Game developers should be aware of the risks associated with releasing massive updates.
(Featured image via NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Big Bang Patches: The Risky Nature of Huge Updates

Aug 31, 2017
(Featured image via NASA/JPL-Caltech.)

Nowadays, most big games rely on a constant stream of updates and expansions to keep things fresh and new. Hearthstone adds new cards, World of Warcraft adds new areas and bosses, Path of Exile adds new mechanics and content. Games like League of Legends and Dota release new characters and patches every few weeks or months. Expansions and updates are great, but game developers often prioritize content quantity over quality. Where’s the middle ground? Does it even exist in the modern gaming industry?

Post-Launch Honeymoon Periods

When a game launches, everything is new and exciting. But the appeal of a new game wears off quickly, especially if the content “runs out” too quickly. We’ve seen this happen to new releases time and time again, and it’s particularly common in RPGs. See, RPGs are all about leveling up a character through the story, then playing some epic end game content. The end game content varies, but typically includes multi-stage dungeons, final bosses, and climactic battles between good and evil. But what happens if you get to the end of a game and the content there isn’t exciting?

Diablo 3 fell into this content trap big time. After you leveled your character up through the story, there wasn’t anything left to do. You could farm for better items, but there was no end goal. Farming faster? Not particularly exciting. No Man’s Sky didn’t even make it off the ground before it flopped–the game’s “content” (if we can call it that) runs out about five hours in.

When a game launches, quantity is the name of the game. Polish and finesse can come later, especially if you’re developing a game that’s in Early Access. Players can wait for the polish, as long as they know it’s coming and the game gives them enough to do until then. However, gamers don’t sit around admiring the polish of a title when there’s no content to be found. Again, No Man’s Sky is the perfect example — the procedurally generated worlds are cool, but traveling around the universe to discover new planets is as dull as a butter knife.

The “Big Bang Patch” Model of Game Development

At a certain point, instead of expanding further, many developers choose to revitalize their game in other ways. One of the ways to do this is with a “Big Bang Patch.” The purpose of a patch like this is to breathe new life into the game’s existing systems instead of adding new ones — some games reach this point faster than others, and others can go forever without being forced to change.

The Big Bang patch occurs at a point in the game’s lifespan where quantity is no longer superior to quality. Before a game reaches the point where a Big Bang patch is necessary, players will be satisfied with regular content infusions — CS:GO’s Operations are a good example of this. The new content might not be the best, but to a parched man, even Dasani is water. The faster the content is pumped out, the less it matters how good the content is. Obviously, there’s a limit to what people are willing to put up with, but truth be told, the bar isn’t set very high. As long as the new content doesn’t actually break the game and provides a few hours of enjoyment, players are usually happy.

As time goes on, however, people care less about the amount of content and more about the finer points of the game’s balance. Once you reach this point, each piece of new content that a developer releases does less to keep the playerbase happy, and this is when savvy developers will decide to focus on large, sweeping changes to the game.

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League of Legends has moved away from the model that emphasizes quantity over quality — Riot used to release a new champion every two weeks, but these days, players can expect to see new champions six times a year. The Juggernaut Patch is a perfect example of a Big Bang patch, and since then, Riot’s been concentrating on developing new game modes, improving the client, and shipping quality of life updates like Runes Reforged and the new Honor system.

Dota 2’s 7.00 patch is perhaps the quintessential Big Bang patch. In a single update, Valve added Talent Trees for every hero, reworked the map, changed the rune spawning system, overhauled the UI, increased the number of items players could hold by adding a “Backpack,” and adjusted the layout of the shop. That’s just scratching the surface. It was a gamechanger in every sense of the word.

Drawbacks of Deploying Big Bang Patches

The difficult part of any game redefning itself is that it may lose existing players. I quit League of Legends shortly after the Juggernaut patch, largely because I didn’t like the direction the game was heading in. Developers approaching a Big Bang patch need to be aware that they are inevitably at risk of alienating current players. They have to take this into account and decide whether the reinvention they have in mind is worth the risk of losing longtime fans.

These fear are amplified when you’re dealing with games where players build a collection of digital items. In the case of Hearthstone, when Blizzard switched to Standard mode, a lot of players were suddenly told that a majority of their collection was going to be useless. For players who had spent years grinding out cards to fill their decks, this left an understandably bad taste in their mouth. Those types of people just don’t come back when they are invalidated by a patch like that. RPGs may actually be worse. When developers decide to shake up the game to the point where they change up character skills, they invalidate hundreds of hours, if not thousands. I have quit several games that decided to remake skills on characters I had spent months building.

Innovation and change are important parts of growth for any game. Stagnant games will lose players over time. But massive overhauls shouldn’t be made lightly, especially since big changes might cause diehard players to leave for greener pastures. Developers have to decide if these kinds of changes are worth possibly losing players in the interests of long term potential growth for their game. The more they change, the more people leave.

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Stephen Draper
Stephen has a degree in English from Brock University. He grew up playing video games and card games, always having an affection for strategy. He picked up League of Legends in early Season One and has since achieved Diamond rank multiple times. He also picked up Hearthstone in Beta and has since achieved Legend consistently. When he isn’t reading, writing, or gaming, he’s probably watching other people game.
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