Anger Management #4: Patches

Actually, as I write this the issue I really want to kick and scream about is that of flaky internet connections. Weekends are for lazing around, idly reading interesting articles and uploading Anger Management. They are not for staring at “This page is not available” screens. Regrettably, however, that’s not a perfect fit for this column. What is a good fit is a discussion on the horrors of an endemic patching culture amongst game developers.

Patching is an everyday activity for PC gamers, not only in the hope of improving the experience of playing the game, but out of necessity should they wish to engage in online play. Rare, if not non-existant, is the retail game which doesn’t receive patches post-release. And PC gamers are no longer alone – many 360 and PS3 games receive patches post-release, and should the player be connected to their respective online services, the machine will not let them play a game until it is completely up to date, patch-wise.

Things were not always this way.

Just another sign 'o' the times, as the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince might say.

Just another sign 'o' the times, as the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince might say.

There are three major factors in the rise of regular patches: ease of distribution, game complexity and hardware variety.

In reverse order: hardware variety is the traditional reason that PC games have tended to need the most patching – with absurdly high numbers of configurations now available, it is exceptionally difficult for developers to test their games on every possible system. The rise of the PC as a gaming platform, therefore, has been a major factor in the rise of buggy games.

Game complexity works in a similar way – as games become more complicated (the move to 3D being a major issue on its own), it becomes harder to test every facet on them, every possible situation, and so more bugs can slip in. The ideal solution is to run extensive testing before release, but letting consumers find the bugs for you and patching to suit can be a cheaper alternative.

As for ease of distribution: we may take the web access for granted now, but into the noughties developers couldn’t count on gamers having internet connections at all, never mind the high-speed connections suited to downloading large files such as major patches. Any patches that were released would be distributed with magazine cover discs or – if serious enough – sent on request to players. This alone was a major factor in minimizing the number of patches put out.

Who needs a working autopilot? Or, y'know, proper sound card and joystick support? Or missions that work?

Who needs a working autopilot? Or proper sound card and joystick support? Or missions that work?

Not that it stopped them altogether. Probably the most infamous example is that of Frontier: First Encounters, released in 1995. Forced out early by publisher Gametek, against developer Frontier Developments’ wishes,* the game was critically panned for its numerous gamestopping bugs – aside from out and out crashes, it notably featured a broken autopilot, atrocious (even for the time) support for sound cards and joysticks, and missions that simply weren’t completable. A shame-faced Gametek eventually released a patch, and even paid for adverts celebrating exactly that, reassuring consumers that the bugs had been ‘squashed’.

Unfortunately, this debacle was a sign of things to come.

1998 brought with it two further widely-publicised premature releases: Ritual’s Sin and Bungie’s Myth II: Soulblighter. By this point, patches were becoming a more regular occurence: more and more gamers had access to the internet, and online play was becoming more common, bringing with it its own slew of issues. Nobody was quite prepared for the joint horrors of Sin and Myth II, however.

The real sin here is... what do you mean, I'm too obvious?

The real sin here is... what do you mean, "too obvious"?

Sin was perhaps the more ‘traditional’ in its bugginess, and certainly the more obviously unfinished of the two – at release, it possessed a wide range of bugs and glitches, and most glaringly possessed loading times that were counted in minutes, not seconds. Patches were quickly released dealing with the problems, but were widely criticised: they immediately rendered useless any saves made in the earlier versions of the game, and they were huge by the standards of the time: at over 30mb, the average 56k modem-using gamer faced hours of downloading.

If Sin‘s crimes were clear, then Myth II‘s were as subtle as they were horrific. Though the game itself exhibited no major problems, there was a bit of a bug in the installer – one that meant that anyone unfortunate enough to uninstall the game without patching it first would find their hard drive wiped of all data. Oops.

But these headline examples are not what we’re here to tackle. They are, after all, but symptoms of a design culture which expects games to be polished post-release, with patches its agents of change. Bugs, balancing issues, support for new technology, improved netcode – they serve all kinds of purposes, and much of it noble: developers are not prescient, so they can be forgiven for not seeing major hardware/OS changes in the future, and releasing patches in reaction to such developments is a sign of a developer that cares for its userbase.

Myth II never could handle rejection.

Myth II never could handle rejection.

Indeed, patches solved an older, more serious problem: that of unfinished games being released and staying broken. The thing is, as patches have become more prevalent, so too have ‘broken’ games: publishers and/or developers have become more complacent. This, in turn, has led to the original problem – of permanently broken games – rearing its head again: the sheer numbers of games being released unfinished has led to some of them failing to get patched – due to them being ‘dropped’ by the publisher/developer post-release for whatever reason, or due to the developer going under post-release (hello Troika). In these cases, it often falls on the fanbase to finish the job, which is far from an ideal situation. Troika’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (released 2004) is still being patched by its fans – in a few years, it may actually work as intended!

Other problems come from publishers and/or developers abusing the system, using it as an excuse to release games that are unfinished, to use their playerbase as paying beta-testers. Game balance fixes are perhaps more forgivable, particularly in multiplayer-oriented games (e.g. Starcraft), but some companies take things to extremes. This is particularly prevalent in the grand-strategy genre, with The Creative Assembly and AGEOD well-known for releasing their games severely unpolished.** Perhaps due in part to the scale of their releases, their willingness to ship games with major bugs and horrifically glitched AI is worthy of serious criticism; fans of the Total War series take it as common knowledge that any new games will not be truly ‘finished’ for at least a few months after release, and not fully polished for years. This is not acceptable.

It'll be ready when it's ready. Unfortunately, that'll also happen to be a long time after it's released.

It'll be ready when it's ready. Unfortunately, happens to be a long time after its release.

That the practice has begun to move onto the static platforms – the aforementioned appearance of patches on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 – is even more distressing. The sad thing is, there is little consumers can do to stop the practice, short of boycotting the companies that do it. But the companies, by and large, have a captive fanbase: nobody but The Creative Assembly makes games quite like Total War, and its fans are hardly about to cut their collective nose to spite their collective face. Moreover, it’s difficult to know that a game is being released in an unfinished state until you’ve brought it home yourself: most games magazines review games pre-release, and so take it on trust that any bugs they encounter will be fixed in time for retail.

In this case, consumers need protection from other agencies, but none seem willing to step up. Perhaps this because of the difficulties in judging what patches are reasonable, and what patches are not; perhaps it has something to do with the way that patches are now considered a standard feature for games. Perhaps we’ve crossed the point where the industry can self-regulate, and need outside bodies to kick up a stink.  I don’t know – I’m just a commentator – but I do know something needs to be done. Sooner, rather than later.

*for which their owner, David Braben, sued Gametek, eventually settling out of court in 1999

**though AGEOD get some credit for apologising to and refunding disgruntled gamers after pushing a distinctly unfinished World War One: La Grande Guerre out of the door. The Creative Assembly, however, just ignore the gnashing of teeth following the release of yet another unfinished Total War title.

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