Monday, October 26, 2009

Borderlands

Well, as the biggest PC release in a while I am obligated to go into detail on Borderlands and, in particular, investigate the 6 day delay on the PC version which Gearbox and 2K stated was for "additional optimization."

First off, if you've been living under a rock, Borderlands is a new hybrid FPS/RPG (with emphasis on the FPS) game developed by Gearbox and published by 2K. It was originally slated for early last year, was then pushed back to late last year before finally being pushed back to, well, now. The 360 and PS3 versions were released last Tuesday (to quite favourable reviews), but a month or so ago it was announced that the PC version would be delayed an additional six days, and would therefore release on the 26th October, to give more time for the PC version to be "optimized."

Unfortunately, in this context, "optimized" is code for "needing to delay the PC version till last as the illegal downloads from software pirates will cannibalise sales, especially given that the PC version retails at $50 and console versions at $60." I'm not thrilled about this state of affairs, but looking at it from Gearbox and 2K's points of view I can at least partially understand it.

Borderlands is a big risk, for Gearbox particularly. It does not fit neatly into one genre of game, it has a unique cel-shaded look which people either love or hate (for the record, I love it) and, with other games right around the corner in what is still a crowded holiday season it may have trouble differentiating itself from other games that people will be seeing on the store shelves. In short, it's taken Gearbox, a moderately-sized developer based out of Plano, TX (only an hour from my good self) the better part of three years to put it together at a substantial cost which they need to see returned if they ever expect to see turn a profit. They deserve the chance for their efforts to be rewarded by the market in the form of a) sales, leading to b) revenue. With PC games typically retailing for $10 less than console games ($50 vs. $60 as mentioned above, unless you're Activision), it is in their best interests to at least have the 360 and PS3 versions out earlier to try and generate more sales at the higher price point.

Some people, like myself, will wait for the PC version; others will just go ahead and pick it up on consoles and yet others will buy it on both. In short, I can live with a delay of 6 days since this basically means I am getting the best version of the game (PS3 vs. 360 vs PC - no-brainer the PC will look and likely perform the best on beefy hardware) for less than what my console brethren are paying. This is especially true if you get in on the Borderlands deal currently available on Steam, where you buy 4 copies of the game at once for a reduced price which values each copy at $33.75. Compare this to the $60 that PS3 and 360 owners are paying and you can see we are paying almost 50% less.

I suspect that if PC games also retailed for $60 then we wouldn't be seeing any of this nonsense about "optimization" (be honest Gearbox, nobody is buying this claptrap explanation anyway - see what I did there?) and you would see a universal release date for all three versions. If offered a choice though, between having to pay $60 for the PC version but it being available on the 20th, vs. paying $50 (or less - see above) to have it 6 days later, I'll take the 6-day wait anytime. At the same time I recognise that Gearbox are running a business, the ultimate aim of which is to make a profit, and if them making me wait 6 days is the price I need to pay for this then they can go right ahead.

There is another side to this though, and that is retailers who broke the street date.

A small handful of people managed to buy a version on the PS3 or 360 earlier than the 20th and were actually allowed to play the game ahead of its release date. A small handful of people a day or two ago also managed to get their PC copies early, so in accordance with the precedent already set they would be allowed to play early, right? Wrong. As "Elizabeth", a 2K community manager who posted a statement on their forums put it:

"Yesterday we learned that a fraction of the PC copies of Borderlands were accidentally sold to consumers in some countries but that gamers could not activate their copies yet. Since we learned of this problem, we have been looking into the issue to find the best possible solution for everyone.

I'm going to be completely honest with you guys right now. It is not possible for us to move the planned release date of the game forward. We could not possibly get the games into stores worldwide and out for digital distribution any earlier than planned. Less than 1% of all copies were sold, and if we unlocked the game today, illegal versions would most likely appear on torrents by the evening. I am sure all of you want our PC launch to be as successful as possible, and we simply won't be able to manage that any earlier than already planned.

I want to apologize for those of you who have gotten the game ahead of our release date, and ask for your patience and understanding. The game will be ready in the US and Canada at midnight eastern standard time on Monday, October 26th, and internationally by Friday, October 30th."

Quite the double-standard there, and this is a mistake by 2K. For early copies you either let everyone who gets an early copy play or nobody, you don't say it's ok for 360 players to play early but not PC or vice versa. In short, choose a policy and stick to it, don't faff around after the fact making it up on the fly. There was quite a lot of unhappiness floating around on 2K's forums after the above statement was posted, some mentioning the exact point I had just made regarding some console gamers being able to play the game early while they couldn't.

In saying that, it's mostly just a storm in a teacup. I would strongly encourage both Gearbox and 2K to learn some lessons from this though, as the goodwill they both have as strong PC gaming supporters is not infinite and gamers are an extremely fickle bunch.

As for the game itself, well my Steam copy isn't unlocked for another ~10 hours so I can't attest to it personally myself, but other brave souls I know who have been playing a console version for the past week have had almost nothing but good things to say about it. It's a fun, unique mash-up of the FPS and RPG genres, leaning heavily to the FPS side (in the same way that Fallout 3 leaned heavily to the RPG side) with solid co-op features and an interesting loot system based on the "bazillion" guns included in the game.

I'll post further thoughts once I've actually got my own sweaty hands on it; needless to say don't wait up as I suspect my evenings are going to consist of a single activity for at least for the next few days.

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