The Monday ‘Joe: Patch Work and Games

The Monday 'Joe

Mondays are usually slow for news as people start to stir for the coming week. Therefore, every Monday, we will address one topic to start the week and get discussion flowing. It stimulates the week like a cup of coffee, hence the title.

Recently, Konami announced that the PlayStation 3 version of their game, Silent Hill HD Collection, would be receiving a patch in order to address several bugs and issues that had been reported to them. However, they also stated that the Xbox 360 of the game would not be receiving the patch because of “technical issues and resources.” This brings to mind the reports of other games that had been released riddled with bugs of varying severity; e.g. BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins was released with some major bugs that became most obvious near the end, when certain player choices would not be reflected in the cutscenes that followed. Clearly, Konami is not the first to have released a game when it still contained technical issues—far from it, in fact.

In light of that, here’s this week’s question:

Is the trend to release games first and patch them later becoming problematic? Why or why not?

Nathan Wood: The trend of games taking on a release-now-fix-later mentality is most definitely problematic, but let’s not forget that it wasn’t always this way. The whole patch system is very much a double-edged sword, and unfortunately, gamers seem to be getting the rotten end lately. In the beginning, the idea that developers could fix any problem that was found in their game after launch was a godsend. You can only do so much internal quality testing, and with games getting bigger and prettier and more sophisticated, it was damn near impossible for every bug to be identified and subsequently squished.

But thanks to the magic that is the Internet, this would no longer be a problem. Customers could identify any bugs and, via an update, said game-breaking glitches or issues that would plague the game for its entire lifespan in the past could be dealt with indefinitely. We had entered the golden age, or so we thought. Now, due to things like ballooning development costs, packed schedules, and the like, developers often need to get their games out the door so that they can start bringing in some money. This has come at a cost, and gamers are starting to catch onto when a company has decided to cut corners in the quality assurance department.

But,” I hear you say, “it can be patched soon after release, right? Why don’t you just wait?” Well, sure, you’re right. I could wait, but that isn’t the point. I’ve bought a game to play it now, not to wait around for it to become the final product like it’s some sort of investment—if a patch even comes along, as the timely Konami and Fez examples have shown so dearly. Only Konami could manage to screw up such a classic like Silent Hill 2, but I guess that’s what happens when you develop a HD remake based on unfinished code. But I digress.

Really, the most important part of all this is that this is a fast-moving industry. The big game one week is almost completely forgotten by the time next week rolls around, bringing another anticipated title. Thus, if a game doesn’t perform well within the first few weeks of release, then you’ve just broken the bank because very few are going to go back to pick up your title with so many new games coming out constantly. We live in an industry that lives and dies on the first week of release, and launching a game that won’t even work to its full capability for a few weeks after launch is just another nail in the coffin.

This is exactly why I don’t get all riled up by hearing a game is getting delayed. If a delay means that I can buy a more polished, finished, and superior product at the end of the day, then by all means, delay it. There are plenty of other titles coming out year-round that I can preoccupy myself with in the mean time.

The revelation that it costs $40,000 to put up a patch on Xbox Live is a system that may need to be enforced more, unfortunately. Publishers and developers alike want to ensure that their title is up to snuff before plopping down that cash every time. I’m not saying it’s a system without fault or even something that should be enforced forever. But until developers get their shit together, it may be the only way.

Connor Horn: Obviously, developers taking any kind of shortcut results in a poorer product. As such, when developers use their ability to patch in changes after release as an excuse to cut corners in pre-launch quality assurance, you’re naturally going to get a more buggy game. What’s worse is the kinds of companies that are willing to do the fix-it-later type of development rarely get around to actually fixing it later.

Of course, this is just one more way that lazy companies can make shoddy games, and so there really isn’t much that has changed here. Bad games will be bad regardless; this is just another way that they can be bad. Yes, you will have otherwise good games that are marred by launch-date bugs, but mixed-bag items have always existed and thrived in many forms, such as bad controls, horrible netcode issues, shoddy camera, etc. The upside now, however, is that the potential to fix those problems is here. For example, Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad launched as a miserable mess that was downright unplayable, but after many patches, it’s now a much higher quality title. As this example illustrates, patching is a wonderful tool for game companies that actually care about their product to use. Games that might have been a more mixed bag before can now be polished and made enjoyable.

It seems unreasonable to me to believe that just because there are new vices that somehow human behavior has changed. The companies that are just looking for a quick buck will continue to make shoddy, messy products, whereas companies that make good games now have more ways to ensure the quality of their title. You can argue that the bar has been lowered for a title to be passable, and that’s certainly valid. However, the question to me is, why are you buying games that are just passable? Why not spend that money on quality titles? The only time when you can’t do that is when there are no equivalent alternatives, at which point you’re stuck with a certain kind of game (such as the sports game monopolies), but that’s a different demon entirely. We should focus our frustration on that lack of competition instead.

Christopher Bowen: The release-first-patch-later trend in regards to modern AAA games was caused by two problems that collided: increased public ownership of games publishers, and the desire to cut corners on quality assurance. Patches themselves are wonderful. The developers can go in and fix something so that it’s not a problem for the rest of a game’s life, which wasn’t possible before the Internet and was prohibitively costly in the days of floppy disks. But when a game has a deadline and the possibility to patch a game’s issues later exists, publishers have two choices: get the game out or delay it and fix the issues. Simply put, it’s never a good financial option to delay, unless you’re Nintendo and you have a history of delaying a game to positive results.

More and more publishers are publicly owned or have been acquired by those who are. When a big name game is delayed, the markets—or more specifically, short-sellers and speculators—show a knee-jerk reaction, and share prices go into the tank. Usually, this itself isn’t a bad thing. I’m of the mind that concentrating on a company’s share price is short-sighted as it doesn’t reflect a company’s true strength. Sometimes, though, perception becomes reality, which makes the exercise a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why take the risk when you can just pump out the game and let angry gamers be your quality assurance? Their money has already been spent and is non-refundable in most cases. Just go to your support forums—after having your moderators ban the more vocal dissenters—and take the list of bugs to your developers and say, “Fix those.” Bang! You’ve averted negative attention from VentureBeat, kept your share price up, basked in the post-release glow, and you’re now able to hire fewer QA people because gamers are basically paying to be your QA.

Is this good for consumers? Of course it isn’t! They’ve been burned, and now they have a near-worthless game sitting around until the developers can get around to fixing it. And what if they don’t? What if the game bombs and everyone decides to cut their losses? Konami’s 360 gamers are finding that out now, and there are more games that remain broken than I can remember just by Electronic Arts alone! After a while, they say screw it and turn their development to next year’s $60 bugfest. All this said, one should note that Konami is giving away free games to those who got burned. One should also note that you have to have kept the ancient receipt, there’s no knowledge of what game is going to be given away, and they’re still selling a game they refuse to fix.

At this point, I almost refuse to buy games on day of release because of this practice. I’ll wait for the reviews to come in, see how buggy it is, and go from there. Don’t sell me a broken game and then say, “Oops, our bad; we’ll fix it… eventually.” Sell me a real game ready for prime time, and I’ll pay you money for it.

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