There’s a well-known (and rather hilarious) bug doing the rounds right now in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, whereby the faces of characters fail to load, revealing the gaping void that lies beneath. It’s made far, far worse by the addition of a perfectly normal pair of eyes and a sadistic, Joker-style grin.
But whilst Mr Skinned Face is all fun and games (check out the pic of him kissing a girl if you really want to lose your lunch), is it indicative of a wider problem? Ubisoft responded quickly to the issue with the release of a day one patch – but is that itself the issue here?
There’s no getting around the fact that the ability to patch a game can be a wonderful thing. Everyone’s experienced the dread of a game-breaking bug, that terrifying moment when they realize they’ll need to restart from the very beginning, that the last ten hours have been a complete waste of time. How many games have been chucked because the player just cannot be arsed to trudge through that awful sewer level or beat that impossible boss again?
No, patches are good. Great, even. But does it give developers too much slack? Why worry too much about hitting a quality target by release day, after all, when you can just stick a patch up on the store a week later to sort out any bugs? Publishers, meanwhile, get to avoid the messy financial impact of delaying.
Games are getting more complex, no getting around that. Back in the day, Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot didn’t need to worry about their worlds being always online, or populated with thousands of NPCs, or containing countless possible permutations depending on whether or not the player picked up that cowboy hat at the start. So maybe there was less to go wrong – although that’s not an excuse.
The last few months have shown a number of big, AAA-releases which have run the gauntlet from buggy to barely-working. Assassin’s Creed: Unity, for instance, aside from the aforementioned tribute to Castor Troy, also appears to suffer from fairly serious slowdown in places, whilst Driveclub made the headlines for all the wrong reasons when the devs announced a “one in, one out” system for anyone wanting to play online. Even Halo: The Master Chief Collection seems to have completely borked its multiplayer, which is odd considering it worked just fine before.
Of course, no one wants to miss a release date – especially if your game has been pushed back already. But is the alternative that much better? Releasing a game that is buggy (or worse: doesn’t work) is a far, far bigger problem than not releasing at all. No one remembers the three-month delay – everyone will remember Mr Skinned Face.
It’s unlikely that this trend of rushing a game out to release with a post-launch patch in swift pursuit is going to end any time soon. If anything, it’s probably going to get worse. As computing power grows, so too will the worlds they generate and the bugs that populate. And rather than absorbing the cost of delaying, publishers will continue to kick the game out into the hostile wilderness with the promise that the tent and camping stove will be with them by next week.
As I mentioned above, patches can be good, but in this sense mainly they suck. They let developers be lazy and publishers be greedy. The future of gaming does have a face–you just can’t see it.