat recently put out Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Survivor. The studio took a risk by not releasing repetitive updates for their genre-defining title, and it paid off. I, for one, still quite enjoy Apex Legends, there will forever be a place in my heart for Titanfall 2, and I am seriously looking forward to seeing what comes out from the team that was founded by a man who worked on the original Call of Duty.  

Say what you will about GMod, but it will certainly be remembered, for better or worse

Look, I’m not going to pretend not to know why most developers play it safe once they’ve made it big. If I worked in an industry that was notorious for lay-offs and instability, created something that could keep me and my friends employed for the foreseeable future and one that made a near-endless amount of cash, I’d have to seriously question whether or not it was worth chancing my reputation and bank account on a new project. But, speaking as a man who is self-aware enough to admit that I’ve never actually been put in that position because I never managed to make a name for myself as a journalist, I’d still like to think that it would be worth the potential cost if it meant I could be remembered as something more than a one-time wonder.

This is from Rising Storm 2, which is both a dead game and a game that involves a lot of death.

Tripwire Interactive is almost famous for doing the exact opposite of what Bungie/Ubisoft/Facepunch have opted to do. They’ve created, or at least published, a handful of fantastic titles including Killing Floor 2 and Rising Storm 2, but once those games reached the end of their natural lifecycle, the studio let them die. It still releases occasional bug fixes for them, but are focusing their efforts on new games and not forcing the companies they’re bankrolling to keep their attention on one specific title. And y’know what, people like and respect the Tripwire. Of course it doesn’t make as much money as the likes of Bungie, and their titles have never reached triple-digit player counts, but that’s fine. Hell, that’s actually good, because it showcases why it’s acceptable for developers to let their games actually die. And, on the off chance that you are a developer, don’t be afraid to follow Tripwire’s, or Respawn’s example. Because if nothing else…well, George Orwell never wrote a follow-up to Animal Farm, and he passed away six months after writing 1984, and people both remember and respect him a lot more than they know or respect anyone at Ubisoft.

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Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.