The Plague of Patches
It's happened to every one of us at some point. You've gotten bored with your current MMOG and decide to try out (insert enticing product title) to see if it suits you. You walk into your favorite retailer, pick up a box, and rush home to tear it open like a kid on Christmas. After popping in the disc, you watch the installation for what seems an eternity as the progress bar crawls across the screen. Flipping through the manual is moderately satisfying, but game manuals aren't as beefy as they used to be, so after spending fifteen minutes on YouTube, the game is finally ready to play. Anticipation builds as the loading screen appears, but, to your disappointment, the megapatch begins.
While this is only a minor delay with popular single player games like Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, or Call of Duty: World at War, an MMOG patch may mean you could have 3 or more hours of free time in your future. Why, in this day and age, are players still subjected to such lengthy patching? In a world where players jump from game to game, this issue can no longer be ignored, and I have four suggestions that may help alleviate a problem that toys with the hearts and minds of many consumers.
No one will argue that patching (in some form) is unavoidable, because your game needs to have the latest updates in order to run properly. However, this process can certainly can be localized, and it's hard to understand why piecemeal updates can't be done while the game is running. If my client needs to download an expansion, why can't I jump into the older areas? Sure, expansion content frequently reaches into the non-expansion world but why not disable it until the files are complete? Perhaps I need a notoriously large voice pack file for my surly group of centaurs that will take 20 minutes or more. Can't those sounds be turned off until I have them? Even if it required a reboot of the client afterwards, it would still provide more entertainment than staring at a progress bar. Part of this is in the design of software, and I'll readily admit that I'm no programmer, but the logic of holding up an entire gameplay experience for expansion content is a little baffling.
A surprisingly simple method of improving player experience is keeping an updated retail product. A few weeks ago I decided to reinstall World of Warcraft, so after re-downloading the client from a digital distributor I assumed it would be a quick patch. Apparently it was the exact same client I had purchased 2 years ago and when you add in The Burning Crusade it was the next day before the game was ready to go. The restarts and EULA clicks were too numerous to count and an experience like that can turn off a finicky consumer. The patches should be bundled together into a giant file or at least have the software set up to grab everything on its own. Retail boxes should be kept as current as possible even if it means making smaller production runs.
If the previous suggestion wasn't unappealing enough to developers, let's take it a step further. Why is so much of the client stored on the users end? A game that just launched shouldn't take up more space than a single-player product like Grand Theft Auto IV. Sure, hard drives are large enough that 20 gigabytes isn't a crippling issue but it's getting all that data to the user. As improvements to worldwide internet infrastructure are made, this might become less of an issue, but how much really needs to be kept locally? Of course server storage can get expensive but a serious look at the correlation between customer satisfaction and cost can be examined. Gone are the days of players demanding cutting edge graphics that run on $4000 PCs and if these companies are serious about entering the console market, it's time to heavily consider a change.
Finally, and this is the most economical and simple solution, give us something to look at besides a progress bar. Granted this isn't going to be as helpful to those with megapatches, but it might improve the overall experience for regular players. Take steps beyond linking your forums and provide access to an online version of the manual. Maybe go crazy and spend a few weeks developing a Flash game with jewels or goblins to keep people entertained if only for the minute it takes them to patch. Hell, throw up a user leaderboard for people to compete on. How about an introduction movie that fills us in on that lore stuff everyone likes to ignore? The point is we need more than what is available now. While on a grand scale game design should be the focus of development, these are critical moments where purchasing decisions are made.
Let's face it, megapatches suck and heavy delays aren't conducive to positive experiences. The above suggestions may not be ideal to every situation and certainly would increase the cost of doing business, but companies can no longer afford to do nothing. At some point, a compromise needs to be reached between product delivery and expense. This is no longer the industry of EverQuest where frequent downtime and patches are just par for the course. Expectations have been raised and an entirely new generation of MMOG players have been born in World of Warcraft. Will development companies step up and make changes in the coming days, months or years? Probably not, but a growing problem faces them in the future so let's hope they are making preparations.