Patches: Too much? Too little?

By Kieron Gillen on June 3rd, 2008 at 6:55 pm.

Yeah, I went there. I went there. Yes, I did. 'There' being 'Google'.

Two stories caught my eye. Firstly, Cryptic Comet – as well as revealing Solium Infernum – announced their next free content patch for Armageddon Empires. The innuendo-provoking Tip Of The Spear is primarily about increasing the utility of infantry troops through new advanced training cards. It’s due on the 17th of July, the anniversary of the game’s release. Which is nice. Secondly, Crytek announcing that the long awaited 1.3 version of the Crysispatch “almost certainly” isn’t going to come out. And not in a skipping straight onto 1.4 way. They’re just not going to bother. Which is less nice.

So… how much patching can a community actually expect?

And this is more about the debate than me having an answer. I’m interested in what you lot have to say. Perhaps clearly, in an ideal world, we’d expect a developer to work on patches eternally, making sure balance problems that come up are tweaked and new hardware is supported. But as anyone who’s seen my beard will know, it’s not a perfect world. It’s a cruel and limited world full of horror.

One common argument is that ongoing patch support is the thing which separates the best teams from the second-raters. There’s a reason why Blizzard is Blizzard, and it’s because they’re still patching Starcraft even now, y’know. Similar things can be said about Valve. The idea being, because they actually put this enormous effort into post-patch support, the community rewards them with loyalty and money.

But, at least from my perspective, I suspect the argument is almost completely back to front. The only reason why Blizzard and Valve can do things like that is because of their enormous success. If it was a choice – as it often is for some developers – between getting people to work on their next game or going bust, they choose the former.

Which leads back to the opening question. It’s easy to see what we would prefer – but what is actually acceptable. It’s easy to say “Until it’s perfectly balanced” – but considering how long balance patches stretch out after even something like Starcraft, you can assume that’s abstractly forever. Is it reasonable to make such a demand?

You also start to question the actual rewards for a developer doing so. Look at Tilted Mill, who have apparently rejuvenated their underwhelming Sim City Societies through a string of patches. However, as the comments thread to that previous piece shows, they’re not actually getting the rep for it. It’s just a game people have decided is substandard, rather than one which grew into something considerably more charming. I find Tilted Mill’s persistence on that game openly admirable. I suspect if I were a developer, I’d have said fuck it and got onto something else as quickly as possible.

(Which is one reason why you should be thankful I’m not in development. Were I Vic, I suspect I’d put all my energies on Solium Infernum rather than this post-sales support, because I like new things. And demons.)

There is that old developer saying: The game’s only late until it ships, but it’s shit forever. However, if you ship, and then fix… well, is the game still shit? Can you overcome the reputation like Tilted Mill are trying to do? If there’s any developers out there, I’d be interested in your take on the patch-issue.

So – yes. No answers. Just questions. Perhaps I’ll patch them in later, eh?

Before I leave, the full quote of Crytek’s statement…

At this time, there almost certainly will not be a patch 1.3 delivered for Crysis. We are aware that this news will disappoint many of you, and we would like to apologize profusely. There is a good reason for this and we hope you understand when you hear more about the reasons why in the very, very near future. Please realize this was an extremely difficult decision, but please do know that we are listening to your comments and are making more consistent community support a high priority.

We are confident that the things we are working on will be appreciated by the community, and we hope for your continued support. If you have any questions or concerns please feel free to contact us.

Does make you interested in what the good reason is. If it’s an add-on pack which includes the patch content… well, that sort of thing, I suspect, falls beneath what I’d consider the Good Faith Patch standard.

And finally, Clarence Carter’s Patches, which should put our problems with games being a bit buggy in perspective. Remember: A rain may come and wash all your crops away.

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77 Comments »

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  1. Freelancepolice says:

    Yeah that point’s fair enough, I do say though that usually it’s not the single fault of QA.

  2. Howard says:

    @Crispy
    Now this is where we have a problem. Valve fans are convinced that Valve are great because they patch regularly and because their products are more safe from piracy. Both are utter nonesense. Valve patch regularly (HL2 being the poster boy for this, not really talking about online games) because their codeing is AWEFUL! HL2 at launch was virtually unplayable, most noteably due to the “stutter bug” which took them over 5 years to iron out. And as for piracy: STEAM is the single greatest thing to ever hit the piracy community. Every game on Steam is instantly cracked with virtually no effort. What is more funny is that STEAM actually caused piracy of games that were previously uncrackable. X3 is a classic example. It had the most fearsome version of Starforce 3 strapped to it and no pirate was ever able to crack it. Soon as it is put on Steam however, the copy protection is removed and the game, freshly patched an bug fixed, propgates like wildfire.
    Patching is not always the sign opf a good developer. Sometimes it is just a sign that they could not get it right to start with.

  3. Dean says:

    I generally don’t play a game until the first patch is out. I’m still waiting for the KOTOR 2 Restoration patch before I start that – it seems to be tantalisingly close now but has been for about a year.
    Multiplayer games are a whole different issue – they’re things that are played in-perpetuity. The same games, levels, maps are played over and over again. So patches to fix certain issues and imbalances make sense (in fact there’s an argument for introducing new imbalences, thus upsetting the meta-game and keeping things constantly interesting without having to add new content).

    But for single player games, there must be a cut-off surely? Crysis is primarily a single-player game. And if your game is already off the shelves or in the bargain bin, and everyone that bought it has played it already and – lets face it – the vast majority of people only play a game once (unless it’s something like Civ or Weird Worlds) there’s really little point in tweaking and improving the single-player game. Anyone just coming to the game will have probably bought it second-hand off Ebay anyway, so there’s likely little desire for the developers to support them. Crysis sold 1 million. I bet less than 5000 would have actually re-played it after another patch – catering to the whims of an angry forum minority doesn’t benefit you much. Kieron touched on it with the whole Soulstorm debacle – to your average Joe it was a perfectly playable game with a few bugs. Go to the Relic forums and “OMG THIS GAME IS SO BROKED!!!”. But the vast majority have bought it, played it, had a few multiplayer games and moved on.

    The KOTOR2 fan patch is sort of a shame too – it’s been close to completion for almost a year, with the devs taking a ‘when it’s done’ approach – which is fair enough. They’re doing it in their spare time for free so we can’t complain. But it’s a shame. Because it’s going to come out 3.5-4 years after release. No-one cares any more. Mass Effect is out on Friday. Had it been released even 18 months ago it’d got a lot of coverage and been a lot more popular because KOTOR would still be vaguely relevant. As it is now it’ll likely just trickle out to little fanfare. A shame.

  4. Deuteronomy says:

    Crysis is one of the few SP FPS games out there I feel can be played more than once, especially the first half. It’s one of the few games I’ve finished multiple times. As of 1.2.1 the game is pretty much rock solid, aside from a few physics oddities. The MP game still has a couple non-showstopping bugs but overall it’s also stable. I say bring on an expansion and larger, more beautiful explosions. And an NPC schedule ala Stalker.

  5. KingMob says:

    Here’s hoping Vic Davis will continue adding content and patching AE until he comes up with an AE 2.0.
    This is still a brilliant strategy game and I don’t think all the people who should have bought it did.

  6. Crispy says:

    @Howard

    So, for the purposes of your argument, you’re completely ignoring Counter-Strike: Source, Day of Defeat: Source, and Team Fortress 2 as examples where lost revenue was reduced because of regular updates, despite of the fact they are massive games for Valve?

    Single-player games published on Steam post-release are prone to piracy as your example proves, but zero-day piracy prevention for new releases still prevents a lot of lost revenue.

    Let’s not forget that your original quote was about the companies, as was my response. I said part of the reason Valve are financially secure because they are able to patch regularly and make it harder for pirates to keep up. Now you’re talking about why people think Valve is great, which is not only another discussion entirely but a matter of opinion.

  7. Hypocee says:

    …And the topic of this post, as opposed to dragging ZOMGP in by its hair.

  8. Howard says:

    @ crispy
    But I must disagree. There have been ZERO games, not one, that remained unpirated by the day of official release. Every single thing from the HL2 episodes to other publishers works has flown straight out the door thanks to Valve’s “copy protection”.

    As to the other point about MP games: Yes I am ignoring them. You know why? They are not Valve’s games. The only franchise Valve created (beyond inflicting the Source engine on the world) was Half Life. CS, TF and even the wonderous Portal are all external products that Valve simply bought and threw cash at. I therefore exclude them from discussions regarding Valves programming ability and their commitment to their customers.

  9. dhex says:

    for what it’s worth, i’ve run hl2 on several setups, including my first, which was a 5500 nvidia card. the source engine, at least in my experience, is pretty durn tight.

  10. Fumarole says:

    A five year old bug in a less than four year old game? Now that’s something.

  11. Howard says:

    @Furnarole
    Yes it is, isn’t it? Thus is the skill of Valve.
    I am aware that it is only 4 years old but I was making reference to the fact that it shipped nigh-on 2 years late after, what, 4 years development? So, in all that time, they couldn’t iron out a game breaking bug? Nice!

    But nevermind. I have learnt long ago that this forum flies the Valve flag high and speaking ill of your gods earns me nothing but bruises. 8-)

  12. Hypocee says:

    Evidently not, Smiley For Irony.

  13. Dinger says:

    On the internet, you will always doubt your success, until the moment you can’t be sure whether he”s a troll or an astroturfer.
    Rock on, dude.

  14. Radiant says:

    Apparently the Crysis patch has become Crysis: Baldhead.

  15. Frida K says:

    The release-beta-patch-later mentality is one of the things which drove me away from PC gaming. I understand it’s very difficult for developers to release a PC product with zero bugs, unless you have Microsoft Game Studios and their epic QA centre behind you, but many don’t even seem to try.

    Unhappily, I departed for the consoles right about the time they became internet-connected and the contagion spread to them – and if you’re developing for a console, you have literally zero excuses for shipping a product with bugs, glitches, dodgy framerates and so on. Patching post-release is a sign of a bad dev team, whether in their time-management, their coding or their QA. It’s not much better on the PC, but at least they have more of an excuse…

    And patches which add content are generally a good thing (Valve’s TF2 changes debatably so, extra maps almost always so). Look at Soldat (www.soldat.pl); that games been kept alive mainly by constant patching adding new modes, new features, new maps, and the occasional bugfix. And that’s ONE GUY.

    RPS should look at Soldat. I’ve never, ever seen it mentioned in any reputable site…

  16. Iain says:

    I think Sucram had it right upthread: patching shows that you give a shit about your customers. If you support a title post-release and make it better, that can only enhance your company’s reputation and makes it more likely that people are going to come back and buy your next game.

    If you *must* release a game that’s not finished (and there are plenty of circumstances that can force this – see KotOR2 or Frontier: First Encounters) then post-release support should be mandatory, if only to maintain good will with the paying public.

    I was horribly disappointed with the poor quality, rushed ending of KotOR2, yet despite my better judgment, still bought Neverwinter Nights 2 and its expansion pack, hoping Obsidian had learned a few QA lessons, only to find that they were horrible, buggy, inefficient messes. That’s really put me off buying future Obsidian titles, especially because their post-release support hasn’t really fixed a lot of the core problems.

    I’m sure a lot of developers just see patching as a time and money sink, but they genuinely can learn something from the Blizzard and Valve models of post-release support. Give your customers what they want and they’ll continue to be your customers. Treat them like organic cash dispensers and watch them walk away…

    Of course, there is another option: release games that don’t need patching in the first place. You have to go back a long way for examples, but I can’t think of any LucasArts in-house games (circa TIE Fighter – i.e. the early-mid ’90s golden period, before they out-sourced development and became rubbish) that ever needed any significant patching. Granted, PCs are a lot more diverse in terms of components these days (different combinations of OS, CPU, GPU and soundcards, etc) but using that as an excuse for not testing or optimising a game is not really acceptable. Either do the job right, or don’t do it at all. Or at least don’t expect us to keep coming back to pay for it…

  17. Crispy says:

    @Howard:
    There have been ZERO games, not one, that remained unpirated by the day of official release.

    I’d like some sources for these claims before I’m inclined to believe you, interested as I am. Reputable media coverage will do.
    Also are you talking about the day of release (day 1) or the time of release (day 0)?

    CS, TF and even the wonderous Portal are all external products that Valve simply bought and threw cash at. I therefore exclude them from discussions regarding Valve’s programming ability and their commitment to their customers.
    Pity the discussion was about whether anti-piracy measures have helped secure Valve’s financial security or not, and not about their programming ability, which seems to be an axe you want to grind into the discussion whether it directly relates to the point at hand or not.

    As far as the ‘commitment to customers’ argument goes, while I’d agree that CS, TFC/TF2 and Portal are either derived from or began life as non-Valve ideas, I’d say that in most cases (except DoD:S and CS:S) Valve have actually improved these games. Although dumbed down, Portal was injected with humour and carefully integrated into HL2 lore. The TFC guys came direct to Valve from Quake TF via their commercial Quake II TF2 mod which was never released (it’s possible that Valve gave them the golden ticket to make their TF2 a reality – oh you’re so evil, Valve!). This in turn has spawned Team Fortress 2, which is undoubtedly a clear refinement of many of the ideas from the previous games, if a departure from the previous playerbases. Counter-Strike arguably got better, although this is a more tenuous point. In short with these games I’d argue they’ve done more than just throw money at them, they’ve actually helped the game grow into something that is certainly bigger and -in most cases- better than its forebears.

    Is it possible that you’re more pissed off with Valve releasing products with bugs in it because you can’t update your pirated copies? In my experience Valve had a pretty high turnaround for fixing bugs. In fact, if you look at this blog you’ll see that Valve were fixing the stutter bug you mentioned for more users, year upon year. This shows a fair amount of dedication to their users, wouldn’t you say?

  18. Howard says:

    @Crispy
    Hard to produce “figures” to prove what I wrote as no one really reports on it, do they now? I can assure you though that it did/does in fact happen.

    Do I have an axe to grind with Valve? Sure do. Can’t stand ‘em. Not one jot. Do I think they took ideas like Portal and TF2 (and here I speak as a veteran QW:TF player of MANY years) and made them better? Sure do: they did a grand job. Do I still think they are the scum of the earth and that these few demonstrations of decency and business accumen have done nothing to redeem them? Sure do!

    As to being a pirate? Well I guess I am guilty as charged… kinda. I have acces to VERY fast unlimited broadband so yes, I pirate most every PC game that comes out. However as my bank balance, irrate partner and 7 shelves of boxed games will attest to, if I like something I buy it. If you would like my STEAM ID so you can come chat with me and see the 35 games I own on that platform alone (yes, the irony is sticky-thick here today) then I will happily provide it. I just see my piracy as a “try before you buy scheme”. I give the game a day in court and then if its good I lay out my cash, if it’s not, I delete my image (as I have just done with GRID)

    Does that make me a bad person? Probably, but I really don’t care.

  19. Al3xand3r says:

    @Howard: Valve basically consists of a truckload of ex-modders or ex-independents or ex-whatever who were then hired by Valve. Why would you not include their latest talent (Portal devs for example) when you talk about Valve’s collective ability? They’re a part of it now so there’s no reason not to. Similar for TF, CS, DoD, etc. You can’t talk about Valve and exclude people just because they started elsewhere. Everyone starts somewhere else, they don’t get born there.

    But I guess Valve are the devil for hiring this kind of talent and giving them the resources needed to create true masterpieces as opposed to concepts with great potential. We should all worship the likes of EA instead, with their armies of code monkeys which get no say over the end product or maybe Bethesda with their art asset factories producing content void of any personality. Yeah, screw Valve.

    @Crispy: By the way how was Portal dumbed down? Narbacular drop was an impressive tech demo but I don’t recall seeing anything more complex done in it. Maybe the boulder puzzles were interesting but removing them hasn’t dumbed down the game, if anything it’s harder than any Narbacular Drop level I played so perhaps it’s been smarted up…

  20. Howard says:

    @Al3xand3r
    So because you don’t understand my opinion you simply mock it? Regretable that so many people on this site turn to that, particularly where Valve are concerned.

    You like Valve. You all do. Fine I get it. I really do. But I loath them. I have my reasons for my hatred of them much as you have yours for your addoration; does not mean either of us are wrong (nobody bothers to notice that I never mock anyone for liking Valve, do I?), just that we have had different experiences and hold different expectations.

  21. Dinger says:

    RPS Translation: Exploration = Oblivion. Patch = Valve, Piracy = Crysis.

    No, I don’t understand your view. Google X3 and Starforce and you’ll see it was cracked well before it made it to Steam.
    Nobody sensible is claiming Steam “kills” piracy. There will always be pirates. What they are claiming is that Steam presents a sensible solution to the piracy problem. Buying a game on Steam is easier that pirating it. You click a button, and the game arrives. A patch comes in, and it’s added. You pirate a game, you need to go to the proper source, find the file, install it, install the crack (in one of a half-dozen ways), and manually apply the patches, which may or may not work. You can still do it (and get patches for the big titles), but it’s more difficult. I’ll add that the procedure for pirating and maintaining a pirate copy is _easier_ than the procedure for doing the same with most retail games.
    I like a good troll-and-flame as much as the next guy, but if you’re gonna go after Steam, go for its weakness. The Valve folks have claimed that Steam elevates the risk of piracy, since a pirate stands to lose _All_ Steam games. So what happens when Valve decides that a legitimate user isn’t legit? For that matter, what happens when Valve decides or is forced to cease supporting Steam on legacy machines? Five years from now, will your games work?

    Trying to separate “What Valve does” from “What the people Valve throws money at do” is silly. “Valve” has always been getting talented people together and giving them the means to create something. They’d be “throwing money at people” if those groups were off-site and without access to other employees and tools.
    Do you really believe Valve just discovered Narbacular Drop in a corner and said “we should throw money at these people”? Wouldn’t it make more sense for someone to see or to suggest that the team and Valve might be a “good fit”? And do you deny that all the Orange Box products share a common ideology in terms of gaming philosophy and art direction, layered on top of a common engine?
    These aren’t hate or love issues, but issues of fact.

    But I do so enjoy mocking.

  22. otakupaul says:

    Im sure the excuse is going to be that they are skipping doing the patch in favour of putting more man power into whatever secret or big expansion will be sold next. No doubt because of EA.
    EA’s entries into the gaming market really do show how little they know about this market. Battlefield 2 was a pretty good game at first but then the same thing happened. The fiasco’s with securrom have also helped to mess up average consumers gaming experiences and so I would not hesitate to suggest that in some cases EA have encouraged piracy. It doesnt seem so long ago that games a) didnt need the kind of patching we see nowadays in terms of size or frequency. (Is it just because of online balance? I suspect its the rush of EA to get the product on the shelves with a “fix-it-later” attitude)
    b) Games were often given support for a long period of time after release including free content (Lucasarts for example or companies like Bioware pre-EA buyout).

    The PC market has always struck me as more patient than the console one, for example, I tend to hit one game hard for a period of time and concentrate on that and completing that. On consoles however its a plug and play affair where I often swap a few times each session. Ea are taking the same console market mold and failingly trying to apply it to PC gaming: 1) Get game on shelf asap, 2) Sell online content asap, or if not possible goto 3, 3)Design and market sequel (preferably cloned from progenitor game) asap and ignore previous games.
    The makers of Sins of a Solar Empire have impressed me with their knowledge of the market and really put EA games to shame.

    **Edit** Sorry I actually wrote this before I saw that a sequel was announced for Crytek, not after. Do I get browny points for being right about the sequel still?

  23. Dean says:

    A lot of modern Point and Click adventure games don’t need patching at all.

    The anti-Valve guy is funny: “They’re only any good because they hire good people”.

  24. malkav11 says:

    A couple of things – all of Valve’s own (singleplayer) Steam games were pirated day and date with release, save Half-Life 2 itself, which was pirated at that time, but not working properly until a day or two later – the pirates hadn’t figured out what they were doing quite yet.

    This can easily be checked by cross-referencing NForce (the site that tracks pirate .nfo documents that accompany all the releases) with Mobygames. They have generally not released Steam rips of other games (Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and Sin Episodes being the only exceptions I am personally aware of), I assume because cracked DVD releases are cleaner and more user-friendly.

    I tend to agree that Steam’s real antipiracy benefit is making it easy and convenient to buy, download, and play one’s games without the risks and hassles of the pirate route or (mostly) the retail route.

    Secondly – it’s a fallacy that only bigger releases get patch cracks. It’s true that Steam made it difficult to release cracked patches (although it happened anyway), but other than that…it takes a while, sometimes. But search a “reputable” crack site (i.e., one that only takes no-CD cracks and nothing that disables any other facet of copy protection) and you’ll find cracks of every update of pretty near every game on the market with a CD-check.

  25. Crispy says:

    @Crispy: By the way how was Portal dumbed down?

    It’s the incredibly gentle learning curve I’m talking about that meant that GladOS was the only thing stopping me from (both figuratively and literally) switching off and booting up a different game for the first 13 levels or so. The first 5 or 6 levels were utterly patronising, to the extent that I wish Valve had given me the option to skip them.

  26. Al3xand3r says:

    Well for a lot of people it was a new concept and their audience isn’t exactly puzzle game fans so it makes sense to have it. Not having all that It’s got enough character to be a fun ride thanks to GladOS.

  27. kennycrown says:

    Maybe EA pulled the plug on Crytek’s patch testing because Crysis hadn’t shifted enough units for it to be financially viable?