Ever wonder why games need updates? We’ve all been there. Your kiddos fire up their game console all ready to play their favorite game, but no… They’re greeted not by the title screen, but by the dreaded “This game needs an update” window.
So why? Why do games have these periodic updates like this? It didn’t use to be that way. In the bygone era of cartridge-based systems, like the venerable NES, there was no such thing as an update or a patch. So why now?
The simple reason is to make the game better. It might mean that developers found and fixed new bugs. It might be that they added some new feature. Or, they might even enhance a game for updated hardware.
For example, with the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X – many games came out with patches or updates to take advantage of the stronger hardware.
Why Games Need Updates
As a developer myself, I can let you in on a not-so-secret secret. No game is perfect. When it’s released there are still bugs in it. Some are known and some are not. This was the case with the old games too, even the ones on cartridges. Thankfully, especially on the consoles, really bad bugs are pretty rare. You don’t usually find something that will crash the game or lose data or something like that. However, modern games are incredible complex. They have many systems and features all interacting. So, from time to time, minor issues still crop up. Since the modern game systems allow for updates, developers take the opportunity to fix some of those things.
The Day 1 Patch
Related to this, is something called a Day 1 Patch. This is a normal process for most any modern game. For a Day 1 Patch, a game has an update ready on the day the game is released. So why? Generally, there’s a pretty lengthy window of time between when a game “masters” (meaning it’s put on a disc an ready for duplication) and when those discs are manufactured and distributed to stores. So the developer continues to chase down additional bugs or issues or put in even more polish on the game.
This doesn’t mean if you buy a game and put it in, it won’t run. On the consoles, there’s rigorous testing to ensure any game that is certified for release hits a minimum bar. Testing particularly focuses on crashes, lost data, and really egregious bugs. So, generally, even without a “Day One” patch, the game will run just fine – the Day One patch is the developer using every possible bit of time they can to make the game even better.
Balance Updates and Tweaks
Aside from bugs, games need updates to improve balance. It might make some enemies more difficult, it might change a level layout slightly, or it might make a weapon a little less accurate.
This comes from seeing a game played at scale. Developers play and test their games throughout development. But, because of that, balance is one of the most difficult things to really nail. Imagine, after you’ve played a level for 500 times, it’s very hard to have a good perspective on the difficulty. So, that’s why developers run external tests. These are very helpful and go a long way to getting the difficulty generally right, but nothing matches seeing a game played by thousands. Gamers are incredibly smart and incredibly resourceful.
They’ll find strategies and tactics the developers never even considered. In many cases, this is fine, it’s a great thing to see players using the game systems in interesting ways. In other cases, particularly in multiplayer games, it can be a problem. The “fun” of a game is significantly impacted if there’s a single purely dominant strategy or weapon. So, sometimes games need updates to better balance it so that the dominant strategy or weapon is no longer dominant.
Yet another reason games need updates is to add new features. Sometimes, as a game is getting ready to ship, developers just don’t have enough time to get everything in the game that they planned. Often features are almost ready but developers cut them to make sure the rest of the game can be polished up. So, after the game is out – particularly if the developers are going to do an update for balance or bug fix reasons, they’ll also try and finish up those almost finished features and get them added too.
Similarly, but at a much larger scale, are updates for new hardware. For example, the XBox One X and the PS4 Pro provide owners of those systems more power. Since games can run at higher resolutions (like 4K) or run smoother on those newer systems, developers will update the game to add higher resolution assets or to run at a faster frame rate.
Beyond all that, every once in a while, developers add additional content as well. In these cases, it’s usually something small. It’s not something that would really warrant a purchasable DLC (Downloadable Content) but it adds to the game. Examples of this are holiday updates where elements of the game get changed to reflect Christmas or Halloween, or anniversary items – like a special helmet given to players on the 1 year anniversary of a game’s release.
And There You Have It…
In the end, the developers know the frustration of having to patch a game. We’re gamers too, and we do the same eye roll when a game we want to play needs an update. That’s why they generally do them at intervals and only when there’s enough change to warrant the update. So, unless it was a particularly terrible issue, a developer wouldn’t do an update to fix one simple small thing, but a hundred? That could be worth it.
At any rate, despite the temporary frustration it can cause, updates really are there to make the games better for you and your kiddos.
… Though, no, that doesn’t help the progress bar go any faster.
Have you or your kiddos been excited to play a game only to have to wait on a really long patch? Have you ever updated a game and been really surprised by the changes? Leave a comment below.