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Pixels & Bits
posted 12/7/2012 by
by Charles Husemann
This generation of games has brought about a myriad of changes to the gaming landscape. Like any change, some of these things have been good and some of these things have not. The good things are things like achievements/trophies, seamless online multiplayer, and access to a variety of smaller games that can be downloaded cheaply to our consoles.
One of the biggest perceived negatives has been the increasingly common “Day One” patches. Nothing sours the game experience like coming home from the game store, plopping the disc into the drive and being forced to wait while a patch for the game is downloaded and installed to “fix” a brand new product. Not only is it frustrating to be sold something that should have worked in the first place, but having to download and install the patch further decreases the time we actually spend playing the game.
Over the last few months we’ve seen some egregious examples of this day one patch mentality; most notably the 1.1 GB patch that EA had to release for Medal of Honor: Warfighter. Console hardware isn’t immune to this problem either as Wii U also had a 1+ GB patch on launch day just to add in core functionality to the console.
As frustrated as gamers are, I can guarantee you that the people working on the game are just as unhappy with shipping code with defects. As someone who has developed software for 17 years, it is incredibly frustrating to release a product with defects as it feels like your exposing personal flaws to the entire world
Imagine working 80-90 hours a week for months and then you find out that there are still issues with the product you’ve been working on. Then you realize that you’re going to have to work even more hours for two to three weeks to fix those issues before the game launches. That’s what a day one patch means for the developers: more hours of development after months of crunch time.
What a day one patch allows developers to do is to leverage the gap between when the game is released to manufacturing and when the game is available for purchase. It is this time when they get a chance to fix the last minute bugs and defects that pop up towards the end of the development of the game. It’s not an ideal situation but in a world where release dates are mostly set in stone, it takes a huge defect to cause the delay of a game.
There are a litany of reasons day one patches occur: release dates that can’t be altered, features, and undiscovered complexity. That doesn't matter to the consumer though; all that really matters to them is what the experience when they get their game home. The experience of having to download and install that patch before they can play the game they just spent money on overshadows everything else.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m no longer sure that the actual patch is really the problem. For me the core question around day one patches has become - “what is the source of frustration: the purchase of a flawed product or the wait to download and install the patch?”
There’s nothing we can do about the first thing as games have always shipped with bugs, some more obvious than others. I know it’s easy to look back at the games of previous generations and say they were flawless but there were bugs in every single one of them. As games and systems get more complex, we’re going to see this trend continue and become more commonplace.
While it sucks to have to accept defects as part of the process the question then becomes “what can we do to make day one patches a better experience for consumers”. That’s where I have a few ideas on the matter:
Allow consumers to pre-download patches the day before the game ships. If I know I’m going to buy a game that has a day zero patch, let me download the patch ahead of time so that I don’t have to wait while it downloads. This would require some significant infrastructure changes as consoles would need a system where people could alert the system that they are interested in a game. This infrastructure could even be leveraged so that people without Internet access in their home could download the patches to USB drives form the Internet.
All patches are optional. If I don’t want to install a patch, I shouldn’t have to unless the patch fixes something that could harm the hardware or cause data loss. There are patches that fix issues having to deal with the multiplayer portions of games but unless I want to play that part of the game, don’t make me install the patch.
Patches should install in the background while playing the game. We can stream huge levels in games to get around having loading times so why can’t we install patches in the background? Perhaps it could be done during some kind of cut scene. I know there are technical dependencies between files and a lot of things are shared across the codebase of a game but there are surely way that the patch installation could be done in the background. There’s really no reason why we should have to sit through an install screen in 2012.
Look, we all know that game patches are here to stay so it is time for the industry to focus on making the consumer experience with them better. These are but a few options that I think could improve the experience but if you have others please leave them in the comment section below.
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