Hello Games revealed details of a launch day patch for the upcoming No Man’s Sky yesterday. This patch makes some massive, literally universe changing improvements to the game, completely changing the algorithm used to generate the worlds players will explore. As a result of shipping such a massive change after the game ‘went gold’ (the moment a piece of software is ready to be delivered to customers) though, much hand wringing has been had, accusing Hello Games of shipping an unfinished game.
This point of view held merit back when game platforms were disconnected, and what you got on the cartridge or disc was what you were stuck with forever, but today when a developer has the opportunity to improve their game after the discs are pressed, why are we decrying this as a negative thing?
In earlier game generations, specifically in the console arena, what came in the box was what you got. A game could have humourous glitches or showstopping bugs that were missed during play testing, and the only means to fix them would be to pull a game from shelves. All the quality assurance testing in the world will never stop every bug that can appear when a piece of software, game or otherwise, is released to the world. One of the best aspects of our current Internet connected platforms is that these bugs can be fixed.
Sometimes they can even be found and fixed in the weeks between media pressing and the actual release date. It could be argued that the minority of people who never connect their game machines to the internet will get an inferior experience, and that can be true, but I’d argue that allowing most people to get an improved experience is far better for games overall than forcing every player to be stuck with what is on the disc.
Another argument that I see around No Man’s Sky’s launch patch is that the game was ‘not finished’ at the time it went gold. To put it bluntly, thinking of any kind of software as ‘finished’ is an outdated way of thinking. Any software developer needs to think of their work as ‘ready to release’ at some point. Clearly Hello Games weren’t finished working on No Man’s Sky at the point they decided it was ready to send for distribution. Games are often pressed weeks ahead of the game’s planned release date.
My suspicion is that the developers had to take this lead time for pressing and distribution into account, and made sure that what they had ready for the disc was something that fulfilled their (and their publisher’s) vision and expectations for what the game should be. Then they took the extra time they had until actual launch day to keep working on the game. We need to stop thinking of games as ‘finished’ when the discs are pressed. The reality of games development is that you have to ship eventually, and there is only so much that a team can do with the time and resources it has.
The No Man’s Sky we get at launch is going to be a better game than the No Man’s Sky that is on the disc. We’re getting adjustments to gameplay as informed by play testing, and improvements to the recipe that will be used to generate the vast worlds to explore. Software isn’t finished the moment it is released anymore. Developers take the opportunity afforded by distribution lead times to keep making their games better even after a game has been sent for distribution. We should not be demonising creators willing to keep improving their work after an arbitrary ship date. A developer passionate enough about their game to make sure it continues evolving for the better is one we should celebrate.