The advent of the "patch" was a great thing for video games. If, by some freak accident, a bug made it through a developer's process of fine-tuning a game, the company could fix its mistake after the fact. And today, it's not just outright bugs that can be fixed via patch—multiplayer games can be rebalanced, overly difficult missions can be made easier, and old games can be made compatible with new hardware. If you define the word "patch" loosely enough, it can even include new game modes and new content. Patches are standard practice even on consoles these days.
But somewhere along the line, patches became a crutch for many developers, instead of a tool that could be used to correct rare mistakes. Nowadays, many games are released in an obviously incomplete state, and consumers are just supposed to assume everything will be fixed eventually. Sometimes, this might be the only way to do things—I'm not a computer programmer, but I imagine a game as big and elaborate as Skyrim is bound to have a few bugs until millions of gamers start finding and reporting them. But more often than not, buggy games reflect an assumption on developers' part that polish doesn't matter anymore in the world of the patch—and they also reflect developers' lack of respect for their paying customers.
By far, the greatest offenders have been PC developers. Even the biggest PC games are typically sold by download instead of by disc, so developers can safely assume that nearly all of their customers will have high-speed Internet. There's nothing wrong with different platforms' having different standards, but at some point, it just gets ridiculous. Notoriously bad recent launches include Final Fantasy XIV and Stronghold 3. Both developers (Square Enix and Firefly respectively) showed an admirable willingness to listen to their consumers and fix their games, but both faced some angry customers as well. And they should have.
A major problem with this "eh, we'll fix it later" attitude is that it interferes with the process by which gamers find out about new products. Friends talking about the latest games don't know whether to recommend a title until it's clear that all the issues will be cleared up. And, as I've learned from my work at Cheat Code Central, it is incredibly difficult for a reviewer to give an accurate assessment of a game that will probably be dramatically different in a week or two. Should I assume that the obvious bugs will be fixed and basically review the game for what it (hopefully) will be rather than for what it is? Or should I simply blast the game for being buggy and offer my readers a review that will quickly become obsolete (but will live on in the CCC archives and the game's Metacritic score for eternity)?
There's no good answer to these questions; whichever path I take, some readers will be ill-served. My usual strategy is to give the game a number rating that I think will endure (since there's no taking it off of Metacritic once it's up there), but to use the text of the review to very clearly explain how the game plays in its current state. But then I draw complaints about the inconsistency between the text and the number—which is fair enough. What's not fair is that developers are putting me, and CCC readers, in this situation.
While severe bug problems seem to come up more with PC games, they're most frustrating to deal with when they occur on consoles. Most of us have our consoles hooked up to the Internet, so patching a game is no big deal. But some gamers live in homes without high-speed Internet, or for whatever reason don't take the steps required to put their machines online. For these players, it's absolutely crucial that disc-based games work well right out of the box. A friend of mine in this situation has to be careful to keep old save files around, and he's even given up on a couple of games after running into glitches he couldn't work around. Needless to say, it's unacceptable for an industry to treat paying customers this way.
It's true that before the patch, games still occasionally came out with serious problems (the Nintendo 64 Superman game being a classic example). But back then, it was a lot rarer, because developers had a huge incentive to make sure it didn't happen: Every person who bought the game would feel cheated and tell his friends, and reviewers would have no choice but to pan the game. Today, I might play a patched game and recommend it to my friend with the non-Internet console, and that friend might have a completely different experience.
There's no denying that patches are a great thing, and that they're here to stay. But they should be seen as a tool that can be used to clean up minor mistakes—not as an excuse to release buggy games.
Date: January 30, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*