Daily Elysium: Screwing the Sheep And Other Mangled Metaphors
I look at the games sitting on my desk, and I canÃ‚'t help but notice that not a single one among the bunch hasnÃ‚'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. ItÃ‚'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 weÃ‚'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, letÃ‚'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. WhoÃ‚'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. ItÃ‚'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 canÃ‚'t get the game to run while pretty much everyone else plays happily along then themÃ‚'s just the breaks kid.
In a practical sense my beef isnÃ‚'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 donÃ‚'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. ThereÃ‚'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. ThereÃ‚'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, "WeÃ‚'re mad as hell, and weÃ‚'re not going to take this anymore?"
As a rule, the answer to that question seems to be that weÃ‚'re sheep.
Oh sure, just after weÃ‚'ve bought a bug laden game weÃ‚'re all brimstone and self-righteousness. We vigorously warn our fellow gamers as if theyÃ‚'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 theyÃ‚'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, weÃ‚'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 weÃ‚'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 weÃ‚'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 weÃ‚'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 donÃ‚'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.
IÃ‚'m noting, in particular here, EasonÃ‚'s comments of the state of Galaxies. I like Eason, and I think heÃ‚'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 heÃ‚'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 IÃ‚'m wrong IÃ‚'ll be the happiest guy on the block ... but I wonÃ‚'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 isnÃ‚'t going to take someone seriously whoÃ‚'s been troubled by the release of a computer game in the way that they would someone whoÃ‚'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, itÃ‚'s just us against them, and Ã‚"˜usÃ‚' is not putting up much of a fight. The only possible way weÃ‚'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. IÃ‚'m not saying that they couldnÃ‚'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 youÃ‚'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 IÃ‚'m devoid of willpower altogether.