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The Ethics of Releasing a Buggy Game

Come ponder the ethicality of the day one patch, as Nick waxes philosophical in his latest editorial.

Something that has become commonplace in gaming’s new world is the infamous day one patch. Because development cycles are so incredibly tight games often have to go to the production line in an incomplete state, leaving the developer in a position to complete the bug fixing post-production, but pre-release. In many instances, the day one patch still isn’t enough to shore up the various bugs, leaving players with a game that may not even work properly on their machines. This raises the question – is it ethical to put a game on the production line that’s incomplete?

Before this console generation, publishers had little choice when it came to shipping a game. If it was broken – at all – they could not risk dropping it on the market. Game breaking bugs would spell commercial failure. Can you imagine if Bethesda’s original release of Skyrim, before the sweeping patches, was the final version of the game? It would be disastrous. Thousands of gamers would’ve been letdown by the inconsistent quality of the game and likely would’ve given up after the first few hard freezes of their system. Forget winning Game of the Year awards, it might’ve even taken Biggest Disappointment thanks to its problems.

While I have no way of answering this question accurately, we must ask – did Bethesda know how buggy the game was before they planned to produce it for the open market? Given how many gamers experienced issues, my guess is, absolutely. As we all know from our own personal experiences, business and ethics aren’t always bedfellows and I have to wonder if Bethesda weighed the ethical implications of doing what they did.

It’s entirely possible that Skyrim had already cost Bethesda a pretty penny and their only possibility of getting it shipped without causing financial ruin was to kick it out the door at that point in time, regardless of the quality. If these were the circumstances that lead to its release, I don’t believe that constitutes an unethical practice on the part of Bethesda.

However, let’s consider an alternate situation. Knowingly and willingly, Bethesda released the game in an incomplete state, expecting all bugs to be patched before release with a day one patch. Unfortunately, the bugs were too numerous and as a result the broken product was not fixed completely before consumers were able to purchase it. At best this is ethically murky. In this case, Bethesda’s intentions were in the right place and at least part of determining ethicality is intent. Conversely, they had to realize that there was a possibility that they wouldn’t meet the deadline, resulting in the situation upon release of the game.

It should go without saying that if they knew the patches wouldn’t be ready and released the game incomplete anyway their actions were both unjustifiable and unethical. I don’t care to comment on whether or not this happened, but rather to take a look at the general ethicality of the day one patch and if companies should pursue it if they wish to ethically operate in today’s less rigid rule sets for release.

The day one patch was at one point an extremely hot button topic, but has become so common that most gamers don’t even care anymore, unless the bugs persist beyond the release of the patch. However, I’m still not sold that the day one patch is an appropriate compromise given the DRM in place on consoles today.

Consider this situation – a gamer purchases a title in new condition at full price, but fails to play it for the duration of the console generation. At the point when they intend to play it, the servers supporting the game have already been shut down and the patch that once fixed the game-breaking issues on day one is no longer available. Unfortunately, this gamer is in a pretty tough predicament. The game he once spent full price for has been rendered useless because the patch that once fixed the issues is no longer available.

Of course, this situation is admittedly unlikely. But perhaps more likely is that in the long term, your console and/or hard drive dies, invalidating the patch data you once had and through purchasing a console secondhand when the servers are down, you’ve lost the ability to patch and play that game. In the long term, both gamers and the body of work suffer from the concept of the day one patch because the contents of the disc aren’t pristine.

It’s hard to say if this makes the practice any more or less ethical, but it’s definitely not something that puts the consumer first in the equation. Years from now, we’ll be able to enjoy games like Mega Man, Super Mario World, and Final Fantasy VII just as they were the day the games came out. Some undoubtedly have blemishes, but they were released in what was at least perceived to be a completed state.

In this brave new world of patching, it seems it has become far too easy for companies to eschew the moral high road in favor of more cost effective solutions that allow the game to be produced and shipped regardless of whether or not it was finished being bug tested and is ready for market. Of course, this look is not meant to demonize patches – they’re an absolutely appropriate mechanism to repair issues found it games. However, their applications to games that have still yet to be released seem at worst unethical and at best questionable.




03/18/2013 at 12:24 PM

Does Betheseda ever release a game that's complete? Do they even have a QA department?! Fallout New Vegas was  the buggiest game I have ever played. My PS3 crashed so much. Even after all the patches. I was amazed the game allowed me to finish it. What about those people that pay full price and don't have access to the internet?


03/24/2013 at 04:04 PM

I played Fallout 3 on PS3 to about the 55 hour mark, after which it was constant freezes, lags, etc. For New Vegas I learned my lesson, bought it on 360, and 120+ hours in I still haven't had a single freeze, lag, etc. Don't know if this is necessarily a PS3 vs 360 issue (and I'm by no means a 360 fanboy -- I play 90% of my games on PS3), but I have noticed that most 50+ hour games I've played on PS3 start to freeze + lag, most 50+ hour games I've played on 360 run perfectly fine.


03/18/2013 at 12:26 PM

This is why it's not worth buying many games day one anymore. Games need to at least work well right off the disc. There is no perfect game, but when a product is so buggy as to be unplayable, that's inexcusable, and the game company should man up and take it on the chin. I'm not paying $60 to be a beta-tester, and I feel it's an insult to gamers that they should have to put up with such shoddy day one releases. At a time when publishers are so concerned about lthe secondhand market and piracy, they really need to be thinking about making sure we feel like we got our moneys' worth.

Poor planning on a game publisher's part does not constitute an emergency on my part.


03/18/2013 at 12:39 PM

and what if i do not have an internet connection? 


03/18/2013 at 12:57 PM

The sad thing is that in the current age, if you don't have internet you're likely in the minority and most companies can probably afford to loose your business. If you tell them, "What if I don't have internet?" they may tell you, "Then get it and play the game. If you don't, I guess we will have to be okay with the millions of other consumers that do". I don't like always online requirements in games, I won't be playing Sim City, I'll stick with Sim City 3000 or Sim City 4 but as internet becomes more accessible the connection requirements may be more common. I hope that always online games are a minority of games in the coming generations. Going online should be an option, not a requirement, especially for single player games. If I'm trying to have a single player experience in solitude I shouldn't have to have internet, access a server, turn down a mailing list offer, and do 3 different things before I even press the "Start Story/Campaign" option in the menu.


03/18/2013 at 12:40 PM

Skyrim is such a fantastic game when it's working, which is a big reason why I think that relying on day one patches and releasing excessively buggy games is terrible. Because of the type of game Skyrim is, they should've put even more time into testing, the game needed it. Just because we have the modern infrastructure and can do day one patches and release games that aren't tested well enough, doesn't mean we should. They did a lot of testing at Bethesda, they fixed a lot of bugs, but it obviously wasn't enough. With these types of system heavy games that are purpose built for emergent gameplay, emergent narrative, plus embedded gameplay, and embedded narrative all in massive quantities, these games are different from your 12 hour linear adventure. These games need the extra love and time, you have to pay for it, and put the extra time into testing. The game would've still sold gangbusters anyways, it did even when it released buggy. I doubt another month or so of testing would've bankrupted the company, they should've just put more time into it. The design of the game demands it, and you should do what's best for the game.

All games release with bugs, the only differences are in quantity, rarity, and severity. Some people will go 100 hours in a game and it'll be flawless, then one person across the world may have their game be wrecked in some rare bug. If you put more time into testing, chances are you'll reduce the quantity and severity. Every game will always have weird rare bugs nobody can explain, I've heard developers refer to some bugs as "Solar flare bugs" because nobody can figure out a logical reason to why they exist and how to fix them. But with more testing time you can reduce the amount of bugs and severity, release the best product you can, and then patches are there for if the masses find more problems. The point should be to make it as clean as possible and not have to rely on day one patches as the actual "end" of development. Development should end and the game should be as clean as possible before release. Skyrim could've been released cleaner, it should've been released cleaner.

A lot of games, especially the great games, release pretty buggy. Last years GOTY nominations from every site were littered with some of the buggiest GOTY contenders I've seen in a long time. I hope this trend isn't here to stay. I don't want to have great games be suffocated by bugs and an over reliance on day one patches. Gamers are treated like testers when people rely on the day one patches too much. The launch week shouldn't have to be part of the development cycle and gamers shouldn't have to be unpaid testers who are relied upon to report an excessive amount of bugs that may have been found if more time was put into testing. Being the the type of game Skyrim is, it was destined to have bugs, and patches would've been necessary regardless, but the quantity and severity of bugs could've certainly been reduced. If they wanted people to be beta-testers they should've released the game like Minecraft or something and build as they went. If people want to release full priced games they need to be finished and not overly rely on day one patches and the release audience as part of the testing group.

Modern games are better than the games I played as a kid, but there's a catch, user experience has suffered for me in a lot of ways. My games feel less personal, intimate, and engrossing when I have so many online features, distractions, requirements, popups, etc. When I start up Mass Effect 2 and I have to wait 30 seconds for it to connect to some EA server then show me all the latest news and scoops, the game has already lost part of me. ME2 isn't an always online game so I don't know why I bring it up, but it still pisses me off. Anything that comes between me and the start button pisses me off.

The experience is already less appealing as a single player adventure. I should boot the game, wait for no less than 10 seconds to get to the main menu, not have to suffer through a bunch of overly long company logos, get to the menu, and hop into my game as fast as possible. The fact you can patch games is great, it benefits everybody, but day one patches are different, they're using the system wrong. They're using our interconnectivity, user feedback, and the ability to patch as an excuse to cut costs in QA and leave some of the testing up to players.


03/18/2013 at 02:13 PM

The selling of an unfished game is wrong. Publishers and developers should have the decency to try to sell a polished finished product. I would like to use Blizzard as an example, they put their games to market once they are ready and have the approval of performing up to Blizzards standards before they sell a game. I understand that sometimes due to cost and other outside factors some games are rushed to the market place, but that no excuse to sell a broken game from the start. I personally do not buy any games on day one because of this problem. I feel bad for those who buy a game, have no internet connections, and can't download the patch. 


03/18/2013 at 02:24 PM

I understand what you mean and I agree. Developers and publishers should know what they're trying to sell and give it what it needs. Ambitious design demands ambitious testing. The only part of your comment that I disagree with is using Blizzard as an example, you shouldn't use them or even Valve as an example of how to test right and release right. Those two companies are unique and exceptional in their circumstances. They both have steady money streams from STEAM and WoW. They take all the time they want, and they spend as much money as they can afford to as long as they allocate the resources from the money stream appropriatelty. Technically they can develop a game indefinitely for all time as long as their money streams continue to bring in resources that can be allocated to development.

Most companies don't have the security, flexibility, and money streams Valve and Blizzard have. What I would say is that developers and publishers need to be smarter about their budgets and about their expectations. People who want to make a Skyrim style game, which is not only complex in the system design and quantity, but is huge in the narrative design and quanity, should have equally ambitious testing demands. If you're going to make a huge game, give a huge testing effort. Know your expectations, know your budget, and if you can't give the proper testing needs, don't make the huge game.


03/18/2013 at 02:17 PM

I think it's interesting you brought up Final Fantasy VII... Having played through it recently, I can say, the dialogue is a mess!  Plenty of sentences don't even make grammatical sense, let alone all the quirky word choice.  Funny enough, I felt that added to the charm.  The graphics have all kinds of bugs as well.


For what it's worth, I think games have become so advanced and so pretty that we naturally expect them to exude perfection.  As one of the commenters above mentioned, when Skyrim is working, it is an absolutely incredible game, which makes it all the more jarring when there's a technical hiccup.  It's obvious when such a pretty game stops functioning as it should.  But in a game that looks as ugly as Final Fantasy VII (not hating, just saying), such hiccups become it, and they don't bother me at all.  Perhaps more a question of perception?

Jonathan Drake

03/18/2013 at 10:59 PM

Indeed, a tough subject. Skipping patches completely is bad call, since some bugs may slip past testing, or even improve on a game - I believe Dark Souls had a balacing patch released at some point and The Witcher saw some improvement in its Enhanced Edition.

Day one patches are harder to justify though. A game should always be released in a playable state, period. If Bethesda can't make sure its games will be released at top condition, decency dictates the devs be at least forthcoming about it. Customers have the right to know what they are getting.


03/19/2013 at 12:47 AM

Sloppy sloppy sloppy. Don't do this, publishers. At least release a playable game, day one. But hey, at least the flying backwards dragons were cool. Tongue Out


03/19/2013 at 05:04 PM

Fantastic point about patch data and later playthroughs/unboxings!


03/20/2013 at 05:16 PM

This is a crutch the industry needs to do away with.  While I realize the complexity of a game's code has grown exponentially since the industry's start, developers still need to make sure that a game runs with a minimum of stability issues and that the main campaign can be finished before it's launched.  Everytime I see a game released that cannot be finished out of the box (like Diablo II or Star Trek Armada) or requires elaborate workarounds to avoid glitches (Ar tonelico II, War in the North), I want to know if they were even play tested.

I used to play quite a few PC games in the past, many of which were rock-solid developments (Star Trek: Bridge Commander, Age of Empires) that worked straight out of the box.  But, over time the patch mentality took over (thanks to the expansion of the Internet) and allowed many companies to call a mulligan over their botched releases.  Despite how easy it is to fix these games, I never got used to it.  It's a deep-rooted and fundamental problem in the development process and the companies that suffer from it (Bethesda, Blizzard, Travellers' Tales) need to alter their practices.  I've seen too many interesting games come and go only because I lost faith in developers to release working products.  Of course, this practice is only going to get worse going forward.  Many players already assume that a game isn't going to work right from the start, and it allows companies to make money on half-baked products.  That's just a terrible way to treat consumers and do business.


03/20/2013 at 08:43 PM

Saw on a twitter feed that Gearbox was putting out a 4GB patch for Colonial Marines. 4 gigs for a patch? Considering all the bad reviews I suppose I shouldn't be supprised, just overhaul the whole game, but thats a lot of HD space. Wrote a blog on 1up about how small patches and updates can really accumulate and devour your harddrive. Why should I have to sacrifice hd space cause a game developer can't get it right on release and wants to throw out an incomplete game. It would be like buying a record from your favorite band and the studio rushes the mixing process and does not bother to get it mastered. It is going to sound like crap. No one does that. We don't accept this kind of rushed crap in our music or movies, so why should we have to put up with it in our games.


04/02/2013 at 11:28 AM

Bethesda, id, blizzard, all new game full of bugs. there is no law.

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