Disastrous game launches are nothing new. Legendary flops like ET, Daikatana, and Duke Nukem Forever echo through the halls of gaming history, and the echo sounds like a depressed whoopie cushion. But what is new is that always-on gaming platforms and live service models mean that a bad launch is no longer the end for a big game release.
Now more than ever, games can be patched to remove critical flaws. More than that, they can be completely reworked, assuming the developer still has the staff, money, and time to keep supporting its product past the most important sales window. It’s a high bar to clear, but it’s been happening more and more often.
Case in point: Ghost Recon Breakpoint. This Ubisoft game shook up the usual Tom Clancy tactical shooter formula with awful results, with critics and players alike blasting the inclusion of survival and crafting elements as a poor fit for the series. After abysmal sales, Ubisoft is committed to a major overhaul to make the game, well, good. The recent remaster of Warcraft III is another good example.
Let’s take a look at this evolving practice—more than a patch, less than a remake. We’ll examine five games that recovered from a terrible launch, thanks to the dedication of their developers and publishers. And, because there are two sides to every coin, we’ll look at four games that failed to do so.
Games That Started Rough and Recovered
The following titles had launches that ranged from merely bad to Waterworld-level legendary flops. But diligent updates (and listening to the community) helped improve them immeasurably.
No Man’s Sky
You could write a book about the rise, fall, and rerise of No Man’s Sky. This independent space exploration game, with a randomly generated universe full of planets for the player to explore, was one of the most hotly anticipated games of 2016. When it released with huge portions of the promised gameplay missing, not to mention fairly bare planets and not much to do, it became a gaming punchline overnight.
But a year later, after developer Hello Games took into account player and critical feedback and worked overtime to release huge patches, it became the poster child for post-launch improvement. With the addition of “real” multiplayer, home bases, and tons of new vehicles, No Man’s Sky is now a favorite in the exploration and crafting genre, with even more updates planned for the future.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War
Sometimes a single design decision can ruin an otherwise solid game. In the case of Shadow of War, the direct sequel to the much-loved Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, it was microtransactions. While the game succeeded in expanding on the original’s Nemesis system and fighting mechanics, its inclusion of pay-to-win soldier purchases—and trying to wrap the entire third act of the game around them—turned it into a tiring chore of grind for little or no reward.
A year after its release, the developer removed the microtransactions for more powerful orc soldiers and rebalanced the gameplay, making it easier to defend territory and faster to progress through the game’s grindy third act. It’s too bad that it took so long, but it means that the sequel’s biggest flaw has been erased, and it’s now bigger and better than the original Shadow of Mordor in every way.
Final Fantasy XIV
Remember when releasing a massively multiplayer online version of your big property was in vogue? Square-Enix does: In 2010, it released Final Fantasy XIV Online, an MMO version of its famous RPG series, with Blizzard’s World of Warcraft clearly in its sights. Published solely on Windows (the better to compete with WoW), it was immediately criticized as being shallow, grindy, and unfinished. Despite the familiar Final Fantasy elements, it was a lamentable flop.
Fast forward to 2013, when FFXIV was rereleased as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. The additional three years of development incorporating player feedback, not to mention support for the PS3 and eventually PS4, made it a surprise hit. Seven years later, Square-Enix continues to release new content in major MMO patches, and its playerbase is thriving. It beat the odds to become a healthy MMO at a time when the entire industry is shifting to smaller, more manageable experiences.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
Halo is a perennial favorite among multiplayer shooter fans, so it made a lot of sense to rerelease a bundle of the classic Halo episodes for the Xbox One. Not only would players get to relive the single player stories, but they’d revisit the online multiplayer of their favorite title, benefiting from modern graphics and connection platforms.
Or, so it was thought. At launch, the online multiplayer for the Master Chief Collection was “just flat-out broken,” according to Forbes, with connection and lag issues persisting for months after the 2014 launch. But developer 343 Industries kept up its support far longer than anyone might expect for a bundle of remastered console shooters, with steady improvements, patches, and an impressive beta program.
By the time the PC version of the Master Chief Collection was announced in 2019—bringing many of its included games to the PC for the first time—players were excited to expand the game’s thriving online multiplayer even further.
Street Fighter V
Capcom used the “fifth” release of classic one-on-one fighting series Street Fighter as a test. Would players pay for a basic, stripped-down fighting game, with most of its characters and stages and even some deep elements of the fighting engine left unfinished? Yes, they would, but they weren’t particularly happy about it. At its 2016 launch, Kotaku said that Street Fighter V felt like “being at a construction site where the foundation is being poured.” Predictably, the lack of content and online multiplayer bugs left a sour taste in players’ mouths.
But Capcom persisted, releasing new characters and stages along with consistent updates and tweaks. Two years after launch, a repackaged “Arcade Edition” including all new content (at the time) was released as a cheaper retail purchase and as a free download for owners of the 2016 game. Earlier this year, they pulled the same move, with Street Fighter V Champion Edition including four years of content and improvements.
Thanks to diligent updates and continuing support, Capcom achieved its goal, and Street Fighter V’s community of players both casual and pro is vibrant and growing.
Special Mention: Fortnite
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Epic’s Fortnite. Though there wasn’t anything wrong with the game at launch, Fortnite: Save the World is a very different game than what it’s become. Originally an odd mesh between Minecraft and a zombie hoard shooter, Fornite rocketed to the top of both gaming and pop culture with the release of its free-to-play Battle Royale mode.
Lifting heavily from Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, the game’s 100-player free-for-alls, free setup, cross-platform play, and constant world shifting and balance updates made it one of the most popular ongoing releases on the planet. It’s a testament to the idea that the way a game begins its life no longer needs to be how it ends.
Games That Started Rough and Stayed That Way
Here are the games that have failed to improve, or even gotten steadily worse, after developers pledged to support them. It’s no coincidence that all of these titles are “live services” intended to be multi-year experiences—it looks like that genre is hard to redirect once things start going bad.
Oh dear. As a groundbreaking multiplayer follow-up to Fallout 4, Bethesda’s Fallout 76 was hotly anticipated by some, dreaded by others. The latter seem to have been correct: Fallout 76‘s launch was dreadful. It was quickly apparent that Bethesda had designed the persistent online system poorly, as bugs and spotty connections were constant. The “no NPCs” world was also revealed as threadbare at best, with players expected to fill in the gaps of a barren map.
Bethesda has tried to fix the game, but each update seems to have introduced two new problems for every one it’s solved. Several PR blunders and increasingly public bugs haven’t helped, nor has the introduction of a paid subscription service for premium features. (Costing $100 a year to fix a broken game, Bethesda? Really?) The game will come to Steam next month, along with an expansion to finally add non-player characters and make it, you know, a Fallout game. But considering their track record so far, players could be forgiven for writing off Fallout 76 as a total failure.
Star Wars: Battlefront II
Already primed for disappointment after the Battlefront relaunch of 2015, players were hoping that Star Wars Battlefront II would make up for the former’s lack of a single-player campaign and bare-bones multiplayer. It did! And, then it stacked on a pay-to-win system full of exploited in-game purchases and grind to avoid them. Players would need to spend dozens of hours to unlock basic functions of the online mode. The game’s loot box system was so greedy that it bordered on insulting.
With critical and player feedback so negative that it even caught the attention of some United States legislators, Electronic Arts quickly retreated from its universally hated position defending the in-game purchases. The option to buy your way to success was patched out almost immediately after release, but game balance wasn’t addressed, leaving intolerable grind as the only option for unlocking classic Star Wars characters and vehicles.
More than two years after launch, EA’s flagship Star Wars title is still known for receiving “the single most-downvoted Reddit comment in history,” after an EA representative defended the original loot box game design system as one that rewarded players with “a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
Speaking of EA: Anthem. This multiplayer sci-fi shooter was seen as the mega-publisher’s answer to Activision’s Destiny. After years of traumatic game development (excellently cataloged in this article), the game launched with gameplay that was boring and a game world that felt unfinished at best. After the initial marketing blitz, players left the game in droves.
In EA’s defense, the company seems to have learned its lesson from Battlefront II, and the microtransactions in Anthem were limited to cosmetic items only (no pay-to-win). But no amount of recolored Iron Man suits could save Anthem from its own dreary and repetitive gameplay. EA and developer Bioware swear they intend to support the game further, with a complete overhaul planned in the future. But considering how its initial content updates have been abandoned, it’s hard to take those promises at face value.
All Points Bulletin
If you’ve never heard of All Points Bulletin, you’re not alone. Despite a marketing blitz for the 2010 release of this open world title in the vein of Grand Theft Auto, it completely bombed when it released on PC. A tired premise, plus an expensive MMO-style subscription model, limited APB’s appeal from the get-go. In less than a year, the developer Realtime Worlds was acquired by an outside company and the online game servers were shut down.
All Points Bulletin would return as APB: Reloaded in 2011, this time with a free-to-play model. It was also released for the Xbox One and PS4 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Despite continued development and support under different developers and publishers, the game is little more than a footnote among its competitors, with concurrent players dropping below 1,000 in 2018 and never recovering.