A Patch or a Crutch?

    You’re at the movies, watching a film on the first day of its release. The projector isn’t really working well, and a lot of the special effects are simply missing. Instead you watch the actors perform against the blue screen. Due to delays, the effects won’t be there for about a month after the film’s release.

    Next, you buy a CD. Most of the tracks play fine, but the last couple sound a bit fuzzy. Post production hasn’t been finished, but the CD was released anyway to meet the deadline. Wait three months or so for the “final” version, which may even have an extra track.

    Following these two experiences, you buy a new computer game. It runs a lot slower than you would expect and some of the game sequences are not up to scratch. Some features of the game are simply not working at all. Not to worry, a patch will shortly be available to fix all these “issues.”

    Which of the above tales is realistic? That’s right, you don’t even need to answer. So why have we come to accept such low standards from computer game makers compared with other forms of entertainment? You don’t see movies and music being released in an unfinished state to meet some artificial deadline, set a year or more ago.

    Computer games, it might be argued, are different from movies and music. Of course they are. With computer games, such low standards have come to be standard practice. So, how did this come to be?

    Of course the Internet is to blame.

    Unlike movies and music, the makers of computer games can release their product in an unfinished state, and promise to fix it later. Assuming they do this, they will use the humble patch to achieve their ends. Patches are released over the Internet, and downloaded by those players who have an Internet connection and know where to get the patch. Don’t for a moment think this figure represents 100% of the game’s purchasers.

    For all it has brought to gamers, the Internet has made game developers lazy. Who cares if a product is not finished when it is released? Install it, visit the homepage, and download the patch. So many games have major patches released for them within a week of being on sale it’s just not funny. In many cases, serious, game-breaking errors are being fixed in these patches. Little hint: if this is the level or errors that need fixing, then the product is not ready for sale, and deadlines be damned.

    Another reason that explains the current prevalence of patches, is that they are just not that inconvenient. Really, just log on the Internet (or wait, you already are), and download away. Some services, such as Battle.net will do this for you automatically. Patches are not all bad. Assuming developer support continues, the kinds of problems that only months of gameplay can reveal, can be tweaked in new patches. Doing this allows the developers to keep in touch with the community that builds around their game. It also extends the lifetime of the game, and builds goodwill. If you want to know the value of goodwill, look at the million-plus pre-orders Blizzard receive for their games. Patches can be a good thing.

    Mainly though, they are not. They are used to repair faults that should have been detected and fixed before the game was ever released. Problems that are picked up in even the most basic QA process are ignored in the rush to get the game out of the door. When it comes to computer games, time is of more value than quality to many companies.

    There are few, if any, checks on this quality. The howls of protest from internet boards in the first week of a game’s release are always too late. We gamers often have no idea of the problems that exist. They are certainly never mentioned in computer magazine reviews. I have never seen a review mention bugs or compatibility problems with a game. Ever. Thanks a lot, guys. Just concentrate on putting those oh-so-witty captions under every screenshot, why don’t you.

    As for us gamers, well we don’t help much either. If we truly wanted to see an improvement in the quality of games, the first thing we can do is stop pre-ordering games in such numbers, from companies with no track record of producing the goods on time. Or worse, a track record of producing unfinished products, behind schedule. Really, pre-ordering far before the projected release date won’t make the game get to you any quicker, and it won’t make the game any better.

    Developers hardly have things all their own way. In the age of the Internet, any announced delays in a game will be greeted with howls of derision on every message board around. Under this sort of pressure, it is hardly surprising that some developers buckle and release far too early, in the vain belief that this will satisfy us. The release of games before they are ready is just the culmination of a process that starts with the announcement of a title two years or more before it will realistically be ready.

    Things can be different. Take a look at consoles. Like movies and music, these products are “fixed” once they are released, there is no going back and changing things. The result of this is that console games are more polished than their PC counterparts upon release. The method of delivering patches for PC games has made many developers lazy and uncaring in the state of the product they release. I don’t see this changing any time soon. Patches are crutches for lazy and slow developers.

    Disclaimer: The Ninth Circle was written by Lorelorn (David Kay) and hosted by Diii.net. The views expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.

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