Tuesday, April 13, 2010

There Isn't a Patch for Everything

Back in the days before online gaming, there was one feeling that gamers loathed above all others. It was a vague but potent mix of anger, disappointment and victimization – it was the feeling that the game you had just bought was crappy. This was nothing like going to see a bad movie or eating at a bad restaurant; the consequences of these misfortunes are generally limited to a couple hours' time. A game, however, is an investment – a $40-$60 bet that a piece of software will keep you enthralled for dozens of hours. When this bet is lost, it can leave a gamer in a vulnerable state.

That is why I suggest that online gaming has changed this grieving process. Today, when a gamer finds him- or herself in this situation, there is a source of hope: The patch. The constant potential for a downloadable game update allows many of us to hang our hopes on the possibility that those issues stifling our enjoyment of a game will be rectified. It has caused a subtle change in the way we assess games, as even professional reviewers often give developers the benefit of the doubt and assume that broken features will eventually be mended. Is this merely blind faith, though? It obviously varies from game to game and, thus far this generation, the results have been mixed.

Widely considered the best game of 2009 (and heartily praised on this blog), Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2 was a decided success. One of the jewels in its crown was a fun expansion over the original game's feature set: Multiplayer. The experience was amazingly polished for the work of a developer that had never before tackled an online shooter. Yet even the greatest developer cannot foresee the issues that will arise when hundreds of thousands of gamers descend on their servers. Accordingly, issues arose at launch. Among them, players constantly bailing on their teammates mid-game, a lack of community features and a number of physics glitches. Many of these tiny issues proved very frustrating over time. Thanks to patches, though, they have mostly been rectified in the six months since the game's release.

Thus far, this seems to be a case of patches making a good game better, and it certainly was for a time. This all changed when Naughty Dog sought to make tweaks to the fundamentals of the gameplay. They revised the amount of damage various guns dealt and the amount of health a player had, supposedly to a subtle degree, in hopes of making the game flow a bit more quickly. Yet players had fallen in love with the game they already knew; fans responded with widespread disapproval. Many say that, even since some of the changes have been scaled back, the game has never been the same. Uncharted serves as a cautionary tale for game developers: Patches are a great tool, but they can tempt programmers to fix what ain't broke.

Still, one can hardly condemn Naughty Dog for trying their best to please their fans and improve their game. EA DICE's Battlefield 1943 is a very different example. The $15 game was one of the most surprising hits of 2009. Its unprecedented, arcade-style approach to online war shooters was embraced by gamers and critics as a fun summer diversion. Yet the game's low-budget, experimental nature came with an unforeseen caveat: There would be no patches.

This game was plagued with issues that were far more serious that anything Uncharted ever faced, too. Battlefield is a squad-based shooter, meaning that joining a small group of teammates and orchestrating strategies is central to the gameplay. Unfortunately, Battlefield 1943 was released with a broken squad system. Players could only join a random, open squad; there was no way to select a specific squad or create a private one for friends only (even though the option was present in the menu). Furthermore, squads would usually get split up between games. There was the ability to enter a game with friends, but they would often end up in different squads or even different teams. Also, voice chat was bug-ridden, ensuring that one could rarely speak with their friends or anyone in their squad. There were a number of other graphical and sound glitches, but they were far less pressing than the squad issues, which undermined one of the game's major selling points.

EA DICE suggested that the game may be patched at some point, but this never came to fruition. It took a few weeks, but gamers soon realized that it would never quite prove to be the incredible value it should have. This cast a shadow over the initial perception that 1943 would show how developers could make a polished, large-scale game at a low price point. It is also a concerning example of how a game that ships with flawed features can trick reviewers into praising something that may never be fully delivered – often leaving even the savviest consumer to his or her own devices when vetting a game for purchase.

It seems that game patches have not really changed the experience of buying games as much as one may think. Yes, there is now the hope (or even the expectation) that a flawed game may be redeemed in the future, but all this really does is open up a new set of dangers for gamers: Faith in developers' commitment to their customers can be misplaced, and a patch can always change a game for the worse. Besides, no amount of patches is going to make a fundamentally bad game good. For better or for worse, all patches really provide is a new level of fluidity to how we play – and pick – our games.

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