Why ‘Day-One Patches’ Are So Common

Why ‘Day-One Patches’ Are So Common

No Man’s Sky didn’t send out review builds because the game wasn’t done. No Man’s Sky gets leaked by resellers breaking street date. Polygon, Kotaku and numerous streamers obtain a copy before release date and play it. No Man’s Sky developer and the platform holder both say the game isn’t final. No Man’s Sky developers shows changelist for the Day One patch to stop this nonsensical discussion about a build that wasn’t meant for the public. News hits that No Man’s Sky is getting a ‘huge’ Day One patch that’s going to fix many of the issues. This blog post, by game developer Rami Ismail, was originally published on his website. We’ve republished it here with his permission.

You also need to realise a lot of what I’m about to discuss cannot be discussed by a developer during the development process for various reasons, including legal contracts we have to sign to be allowed to release a game. This is also the reason I have to be vague about the details, and each of my statements is not about any specific console manufacturer or platform holder but sort of about all of them and none of them at once. Most of these things have been mentioned before in public discourse in some form or another, and I have to emphasise the examples aren’t from any one specific console manufacturer either, and might be hypothetical, modified or altered to avoid mentioning things too specifically. This is pretty much the most transparent I can be without breaking NDAs I’ve signed to be allowed to publish on all major console platforms.

There’s two things that are relevant here:

  1. Consoles are platforms and devices that come with an expectation of quality, and as such have systems in place to ensure that quality.
  2. Developers are creatives working on a commercial schedule, leading to the ancient and never-broken rule that a developer will always be two weeks late for their deadline — no matter how big or small the deadline is.

When you make a game for console — no matter which one — you have to realise the systems developers and platform holders are dealing with weren’t built for 2016. These systems are legacy systems, built upon legacy systems, built upon legacy systems. It’s like the system you are or were forced to use at your day job, if you’ve ever worked in retail, stock or booking systems, or at any checkout. Many of these systems interface closely with bureaucracy and console technology, and instead of radically changing how systems work between generations and breaking everything at a console launch, console platforms tend to try and not break things that work. As such, many of these systems are unwieldy, complicated, intricate and really built for teams that can afford to hire more people to read the manual and figure out the systems. These systems come from an age before indie, and some of the manual pages still refer to mailing copies by postal mail. Despite that, the console creators and their teams all work super hard to ensure developers have a smooth process, improving their systems where possible without touching the legacy foundation and ensuring that players get a functional game.

The most egregious example of this is called ‘certification’. On computer platforms, stores like Steam, Humble, GOG and itch.io have decided that developers just have to deal with the fallout of releasing a broken product themselves, and thus allow you to push a product or patch at any point whatsoever (they often do a pre-release check of your store page, though!). Consoles on the other hand, come from the ‘Seal of Quality’ mindset. To ensure that quality, they use a system called ‘certification’, or FQA, or TRC, or TCR, or some other random acronym that refers to something technical and a checklist. Devs like to call this quality assurance process ‘cert’, and no matter what developer you ask, you’ll find most developers understand why it exists, and we all really appreciate all the people working super hard to ensure our games are working right, but we tend to all hate ‘cert’. What you have to imagine when it comes to cert, is a giant book of checkboxes. There’s an absurd amount of them, and they could be different not only per platform, but per territory (for example, a European build has different certification rules than a US one, requiring differences between the two), and sometimes even between a patch, a DLC and a release version.

Some of these make a lot of sense (don’t crash), and some of these are reasonable (if you leave the main menu open for 24 hours, is the game still smooth?), and some of them sound obscene (if you rapidly plug and unplug the controller, does the game know what to do?). Some of these are enlightening (your game needs to figure out what controller the player is assigned to, thus requiring the ‘Press [button] to start’ screen only console games still have), and some of them are just headaches (don’t put UI in the outer 10 per cent of the screen, unless you use one of those ‘how big is your screen’ interfaces). Some are legal (is any form of parental control activated or is the profile under the allowed age for gameplay? If so, did you disable the required functionality?) and some can make you desperate (the console can not have had firmware updates between your release build and the patch). Did you know consoles don’t necessarily pause your game for you when players switch to other interfaces? You have to do that yourself.

Anyway, certification is a big thing. The process for it is also a big thing. In most cases, you have to fill out a weirdly complex form for your submission, and then ‘book a slot’ of sorts, or wait until you get an OK to submit your game. Since the people testing games aren’t infinite, you need to let people know when you’re submitting your build. So you check which dates are available, and usually there’s a free slot a few days from today. If your build isn’t in a certain amount of time ahead of that, your slot can be lost, and you’ll have to ‘book’ a new one. When the slot starts, and your game goes into certification, there’s a variety of reasons your submission can be rejected, in which case your slot can be lost too. Then, the teams start testing, and they report certification violations to you. In many cases, your violations are graded along a scale from ‘Must Fix’ or ‘Fix This’ to ‘Suggestion’ or ‘Whatever really’. If any of them exceed a certain level, your submission fails, and you have to start from square one and fill out the form, find a free day to book a slot or wait until certification starts, and submit a new build.

Some of the certification problems are impossible to avoid. Developers can’t control when consoles update their firmware, and when engines shift their support for firmware. In those cases, developers can request an exception to a rule. This is a bureaucratic process, and it can require negotiating, a formal request and formal permission. It takes time. Then, when you get an exception, for most platforms you often need to fill out on the submission form how, where and from who you got that exception when you submit again.

Did I mention that all of this is poorly documented? One console has a field that says ‘assets file’. It doesn’t mention what the assets file is, nor what it does, or what these assets are. If you don’t add the file, it can’t process your submission. If you add it, but it isn’t ‘right’, your build can fail. You lose a week. If there’s a checkbox somewhere in the hundreds or thousands of obscure rules that you missed, you lose a week. If there’s something that’s subtly different between Europe and America, you lose a week. What I’m trying to say is that certification could take a week, and in the worst cases, it could take months. From personal experiences, I can say that it can make developers cry. It could delay your game. At the end, though, the game that launches checks every checkbox. You’ve got your proverbial ‘Seal of Quality’. Your game is allowed to launch.

Now, I’m not saying No Man’s Sky did this, but in most cases, developers with a launch date need to make sure they can hit that launch date. We start submitting certification builds somewhat early, in the hopes that one of them gets the check mark that says ‘you’re good to negotiate a launch day’. Certification is technical — it doesn’t bother with what the game is, it just concerns itself with whether it works technically. It checks whether the boxes are checked. You can market a dark gritty murder game titled Dark Horses, and submit a pony farm tycoon game, and as long as the name on the form matches the name of the game, they would not object.

So — since development is messy and unpredictable — if you’ve got a build that’s ‘pretty much done’ and it works, and you can get it through certification, that’s a good sign for your final build. So you submit it, it goes through cert, and you stage it for download and launch. For disc games, the game needs to go through certification in time to be printed, boxed and distributed. At that point, developers are usually still one to three months from release, which tends to mean you need one and a half to three and a half months to get the game done, and then you still need to keep in mind that unpredictable amount of time you’ll spend in certification. A Day One patch is technically still submitted at least one week from launch, but until it actually goes through certification, it can’t be made available to the public.

Knowing that, it should be easy to see why Day One patches are often “huge”. For a game that goes on disc, the ‘gold’ build that went through certification is one to three months old by the time the game launches. That gives developers half a month to two and a half a month to do a month and a half to three and a half months’ worth of work to make the game ‘perfect’ while still hitting the release date with the patch. If your studio is huge, you probably have an internal QA department that (for good reason) slows things down internally, but if your studio is nimble and small, you can change enormous portions of the game in that span of time.

So in the hypothetical example of No Man’s Sky, when No Man’s Sky launches, for most people, it will launch into the intended experience thanks to the Day One Patch. That build is as close to what the developers envisioned as they worked, learned and improved upon that vision. That’s No Man’s Sky. The version that is on the disc, however, is months old. The only way to avoid that kind of thing is to not launch on disc.

One could argue that developers then, should make certain that a game is perfect when they submit it to disc, which is not an invalid stance. It’s just an impractical stance. If you’ve got months to improve upon a game that went through cert, do you think you would leave those months? Do you think audiences would appreciate a developer just kind of doing nothing for three months? Can you imagine the Kickstarter outrage if a developer, three months from launch, posted ‘we’re done, it’s good, we’re not touching it again until you get to play in three months’? Anybody arguing that a game should be done when it goes ‘gold’ is living in the ’90s.

Developers care about the games they make, and we’re trying to make the best game we can for our players. We’ll take every opportunity we can get for that. If consoles operated like Steam did, No Man’s Sky wouldn’t have a Day One Patch, because the build you’d download and play when it comes out would have been submitted comfortably a few days before launch. Day One Patches aren’t necessarily a failure on the developers or the platforms side, they the result of people that care about what they make, trying to deliver the game the audience expects by the date they expect it, while everybody involved is struggling with outdated systems on cutting-edge technology. Everyone is trying their hardest. Nobody is doing anything wrong. The developer isn’t lazy. The platforms aren’t malicious. Day One patches are simply a patch to a submission system that’s old and convoluted.


  • Thank you.

    (I work in project management. One of the things that infuriates me most about gaming communities is the lack of understanding of just how much bullshit can be involved in delays/timing/project scheduling for any title, let alone AAA. “Why didn’t they just X?” “Why didn’t you just fucking climb Everest and cure cancer on the way up?”)

    • I think the issue is the flip flopping by gaming community leaders and journalists when it comes to day one patches.

      If this was a Battlefield or Call of Duty or another AAA game that was buggy or unfinished before release with a day one patch promise that’ll fix everything, the developer would have been torn to shreds in the gaming media.

      However, because it’s No Man’s Sky the usual Day One patch criticism now seems to be not warranted.

      This confusion is probably why you are seeing people being less understanding as previous views of Day One patches are now wrong.

      • Some context is necessary too. There’s a difference between a day one patch that adds some features and basic optimisations, and a day one patch that makes multiplayer servers/matchmaking work as advertised.

        NMS is largely an offline, solo experience, and since a lot of the press are only just getting their hands on the game today or in the past 24-48 hours, there’s nothing yet for them to criticise as such.

        • It’s still adding a lot of features and bug fixes that could be comparable to other games that get the day one patch treatment.

          Context is important that is true, however should a product be viewed as is, or do we now wait for the first patch to come out before making a call.

          Consistency in reporting is equally important, and this raises a question, when is a game “completed” ? When the developer announces it has gone gold? When the day one patch is out or when a year’s worth of patches are applied?

          The lines are being blurred now

          • In terms of reporting on/reviewing games, the way I approach it is to judge it on what is available on the launch day. If the patch was good to go for the people who first picked up their copies in the morning then that’s the game they released. Patching it a year from then, while improving the title for future players, shouldn’t affect the reviews/reports on the launch.

          • The idea of games as a service means that games are never “completed” as such, and games are often a vastly different beast from launch in part due to player feedback, as well as everything else that happens. It’s tricky.

            But as for reviews or coverage from launch, if a game changes substantially a year later (or more) that’s more a case for a fresh look, rather than updating the launch coverage.

          • Oh of course you’re right. I was more thinking along the lines of whether games media should chastise the need for a day one patch or not. But a game that has had substantial fixes a year later but launched horribly unplayable I would still consider a poor release, even though it eventually became a great title.

    • You won’t stop it. Gamers now are extremely entitled and don’t seem to grasp the concept of how much work goes into making games.

        • Dunno if you’ve seen Sean’s twitter.. There was a guy getting all pissy because they had to delay the PC version and couldn’t reveal the release date yet ( Obviously they have now ) but he was throwing a huge fit at Sean and Hello Games because he took time off work.

          The entire backlash at him was priceless. People were telling him that it’s his shitty priorities that are to blame and he just refuses to accept responsibility for being an idiot.

          • yeah they are a crack up or the ridiculous idea that sony paid for 3 days of exclusivity and its all some giant conspiracy

          • I’m okay with it. Granted I’m getting it on PS4 so I can play on the couch, but still. I’d be fine if I was getting it on PC. Means more time to play over the weekend.

          • no biggie to me either, orded the le and it hasnt even posted yet, will probably get it by the time pc players are on anyways

  • I cant understand why on earth anyone would complain about a day one patch. Surely everyone wants the best gaming experience possible?! Surely everyone wants to know that the devs behind their games believe in the product and respect its players and show that it stands by what they have created?

    • Because a significant portion of the gaming community are spoilt children with no sense of perspective.

      They see marketing for a game, they get really excited, they make an entirely irrational decision to pay for it before it comes out, they abuse people online who suggest it’s not going to be perfect and then they throw a tantrum when they have to wait a few extra hours for a patch to download because while they wanted it to be perfect, it was already the most important thing in their lives yesterday and they want it NOOOOWWWW!!!

      Really, that’s what it is. It’s an unfortunate side effect of an industry which caters to a lot of people who aren’t emotionally developed and don’t have anything more important to worry about.

      • And then you have the other side, the blind haters just because it’s popular/hyped. It’s a shame the most vocal and visible is usually the extremes on either side. That noise usually drowns out any actual information and makes the noise worse.

      • Some people just have shitty, or no internet, and don’t expect a massive patch to be required for the game to work as advertised.

    • I can understand it – but not at the level I’ve been seeing. I’m pretty irked that I have to download a patch before I can even play [b]BUT[/b] I have other responsibilities to take care of before I can play so I can just install it, and let it update while I run errands.

      It’s the “I NEED TO PLAY THIS THE MOMENT IT’S AVAILABLE OR I’M GOING TO PISS MYSELF LIKE A DOG” people that get the most bothered. If you’ve seen the cheapest copies of NMS article on here – There’s a tweet by a guy asking target for their price and he responds with “I may as well just get it digital at midnight if you’re not going to reveal the price prior to launch” ( Or something along those lines ).

    • The main issue you have with day one patches is the people who do not have an internet connection for whatever reason. Worst case scenario, the whole system is down like when PSN went down for quite a few weeks. I know a lot of people though who either do not have the Internet at all or have intermittent connection to the Internet. They would love, I am sure, to have the intended experience but if a disc without day one patch is all they have then they’re likely to get a little upset.

    • People interpret it as a sign of poor craftsmanship. Like the developers lazily put out a low quality, broken game and then scrambled to fix it. The bigger the patch the worse the game must be, because to them a high quality game must surely be high quality from the beginning of development to the end, and a high quality game doesn’t need bug fixes. After all you wouldn’t build a nice car or cook a nice meal with cheap components then slowly phase them out for good components.
      It’s one of those things where people think of game development more like TV and movies. They think ‘oh, it must be a crap movie, they had to go back and re-shoot 10GB of it’. They don’t get that it’s more like building a skyscraper where you have ugly scaffolding and cranes for 95% of the process. The 10GB is adding carpet, cleaning and taking down temporary stuff. Or at least it should be, some developers do treat day one patches as a workaround.

      It’s hard to blame them when games like Fallout release in a buggy state that makes us associate patches with fixing stuff that shouldn’t have been broken to begin with.

    • There’s some whining, to be sure, but I know quite a few folks who are exasperated by the Day One Patch because it means they can’t play now. Or maybe not even at all until their monthly internet quota rolls over.

      There’s a lot of shitty internet out there, and while NMS is relatively petite (4GB download for a 6GB install, I think?), there are some offenders out there who’ve uploaded 30+ GB day one patches which make the internet-disadvantaged weep openly. It’s not so bad on Steam which has lighting-fast servers that can work over a 30GB patch in a matter of a couple hours, but the PSN on even the best internet will still struggle to deliver a 30GB game within a couple DAYS.

      A large part of why so many people still buy physical retail copies is to get the game on the disc. It’s kind of defeating the purpose if they then have to go and basically re-download the game anyway – they might as well have bought it digitally.

      • First of all, I like how you’ve effectively commented on both viewpoints. Just thought you’d like to know I typically enjoy reading your comments as they tend to be well constructed and generally along my line of rationale.

        To the point though, as mentioned below by someone else, what happens 10 years later when I want to pop in my copy of No Man’s Sky and install it, and the server housing the day 1 update is not online because they’ve removed support for it (or the business goes bust), and I’m sitting there with an inferior copy.

        Not necessarily anyone’s fault at the end of the day, but it will be interesting to see what happens once some of these games get to that point.

        • This is the thing that bothers me most about patches and DLC. I don’t like having to rely on outside services to play a game when it isn’t part of the core gameplay (eg an online-only multiplayer-focused game).

      • Steam? Lightning fast servers? I can pull down windows or an autodesk product so quickly I don’t even think about it. Evolve is currently downloading at 11MB/s. I’m yet to see those lightning fast servers.

        • Interesting. You might need to manually set your region/servers. When I use Steam, at worst it only takes a couple hours to get larger games (30-40GB). Whereas the PSN… that’s days.

          • I am spoilt now with 100meg NBN (great change from the old barely serviceable ADSL) so I’ve quickly become spoilt with my expectations haha. Very quickly goes from “omg, everything is so fast” to “what’s wrong with this download? It took more than 30 seconds”.

  • I remember reading about the certification process during Mass Effect 2 development cycle The forum post wasn’t as lengthy but still covered roughly the same details, I’m surprised half a decade onward the whole process still take so long

    • I doubt the development cycle for a game would change much in 5 years and if anything was to change you would think the time in development would be longer.

    • As the article says they are still using the same systems, or at least the same foundations that ME2 would have submitted using

      • yea I just thought in half a decade (give or take) the cert process would have improved, but i can understand the sentiment.

        I’ve been in the same company now for the past 9yrs and every so often there’ll be a conversation to change a system and my first question is “why? it’s been working fine since before i started, for what reason should we change” . you know when things has worked for 20 yrs why change for the sake of change

  • While Day One patches as explsined by the article as a good thing… its a bit one sided to those that exploit patching to push products not ready for market. (Ubisoft, Warners) We will fix it in post production attitude or limited/rush testing after 13th hour compiles.

    Certification builds are funny they suppose to be a technical qulification it works… but thry just push builds until they get a tick. Yet some Day One patches (or a whole weeks worth) have existed to just make the game playable without crashing instantly or server stability.

    Day One patch I see adding to the game… but when the game is declared Gold when clearly broken or makes game critics and players ask “Where was the quality control” its a shady practice to exploit Day One patching that even Sony said needed to be better managed by developers.

  • Eh, I understand and agree, but I don’t get the seething hate for people who have raised the question. Yelling about ‘entitled-not-emotionally-developed’ gamers is just as bad (worse?) as the people asking about day one patches.

    Yeh, I have bought it up, Devils Advocate. In the context of the ‘good old days’, such as cartridges, plug in and play. Granted, there were no updates and the product could not be expanded or improved… but the product was ready.

    I think what I am trying to say is that there is a valid point to be made about a product being ready as opposed to it being ‘mostly-sort-of-done-but-needing-some-work’. I cannot imagine my pants being sold to me with the promise that the crotch and pockets should be available as a day one add on.

    I don’t have an issue with patches, day one or not. I just think everyone on both sides of the fence needs to cool their jets and stop the mud slinging. The ‘day one patcher party’ is just as loud and obnoxious as the ‘patch is bad party’.

    “I will shout my opinion louder than yours and call you names to make myself feel superior by calling you a child/female/minority/dis-empowered group etc”. Have an opinion? Great. Let others have theirs without being rude…

    • There is something seductively simple about the reply, “So… if your game’s not ready by certification date, launch later, then?”

      “We can’t, because we’ll get screwed over.”
      “So you’re OK with screwing over the customer instead?”

      It boils down to being about a team that’s gone past deadline and is making a choice as to who gets screwed by it, basically.
      (And most importantly: how much they get screwed. A million people inconvenienced by a day one patch might not add up to the same kind of impact as missed release windows, in terms of costs.)

    • In the context of the ‘good old days’, such as cartridges, plug in and play.

      When games were a few megabytes, rather than the dozens of gigabytes they are now. Far easier to code something with fewer bugs that way…

      • Though to be fair, most of those gigabytes tend to be art and sound assets rather than code 😛

    • The good old days of no updates though also left some games unplayable. Such as TMNT on the PC, they dropped some vertical lines, making the roof lower, and a jump impossible without cheating. So without cheats the game literally could not be completed.

  • Patches should be exactly that, patches. If a game ships broken and is not playable from the disk, there’s something wrong and it shouldn’t have been shipped in the first place. I dread the day if my PS3 gets wiped, the PS3 servers get turned off and I want to play old titles (looking at Skyrim).

    This generation, it seems “patches” are 4-6GB in size. It’s just not small bits of code here and there, it seems like significant parts of the game are just broken. These take hours to download on my 4mbit connection. The PS4 is good where you can download in the background. The XBox One is archaic in that the game won’t start until a certain amount is downloaded.

    Again, in however many years time if anyone wants to play some of these PS4/XBOX One games, they may be SOL.

  • As a few others have said it all comes down to context.

    I mean sure if you submit a game that ultimately is broken and unplayable on release that needs a day one patch to work, you deserve some of the flak you receive over it.

    If the day one patch just plain makes the game run better, polishes it up, adds extra free content or even fixes a few minor but non game breaking bugs then its all good.

    What some people tend to forget tho is that while not as big a problem as it used to be, large day patches are still fairly obnoxious to download especially for those poor unfortunate souls with poor internet speeds and/or small download limits.

  • I would like to preface this rather lengthy comment by saying that I dont necessarily have a problem with a day 1 patch. If it makes the game better/work, then I dont care because I have the means to download etc. However, while I understand the point of the article, and can understand the issues in getting past the sometimes inane beurocracy of certification, the devs arent completely removed from blame.

    First off, the amount of games that get released that are broken/dont work/have server issues/require months of patching post release to even get it to a playable state is atrocious. How did any of those games get certification? Why are they getting released to the public in their current state? Are you telling me that none of those issues came up in bug/cert testing? Are you saying the devs are too busy finishing the game to what their “vision” suggests to fix the miriad of problems with the game? Did their vision include game breaking bugs and ridiculous server problems?

    From my understanding of the process, each build that is designated for release has to be sent for certification before it is released. In the instance of No Man’s Sky, they clearly sent the equivalent of an early access build to the cert board (which is the copy that goes on the disc and the one that apparently leaked to the media etc), and then sent a patched version that adds basically most of the features that were supposed to be in the game in the first place. Where previously the completion date was the date the gold image is released to disc manufacture, it has now shifted to release date. What happened prior to day 1 patching being a thing? Did they not have certification back then? How did they cope with the lack of time they now require to get the game out in working order?

    At the end of the day though, clearly it’s not just the developers who are at fault here. There are 3 main groups at play here that all contribute to the problem.

    1. Publishers and higher-ups demanding unrealistic deadlines to finish things. This has been well documented in the past and this is obviously not the devs fault. Marketing people etc dont care about certification rules, they care about the bottom line, and if a game doesnt get out on time then it affects the bottom line. However, if a game isnt released in the form that the Consumer deems complete or working, that should affect the bottom line as well. This is why publishers of any kind should be first onto the B Ark when we finally leave this planet.

    2. Developers have realised that the day 1 patch is now a bit of a safety net they can use to get the game “complete”. It allows them to put their game out in whatever state they like, as long as they get that Day 1 patch ready to go. It smacks of a bit of laziness because they effectively have more fluidity in the deadlines they can meet. In other words, dont do what you dont have to do.

    3. Consumers have been used to buying a game, and being able to then play the intended game straight away, even if they have no/rubbish internet connection. This is NOT an invalid viewpoint. If it was a physical product you buy off the shelf, you’d expect it to work when you got home rather than having to wait for it to work later after it fixed itself up. Having said that, it is not unreasonable to have a game be updated on release, and it is a vaild argument to say that if the day 1 patch provides the game as intended, then they got what they paid for anyway.

    I feel as though each party has their own unrealistic expectations of the other parties, which is normal. I think what Developers are doing well now more than they have in the past, is being transparent about what is in that 8GB download we get on day 1. This article does provide some further insight into the challenges of being a game developer, and as is the case in anything, the more understanding everyone has, the more enlightened we become about each other’s problems.

  • As someone that anticipated this gen would be exactly the way it is, I made sure that my net connection could handle it. I built a house in an area that has FTTP. Sure updating is annoying when you have to wait for hours, but with game sizes the way they are you have to anticipate that patches and dlc/compatability updates will also be large. Deal with it. Yes I’m a Jackass, but I dont complain about software updates.

    • Moving house to an area with decent internet is supposed to be a real solution to the problem?

      • It was the main contributing factor in us choosing this block of land over one further out with more space. I guess it comes down to how much you value (key words: you and value) decent net speeds.

        • Ah, so you’re saying that only those who are able to choose where they live solely based on net speeds are not allowed to complain about large game updates. Fair enough.

          • Of course not. Anyone can complain. I was just prepared. Games are huge and are not going to get smaller. The only solution is bigger quotas and faster net.

            Did not mean to make it seem like others shouldn’t complain. I just saw it coming and took steps.

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