Experienced Points

Experienced Points
When is a Game Done?

Shamus Young | 11 Feb 2014 15:00
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When is a game done, officially? When is a game the final and complete product? It used to be that the answer was, "When it comes out." Now? Now things are strange.

If you're over twenty, then you probably remember the idyllic days in the 90's when it was borderline scandalous to have bugs in a released game on the PC. There were even journalists who refused to review patched games. They reviewed the game as it came on the disk, and if there was a patch they would either refuse to use it for the review or strongly caution readers that the game required a patch. This made sense at the time. Not everyone had internet access and even if they did, downloading multi-megabyte files on dialup was slow and tedious. Games didn't gracefully auto-patch themselves, so sometimes it even required a bit of technical fiddling.

The attitude was that PC games ought to be like console games. They should be complete, right out of the box, with no hassles. A game was seen as a product, like a book or movie. You wouldn't buy a book that was missing chapters and if you bought a movie that skipped or stopped playing randomly you'd probably demand a refund. It was just assumed that games ought to be the same.

As the internet become more ubiquitous, it became acceptable to ship a game with bugs as long as there was a patch on day one. Then it sort of became expected that we'd have a patch on day one. Then we started running into situations where the patch might take a couple of weeks to show up.

The mindset of "if your game needs a patch to work, then you're mistreating customers" gave way to "patches are okay as long as they're ready on day one". Eventually that gave way to "the game is a bit buggy, but it's really improving and they should have it fully patched soon after launch". Once we were all used to that, the new rule was, "Yeah, we'll fix the bugs mostly, unless we like them."

Instead of PC games shipping as complete products as on consoles, things went the other way. Now it's pretty routine for console games to have day-one patches waiting for you when you get the thing home. Part of this was because it's become easier to patch games. Partly it's because games are now ridiculously complex software with a lot of moving parts. Partly it's because we've shown we're willing to put up with it.

Then Minecraft happened, and things got really strange.

Minecraft didn't just go on sale before the bugs were fixed. It didn't even go on sale with a few features missing. It went on sale before it was done being designed, and the gameplay was gradually shaped by community feedback. Mods popped up, and popular ideas from the modding community were folded into the core game. It was a game shaped by the ever-growing community, and it allowed Notch to accomplish things he couldn't have done on his own. It was a new way to make games. He got feedback as the project progressed, instead of finishing it first and then hoping people liked it. It let him make the game people wanted. (Or at least, moreso than a lone designer could make on their own.)

And even after the game was supposedly "done", the updates kept coming. They're still coming.

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