Recently I had one of my “Wait. . .weren’t we supposed to be playing X by now?” moments.  So I hopped over to check out what had happened to R.U.S.E., the game that was all set to revolutionize the real-time strategy genre when it was released in June.

Turns out it will now be revolutionizing the real-time strategy genre when it is released in September (barring any further postponements to your currently scheduled revolution).  Following the public beta back in April the game’s release date has been pushed way back.  Developers of course inevitably try to put the best spin on this situation.  Such a delay is simply to allow them to “tune” or “balance” the game, or to devote the resources to making this game “the best it can be.”  It’s all horseshit, of course.  Which doesn’t stop a game’s fanbois and fanfemmes from swallowing great gobs of it.  The truth is that in 90% of cases where a game’s release date is pushed back it is a clear sign that the game has serious problems.

Consider that Empire: Total War‘s original release date was pushed back only from February 2009 until March 2009 and the game was still buggy on its release (with some of the bugs being quite serious for users) not to mention numerous design issues, a fact later acknowledged by the developers.  Of course, instead of reading the delay for what it was–an indicator of big problems with the game–the fans (who had already decided this was going to be simply the best game ever on the basis of. . .absolutely no evidence whatsoever) continued imbibing the equine effluent Kool Aid and assured the doubters that the developers knew what they were doing and were just trying to make the game the best it could be, blah blah blah (I often wonder why any game publisher needs to write press releases when they can rely on so many unthinking drones to spread the company line).  Then, of course, the game was released and with total predictability those same fans suddenly blinked, took a look at the glass in their hands, realized “Hey, this tastes like shit!” and turned on the game with that special vindictiveness of those who know but won’t admit that their disappointment is due solely to their own massively inflated expectations.

All that aside, if a game by an experienced developer is pushed back a mere month and still has significant issues, a game pushed back three months is deep in the weeds.  Let’s take a look at Eugen’s press release announcing the delay of R.U.S.E.  Here is what the developers indicate they are working on as a result of “player feedback” from the public beta:

The multiplayer menus and filters
• The unit selection
• The order assignment
• The unit behavior and pathfinding
• The strategic AI behaviour
• The anti-lag policy and kick system
• and the game balance of course

That’s right.  Basically, everything.  Except the graphics.  Because it has been pretty clear from the get-go that R.U.S.E. is going to be a great looking game.  Shame every single other aspect of the game appears to have major issues.  Now for a real laugh, you can also head over to the player forums where you will find the whole ETW dynamic playing out yet again.  This game is going to rock, Dude!  Best game evuh!  One of the defining features of humanity, one demonstrated so frequently by way too many gamers, is our inability to learn from our mistakes.  An animal that loses a paw in a gin trap pretty quickly figures out not to do that again.  Humans?  Not so much.

Now, to be fair to the developers, Eugen, their publisher Ubisoft is not exactly the easiest taskmaster.  They have, naturally, produced some great games, but as they have grown larger they have started to turn into the European version of Electronic Arts.  As such, even some of their higher profile games have been released in a shockingly primitive and buggy state, particularly for PC versions (as a glance at the reviews for Silent Hunter 5 or Splinter Cell: Conviction) will demonstrate.  It is difficult to say what produces this state of affairs.  Is the publisher micromanaging the developer or not providing enough oversight?  Are they spectacularly bad at picking developers?  Are they prone to shopping games out to the lowest bidder?

However, one thing should come as a huge source of relief to all of us.  The actual game of R.U.S.E may be sinking like a cement turd, but at least you can buy all sorts of R.U.S.E.-related merchandise.  Right underneath announcement of the delayed release date Eugen’s website announces the availability of “cutting edge peripherals” for the game:

Ubisoft has recently teamed up with SteelSeries to have cutting edge peripherals custom made for R.U.S.E.! One such peripheral is the SteelSeries Xai Laser Mouse R.U.S.E. Edition which enhances performance with its superior technology and a preconfigured profile setting that optimizes game-play. That’s right, this mouse will allow quick access to the R.U.S.E. and HQ Menus, and preset macro buttons can take you from bird’s eye view of the war to the heart of the battlefield in an instant!

And there’s more!

The SteelSeries QcK Limited Edition (R.U.S.E.) mousepad features graphics from the game and provides a smooth and consistent glide; combined they deliver a complete and immersive R.U.S.E. experience.

Well, that’s a relief!  How lucky we are that Ubisoft didn’t feel compelled to invest its time, energy, and money in helping the developer get a quality game released on time but instead put it into a mousepad with a “smooth and consistent glide” (it actually sounds like more like a description of a lubricant, which should come in useful if gamers are, as I suspect may be the case, being shafted yet again).

And this leaves me wondering: who actually buys this kind of thing?  Who is really going to be taken in by an ad for a specially optimized mouse associated with a particular game?  More particularly, who buys merchandise for an as-yet-unreleased game?  And yet you see this kind of thing all the time.  Special keyboard overlays.  Beer glasses.  Key rings.  Trucker hats.  Luggage tags.

I freely admit, I’m not immune to the marketing push.  I’ve bought my fair share of “special edition” versions of games.  But luggage tags? (If you think I’m making this up, check out EVE’s online store).  So what is wrong with getting a T-shirt that indicates how much you like a particular game?  Isn’t this part of the imaginative investment in game worlds that developers want to encourage?

The problem is partly with the evolution of the gaming industry.  Do we really want the game industry to charge madly down the path already laid out and paved with shonky merchandise by Hollywood?  Where studios make crap products in order to open up all those “peripheral” revenue streams?  Halo Happy Meals anyone?

But the bigger problem with this plethora of “peripherals” that spring up with games lies in the enthusiasm of gamers themselves.  I firmly believe that gamers as a group are much more enthusiastic than fans for other broad types of popular media.  You can understand why.  A particular movie may be eagerly anticipated by potential viewers.  But very few people behave as if that movie is going to change their life.  This, however, is the attitude taken by gamers toward upcoming games all the time.  In a strange kind of way it makes sense.  Games do change our lives in at least one fundamental sense: they occupy significant portions of our time.  They alter the patterns of our lives, can even introduce new patterns in our behavior (for good or ill).  A movie occupies a 90 minute to three hour slot in my life.  But a game can occupy me for hours, days, even months, depending.  If the movie sucks, I really haven’t lost that much.  If a game sucks. . .that’s a much larger chunk of my life down the tubes.

But that same enthusiasm makes gamers more credulous when their chosen game makes all the usual promises and even when they have ample experience with those promises not measuring up.  This is the amnesiac optimism of the victim of a serial cheating spouse: this time (This time!) it really will be different.  Is there anything wrong with anticipation?  Of course not.  But anyone who has seen the kind of frenzy that gamers can whip themselves into based on a couple of screenshots and a description of a 2 minute non-playable demo at E3 has to admit that there is something distinctly unhealthy about this kind of anticipation.  If more proof were needed, just how unhealthy that anticipation is can be measured by the reactions to disappointment.  If gamers are the most enthusiastic of fans, and the most credulous, they are also the most intemperate and vitriolic when their object of desire doesn’t measure up.

Ultimately, gamers get exactly the kind of games that they deserve.  Or, to be more precise, the kinds of games they indicate, through their behavior, that they are prepared to put up with.  If gamers consistently approach new games with a naivete that makes a newborn look like a seasoned world traveler, when they treat each game as if it is a cure for cancer based on nothing more substantial than their own desire that the game be great, when they behave like an infant from whom the teat has been forcibly extracted when their game doesn’t meet expectations that no game could ever fulfil. . .when they behave in this way, they let developers and publishers off the hook.  There’s little incentive to provide challenging, engaging games when your audience is patently a set of infantile jerks with no memory, perspective, or sense of proportion.  (Of course, as a publisher/developer you never say that.  Instead, you talk about how much you value your players.  How they are the core of your game.  Et. Cet. Er. A.  Because they’ve heard all that before.  So they’ll believe it all again).

That is also why this rage for merchandising crap associated with games is a problem.  I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines from Yahtzee’s review of Braid, where he accuses players of being “more interested in buying Master Chief novelty condoms than purchasing actual gameplay innovation.”  When the supply of Halo rubbers runs out at least we now know there will be a plentiful supply of lubricated mousepads and mice that promise to make you an Uber l33t player in a troubled game that hasn’t come out yet.  Games are in many ways their own fan merchandise.  We don’t need more fan merchandise.  The more of this rubbish we buy, the more it encourages publishers especially to believe they can make money from other sources than by making quality games.

R.U.S.E. lunchbox, anyone?