Patching it up

Patchingitup

At what point was it that companies decided that it was alright to release games unfinished and release a patch later? I can understand the pressures of a tight schedule as well as the next man, but if I were to turn in an unfinished document at work it would be immediately sent back to me, possibly with a little yellow post-it on the cover reading ‘see me’. Unfortunately when a major games company shifts a triple A title that’s unfit at launch there’s nobody hovering over them with a waggling finger, instead they seem to be content to ship units that contain game breaking bugs and crippling graphical glitches and when the audience to which they were intended complains they simply shrug their shoulders and say ‘a patch is coming’.

It used to be that patches were the sole domain of the desktop gamer, but as consoles have slowly become super-computers in their own right we’ve been treated to all manner of Downloadable Content (DLC) that ranges from the sublime (Dragon Age II’s expansion mission ‘Mark of the Assassin’), the functional (downloadable monsters based on player characters from previous games in Final Fantasy XIII-2) and the downright insulting (pay to buy packs of 5 level-ups in Tales of Xillia 2). The market for additional content can be outright ridiculous at times, but fleshing out existing games is both a great way for a developer to make money in an app driven gamer market, a way to keep an older game in the public eye while a sequel is worked on and a masterstroke in marketing. Think about it, push a few delicious looking expansions out before the game is launched and let players drool over the potential that a game they’ve not even brought yet must have.

My argument isn’t with DLC as a whole, my PS3’s internal hard drive is full of little extras I’ve found to enrich games I’ve loved, rather it’s with the concept of the post-launch patch. Playing through ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition’ on the Playstation 3 was something of a labour of love. The glitches, bugs and game freezes on display were a massive disappointment to me as a gamer and although I pressed through to the bitter end a number of things stand out that sour the experience. Killing all 10 dragons in epic optional boss fights failed to trigger the trophy, which didn’t bother me too much but sent a few of my friends into a rage that leads me to believe that people take these trophies a lot more seriously than I do. Defeating the final boss took no less than five attempts not because of difficulty but because a cutscene failed to trigger that launched the next stage of the battle, leading to characters hammering away at a villain whose life bar wasn’t draining and who had given up on attacking them in favour of staring off into space. A single sticking spot of this kind is a hurdle, but to pass it and then have the game do it again at the next scene change was intolerable. Some areas loaded and caused immediate slowdown to the point that one step took a full minute, luckily the menu was accessible and working at regular speed, enabling me to warp out and in again to fix this issue. On more than one occasion I was talking to an invisible person or watching one NPC slide deeper and deeper down through her seat. When I went online to check player reviews of the game they all agreed these issues were crappy, but it didn’t stop them from enjoying the masterpiece the game was underneath. I agreed and sent an email to Bioware saying as much, the response was a stereotypical ‘a patch is coming’.

Bioware have felt the pinch of gamer expectations before. Mass Effect 3 was an enjoyable romp that sent fans into a frenzy over an ending that I’d kind of expected to happen, a story with a solid beginning, middle and end had to funnel down to a final outcome after all. Fans didn’t agree and the diligent people at Bioware did their best to mitigate the damage by releasing a free ‘directors cut’ upgrade that added more content to the finale. Still, this was a story issue rather than a failing with the games actual build.

In fairness, bugs and glitches aren’t new. ‘UFO: Enemy Unknown’ (That’s the original X-COM to you newbies!) had a bug in the DOS version that saw player characters reset to level 1 if they got to level 99, wasting months of work and causing my friends and I no end of amusement when a friend discovered this to his peril at school. People killed their Pokemon saves in droves with the Missingno glitch and literally broke the games level cap by cheating their way into unlimited rare candies. The concept of the combo in its entirety hails from a glitch in ‘Street Fighter II’ that one play tester spotted early and decided to leave alone because it added something to the experience. One of the earliest well-known glitches comes straight from one of the most recognizable titles ever: the original ‘Super Mario Bros’. The minus world (also known to some as World -1) is an endlessly repeating underwater glitch level. The level is accessed by making use of a “walk-through-walls” glitch to access a hidden warp room. One of the pipes in said warp room leads to the minus world. The minus world is identical to World 1-2, with the exception that the pipe at the end of the level leads back to the start point. The player is, thus, doomed to endlessly repeat the level until time (and their lives) run out. This glitch is one of the most well-known in gaming and Nintendo has even made a few subtle nods at it in other media (most notably in Super Paper Mario, where an area called “The Underwhere” is coyly given the alternate title “World -1” by its residents). It also pops up now and then in fan-based works, usually as some sort of alternate-dimension. The Minus World is another glitch that has a great degree of notoriety, seemingly for no reason at all. The glitch is not even slightly helpful, it’s really not that impressive to see, yet it’s one of the most well-known and celebrated glitches in existence.

So glitches and bugs have found their way into games before, but there does seem to be a startling rise in developers racing to meet a release date and deciding to launch with the intention of fixing it up later. What this tells us is that buying a game on release is in many ways a bad thing in their modern era, and where waiting a month or so to pick up a new title may be the wisest choice. This has been recognized by developers to a certain extent and they have counter-balanced his issue with launch-exclusive DLC to entice gamers into parting with that money earlier. This leads us into a second issue that digital purchases present to us, and that is that unlocking additional content on a game itself through gameplay seems to be at an all-time low. Games used to have bonus content spread throughout them that you unlocked through diligent play and instead we are presented with the option to purchase content already on the disc. I don’t consider this DLC in the strictest sense, which adds something to the game from both content and coding standpoints, whereas unlocking pre-existing features hidden behind a pay-wall seems to be a massive dick move on the part of the gaming industry.

Fan patches have long been a standard of the desktop gaming world. When ‘Ultima IX: Ascension’ was released there was huge fan outrage, the game was a mess and even the demo version was so full of bugs that it was hard to tolerate. EA quickly distanced themselves from it and ultimately it sent Origin Studios into a downward spiral leading to their closing. As the official ‘end’ of such an epic and respected series this couldn’t stand. At this point the fans themselves stepped in and started fixing the many problems through a series of patches that actually make the game more or less playable and which they continue to work on to this day. Without opening the subject up to Mods, this is a great thing. Communities who love their games working together to save them is something to be praised. Whilst this isn’t an option for console gamers at this point (without illegally hacking the system) it could very much be the future salvation of this issue. Who knows, perhaps Playstation Store or X-Box Live Arcade will one day have a dedicated section for company approved fan patches and updates to triple A titles?

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