The delay of shooter game Insurgency: Sandstorm was announced just a couple of days before its official release, a seemingly last-minute decision based on community feedback that wasn't all positive. Despite the delay, I can't help feel that some of the damage may have already been done. Here's why.
Insurgency has always been somewhat of an outlier in the over-saturated shooter market. Its focus on tactical gameplay over the generic, perhaps more simplistic, shooter gameplay mechanics meant that it alienated those who strongly preferred the latter.
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That is why Insurgency: Sandstorm is a particularly interesting release to monitor because it has the potential to offer a truly new experience at a time when so few shooter games do.
Right from the start, the trailers and gameplay videos looked great, even though some of these were clearly staged by adding voice-overs.
We were particularly thrilled by the game's soundstaging video that proved games really don't need an equivalent of Battlefield's Wartapes system, which some still consider being the most realistic sounding war experience, to get high quality audio.
The game received a Closed Technical Alpha test in July and two beta tests in August and September respectively, open to those who pre-purchased the game.
This was the first time fans and media were able to play the game on their own machines instead of being restricted to the hands-on experiences at trade shows. Playing during these tests gave much better insight in gameplay and, more importantly, performance.
It was at this moment that players noticed things literally didn't go as smoothly as expected. Severe frame rate hitching and random bugs caused a significant amount of negative feedback in the first weeks, even during the closed alpha test.
Launching the first beta test in August with these issues still in the build may have been a costly mistake the development studio didn't fully scope before pulling the trigger.
Within hours of the beta being available on Steam, the game's Community Hub saw hundreds of new threads from players complaining about severe frame rate issues.
Granted, the system specifications often listed in these threads were diverse, but even those running top-of-the-line hardware saw frame rates dip to a disappointing 10 frames per second.
On one of our own machines, running an i7 2600K at 4.2 GHz and an Nvidia 970 GTX, we saw similar frame rates when limiting RAM to 8 GB. Inserting 8 GB more to get the total up to 16 GB improved frame rate dramatically. Interestingly, many system specifications found on Steam also listed 8 GB RAM total.
As the days passed and the studio continued to release patches, many of these threads turned sour when posters realized the issues weren't easily fixed. A significant amount of players ultimately decided to refund the game during the first open beta.
The second beta test followed not much later and frame rate issues were still over-prevalent, adding to the frustration of both fans and new players, and resulting in even more supposed refund requests.
Arguably, this was exactly what the beta tests were for as they allowed developers to get a better understanding of how the game ran on a wide range of hardware. However, the first impression was there, and it certainly wasn't all positive.
Beta testing in this day and age certainly isn't what it was some 10 to 15 years ago and we've got those AAA studios and publishers to thank for it. Now, as soon as players get their hands on any build of a game, beta or final, impressions are made and they usually stick even if the game is vastly improved once it does finally release.
This particularly sad state of affairs is what every game developer should account for before releasing a game, even during Early Access and even for indie titles, because it can seriously ruin a game's official launch down the line by weakening the base of its community early on.
In Insurgency: Sandstorm's case I found it disheartening that its developers apparently didn't see frame rate and overall performance as problematic before the open beta tests.
According to some threads, frame rate issues were already reported during the closed alpha test. If the studio had given these issues higher priority early on, surely they would have decided to delay the game a lot sooner - and perhaps even postpone the open beta tests to prevent poor first impressions.
However, the studio ultimately waited until just a couple of days before the game's original September 18, 2018, release date to announce it would delay the game. The new release date is set on December 12, 2018.
The development studio noted it will use the additional time to improve performance, update the game to Unreal Engine 4.20, improve character, level and scope visuals, and implement a fully-featured server browser.
While delaying the game was the right decision to make, getting those who already refunded it on board again may prove to be impossible. The saddest conclusion is, perhaps, that the situation could have been avoided altogether.