In Defense of Skyrim: The Consequences of Complexity - quasiconundrum Blog - www.GameInformer.com
Switch Lights

The lights are on

What's Happening

In Defense of Skyrim: The Consequences of Complexity

Over the past months, there's been a lot of hatred flying around regarding Skyrim's technical issues. I'm here to say that the game deserves a pass. Here's why.

It's no secret that the overall trend in big-budget game development is toward games that feature greater and greater levels of complexity. Whether this increased complexity comes in the form of more dynamic gameplay, increases in the size and variety of the game world, or advances in graphics and AI, the sheer quantity of data contained in today's games is increasingly gargantuan.

In the realm of single-player games, this trend toward increasing complexity is perhaps best exemplified by Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series. But ever since its release, Skyrim in particular has had a turbulent, often controversial existence. There are few games that have managed to elicit such a strong dichotomy of praise and revulsion: praise for the game's expansive, innovative freedoms; revulsion for its seemingly perpetual technical issues. Many of us love Skyrim; some of us hate it. Most who have played it, I would say, fall somewhere in between.

There are few gamers who would deny that, despite its technical issues, Skyrim represents a significant achievement. To many it represents the current pinnacle of what a video game can be—an open, believably detailed, living world for gamers to delve into, get lost in, and be a part of. It is definitely not perfect, but in numerous ways it represents the closest we have come to what many consider to be the holy grail of gaming: replicating the detail, freedom, and complexity of our own world.

That said, I acknowledge that Skyrim has issues. Many of these technical glitches have caused serious problems for some gamers, to the point where the game is rendered unplayable, or nearly so. I'm here to tell you why, in my opinion, Skyrim deserves a pass, despite these issues.

But first, I want to define what giving Skyrim a "pass" means to me, and perhaps more importantly, what it doesn't mean. It does not mean letting poor customer service slide, nor am I saying it is acceptable that the publisher neglected to mention certain potentially serious, game-breaking issues prior to the game's release, especially concerning the PS3 version. Such problems and deceptive practices should never be tolerated, and there is no excuse for them. But we should make an important distinction here—one that many gamers tend to overlook—and that is that these are issues on the publishing end, not the development end.

For me, giving Skyrim a pass means understanding and accepting that an increased potential for error is an inevitable consequence of increased complexity. I am not giving the developers a pass on quality assurance either; I am merely setting that aside for the moment. Regardless of the developer's ability to combat and correct errors, we must acknowledge that a game as staggeringly complex as Skyrim will naturally be more prone to error than your average, considerably less complex game. More than simply the amount of code that goes into making a game like Skyrim, though, the game is also host to—and in many ways, defined by—an intricate web of variables, variables which are constantly manipulated not only by the player, but by each other. When I think about the world's hundreds of NPCs, all following their own schedules, and about the game's plethora of quests, all dependent on certain triggers and conditions, not to mention the graphical prowess required to render and animate a complete, contiguous three-dimensional world, I am sometimes amazed that the game runs at all.

But that amazement is relative, isn't it? Most of us take for granted what games nowadays are capable of—feats of complexity that were all but unfathomable ten or twenty years ago are now commonplace. We expect that our games will only increase in complexity; in fact, by supporting such games, we have created a demand for more and more complex games. The consequence, of course, is that greater complexity means a greater likelihood of error. This is not simply an excuse; this is a fact. Many of us, however, continue to live with the archaic expectation that perfection is just as readily achievable as it was back in the good old days. The fact is, games today are, from a programming standpoint, not the same as games were in decades past. They are vastly more complex, and it is unreasonable to hold them to the same standards of perfection.

Some—if not most—would argue that the answer to this is simple: more testing, to root out potential glitches and fix them. Obviously, some amount of quality testing is necessary, and obviously, a more complex game will require more QA. I would argue that the answer—in keeping with the theme here—is more complex than just doing more testing.

First of all, how do you know when you've done enough? Where do you draw the line? If Skyrim had released a month earlier, it may have had more problems out of the gate; then again, if they had waited a month to release it, they may have fixed more of the problems. But it still wouldn't have been perfect. Considering the status of the game now, it wouldn't have been perfect if they'd waited nine months. I'm no QA expert, but really it's all about managing risk. How much potential for error is acceptable, given the game's complexity? And before you say "none," bear in mind that no game, no matter how smooth and glitch-free it may seem, is completely immune to errors. In the end, every developer and publisher has to make a judgment call on this matter, and inevitably there will be disagreements about where they chose to draw the line. But it's a balancing act. Given the levels of complexity in today's games, holding a game for testing indefinitely, fishing for errors that may or may not be there, just isn't feasible.

As I write this, I am rebooting my PS3. Despite the patch that should have fixed it, Skyrim unfailingly crashes on me every time I try to go underwater. Heck, it doesn't even like me looking at water; there's a slight but noticeable lag when there's too much water on screen. I've also had problems with certain quests not triggering properly; as a result, I've been unable to finish the Companions questline, for example. And now, for no apparent reason, Hadvar is randomly following me, apparently under the delusion that we're still in the middle of a battle, despite the fact that I've finished the Civil War questline. I mention these things to let you know that my own experience with the game has been far from perfect. I consider myself lucky compared to what some PS3 users have had to deal with, namely the game-breaking lag that develops when the save file grows too large. But I consider this a customer service/warranty issue—not a development issue.

What the publisher should have done, regarding the game-breaking PS3 lag, was offer some sort of exchange/refund program. But even more importantly, they should have informed gamers of the potential for such serious issues before the game was even released. That way gamers could decide for themselves whether the risk was worth it. This is a customer service issue, and should have been handled differently. On the development end, do the game-breaking PS3 issues mean the game should have been held for further testing, or until Bethesda could fix it?

No.

To those of you who experienced this issue, I'm truly sorry. You were mistreated and misled, and you have every right to be upset. But let's face it; if Bethesda could have fixed the lag issue, they would have done so by now. The only alternative would've been to not release Skyrim on PS3 at all, which would have deprived many people of the game altogether, even though the vast majority would only experience relatively minor issues.

Am I advocating that we blindly accept the presence of errors, without question? No. But neither do the developers accept it, and we should acknowledge that. Yes, Skyrim released with some technical problems. But the development team at Bethesda has worked hard to find and correct as many as they can. We really need to stop viewing developers as the "bad guys," whom we have to fight tooth-and-nail to get to fix their broken product. I for one can find no reason to believe that they want to settle for anything less than perfection. Skyrim is their creation, their baby, the product of long years of devoted work. It is utterly ridiculous for us to presume to think that they care about it any less than we do, and that they aren't doing everything in their power to make it as perfect as they can.

Yes, they are also running a business. And that means they have to factor in financial considerations as well. But you don't create something as massively intricate and detailed as Skyrim and not care about its well-being. We owe it to the developer to trust in this. However, feedback is important, and we should certainly let Bethesda know when we find new glitches and errors. They want this information, as it guides them in perfecting their product. What isn't necessary, and is downright disrespectful, is the campaign of hatred that has arisen in the wake of these glitches and errors.

Look, I get it. Gamers don't want to be guinea pigs. They want to be able to buy a game and trust that it will work perfectly. For many, it's as simple as that, and no argument will convince them that anything less is acceptable.

But the reality is that we are living in an age of unprecedented software complexity. Virtually every game released today requires one or more post-release patches or updates, and this is not simply because the developers are lazy or sloppy, or because there is increased pressure to develop games quickly. It is because the complexity of today's games is increasing, exponentially. A game like Skyrim has the capacity to manifest an unfathomable number of variable combinations, each of which has the potential to introduce unique errors. Trying to uncover all of these potential issues with a team of QA testers—even a large team—is a monumental task. And even when an error is discovered, there's often not a simple fix, as a fix can influence other variables and lead to further errors. But the thing is, they have to draw the line somewhere. At some point, they have to say, "Okay, that's good enough."

For those of us who adamantly refuse to accept anything less than perfection, regardless of a game's complexity, "good enough" will never be good enough. But as far as I'm concerned, I'd much rather play a game that is 99.9% complete than to not be able to play it at all. Sure, the 0.1% of the game that doesn't always work sucks. But you know what doesn't suck? The 99.9% that does work.

As we forge ahead into the future, video games are only going to become more and more complex. Games will only become more prone to errors as this happens, and developers will be forced to rely more and more upon the only testing base massive enough to root them out: us.

We have to remember to weigh a game based on its merits relative to its technical problems, rather than just looking at the problems themselves and blowing them out of proportion. If we're going to demand games of greater and greater complexity, we have to acknowledge that a higher risk for error is an inevitable consequence.

I am, admittedly, a chronic optimist. Obviously, there is value in error detection, but we should not let it blind us to the good. We can either obsess about the 0.1% and be miserable, or we can enjoy the 99.9%, supporting and trusting in the developer of this marvelously intricate masterpiece to push their creation as close to 100% as possible.

It's your choice, really. I've made mine. Now, if you don't mind, I've got some water to avoid.

comments