Patches Aren’t An Excuse

Spend enough time around video games, and before too long there’s one excuse that you’ll hear without fail.

It’s the double-edged sword of the always-online nature of the industry. Because developers can push out patches without the hassle of dealing with physical media, the state of a product at launch is almost something to be taken with a grain of salt.

And so whenever something launches in a sub-par, or even broken state, you’ll hear the following.

“The game will get better.”

It’s the first line of defence for fans and developers. Don’t worry about what things are like right now, just imagine what it could be like in the future. Every developer promises to keep supporting their game after launch, so why shouldn’t you support them now so they can follow through? Things might not be perfect, but give it a month or two, and it’ll be a completely different game.

That’s what gamers are told these days.

It’s rubbish.


Case in point: the recent release of AO Tennis, the official tie-in for the Australian Open grand slam. Being developed by Big Ant, it’s got a lot of features shared with the Don Bradman cricket games, including a fairly similar progression system, some parallels in the controls (like the option to use the right stick for shots), and an extensive character creation system.

Which is all well and good, save for how disastrously broken the game is.

AO Tennis officially went on sale last Tuesday. If you purchased the game on Xbox, you would have had to wait until the weekend for a patch that added, among some bug fixes and gameplay tweaks, the career mode. There was no tutorial. No option in-game to review your controls. No save points in between matches, meaning you’d have to finish an entire match if you wanted to save your progress.

There’s still no commentary, and the controls can be wildly inconsistent. Take volleying, for instance. Here’s what it should look like.

The career player in this instance, for the record, has a 99 rating in volleying. It actually just looks like a forehand taken on the full, but you get the idea.

But more often than not, your player will cannon the ball well beyond the baseline:

Sometimes it’ll even happen within the same rally.

There’s obviously something broken with the physics that results in the ball accelerating far, far more than it should. It happens pretty frequently, and the game doesn’t provide enough feedback to help narrow the problem down.

But at least volleys work. The same can’t be said for the player movement, which is sluggish at best and borderline unresponsive at worst. There’s been countless instances where I’ve gone to power up a shot, only to have my player ignore my input entirely. Or I’ve hit the ball back to the opponent in a wholly unremarkable manner, only for the AI to stand lifelessly as it goes past.

The doubles AI, which was utterly broken when the game first launched, hasn’t improved either. Sometimes your doubles partner will go completely AWOL, completely ignoring the ball flying past them – even if they’ve just taken part in a volley or two.

And just for good measure, there’s also a weird bug with the challenge system:

These are things that aren’t working by design. When you add in the things that are – players like Ashleigh Barty, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal apparently stuck in quicksand, only a handful of courts, no in-game tutorial, no activities or mini-games in between career mode tournaments, identical animations across male and female players, and a lack of atmosphere that extends from the main menu to the court – it’s pretty obvious what’s happened.

AO Tennis was rushed, and it certainly isn’t finished.

It’s not the first time a game has launched in a half-baked state, of course. Readers will be plenty familiar with the debacle around No Man’s Sky at launch, an ambitious space explorer that ended up having half of ambition gamers were previously sold on.

Hello Games has almost transformed the game since launch, to the point where it’s almost a completely different game from what the one that was first released. People have formed their own governments now. Started wars. Created galactic hubs.

But the promise of what might come is no excuse for those who had to deal with a string of crashes. Stodgy, lifeless planets. Repetitive grind. Uninspired space combat.

One response I’ve heard countless times, in similar scenarios: if players don’t support a game now, you can’t expect it to get better in the future.

After all, if developers don’t make a return on development, how could anyone expect them to keep funding it?

It’s a tricky situation. Gamers know that not everything is perfect. And there are plenty of variables that often conspire against the developer. The certification process, for one, often delays studios from pushing out critical updates or content patches. That’s what happened to AO Tennis: PS4 users were able to enjoy the career mode days before Xbox users, simply because the patch hadn’t gone live on one platform.

It’s especially harder for indie developers, ones with smaller budgets, smaller teams.

Like every Australian developer, basically.

But national pride doesn’t come before the basic contract every company has with their users. And as far as games are concerned, that falls down to a simple equation: irrespective of what the game might be like in the future, do you enjoy and appreciate how the game plays right now?

Because as a customer, that’s the reality we all face. Transactions are immediate. And if you’re not buying at retail, sometimes you only get a couple of hours to discover whether a game actually lives up to the promise. Or works at all.

The first Don Bradman Cricket was a great example of that. It wasn’t perfect. There were some weird bugs. It wasn’t licensed at all. And there were certain quirks in the AI’s tactics that soured the batting experience.

But it was fun. It was decent. And it was worth the money, at least if you liked cricket.

AO Tennis doesn’t do that. It’s rushed – unfinished in places – and even at its best, more frustrating than fun.

And it’s not enough for a developer to respond that the game will get better, or that they’ll respond to feedback. They should make the game better. They should respond to feedback. It’s basic behaviour that should be expected.

Patches are not an excuse.

Update: The original version of this story asserted that “too often, developers have little respect” for the time and money of gamers. The paragraph has been removed to better reflect the article’s original intent. Apologies for the offence caused, especially to all developers who deeply respect their players.

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