When indie fighting game Skullgirls was first being developed, the team had an interesting new vision for how the game would work. Instead of releasing revision after revision, eventually landing them at Super Skullgirls II Turbo HD Awesome Extra Special Deluxe Edition, they would simply make the game modular. Much like a PC game, updates would roll out as they became available, including new characters, balance fixes, new modes, and more.
Unfortunately, there turned out to be a few issues with this plan. Aside from the plain cost of creating new content and issues involving giving up the rights to the Skullgirls IP to their publisher, Lab Zero games is also running into an issue with the size of their patch. The new Xbox 360 Skullgirls patch is 590 MB large, and much of that includes tweaks to the Xbox 360 versions architecture in order to produce faster load times and better online gameplay. Unfortunately, Microsoft limits the size of their free updates to 4MB, making the Skullgirls patch roughly 147.5 times too big.
However, Microsoft does not seem to impose he same limitation on DLC that you actually pay for. Many of you may remember Left 4 Dead 2’s “free” DLC via Steam, which retailed for a paltry dollar on Xbox LIVE, probably to get around Microsoft’s 4MB limit on free updates.
Then there’s the matter of paying Microsoft fees to test and host your new patch. Many of you may remember how Fez couldn’t fix a save game bug in the Xbox 360 version of the game, because submitting another patch to Microsoft would have cost them $40,000 dollars. That’s a fee that you have to pay regardless of how big your patch is going to be, and it was too much money for Polytron to spend as a small studio. So one of the most interesting indie titles on XBLA has to go without fixing one problem because that single problem has a $40,000 price tag.
So when you hear gamers ask why indie and downloadable titles don’t have good patch support, there is your answer.
Meanwhile, over in PC land, we have had the luxury of patches for a long time now. While current day digital distribution platforms like Steam and Origin may tack on some fees for hosting a new update, PC games historically let the developer or publisher hash patch fees out themselves. Way back when, you would simply download a patch, apply it, and that was it. The majority of the cost came through making and hosting the patch on your own servers. There was no $40,000 price tag just to make the patch available. Many PC indie titles to this day simply make patches and updates available for little fee whatsoever. In fact, there are indie hackers and translators that create patches for dumped game ROMs that they distribute for free. I guarantee you some random programmer in his garage isn’t paying $40,000 dollars just so I can play Mother 3 in English.
So what is the point of Microsoft’s size limit and price tag on game updates? Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but they aren’t just pocketing all that cash. A good deal of it goes into QA testing, in order to make sure that the patch doesn’t cause an issue that screws up the entire Xbox LIVE network. They have to pick apart every patch they receive in order to make sure there aren’t any bugs that could compromise your Xbox.
If a PC patch glitches, you are essentially on your own. You can always call a helpline for customer support, but fixing your system is totally up to you. The same goes for applying the patch in the first place. The Xbox firmware handles that all for you, while PC game clients are not always so lucky. So that $40,000 dollars goes to quality control, and the 4MB limit keeps simple game updates easy to test in short periods of time.
But do we really need this level of quality control? Well, from Microsoft’s point of view we do. Imagine if a patch came out with something reminiscent of the FIFA bug. Players could potentially hack each other’s accounts, add infinite Microsoft points to their own accounts, and worse. The only way Microsoft could possibly be sure that such a bug wasn’t in a patch is to, of course, test the patch, and that means paying money to all of its testers.
Now, it’s hard to deny that sometimes you’ll download an unofficial patch for one of your favorite PC games and it will turn out to be a virus. However, the PC gaming community has pretty much been fine with this. PC gamers have learned how to install antivirus software and to only trust patches from reliable sources, and PC gaming is still surviving (though admittedly to a smaller extent than console gaming.) In addition, these limits and fees for patch hosting really are holding back games like Skullgirls, which have interesting and revolutionary new ideas for their genre but require frequent patches and updates.
I’m not sure I have the best answer here, but there has to be something we can do to change the way console patches are handled so that modular, frequently updated games won’t cost their developers thousands of dollars. Perhaps Microsoft could push the bill onto the developers themselves, requiring a certain standard of quality to be met along with requiring the developers to pay for the server that hosts the patch. Then your Xbox can just connect to say, the Lab Zero or Polytron server to download the patch you need. If this patch is then later found to be lacking in quality or vulnerable in any way, Microsoft can just remove the ability to download the patch in the first place.
Of course, all it takes is one catastrophic error and suddenly its FIFA all over again, and that’s probably not worth it to Microsoft.
Angelo M. D’Argenio
Date: January 14, 2013
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*