View Full Version : Are patches good or evil?
01-04-2008, 12:05 PM
A fellow indie developer posted a blog post defending patches over on his blog Rampant Coyote (http://www.rampantgames.com/blog/2008/01/in-defense-of-game-patch.html). He does a pretty good job of stating that patches are a good thing.
All of the people that complain about developers releasing patches for their games really need to realize one thing. Patches are a tool and like most tools they aren't inherently good or bad. It depends on how you use them.
The reason that a lot of people don't like patches is because some companies have shipped buggy crap too early in the past and used patches to fix the mess. This is a bad practice for the long term. In the short term, you will ship on time, hit your marketing window, and might make a lot of initial sales. However, in the long run I think this attitude will eventually catch up to you.
There are plenty of responsible, good ways to use patches though. Some companies test well, release stable products, but still choose to release patches. Why? Because you can smooth out some of the rough edges that you didn't know you had, you can fix the small bugs that only hundreds or thousands of players can find, but more importantly you can see exactly how your actual gamers are playing the game and adjust the game to fit exactly what they want. You can add more content, you can make moding the game easier, you can balance the gameplay to suit your specific audience better, and there are many other things that you can do to support your community.
Unfortunately, we've seen too many companies abuse patches so they have gotten a bad rap.
There are a couple of biggest-name publishers who are absolutely terrible about releasing games with game-breaking bugs. I won't name them here, but suffice to say, I always surf their forums for a month or two whenever they release a game to see if it becomes playable in that time before considering a purchase. Sometimes they fix what's wrong, and sometimes they've moved on to another project and the game falls flat on its face. I've seen a lot of great game concepts go down the drain this way, and they most definitely lose sales long-term on their reputations alone.
I know this is a more complex matter than "the developer is rushed by the publisher" (e.g. scheduled delivery dates vs. budgeted marketing hype, etc.) but it seems like "test-driven development" and "open/closed beta tests" have fooled many a manager into believing that they don't need a large team of QA testers hammering away at the game prior to shipping. Tests are largely written by the same programmers who are writing the code, and many beta periods attract people who simply want early access to the game and don't actually contribute to testing.
In my opinion as a developer, those are excellent tools when used to supplement quality, but should never be used as a reason to slash QA overhead. I'm not sure if test-driven development has made its way into the games industry yet, but its flashy allure in the world of corporate buzzwords make it very easy to sell to non-technical management, and I think it's easy for management to mistake a tool for a replacement process.
As far as savegame-breaking bug fixes are concerned, those can be ok -- as long as they're released early enough and with ample warning. Unless you've released an absolutely crack-addictive game, anything more than a month will turn your hardcore gamer population against you in a hurry.
Ongoing patches are usually a blessing as you've mentioned -- more content, smoother game engine performance, and a general tightening based on player feedback. A great example of this is X3: Reunion. When it first came out, I could barely play it on my mid-powered-but-aging PC. Now it runs like a champ and has been extended by the community ten times over. Much of this can be attributed to the developers staying in constant communication with the community and prodding users for solid bug reports, suggestions, and wish lists. Egosoft had a pretty great user reputation going into X3, so it was easy to justify the "purchase now and give it time" decision.
Open and honest communication really is the key: the publisher and developer really need to hash out "how much testing is enough testing" and not skimp; the developers and publisher need to make sure that there will be an ample ongoing subset of their team to continue patching and testing post-release; the developers need to communicate openly with the community to set expectations and generally keep people informed of and interested in the evolutionary progress of the game; and the community needs to communicate what works, what doesn't, and what might. When all of these things fall into place, the right patches are released at the right time, and the majority of people are happy with their purchase and recommend to their friends other titles that the publisher and developer release in the future.
In a way, this makes indie titles much more fulfilling from a gamer's perspective; the publisher pressure is often nearly or entirely missing from the equation (although, unfortunately, the marketing budget is minimal), the developer(s) are usually creating the game for love of a genre (or inspired to create a new one entirely), and the community is very much valued and feels respected.
Nobody likes getting home with a new game, installing it, finding out it doesn't even start, visiting the forums to find a hundred other people complaining about the same problem, and seeing no official response in sight. Amongst the big guys, this is happening all too often.
Please excuse the ginormous rant. :D
01-04-2008, 02:24 PM
I think patches are great, but with the obvious caveat that a game should be ready for release at the time it is released. I have lost count of the number of titles that broke that rule (luckily DoP is not one of those). Its good to see a lot of indie developers (Starwraith for example) using the patch as a vehicle for new features more than bug fixes.
Also, any mechanism that allows fan/community upgrades to be released is a great thing. Games that were basically abandoned by the developers/publishers (Bloodlines, Gothic 3, PS:T, ToEE etc) have been patched back to life by their fans. Its almost like a new mod community.
Anyway, the fact that consoles are now embracing patches basically shows that they are becoming the acceptable norm, even on a platform where they were once shunned.
01-04-2008, 03:13 PM
They weren't so much shunned on console platforms as they were impossible. You can't patch a cart or a CD post-purchase. But to the point, patches are acceptable as long as they don't replace proper QA testing, and don't introduce new bugs of their own.
There is, however, little to no excuse for a "savegame breaking" patch. The devs know the format of the savegame as well as the location and likely filenames. If something in the savegame would have to change to conform with a new patch, then make the bloody changes. Store a backup of the savegame in case there's a problem if you feel the need.
01-04-2008, 03:28 PM
They weren't so much shunned on console platforms as they were impossible. You can't patch a cart or a CD post-purchase.
True, but I didn't mean quite that far back. Even when the PS2 and XBox had networking features, I believe publishers were basically forbidden from issuing patches for their games.
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