Daily Elysium: Screwing the Sheep And Other Mangled Metaphors

I look at the games sitting on my desk, and I canÂ't help but notice that not a single one among the bunch hasnÂ't had some sort of patch released for it. While a few of these patches were mild tweaks that improved stability or even augmented gameplay, a far greater percentage were necessary patches that took a damaged product and attempted to paste it back to functionality. ItÂ's a tired subject in the gaming medium, the fruitless hope of a million gamers that someday patchware will become a frowned upon business model, though weÂ've no reason to cling upon such naivete. Even the most celebrated games that hit the shelves will be and have been patched, and might very well not work without those patches.

So, letÂ's make the not so dramatic assumption that patchware is a practice firmly entrenched in the industry, one that developers have little choice in curbing and publishers, little interest in changing. WhoÂ's to blame, and is there any chance of customers forcing the industry to improve?

I understand, on a basic level, that the current multitude of hardware configurations make some degree of patching necessary. ItÂ's just not remotely practical to test every possible permutation of system before releasing games which increasingly try to break new visual and gameplay ground. Further, getting every component to work at precisely equal levels of efficiency is something of a pipe dream, so if it happens that customers with a Radeon and an Audigy soundboard who use an ASUS motherboard and have less than 512 Megs of RAM just canÂ't get the game to run while pretty much everyone else plays happily along then themÂ's just the breaks kid.

In a practical sense my beef isnÂ't really with hardware incompatibilities. Usually I can sympathize with both sides of that argument, unless, that is, developers leave out something fundamental like keyboard compatibility or the functionality of transmitting images to your monitor. I understand the conflict of desires when little Timmy with his GeForce 2 thinks he should be able to reasonably play Sim Foot Fungus 2, while Supercilious Entertainment wants to implement a variety of bells, whistles, and fireworks that simply donÂ't translate well on three year old hardware.

What cooks my grits, though, is when the game is just broken; when software is released in a clearly hobbled state that is woefully incomplete or virtually unplayable by most customers. ThereÂ's no excuse for needing to patch in joystick support later when, for example, part of your game revolves around piloting vehicles, including such vehicles that let loose the bonds of gravity. ThereÂ's no excuse for having a fundamentally multiplayer game and then including an abysmal matchmaking system - see Gamespy.

So, fellow gamers, are we mice or are we men? Will we sit idly by as the course of our gaming fate is laid out for us, or will we stand against the powers that conspire against us. Shall we sacrifice our pride, or shall we slap our collective fist into our meaty palm, mix our mottled metaphors, and cry out to that dark night, "WeÂ're mad as hell, and weÂ're not going to take this anymore?"

As a rule, the answer to that question seems to be that weÂ're sheep.

Oh sure, just after weÂ've bought a bug laden game weÂ're all brimstone and self-righteousness. We vigorously warn our fellow gamers as if theyÂ'd just picked up an open bottle of Small Pox instead of their Diet Coke. We beg them not to run out to EB and purchase this digital torture device, and just after theyÂ've promptly ignored us, and rushed out to throw their money at the mindless automaton behind the counter (and I speak as a former mindless automaton, so take your wounded pride elsewhere) they join that chorus that rages against said game. But do we learn? No, weÂ're just, as a rule, not that willful in the face of a significant release. We crumble, and break, and do exactly what we said weÂ'd never do again. We give money to publishers and developers who release buggy products, and in the end we sound very much like alcoholics after another bender ... we promise weÂ're not going to do it again.

And this is probably the most self-defeating tack we, as gamers, can take. We like very much to say that weÂ're going to do things like bring litigation, or contact the media, or shout from every rooftop that Up The Wazoo Games has stuck it where the sun donÂ't shine yet again. Sometimes we even try to do those things, and we quickly discover that the sum total of non-gamers who could give a damn about the state and stability of game software is approximately two to the power of zero.

IÂ'm noting, in particular here, EasonÂ's comments of the state of Galaxies. I like Eason, and I think heÂ's entirely justified to be angry and disappointed in the results of his purchase. By every indication, the complaints he levies against SOE are entirely accurate, and yet I have a sneaking suspicion that heÂ'd have better luck getting the Vienna Boys Choir to sing him Happy Birtday than getting San Francisco consumer watchdog groups to take an interest in Star Wars Galaxies. Hey, if IÂ'm wrong IÂ'll be the happiest guy on the block ... but I wonÂ't be.

There are a variety of reasons nobody outside of gaming is going to care, not the least of which is that the media just isnÂ't going to take someone seriously whoÂ's been troubled by the release of a computer game in the way that they would someone whoÂ's lost thousands of dollars on a legitimate waste of money like aluminum siding. Selling viewers on the lamented story of a wronged gamer is likely not a Herculean challenge most networks want to tackle.

No, finally, itÂ's just us against them, and Â"˜usÂ' is not putting up much of a fight. The only possible way weÂ're going to win against patchware is to not buy the games. And if the success of Star Wars Galaxies, recalling that thousands of people spent ten hours trying just to give SOE their credit card info (a clear indication of the uphill climb ahead of us), is any indication, publishers have no reason to start quivering in their Gucci boots.

Pretty much all most companies need do nowadays to weather the buggy software storm is suffer some rather tame insults, filter their e-mail, and not read their own forums. Then, eventually, when they release their patch everybody will likely shut-up and forget their troubles, and the company will be free to go right on to its next buggy project. IÂ'm not saying that they couldnÂ't keep a higher percentage of customers happy by releasing quality product, but that as it stands, particularly for the vast majority of supremely average software released, it just makes better fiscal sense to push a project through, get it on the shelves and in the hands of sheep - I mean gamers - and then whittle the team down to a few people releasing intermittent, often empty, patches. Yes, the games would be better served to stay in the oven until golden brown, but never make the mistake of thinking that the business model of gaming has any kind of artistic sensibility. Every game youÂ've ever played was motivated at some (usually most) level by money. While I do think the majority of developers are interested in making a good game, the fact of the matter is they usually have the least say in the matter. When it comes right down to it, the people who have the most influence over the stablity of a product are the ones least interested in your satisfaction.

As a final note, in the interest of full disclosure, I should let you know that I am a king among sheep. It can be seriously argued that IÂ'm devoid of willpower altogether.

- Elysium

Comments

For some reason, I find myself not nearly as cynical as Elysium in this, which frightens me. I don't think were all sheep and that were going to be crushed under the corporate boot. I haven't bought a buggy game at release since Renegade, and even then it was at a steep discount. Before that, who knows when the last time I bought a buggy game at release.

The reason I do this is also the reason that gives me hope, buggy game after buggy game makes me forget why I play games. For every so many customers burned by the latest release, theres a good chance one will throw up his hands and say "f*ck it, why do I do this anyway?" and walk away. For every burned out customer, you get two things. One, slowed future growth, one less advocate telling you about how great it is to play games. Two, you get a discerning gamer, when they come back, someone who will be more likely to wait a couple of months to play something. I know it happened to me that way, at least.

This is why I don't think were doomed, why I think that quality does matter. The more gamers you piss off, theres that much more resentment out there waiting to explode. Why does Blizzard sell more copies than almost any other game developer out there? Because thier customers have never been burned. Never. That kind of rep you can't buy, or hide under a logo. Most casual gamers that buy the latest Blizzard release do so because, "Blizzard games are usually pretty good quality" or "My friends are all excited about it" or "The last XCraft/Diablo game I got was a blast". All reputation, all things that are ruined when you release a buggy product.

I guess Im a little more optimistic about the whole thing because I know Im not a sheep, and hopefully won't be again. Maybe being poor has something to do with it

I would imagine that publishing games is much like the book industry, only a few successful titles make the real profit and pay for the rest that barely break even. If a game isn't getting great hype and excellent prospects near release they won't bother polishing it up and hoping to kick-start a new franchise. They'll just toss it out before the end of the financial quarter and hope for the best.

If you think about it though, the most successful developers with the highest selling games tend to release stable products. Microsoft games (RON the exception) puts out solid titles that sell well. It's gotten to the point where I'm surprised when an MS published game comes out of the gate buggy and that's saying a lot. Blizzard, Ensemble and uhhh.. sh*t, it really says something when I can't think of developers who consistently release stable products. My point is, the mega-sellers also tend to lean towards the stable side of the spectrum once they hit the shelves.

There are always exceptions of course but a game like The Sims doesn't get popular if it doesn't run on damn near everyone's system.

If we're sheep, does that make having sex with us banned in a few countries?

That explains it! Damn, Im moving to New Zealand.

Just a thought. Why doesn't GWJ have a list of games posted on the website somewhere, games that are known to have major bug problems, the type of games we as gammers should avoid like the plague.

I think it would be a nice step in the right direction if we all as a community looked at the list compiled and stayed away from such games until they are fixed properly it would be a step in the right direction.

Some people might look at this idea as idealistic and that it wouldn't help in the grand scheme of things, as people will do what they want regardless. I like to look at it as a starting point for something this industry definitly needs. A KICK IN THE ASS! Big changes start from small ideas, who knows what this could lead to.

NOTE: If such a list were created, only bug ridden piles of crap should be posted and games that just plain suck would NOT. Just because someone doesn't like a game doesn't mean they didn't put out a stable product

I disagree with the 'not buying the games' argument. I think that we should be able to return the crappy games once we buy them. Of course, until they figure out a way to stop 1337 d00d from opening the game, copying it/stealing the auth code, and returning it, I guess we're stuck with defective merchandise.

I agree Minase, but that's a different fight.  Unless, of course, evidence can be provided that game company coerced some of the retailers to stop accepting returns. 

On a side note, Babbages/Gamestop still accepts 7 day returns as far as I know.  It's become the only place I buy games now.

- Elysium

There are a few reasons why this is a good idea we really couldn't do.

1) Who decides what a buggy game is? How buggy does it have to be?

2) We don't want to alienate developers, especially when shipping a buggy product may not be their choice to begin with

3) Do we want to track every patch that comes out so we know when to remove someone from the list?

No, I think it's a good idea (in fact I had it some years ago for a different site) but I think ultimately it wouldn't serve much of a purpose. The kind of people that visit this site will probably know when a game is buggy whether we tell them or not. It's the casual gamer that gets stuck with buying a bug-ridden product and keeps the publisher's bottom line up.

Id like to almost agree with Certis. I dont think its an idea GWJ can do right. I think it could be done, since community moderation could decide if a game is buggy or not, which would take care of all three of his concerns. But the problem with that is our community is too small for such a project, we would need all kinds of people going to the site every time a game is released. Some place like GameRankings.com or GoneGold could probably pull this off. In fact, I hope someone from that site is reading this and brainstorming as we speak. I just dont think we can pull off something like that here.

In response to your problem number 2 Certis. You wouldn't tell everyone to go out and buy a bug ridden game if you were doing a review anyway so how does putting up a list change that?

I would hate for the sight to loose any connections it may have with game companies out there but a bad purchase is a bad purchase. Just cause a game is buggy it doesn't mean it wouldn't be worth purchasing if it wasn't.

Like Pyro said, you would need a larger community than ours to really pull it off and to be perfectly honest, those who have problems talk the loudest. Gamers will complain far and wide if there is an issue with their copy while the guys who have no issues aren't nearly as likely to make it known. EVERY game suffers from hundreds of idiots who think their game should work with the latest beta drivers for their cards.

Bottom line is really who wants to undetake a project of that size?It sounds like a royal pain in the ass for not much benefit.

Bastard

Set the system up right, with a dedicated community of people who aren't crackheads and it can be done with a decent amount of work. You can always ban the crackheads, and they will usually be pissed enough not to come back, because the focus of the site is whether or not games work, not personal attention (hopefully keeping away the attention whores).

Like I said, I hope someone is read who is in a position to do this, because I think it can be done right and would be very beneficial. I just don't think we can do it here.

Well. i think that there will come a day when someone in power, be it a celebrity or the son of an attourney general, buys a game that is broken, finds out that a)you can't return it and b)this happens a lot and then we will have class action lawsuits a-poppin'. publicity ot fo the woodwork about how these horrible death simulation companies are now selling products that don't even work! Its jsut a matter of time.

It's not really a copying problem anymore (those days are long gone), it's basically way to much work for joe blow to copy a game these days and anyone with the skills and know how to do so can just as easily get a cracked version online. Note, you also can't return CD's or other console games.

The whole no return thing is something that is very very seedy and clearly has conspiracy marked all over it. It is most definitely a collusion between retails, distributors and publishers to maximize profits and the expense of consumers. The fact of the mater is that retailers can take returns and they can force distributors to credit them (legally, and how it used to be). But it is so much more easy for each to point the finger at the other, saying they won't let us take that back sorry, and then leave us holding the bag, latterly, as they laugh all the way to the bank. Really it was a sad day for consumer's everywhere when this started to happen and it's a even sadder day today because acceptance of this practice has become almost universal. Bad sign of things to come.

There are actually some interesting cases in the works right now, but the basic problem is that it's not a matter of say criminal law (I have a handy pamphlet for the CA AG office one just how much retailers are allowed to screw you). it's really a question of money. The stores can easily settle suits that might go somewhere and most mere mortals (even rich ones) can't afford prolonged civil engagement in the American court system on a mater of principal. Until some better consumer protection laws are passed and goverment can levle the playing feild we are pretty much hosed, sadly.