The day one patch is more than a terrible habit for developers, it’s bad for gaming.
It was a dark and stormy night,
11:58 PM. You have waited for this new game for months, maybe years. You have probably already called in sick to work tomorrow and now you find yourself lined up in the damp cold for the midnight release.
12:33 AM You should have brought cash because that line was moving faster but it doesn’t matter now. It’s Yours! Yup, that small piece of plastic is everything you have been waiting for. There is that feeling of anticipation, so much potential in this small plastic disc. So of course, you rush it home and throw it in your machine.
11:51 AM Your console eats up that new game and you are pumped up and ready to play until the sun comes up. Then it all comes to an abrupt halt with a single message. “Update Required” A few words that are enough to ruin your night. Your brand new game is already in need a serious update. Following the current trend that new update will be several gigabytes and chances are you won’t be able to progress without it.
01:06 AM You’ve passed out. The excitement of a new game washed away by the tedium of watching a progress bar fill.
This is the new reality of gaming. Almost every major title released today is accompanied by a day one patch. These patches tackle everything from minor touch ups to game breaking glitches. Large patches have become so common that not deploying one or having a relatively small one is now some kind of achievement.
Clear some space on your hd, the #Titanfall2 day one patch is… 88MB
— Vince Zampella (@VinceZampella) October 21, 2016
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsHow have we come to this point? Why have developers fallen into the habit of shipping games still in need of critical attention? Part of it is convenience. More gamers are connected online than in any other era of video game hardware. If you are planning on playing the new Battlefield or even the new Final Fantasy chances are you are going to do it on a system connected to a network. This means it is easier than ever for a developer to roll out an update to a game to the majority of players.
Initially, this was great for gamers. It meant that if there were issues with a game a solution could be distributed easily. Unbalanced multiplayer or broken mechanics could be set right with little hassle. Over time, however, it has come to be a crutch for developers.
Dude, Where my Boat? (Mafia III, 2016)
Game development takes a long time and is a lot of work. Developers can send a game into printing up to four weeks before it hits shelves. A game “going gold” does not mean they are done, however. Those weeks can be used for further testing and tweaking leading to the dreaded day one patch. Small patches, like the one for Titanfall 2, are not so intrusive and really are just touch ups. Somehow those small touch ups have grown out of proportion for many titles.
Deadlines. We all have them, in our personal and professional lives. Developers have them too but they are not just a random date their project manager figures they can finish a game by. Many of the developers and publishers working on AAA titles have schedules dictated to them by a great power: The stakeholders.
Yes, these shadowy figures who demand games meet a specific deadline. You may be inclined to blame the “shareholders”, the group who corporations are financially responsible too but it’s not just the shareholders who want to see big returns, it is also gamers like you. Players who expect their games in a timely fashion and have little patience for delays.
The Nintendo Switch will be out in March. We are all expecting that classic Nintendo battle to find one for the first six months, but for those lucky enough to get one, you probably are also expecting to grab a copy of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Fans were upset when it was reported that Nintendo might be planning on pushing Breath of the Wild to later in 2017. There was considerable back lash from fans and news sites, some like Forbes recommending moving the console launch entirely. Nintendo confirmed it would indeed meet the Switch launch date of March 3, 2017, at their most recent press event but does that mean the game will actually be ready?
— Lodix (@lodix1) November 15, 2016
It is also true however, that deadlines for games are often synced with fiscal goals for instance meeting the holiday rush. Have you ever noticed there are not a lot of big titles out during the summer but by late October or early November there is an almost overwhelming number of great games to buy? Those developers are competing for your entertainment dollars and they don’t want to have to do against Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 but they also know come the fall everyone is willing to spend a little more in anticipation of the holiday season. This model also means that if a developer misses that critical window it could dramatically hurt their sales. Pushing a November release a few weeks risks landing it too late in the season to hit their target or worse missing it all together.
The pressure to meet deadlines combined with the ease of updates with modern systems means a developer may, and often is, tempted to ship a game they know needs more attention. Take for example Final Fantasy XV, which was released just last November. It was accompanied by a 7GB day one patch which, among other things, added a number of gameplay mechanics including updates to wait mode and battle mechanics. Could these have all been afterthoughts? Or did they know the game was not complete?
For many games, these updates are inconvenient but not insurmountable. Some games will allow you play the single player campaign without an update for instance. While the fixes included in day one patches are improvements those without patience can forge on without them but this trend has had a detrimental effect on the quality of our games.
Take for example Assassin’s Creed: Unity released in 2014. When the game hit consoles and PCs it was packed so full of glitches it became a joke. It had a day one patch of only 500MB but was quickly followed by multiple patches including one 6.7GB patch to address the issues it was experiencing on all systems. When Batman: Arkham Knight launched in 2015 it was rendered unplayable on PC and was eventually removed from Steam. While the console versions did not suffer the same catastrophic shortcomings they were not perfect, in fact featuring a 3.5GB day one patch.
The day one patch seems to be the new standard, gamers waiting for fixes that should have been addressed. As if players who have paid for these games are just another phase of beta testers. What about the gamers who don’t have regular or reliable online access? They are left in the dark. Outliers on a cost-benefit analysis pushing a game out the door and onto store shelves.
How has it become acceptable for developers to ship incomplete products with an almost dismissive “we’ll fix it later” attitude? It is true that video games are larger and more complex than ever before in their history but that is not an excuse for developers to fall short on their commitment to quality.
These are exceptional examples but they should not be dismissed. Both titles were developed by reputable developers with substantial budgets and yet they suffered from critical errors that should never have made it to player copies. They were also both highly anticipated, which perhaps worked against the quality control team.
Although gamers were upset by the glitches the developers did not suffer much for their rush. Unity, combined with Assassin’s Creed Rouge, sold nearly 10 million units in the 2014 holiday season and Arkham Knight sold 5 million during the spring of 2015. Why fix a problem, that isn’t a problem for you?
Many gamers had already pre-ordered their copy and picked it up long before news of these glitches began to circulate overtly. Ubisoft and Rocksteady had masterfully marketed these titles, building hype to boost first week sales. Other developers deploy tactics like restricting access to the game before it’s release, making it difficult for players and reviewers to properly assess and report on the game before it hit store shelves. This delays the news of serious issues within a game ensuring as many players pay up front as possible.
Of course we do, we still pre-order despite past disappointments, we still rush out to get our copies as close to day one as possible lest we fall behind our friends, we still still pay full price knowing that at the very least there is another $40 of DLC to pick probably. This is the behavior that normalizes day one patching. By removing the consequences for poor quality games we tacitly agree to day one patches. By doing so we encourage developers to launch incomplete games and send out the fixes as they come, hopefully by day one.