The Limits of Software Updates

It seems like everyone else has been complaining about DLC and day-one game patches for years now. I’ve never had a problem with it until now.

If you haven’t tried to play Gran Turismo 6 yet or read news on its launch, the game has a day-one patch that’s around 1.2GB.  I can’t even get it because it takes over two hours for my PS3 to download it. Usually day-one patches are nips and tucks but in the case of GT6 it’s the entire multiplayer component of the game. Polyphony Digital literally couldn’t finish it before the release date, or wasn’t willing to delay the game. That’s the part that get’s to a lot of people but it seems especially clear-cut in the case of GT6.

I completely understand why this happens, but it brings to light the changing face of console game development and distribution.

Basically, it’s due to the nature of physical media. This became especially apparent when both the PS4 and Xbox One (and even the Wii U a year ago) had massive day-one patches to their operating systems. The Xbox One in particular won’t even let you play a game out of the box right now. This is because when people develop software that’s going to be delivered physically, they have to keep developing it even as the physical delivery medium is being manufactured.

Consoles have to start manufacture months in advance, but a console’s OS these days is probably in development right up to the street date, and obviously continually updated afterwards. It’s the same for a game: there’s a period of a few weeks during which the discs are being manufactured but further game development can still be done. With a game though, questions arise like “why not push the street date back so you can actually finish it?” But Polyphony already confirmed it’s going to continually support GT6 with content updates for a year. Announcing that kind of stuff before the original launch date just makes people even madder, but these days a game is never really done. Console game development has become more and more like PC game development, and really all computer software development — it’s never done. What’ on the disc is just the 1.0 version, and that’s what you have to ask — when do you decide a game has reached 1.0 and its okay to start printing discs?

Digital distribution probably helps this problem a little bit — no discs have to be manufactured so a game’s launch can be much sooner after the developer has reached 1.0. If Polyphony is smart the digital version of GT6 is already the latest version (I heard PlayStation Network doesn’t do this on PS3). But even that’s not stopping people from launching unfinished code anymore.

Half the games that come out on Steam nowadays are Early Access it seems — betas and alphas. On one hand it’s great to be able to play an anticipated game as soon as the developer deems it presentable, but on the other hand I think it blunts the impact of the actual “launch.” DOTA 2 came out this year and is this week finally available to “everyone,” but is pretty much getting ignored in game of the year discussions because in the experience of most people it “launched” last year when the beta showed up. Of course Minecraft started this by selling a million copies before hitting 1.0. Does a release date even mean anything anymore?

Still, if you look into the past of PC gaming, while patches were still a thing, games on the 90’s still got 1.0 launches that felt “complete” without the need for extensive betas or day-one patches. Older console games had bugs too, and many even got reprints to fix them, but games never shipped requiring consumers to download significant portions of content. Everything post-launch actually felt like additions to or fixes for an already-done game. What you got on the disc felt like a full product.

One thing that might be really different today compared to years ago is the complexity of a game compared to the number of people working on it. Games like Skyrim, and a lot of wide-reaching general computer software, have so many moving parts these days that it’s impossible to find all the bugs until literally thousands or millions of people are using it. Essentially, betas are getting bigger and oftentimes can no longer be closed. In other cases, like a lot of Steam Early Access games, an indie studio made up of three guys probably can’t properly bug test a full game.

I feel like Nintendo is one of the only console developers that operates in the old way. Nintendo’s only recently done anything regarding digital distribution but it seems to be taking a careful approach. Iwata’s been adamant that Nintendo doesn’t even start DLC until it ships the base game, and it still does patches, but rarely. People say Nintendo is one of the last companies that actually ships complete games, but I’d rather say it puts out very strong 1.0 versions.

Blizzard might be another good example — a “when it’s done” company. Such developers that can continually delay a game for years for quality assurance and maintain consumer trust though are rare. I was especially impressed when under “release date” for StarCraft II before that game came out I read “When it meets Blizzard’s quality standards.”

Blizzard and Nintendo however are companies that likely don’t f0llow the “hire and fire” structure of team-building, at least not as much as many others. When people complained about Mass Effect 3’s day-one DLC, a common defenses for it was how team members have to work on something while the discs are being pressed or else get fired because they’re not permanent employees.

Maybe companies like Blizzard and Nintendo are different because they have revenue streams other than software sales (WoW and hardware sales respectively) and thus can afford not to put team members under pressure. It’s probably a much more complex logistics issue than what I’m writing down here.

BULLETS:

  • Looks like the whole classic DC Animated Universe is on Amazon Prime Instant now.
  • Looks like Egoraptor is back in the animation game. http://t.co/IKvXbtXPOl
  • Ridiculous Fishing deservedly got iPhone game of the year.
  • The latest patch for Rogue Legacy was pretty significant. http://t.co/tXKnU2MZ3Z
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