By now it has hit all the major gaming news outlets that SEGA and Gearbox are being sued in a class-action lawsuit over alleged misrepresentation of quality and false advertising of their early contender for worst game of 2013; Aliens: Colonial Marines. I won’t go into too much detail here but you can get the full backstory via our friends at Polygon.
This isn’t the first time video game publishers and developers have been under fire for delivering a product that is not what was described at trade shows and promotional events. Let’s look at a few examples of this from the past and make some purely non-legally binding speculation about what this might mean.
Look at video game box art from the 1980s and tell me how representative those images are in relation to what’s on the cartridge. It’s forgivable in those cases however because the divide between photographic or photorealistic hand-drawn images and 8-bit technology are so great that nobody could have reasonably expected, say, Mega Man to look the way it did on the box.
It’s around the PS1 era when this started to become more of an issue. The first big case of this had to do with TV advertisements for Final Fantasy VII. This was a massive, expensive game and Squaresoft really needed to make an impression by showing off the Playstation’s graphical capabilities. So, they made advertisements consisting solely of cinematics from the game. Not only is there no gameplay featured, but no indication is given that the footage shown is not representative of its in-game visual style.
There are more recent examples of the difference between what is promised by developers and publishers and what is actually delivered; specifically, BioWare’s Mass Effect 3 and Peter Molyneux’s …. well, everything. Mass Effect 3‘s original ending led to a massive outcry because many fans felt it didn’t jive with what BioWare was saying leading up to the release; essentially that all your character’s choices would culminate in a grand finale that would be yours and yours alone. In the end, the game provided you with one of three choices and an abbreviated, ambiguous conclusion. I’ll be honest, I didn’t have a problem with what Mass Effect 3 did for a few reasons; I thought it was bold of them to provide an ending that was sudden and somewhat unexpected (frankly, I was more pissed off at the ending of Half-Life 2 the first time I played it).
Another thing that didn’t bother me about ME3 (and this is the critical part) is that whatever you may have thought about its ending, the entire game leading up to it was every bit as excellent as was promised. Okay, so the last 15-20 minutes rubbed you the wrong way. Fair enough. The 30 hours leading up to it however was stellar. Not only that, but BioWare has taken the criticism to heart by extending the conclusion and creating the Citadel DLC that is specifically designed to wrap a nice narrative bow on the overall series.
Gearbox found themselves facing some bad press a couple of years ago when they picked up and finished Duke Nukem Forever. The game was absolutely terrible, but this really didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone because anyone who saw and played it at events like PAX East that year could plainly see its awfulness. With Colonial Marines, its lack of polish and overall quality was kept pretty firmly under wraps until it was released, which suggests that Gearbox did indeed learn something from the DNF debacle. Unfortunately, what they apprently learned was to hold back on the bad content until the game was released.
While offering a buggy, disappointing game on day one is never a good idea, the real knock against Gearbox with Aliens: Colonial Marines is that instead of trying to fix the problems the game had at release (ugly textures, terrible AI, really bad writing), they pooped out a mini-patch and then pretty much walked away from it. They even cancelled a WiiU port which they had been hyping as the definitive version of this game, leaving Nintendo fans with yet another reason to regret being early adopters of that console.
I’m certainly no lawyer and have no idea just how this case is all going to turn out. It will however be highly intriguing to see whether Gearbox and SEGA are going to be held accountable for their marketing of Aliens: Colonial Marines, as it could set a precedent for how video games are promoted and advertised. It may end up as a ‘buyer beware’ scenario on the legal side of things, but there is real potential that this case could cause trouble for Gearbox that no amount of free Borderlands 2 codes can make go away.