Video games: why have day one patches become the norm?

 


 

This routine, you know it well. In a hurry to throw yourself headlong into the game you've been waiting for months, you step back in the hope of getting home as soon as possible and slipping the life-saving disc into your console. When suddenly, your hopes are dashed by downloading an update that can sometimes reach tens of gigabytes. A day one patch. Again.

This practice has unfortunately become the norm in the video game industry. All the more so since the advent of game consoles permanently connected to the Internet. But while this process is relatively painless for players lucky enough to be connected to fiber, it annoys those less well off when it comes to connection.

More generally, the patch day one method questions what the publishers consider to be the acceptable state of marketing of a game. When you leave a store with a game under your arm, don't you think? not entitled to wait for it to be completed; in optimal condition?

This is precisely what most critics of this approach regret. But it would be simplistic to view the day one patch as the whim of finicky developers. You might as well write it down: given the commercial challenges facing the video game industry today, it is simply impossible to do without.

 

 

 It was better before ?


To understand how we got to having to download such large patches today, you obviously have to take a look in the rearview mirror.

It’s not uncommon for some people to be surprised that games released 20 or 30 years ago did not need these kinds of procedures when they were released. All you had to do was slip the CD-ROM into the drive and let the magic work. But there are several things to keep in mind to make sure that we are comparing things that can be.

 

 


 

First, video games from the last century were infinitely less complex than they are today. 3D didn't appear until the mid-1990s, and even a game as technically ambitious as The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind - and its 24 square kilometer play area - only weighed a tiny gigabyte on hard drives. of the time (the game was released in 2002).

Then we talk about a time (the early 2000s) when only 361 million people have Internet access. Access whose limitations are well remembered by the oldest. The players then, infinitely fewer in number than today, are not necessarily among the lucky ones. Developers therefore have no choice but to deliver a 'perfect' game; free of bugs and on which nothing should be added a posteriori.

Finally, we must realize that the video game industry was very far from being as heavy as it is today. In 2000, the world market represented a little less than 40 billion dollars, against 179.7 billion dollars in 2020. It goes without saying that the financial stakes were lower at the time. Remember that video games are the most lucrative cultural industry in the world today.

And this status obviously comes with a certain pressure from investors, for whom playing well is less important than putting it into a certain financial calendar.

 

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Designing a video game is always a gamble


It is not the independent developers who will contradict us here: designing a video game is a gamble. Whether your name is Eric Barone and channeling your energy for five years to make Stardew Valley out of your savings, or Microsoft, ready to stretch nearly $ 500 million to give Halo a worthy sequel to next-gen consoles.

In the latter case, the stakes may be even greater. The reason ? The greater the number of people involved in a project, the greater the consequences of a possible failure.

 

 


 

And no matter how deep your pockets are, the budget allocated to a video game is not stretchy. Sooner or later, producers and investors will have to be guaranteed a return on their investment. And unfortunately there are times when it is more economically interesting for them to push a game that is not finished to release than to delay its marketing.

Because the postponement of an outing is not trivial either. This means salaries to be paid over a longer period, overtime to be covered, or even marketing costs to be extended. Also, for some studios (each scenario is of course different), the dilemma can be reduced to releasing an unfinished game but generating income, or delaying the release of the game and thus losing the confidence of investors.

 

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The famous stage of certification


You might be wondering what all of this has to do with sauerkraut. But we had to go through that to give you an overall picture which, you will see, will take shape in a few moments.

It will not have escaped your notice that, for more than 10 years, few titles have been released on one platform only. Even rarer are those that are only available on PC. It must be said that it would be daring to say the least to do without a potential market of over 200 million souls. The problem is, it's not enough to get dressed up, knock at a console with your heart in your heart and submit your desire to distribute your game on his machine.

In order for a game to be released for console release, it must first pass the certification stage. A step which, when validated, most of the time gives the green light to the pressing of the famous 'Gold' version of a game - one that is ready to be burned on Blu-ray and marketed.

However, players have a lot of misconceptions about certification. All the more so since the Cyberpunk 2077 case study, whose PS4 and Xbox One versions are barely playable. That is, certification should not be confused with Quality Assurance (QA). The QA department of a video game studio is dedicated to thoroughly inspecting a game for bugs or malfunctions, and then getting the word out to the developers to have them fixed. Certification, we will see, has little to do with it.

 


 



This step should be seen as an exam. The game is presented to console manufacturers in a state that the publisher considers to be 'final', or in any case sufficiently correct for it to be marketed, and it must comply point by point with the specifications set by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. A specification whose requirements vary for each manufacturer - Microsoft, for example, wants the Xbox menu to be accessible from any screen in the game; Nintendo, he refuses that certain swear words are included in the subtitles.

To summarize, therefore:


  • Fill out a complex form and join a queue.
  • When obtaining a date, prepare a build of the game that can be considered not only as marketable, but also taking into account the specific requirements of each manufacturer.
  • Fingers crossed for certification to be granted. Because otherwise, you will have to start the whole process again once the game gets under way. Including waiting your turn in the queue before you can submit your game to the builder.



In an exciting article detailing the game certification process, developer Rami Ismail (Nuclear Throne) suggests that we visualize 'cert' as he calls it 'a gigantic book of checkboxes.'

These are not only very numerous, they can vary depending on the country in which the game is going to be launched. 'Some are very sensible (eg the game should not crash), others are reasonable (if you stay on the main game menu for 24 hours, is the game still running?) And others still may seem obscene (if you quickly plug and unplug a controller, does the game know what to do?) ”, explains the developer with humor tinged with experience.

You will understand from these few examples: the certification process is not a proper playtest. It could be roughly summed up as an aggregate of technical conditions that a game must meet in order to be able to be launched on a console. The most important of them is not to break said console, of course. Note, however, that certification only applies to console versions of a game. Steam, GOG, Humble and other Epic Games leave full responsibility for what they post to their online stores.

 

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This is a process described as very bureaucratic. The content of the game is never in question. Also, and in view of the waiting times which can lengthen before being able to actually submit their game for certification, the editors do not hesitate to send builds very early in order to have time to get up to standards before the release date of a game. Cyberpunk 2077, again, had notably obtained its “Gold” certification last October. Or a little more than two months before it is put on the shelves.

However, Rami Ismail tells us that because of all these certification delays that must be taken into account, 'a 'Gold' build dates from about 1 to 3 months before the game's release'. You read that correctly: in the case of the CD Projekt RED set, the version officially approved by Sony and Microsoft could therefore be dated at the end of the summer.

 

 

Of the sad need for day one patches


This version is the one that console players have discovered if they have not connected their PlayStation or Xbox to the Internet and thus prevented the download of the day one patch of more than 40 GB. It is also the one to which were entitled to journalists under embargo during their test, before the famous patch was delivered to them in advance.

On the menu ? Bugs galore, strawberry optimization, and dildos all over the place. Well.

All of this to say that from the moment a game goes for certification and the moment it actually hits the shelves, it's obvious that the developers continue to whip to polish their copy. All of these changes are compiled into a patch which, depending on the size of the task, can reach a certain weight.

The most infuriating in history? Patches must also go through the certification box before getting the green light from console manufacturers and being deployed. This explains, in particular, why certain patches are released more quickly on PC than on home machines.

A situation as irritating for gamers as it is frustrating for developers who have sweated blood and water for years to bring their game to life.

The day one patches would then only be a symptom of an industry whose appetite is only growing, forgetting in passing to be clear about the actual deadlines for the development of a game. type of mechanisms and all the deadlines that it imposes which encourages certain studios to practice the crunch, which we spoke to you in detail in a dedicated file.


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