The launches of the Sony PlayStation 4 and the Microsoft Xbox One have ushered in a new era of graphical fidelity for home consoles. Coming at the tail end of the longest hardware generation to date, the systems were released to substantial enthusiasm from consumers and publishers alike. Unfortunately, the current software lineups don't inspire much in the way of confidence. The extra power packed into the respective boxes should give developers the ability to bypass many of the bottlenecks inherent to aging console tech, but that has not stopped companies like Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA), Activision (NASDAQ: ATVI), and Ubisoft(NASDAQOTH:UBSFF) from releasing software that is plagued with bugs or that exist in a feature-incomplete state. Are these companies doing damage to their brand and tarnishing the names of their marquee franchises?
Same old game?
Console launches have long been characterized by mostly mediocre software lineups. Game developers typically struggle to take advantage of the new hardware while publishers mandate that titles be ready for launch so as to capitalize on the surrounding fervor and to establish their brands with the new installed base. Where this generation differs from ones previous is that online connectivity and software patches are now the norm. This means that releasing broken or feature-incomplete games has become more commonplace, with fixes arriving after many units have been sold.
Marks of distinction
The news that Activision's Call of Duty: Ghosts would render at 1080p on the PlayStation 4 while only 720p on the Xbox One was one of the first concrete indicators that the former was capable of substantially better performance. Oddly enough, however, the improved resolution was not accessible without a software patch. This fix was available upon the game's release, but the fact that the game's defining next-gen feature was not present on the game disc is worrying. The PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 versions of the game also required patches to fix key elements of the multiplayer mode.
Wait and see much clearer
Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag also requires a patch in order to enable 1080p rendering on the PlayStation 4. Without the patch, the game will display at a native 900p. Once again, the Xbox One version of the game maxes out at 720p. Unlike the Call of Duty: Ghosts scenario, the patch was not ready for the game's next-generation debut; the fix didn't come until almost a full week after the PlayStation 4's North American launch. Considering how frontloaded sales are for most games and the fact that the game launched on last-gen systems approximately two weeks prior, the PS4 version of Black Flag released in its most important territory with questionable value.
A broken Battlefield
While both Activision and Ubisoft have launched SKUs of next-gen software that required patches in order to be fully realized, EA's Battlefield 4 is likely the most egregious example of shoddy launch software. The PlayStation 4 version in particular has been plagued by a number of game-breaking bugs. The game's multiplayer has had ongoing issues that continue to persist despite the release of two substantial patches. The Xbox One version of the game has also been susceptible to crash-inducing bugs and is set to undergo a major update that is intended to make the game much more stable. Electronic Arts has invested greatly to position its "Battlefield" series as its answer to Activision's "Call of Duty" franchise. With so many players finding the game unplayable on next-generation consoles, the possibility exists that EA has negated previous gains and seriously damaged one of its premier series.
While the company launched competent versions of FIFA and Madden on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, EA's botching of Battlefield 4 makes its next-generation debut difficult to commend. Reports that a third of all PS4 games sold at retail are published by EA are likely to receive greater investor focus, but the "Battlefield" situation represents a major failing for the company and one that is likely to haunt it down the line. Releasing such an obviously incomplete game is a great way to attract the ire of gamers and puts EA at increased risk of once again being voted Consumerist's Worst Company in America.
With the proliferation of software updates and patches, console gaming is quickly losing its characteristic simplicity. PC gamers are used to day-one patches and gradual fixes. Consoles have primarily been plug-and-play affairs. Releasing broken or sub-optimal console software may not carry the same repercussions that it once did, but the practice will have broader consequences if the "release and patch" model continues to be normalized. The high prices of AAA console software become increasingly difficult to justify if consumers cannot be reasonably confident that software works as is and as advertised.
Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Activision Blizzard. The Motley Fool owns shares of Activision Blizzard. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.