Yesterday morning, Valve decided to pull zombie survival game The War Z from Steam in an unprecedented move made even more unusual by the fact that Valve is offering refunds for the game, an extraordinarily rare occurrence. The reasons for the pull, however, elicit both praise for Valve and doubt in the Steam service. The story behind all of this would be right at home in a twist-filled conspiracy thriller featuring not only a disaster of a game, but borderline advertising fraud, hostile forums, shady developers, and a scorned user that may or may not be lying about the ulterior motives of the “masterminds.”
This all starts, I suppose, with a little mod for ARMA II called Day Z, which repurposed many of the game’s assets into a gritty multiplayer zombie survival game. Day Z became extraordinarily popular almost overnight for its scavenging elements, constant tension, and the omnipresent possibility that any player, even the one that had been traveling with you for the past hour, could suddenly turn, go in for the kill, and collect the goods. With the amazing success of the mod (which, on its own, enticed a few of my own friends to buy the core game), a standalone version of Day Z was announced, and was in development.
Things get a little interesting at this point: shortly after the release and subsequent explosion of popularity of Day Z, a game called The War Z, developed by Hammerpoint Interactive, was announced. Now, there are different claims and sides to this particular facet of the story, and any of them could be true. Hammerpoint says that they had been planning a zombie game for a while before Day Z released, while some gamers claim that The War Z heavily recycles elements from Hammerpoint’s other game, War Inc., in a hasty attempt to cash in on the other zombie game’s success. This isn’t as big of a deal as the rest of the story, but it casts a harsh light on the rest of the proceedings if indeed Hammerpoint scrambled to make a “Day Z clone.” It should be noted that, by nature, reusing assets from a game you have already made is not a bad thing by any means—game developers and even film directors reuse elements from past projects to save money. However, beyond the scope of this article, it does cause one to stop and think about where budgeting ends and slapdash corner-cutting begins.
The perception of the game as a mere cash grab is troublesome because there are many factors that point to it being just that. It began with the game’s Steam listing, which was rife with false claims and feature descriptions that, without a doubt, did not exist in the game. While the store page advertised “areas between 100 to 400 square kilometers” and “up to 100 players per game server,” players purchased the game to find just one map and a maximum server size of 50 players.
What’s more, that single map, alleged to be at least 100 square kilometers, was measured by one gamer and found to contain just under ten kilometers of playable space. While this gamer’s method of measurement is slightly questionable, the margin of error still puts the actual size far under the claim. To my knowledge, no other players have made advanced calculations such as these, so this claim can’t really be confirmed or refuted based on hard facts.
Another wrongful claim on the store page is found in the phrase “gain experience points and spend it to learn dozens of available skills.” It’s impossible to mince words or dance around this one—the feature straight-up did not exist in the game at the time of that posting. Someone had to have noticed that these missing features might have been more than a little bit misleading.
It’s not always easy to clearly outline the features of your game so that everyone can understand them. This is the stance taken by the developers of The War Z—that the features were interpreted incorrectly on the Steam page. That is, the users read something wrong. GameSpy conducted an interview with The War Z executive producer Sergey Titov on these claims in the Steam store, with somewhat upsetting results. The link will take you to the full text of the interview, but here I will provide a truncated, paraphrased version with the vitals.
The interview starts out innocently enough, with Titov explaining that the description was referring to features that were planned to be patched into the game at a later date and acknowledging the fact that the information needs to be amended to reflect the current state of the game (and, to be fair, the next day the page accurately reflected the feature set, save for server size). Titov also insists that the group of dissatisfied players only comprises a tiny fraction of the overall user base.
Things get much, much stickier in the interview as Titov clumsily dances around the (admittedly heavy-handed) accusations that Hammerpoint still incorrectly conveyed information, such as the remaining claim that servers support up to 100 people (instead of the current maximum of 50). Titov claims that test groups preferred the 50 cap, and, besides, 50 is a number that “counts” as it falls into the description of “up to 100.” Titov continues to dodge questions and refute accusations throughout more than half of the interview, eventually getting into something of a semantics war where both sides argue about whether the game is a “foundation release,” a beta, or something else. While Titov says that they’re “ready to stop call it Beta [sic],” he also says that games such as these are never finished, and are always getting components added. After a great deal of pressure, Titov caves and says that he will issue an apology.
This is problematic, again, because the expanding nature of the game is never actually mentioned in the body of the Steam product description. As GameSpy mentions in the interview, Hammerpoint is technically advertising a product that they can’t deliver. The description boasts a robust, feature-rich package with a one-time payment and no in-game transactions. While this is technically true, the game does in fact feature in-game microtransactions. Upon dying, you can pay to have a character instantly revived. If that sounds undesirable, you could just wait for your character to revive automatically…in four hours. You can also pay money to get better weapons, which you apparently lose upon dying according to a video embedded below. A quick comparison between promotional screenshots and actual game footage shows huge discrepancies, while Kotaku has reported that several of the images used for the game are borrowed wholesale from things such as AMC’s The Walking Dead television show.
This all brings to attention a glaring issue with the Steam store, one that has become more apparent as of late: Valve clearly doesn’t spend as much time screening entries as it should. There does not seem to be any concrete description of how games are officially inaugurated onto the service, but my best guess would be a simple algorithm/questionnaire with requisite information such as system requirements, game descriptions and media submitted to Valve…and that’s it. Clearly something either got lost in translation or simply isn’t there, as the disastrous, misleading release of The War Z suggests. The same thing happened earlier this year with Orion: Dino Beatdown, an almost unplayable game due to devastating bugs.
The Steam Greenlight program, which allows games-in-progress to be voted in, seems even worse, as some games have already been put down by users as false products, and others that have been voted in, such as Towns, were released incomplete, with the developer neglecting to mention in the Steam description that it was still in its alpha stages. As great as Greenlight seems to be in its exposure of indie games that would otherwise be thrown to the wayside, it’s not where it should be. If Towns or The War Z are any indication, anyone with enough savvy to construct a working tech demo or bare bones alpha, manufacture some screenshots, and write an enticing description can get their “game” ushered in and make a profit before anyone can realize what has happened. While I don’t think this is specifically the case here, especially for Towns (which actually is enjoyable if you know what you’re getting into), someone less honest stands to make a considerable profit if he or she can exploit the same loopholes that have allowed three unfinished games to make it to the digital retail scene.
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