Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Great Update Revolution: Is it really helping?

One of the modern trappings of video games is updates after a game has been released.  A lot of people cry foul when it comes to this sort of thing, and with good reason.  Online networks can only provide so much in terms of fixing stuff that's broken.  However, there's other underlying issues at play here.  Patches and updates are increasingly used to fix game-breaking bugs, and this is hurting the gaming industry in general.

With the rise of Xbox Live and Playstation Network, it's become much easier for game developers to fix issues that arise in their game.  Too many people are abusing Kung Lao's spin technique? Nether Realm Studios pushes out a patch to re-balance the fighters.  M&M&M leading to Terran domination in StarCraft 2?  Change structure dependencies and increase build times.  Many developers are using patches to fix balance issues in multi-player, keeping overpowered tech from dominating the tournament scenes.

In terms of keeping the tournament scene alive and healthy, this is very good.  Mark Rosewater, of Magic: The Gathering fame, is no stranger to tournament balance when working on designing game space.  He's written about the topic on several occasions, tackling topics like power creep and maintaining a balanced meta game.  Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, The Mind Sculptor are cards that were recently banned because they were too powerful in the Standard meta game.  There is nothing more damaging to the fun factor of a game than an archetype that overpowers everything else and stifles innovation.  Wizards of the Coast has banned or restricted cards to keep specific meta games from becoming to stale or one-sided.  This is the same reason why balance patches are a good thing.

What patches should not be used for, however, are game-breaking bugs.  Splinter-Cell: Conviction is a prime example of this.  There was a glitch during one of the later missions that would cause the console to lock up.  Once the patch came out, most people downloaded it and went on with their business.  However, my GameStop had several people call our store, because the game was locking up and they didn't have internet to patch the bugs.  We had to tell them that their game was worthless unless they could get online, and that there was nothing we could do about it.  How does that make a retailer look to the consumer?  The retailer spends all this time endorsing a product, the product turns out to be bogus for the customer, and now the retailer has a reputation for endorsing bad products.  When was that ever a good idea?

First off, this is just bad Quality Assurance from the start.  No game should have bugs that serious pressed on to the disc.  There is absolutely no justifiable reason.  It shows mild ignorance at best and shoddy workmanship at worst.  If Chrono Trigger had a game-breaking glitch in the middle of a boss battle, gamers would be furious.  Squaresoft would have to recall all their Chrono Trigger carts, offer a trade-in program for the "suckers" who had already purchased a copy, and then ship new carts.  The costs associated with this would ruin a developer.
This would be the reaction of gamers everywhere.

Now that updates can go out at any time, there's a sense of "I don't care if it's not done, ship it and patch it.  That will fix everything."  When developers do this, they effectively tell their customers and loyal fans that they just don't give two hoots about whether or not they're shipping a quality product.  Developers are increasingly distancing themselves from the loyal fans they've gathered over the past decade or two.

Furthermore, what happens when the servers that hold the update patches go offline?  What happens when 20 years from now, someone fires up the old 360 and finds that that copy of Conviction they picked up at the flea market is unplayable?  What will they do to fix it?  Microsoft isn't going to help them.  All the DLC from the original XBOX games are no longer online.  When the next generation console comes out, I suspect that the patches from the 360 era will go with it.  Not only that, but Microsoft and Sony are definitely not the types to allow installation packages on their consoles.  After what happened with Sony and the PSN hacks, they're more likely than anyone else to lock down the console.  What will gamers be able to do about the games that need patches?  Are developers going to tell them to cry in a corner?  How well is that going to go over?

Thankfully, there are still some bright spots on the horizon.  Blizzard, the makers of Starcraft 2 and World of Warcraft, have a motto of "we will release it when it's ready."  They take the time and effort to make sure the game is as free of bugs and glitches as possible, before the game is even released. They even take the time to run a private and public beta test to hammer out balance issues.  With the betas, the hardcore fans get to try out the game before it comes out, they get to contribute to the development of the title, and they get the opportunity to help finesse the balance of the game, all before it goes to disc.  That is huge.  This is an example of high quality standards that earn Blizz the reputation it deserves.  Now, if only the same could be said about the innovation in World of Warcraft...Pandas? Really?  (That's going to have to take over another rant at another time.)

 Anyways, developers need to really rethink their standards of quality.  The current method of "ship it and patch it" is hurting games more than it helps.  If we as consumers tell developers that this is not okay, developers will invariably have to listen.  All we need to do is vote with our wallets.

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