Friday, January 7, 2011

It's a Game, Not a Quilt: A Case Against Patching

We now live in an age where video games, despite still having a few mountains left to climb, have entered the mainstream. This is a time when Video Game award shows run on network television stations (even if they often suck), where orchestras tour not just the nation, but the entire world playing music from Mario Bros. and Metal Gear Solid, and where a CD of that music could debut in the Top 10 on the Billboard Charts.

This is a time where, instead of feeling lucky that you found a fellow video-gamer at the lunch table, even if all you did was fight about Nintendo vs. Sega, it's a little unusual to find someone who doesn't play games in some form.
"You're a damn LIAR, Mr. President! Sonic would "Blast-Process" Mario
 into the stone age, and YOU KNOW IT!"
Video games are becoming more realistic and sophisticated in the visuals they can offer, the decisions that can be made, and the actions that can be performed. Many of the financial aspects of managing game development have been lifted, by necessity, straight from the playbooks of the film-making and music producing industries, and those strategies have succeeded in demarginalizing the industry and making it a financially viable investment.
In spite of all these things, the point where games are having difficulties are in the problems that are expressly inherent to games themselves.

This article could easily become a novel if I were to discuss each of those problems, so I will attempt to keep it to one specific area. I preface what I say with the statement that I am aware of a few things:

  1. Yes, video games are different from movies, music, sculpture, art, and any other medium that you can think of. I compare because all types of media have similarities in that they are perceived by those who experience them, not because they are exactly the same.
  2. Yes, other media have problems and limitations as well. This is all the more reason to create an open dialog about what the problems and limitations of video games are, especially if we want to continue to have them taken seriously.
  3. Patching will be defined as: “A piece of code added to software in order to fix a bug after the software has seen a public release.”
With that out of the way, let's get to the question at hand. There is much discussion about video game “patching” in the industry today, with some saying that it gives the developer a second chance to fix problems, that despite their best efforts, managed to find their way into the game. If this were the case, I would find myself planted firmly in that camp, but the situation above is not the truth.

The ability to patch a game has only become accessible to many users in the last 6 years, and most consoles have not featured a way to patch games until the current generation. Before this time, software patching was a phenomenon that was almost entirely exclusive to personal computers. Computer games, by virtue of the fact that they were loaded and played on a machine that was modular in nature, could make use of patching much more readily than a home-entertainment console ever could. Developers saw the possibilities that software patching held to be able to reconcile the inevitable differences between the software they would produce, and the almost infinite permutations of computer systems in the consumer market. Attempting to create a game that represented the cutting edge of technology, that would also function flawlessly on almost all computer systems available, on your first try, is like trying to shoot a basketball through a hoop from two cities away. It's very difficult. The software patch, therefore, was a means of insurance for the consumer, as well as a means of assurance for the developer.

"Dear Developer: Enclosed is a picture of my computer.
Will your game run on this?"
Patches, then, began as a means to protect the consumer when proper efforts were made to assure quality, but bugs still got into the final product. The files that we are receiving from video game developers today, called "patches", could more accurately be described in many instances as “Underlying Game Programming: Part 2.”

Because of how sophisticated and complex video games are, I admit that it would be nothing short of foolishness to suppose that all of the programming could be done perfectly the first time. Even with proper beta-testing practices (which are often being ignored now), some errors will inevitably get through.

In contrast, the current video game development model for many companies is to beta-test your game until the product is "not-quite-unplayable." Once that is done, publicize the game well, and rush it out to the public to maximize profits, then have the public PAY YOU to bug-test it for you. Allow the consumer to find and report the bugs, choose only the largest and most blatant errors that should have been caught in 5 minutes of testing, and fix those to placate the masses. You can take your sweet time and be choosy about the errors you address because of this one simple fact: YOU ALREADY HAVE THEIR MONEY. Lather, rinse, and repeat with each piece of downloadable content.

...And soon, you'll be as rich as bling-Buddha!
He prefers we call him Bl-uddha for short.
As far as patching goes, Fallout 3, by Bethesda Softworks, is one of the worst offenders of this hardware generation. Having played the earlier games thoroughly, and being a particularly big fan of the franchise, I was excited for the possibilities that a competent studio could realize in bringing the Fallout world into the land of glorious 3-D. I bought it for PC the day it was released, called a few friends over, and started playing. As I began my game in Vault 101, at first the glitches were fairly small, easily comparable to the few I had run across in Fallout 2. As the game moved on and I roamed out into the wastes for the first time, I had no idea how unforgiving they would prove to be.

The more time I spent wandering through Washington D.C. The more I began to wonder what terrible thing was waiting around the next corner. Rather than fearing the next herd of Super-Mutants, Enclave Soldiers, or Talon Mercs however, I found my chest tightening as I wondered whether my travel companions would get stuck waist-deep in a rock, or if the lighting effects would become solid objects so I couldn't see anything, or if Dogmeat would get sucked into the ground and mysteriously disappear, or if enemies would randomly pop-in inches from me, or if my game would crash as I walked through any given doorway, or...

I could do this all day, folks.

The point is, Fallout 3 was released to market in a particularly shocking condition, and the problems in it were easily replicable. On the plus side, I had plenty of time to appreciate Fallout 3's visuals while my game was constantly freezing.

As stated above, patches were originally instituted to help reconcile computer software with the incredible amount of variation in computer hardware, and because I chose to play Fallout 3 on PC, I gave the game the benefit of the doubt. I patiently played through the whole game, saving often to minimize lost progress from the frequent crashes, and generally enjoyed it in spite of its problems.

I was only moved to indignation much later when Jo, my fellow contributor and 8BitVS's resident artist, began playing Fallout 3 on an unmodded Xbox 360, and was made subject to the same game-killing bugs that I was. She would call me complaining that citizens kept disappearing, that her Dog would get stuck on small rocks and be unable to follow, and that her Pip-Boy would stop displaying anything until she re-loaded her game. The Xbox 360 is a machine whose specifications have not changed since the first day that Bethesda began development, and even with an unchanging measuring stick by which to check the functionality of their game, they still couldn't put out a fully-functioning product. According to the website, The Vault, a Fallout 3 Wiki, there have been at least seven (7) official patches for Fallout 3 to date. If you wonder whether they fixed anything that should have been caught easily by beta-testers, go ahead and read this. Six years ago we wouldn't have stood for slipshod game-making of this magnitude. Why do we allow it now?
The games made by Nintendo are by no means perfect, but this is a company that has garnered a reputation for creating reliable, impressive, quality titles. Their key franchises, particularly Mario, Zelda, and Metroid, are given levels of attention rivaled only by patients in the ICU. The level of interest given to these games has created, and continues to create, some of the greatest video games in the world.

The ability to patch their games being as limited as they are, when Nintendo puts out a game, they make sure to do their due diligence in testing its functionality. There are still unforeseen problems in these games (the Bowser Camera Glitch from Super Mario Galaxy, and the Cannon Room Warp Gitch from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess come immediately to mind), but I have yet to encounter problems in a first-party game from Nintendo that couldn't be fixed with a single patch. That is something impressive in its own right.
Some people would say that larger teams, more complex games, cutting-edge technology and other factors make it harder to create a cohesive product in this day and age, but developers 10 years ago were creating games that, for their time period, were very complex. They had larger teams than ever before, and had the best technology available to them. Developers today even have an advantage that those a decade ago did not, in the form of financing. By becoming more profitable, developers have also had their budgets increased exponentially to give them the ability to create larger and more intricate gamescapes, and that money is not being used on quality assurance as it once was. The situations between game developers of the present and past are comparable, and yet the amount of software-halting glitches in games has shot up significantly in recent years.

Okay... Maybe some things have changed for the better in modern game
development. Like hair, and not looking like a sex offender, Mr. Creepy-eyebrows.
Anything that pulls us out of the world that the developer is trying to create, anything that ruins our sense of immersion, will make it all the more difficult to accept the game as a whole. Good artistic direction is pivotal to the creation of a legitimate game world, but all the art, visual, and sound engineering in the world will not be able to immerse the player if the game is non-functional. Something that the industry apparently has yet to learn is that in order to be taken seriously by those outside of gaming, we need to find a perfect balance of the artistic and the technical.

To combat lazy practices like the ones discussed above, I will give one piece of advice to each of the levels of the supply chain:

The consumer mustn't reward developers who allow their games to ship in such a state by buying good games that lack large bugs. This is easily done by researching their purchases in reputable gaming outlets before they buy them.

The press must be fair with their readers and report that a game is faulty, EVEN IF IT HAS BEAUTIFUL GRAPHICS, OR GOOD IDEAS. This allows the consumer to make their own, fully informed choices, and helps maintain a quality standard.

The Developers must strive to create a product that stands on its own, using patches as a supplementary means to preserve the functionality of a game, the primary means being QUALITY ASSURANCE.

Games are a powerful medium that have a bright future ahead of them, but we must move forward. Developers must always remember that it is the consumers who have the final vote on whether their company lives or dies, and if they would disrespect us by turning out a product that is faulty, buggy, and incomplete, all the while expecting us to do their job and be their unpaid “Quality-Assurance” team, then they should understand that we may weary of it.

What are your thoughts? DO you feel that the amount of glitches in modern games is acceptable?
Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments!


1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you posted this, brother! This shouldn't be acceptable to release an incomplete and broken product.


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