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gaming technology

Games Suffering For Patches

Elizabeth Technology January 10, 2023

I Can Finish it Later

Kangaroos are famous for keeping their children, known as joeys, in the big pouch on their belly. This adaptation means that the joeys can come out really early and then spend a significant portion of time finishing development in their mother’s pouch. By most comparisons, the kangaroo joeys come out woefully underbaked. They are only about an inch long. They can’t see or make noise, and they don’t have any fur. The pouch allows the mother to kick them out of the womb very early and then keep them with her always so she can go do kangaroo stuff without the joey losing out on milk or heat.

Compare this to, say, puppies, which are born without sight but not without smell and can crawl, or horses, which come out practically already running and with full vision. The joey pouch is truly a bizarre adaptation. But it works for the kangaroos – it means the adults, which are bipedal like us, don’t have so much downtime after giving birth, unlike us.

The long and the short of it is that the kangaroo has, over a very long time scale, learned what game developers have figured out in the past decade or two: you can release a product and then continue to work on it once it’s left the studio and as long as it works eventually everything will work out.

The Internet Will Let Me

It didn’t start this way.

Games used to be release-and-let-go, totally unmodifiable once they’d left the factory assembling the floppy discs. They were like horses – they were ready to go straight out of their plastic case and able to run from day one with no serious and very few minor flaws. Skyrim may have had funny character models that got stringy or stretched out when they died in a corner or near a door, but the game never had any problems with actually running and playing. Big studios had reliable quality, and customers were happy. Games could be patched after the fact, but they usually just didn’t need it. It was more of a hassle than it was worth most of the time.

However, once the internet started getting really good, and games came as downloads more and more often, the games themselves tended to get worse. If it’s a download from an online game platform, that means the user had internet when they downloaded it. They probably still have internet a few weeks later, when it’s discovered that a bug where you kick a baton off the edge of the map causes the game to freeze (real example from Fallout 76 initial launch) so you can probably push an update that fixes that issue without alienating your fanbase. Fans will be a little miffed at first but happier overall once they’ve got a more functional product.

Pseudo-Beta

This was horrible news for gaming developers. Fans will tolerate updates. Fans will tolerate bugs as long as an update is promised to fix them. The people making the game and the people controlling it’s release date are often not the same people at larger companies, the same way the person screwing in the bolts at a Ford factory is no longer friends with the owner of the company. The industry has expanded; games got bigger; there’s just no way for a distant manager who’s also watching the finance and advertising teams to be there on the ground floor with the developers themselves. The problems plaguing the game industry are plaguing many industries, but it becomes so easily visible in places where consumers are expecting a fun, fair experience.

Games that needed larger sets of playtesters in different computers and internet bandwidths used to go through a long period of beta testing, where the reward for the players was getting to play the game early, in a less complete state, sometimes for a reduced price or a limited-time prize. Beta testing is still around, of course, but when you read reviews of games like Halo: Infinity, you wonder why they even bothered if they were still going to release something that’s broken a year later despite several rounds of updates.

Deadlines were not helping. You can smooth out some codes with a little time to optimize it, but you have to do that carefully so that you don’t accidentally break anything that interconnects. As gamers get bigger and better computers, bigger gaming companies got more comfortable with releasing absurdly large games that they haven’t combed over to optimize. Sometimes, the release date actually prevents them from both using all the data crammed into the game or removing it, giving gamers the worst possible experience. For example: a game in the Five Nights at Freddy’s franchise, Security Breach, is rumored to have been pushed out to be ready for Christmas. As a result, tons of areas in the game are underutilized but still present. The game has a comedy bot with a five minute routine and a whole stage and theater to itself, a bowling alley that has no bowling minigames in it, an intricately laid out arcade that may as well just be a maze of rectangular wall blocks, a brewery tank setup that’s in the files of the game but not currently in use, the list goes on. It was a wreck of a game for framerate and loading issues when it first came out, and probably a quarter of the map could have been removed without changing the gamer’s final experience. Maybe a third, including some cosmetic and simple map changes. The game’s file was massive when it didn’t need to be, and it’s final required size actually shrank quite a bit in the next couple of updates to the game as the developers took out stuff.

What sucks in particular is that it was supposed to have a bowling alley with games. The theater was supposed to be cool. The player was supposed to be able to have fun with all these places that ended up being decoration! Given another several months, they could have packed enough stuff into this game to make it a 20-hour game… but they didn’t. And they couldn’t cut it in time, either. The upper management wanted it done by Christmas, and so the game was ‘done’ by Christmas, with all this extra stuff that bloated an already mid game. Updates made it more playable, but it’s still not great. And this is pretty emblematic of all the problems that huge studios are having even though this specific game had it worse.

Patches and Pouches

Security Breach has been updated a number of times to become a more playable game. They never did add games to the bowling alley, but a number of quality-of-life problems have finally been fixed. Maybe in a DLC, they’ll finally release the features that the designers meant to include in the main game. Coincidentally this may also cost the players money, but as of writing this article they haven’t said either way.

The same goes for Cyberpunk 2077 – it didn’t come out right, and it was delayed, but they fixed it. No Man’s Sky – delayed, released broken, fixed. The pattern is becoming alarming: gaming studios are trying so hard to meet release dates that the games are coming out incomplete or weirdly buggy. They keep making money, though, so why stop?

In theory, the studio can always patch those issues out after launch – first day patches are now normal, when it used to be assumed the game was ready when you could buy it. If the developers had a poor launch, the sentiment was to go easy on them because they had no control over it. Unfortunately, the studio pushing these games out began hiding behind their developers to stave off hate and criticism. Now they don’t have to bother. Consumers are used to patches. Consumers are used to having to wait for the game to get good. Consumers are used to delays that aren’t long enough for the people who needed the delay to fix the game on top of that. We’ve gone from foal to puppy to joey, and the worst part is that the benefits of releasing a ‘joey’, a low recovery time, are no longer applicable: burnout is common because 80 hour crunch-weeks are common. The developers suffer for an art they can never finish in time for their patron to display to the public. Patching got easier with the rise of constant internet access, and as a result, games come out juuust playable enough that the consumer won’t ask for a refund before it gets polished and completed.

Pokemon Complexity Syndrome

Elizabeth Technology January 5, 2023

Video games are more complex, and at the same time the developers expect to have them out the door in the same timeframe as shovelware used to get. Even theoretically simple games that already have legacy game mechanics built in can’t do it. Look at Pokemon.

Pokemon, on its surface, doesn’t seem like a super complex game. Make the funny animals spar, get some medals, make some sandwiches, curry, or pastries for them to build teamwork, and bam – you’ve got a game.

However.

It’s not that simple.

Each successive generation of Pokemon adds around 150 new animals to the PokeDex, many of which are usually intertwined in some way via Pokemon’s evolution path. These are almost never the only Pokemon in the game; classics from previous games, ones that you can’t just make more of like Zubat, the bat Pokemon, usually appear too. Each Pokemon has a ‘type’ that determines what moves it comes with, and they can be taught some outside of that. Careful considerations have to be made so nothing comes out of the gate unplayably unbalanced, but sometimes doing that makes the game predictable – a disproportionate number of fire Pokemon starters are fire/fighting types, because the way that the designers lay out the gyms makes it nearly impossible to use any other fire combo without creating a fragile starter early on. Due to a tradition spanning back nearly 30 years, they have to use fire for one of the starters, and they can’t break that now.

The first Pokemon to come without any type weakness came in generation three – it was a Dark/Ghost type Pokemon, which seems silly because the combo seems so obvious, but it’s a great example of how obvious things stop being obvious about 450 Pokemon in. Now there are over 1000. You can’t make an army of Pokemon with no type weaknesses, it would completely unbalance the game! There’s also necessary accounting for a number of Pokemon that are legendaries with their own rules.

This is not even describing the maps, the theme, the art, the fun minigames, etc. that all change every game – that’s just the Pokemon, by themselves. The game gets another heaping handful of cute little creatures with every new update alongside a new, usually themed map, new characters, new puzzles, etc. and then recently they also switched from 2-D top down to 3-D, so all of this has to be done again in the new format which allows for 3-D movement. 3-D movement allows for cool stuff like hills and mountains, another new design element that requires programming new to the series. Even worse still is that the new design makes wild Pokemon encounters look weird if they’re not visible when you encounter them (invisible/hiding Pokemon was always the case in the 2-D games), meaning the game designers also tossed in a bunch of wandering animals to program into the game for the developers to deal with too.

The jump from 2-D to 3-D is truly one of the most ambitious things the Pokemon franchise has had to deal with. It’s understandable that it has some bugs.

The Timeline

But would it maybe have less if it weren’t so rushed? If the game developers weren’t being pushed to make it so fast? For comparison, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl came out in North America in 2007. The next game, Pokemon Platinum, came out in 2009 in North America, but it was part of the same generation of Pokemon, meaning less added complexity if only in a few spots. The next generation, Black and White, didn’t come out until 2011 in North America, and I remember playing it after Diamond and Pearl – they have approximately the same difficulty level, approximately the same art style, and they’re both 2D. The game designers had four whole years between generations to perfect the games they were making. (If you don’t know Pokemon naming conventions, each generation of game actually comes with two games that are slightly different from eachother. Pokemon Black, for instance, has a different final boss Pokemon than Pokemon White, although the differences are mainly cosmetic. So every game generation actually comes with two games, and usually more after the fact.) Diamond and Pearl came with Platinum in that generation as well as Gold and Silver after the major releases.

It’s a lot of work, that is a lot of game, but it was 2-D and they had four years. They were also designing for the DS most of the time, meaning they had a pretty substantial amount of computing power to work with.

And then things started speeding up. Black 2 and White 2 came out in 2012 in North America, and then X and Y came out in 2013 followed by Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire in 2014. The next console came out, so that slowed down production, but even so the first Pokemon game for the 3DS came out in 2016. After that, they began designing for the switch as well – Sword and Shield released in 2019 to much critical acclaim, although there were some complaints about the game’s balancing and over-tutorializing, and another set of games after that, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl in 2021. Finally, the most recent game, Scarlet and Ruby, released in 2022. It wasn’t the first 3-D game – but it’s the buggiest so far.

The Time is Why

This is a breakneck pace for games of this scale. GameFreak, which makes Pokemon, is a triple A studio to be sure, and it’s well-funded, but all the money in the world cannot replace time spent building and playtesting. Scarlet and Violet are poorly optimized, and thus have to cut corners were they wouldn’t have if they’d just been made a little better to begin with; characters and Pokemon alike tend to disappear, slide, and morph; there’s no fall damage, so once you go up you can come down wherever you like, leading to massive game skips; some of the walls and rocks and cliffs don’t have collision, so your character can fall straight through the world into nothingness. These aren’t constant, but they’re more common than they should be for a game of this scale made by a company this well-funded.

And what should the upper management expect? The games have totally changed and they’re coming out even faster than they used to in the old 2D days. The reason the games are becoming less fun is because the scripts and such have to be done faster so the game can come out on time. There’s less time to let creativity come to the writers and less time to put all the different aspects of the game together. There’s less time to make the Pokemon and the character models. There’s just less time, full stop, to make the game and give it the soul Pokemon is known for.  But hey – it came out in two years and broke records. They have no reason to stop releasing them on this timeframe.

Ultimately, the money has the final say, and customers like their games fast.