The $40,000 patch? Fez won’t be fixed, but blaming Microsoft is only half the story
Fez was released on Xbox Live this April, and the game turned out to be a unique, often buggy, experience. A patch was released that fixed many of these issues, but it was discovered that the patch itself caused some saved game files to become corrupted, erasing the progress of many gamers. The patch, in other words, needed to be patched. This isn’t a unique story for video games, but what came next is rather novel: Polytron, the game’s developer, released a statement that stated the old patch was going back online, with no further fixes expected. If you lost you saved game, well… tough shit. The reason for the lack of ongoing support? Polytron didn’t want to pay Microsoft the $40,000 it would cost the developer to release the next patch. “Microsoft gave us a choice: either pay a ton of money to re-certify the game and issue a new patch (which for all we know could introduce new issues, for which we’d need yet another costly patch), or simply put the patch back online,” the statement explained. Of course, this is only part of the story.
The $40,000 patch
Microsoft dislikes patches, and the company goes out of its way to make sure games released on Xbox Live are as clean as possible. Part of the deal you have to sign in order to release you game on Xbox Live is that you’re given one free patch to fix issues in your game, but after that you’ll have to pay $40,000 in order to release a follow-up patch. I called Kevin Dent, the outspoken business man who has worked on “virtually every platform.” We’ve used him as a source for these matters before, and he was able to shed some light on the issue of developers paying to release patches on Xbox Live.
“The console experience is not like the PC experience, and Microsoft doesn’t want to be pushing patches. There is a bandwidth cost, and they have to pay for that bandwidth. So they say the first one is on us, and the second one you have to pay for.” According to Dent, Microsoft expects developers to be “totally anal” about quality assurance. “They want you to nail it,” he said. This deal isn’t specific to independent developers, according to Dent every game released on the service is bound by the same agreement. “These aren't special rules for indies, it's not like EA gets five swings at bat. They get a free patch, and they have to pay for the next one.” This aspect of Xbox Live is rarely discussed in the press because it’s very rarely an issue. It’s a large part of the contract, and companies know what they’re getting into when they sign. Most games are released in good shape, and a single patch is enough to fix the issues that remain. If a second patch is needed, they pony up the money to make sure their game works. According to Dent, Microsoft can also take the money out of future royalties if you don’t want to simply write the check. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but in the end, paying such a large sum of money to jump through so many hoops just doesn’t make any sense,” Polytron said in the statement. “We already owe Microsoft a LOT of money for the privilege of being on their platform. People often mistakenly believe that we got paid by Microsoft for being exclusive to their platform. Nothing could be further from the truth. WE pay THEM.” I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that, at some point, Polytron was paid at least a little money for the development of Fez and its 100,000+ sales. Even if the deal was bad, or looks bad in retrospect, signing a contract and punishing gamers when it's enforced isn't going to endear you to your customers.
The contract is under lock and key, but the patch fee wasn't a surprise
While it’s hard to know what’s in that contract, as both Polytron and Microsoft have not responded to our requests for comment, both parties knew what they were getting into. Fez launched with a number of issues, and the first patch introduced an issue while fixing others. The argument that a second patch could cause even more issues is hard to swallow, as the job of the developer is to test the content to make sure it doesn’t introduce bugs into the game. These issues don’t wander into the game while people are asleep, they’re due to issues introduced during development. Bruce Morrison, who worked on the Xbox Live Arcade version of Marathon, also hinted that this could be an issue of bad communication. “This Fez patch issue only proves that Polytron don't know how to talk to Microsoft. I got two free patches for my XLBA game,” he said via Twitter. I asked if that was allowed contractually, or if Microsoft sometimes makes exceptions. “They can bend any rules they want,” Morrison explained, “you just have to make a case for it.” Marathon: Durandel had two patches, one of which came out a week after release, and a second months later that added DLC items. A cynical man might say that adding for-pay items to a game may help Microsoft justify dropping the fee for a second patch, but I am not that man.
Don't get mad at your contract
Microsoft's patching policies make sense for a company that is aiming for clean, bug-free games on its digital distribution service, although you can argue whether or not the $40,000 fee is better for gamers in the long run. The fact remains that Polytron released a game with a number of bugs, delivered a patch that seemed to make some of the issues worse, and seems unsure of its ability to deliver a second patch that would fix those issues. The company knew that Microsoft charged for second patches on Xbox Live Arcade; this wasn't anything that was sprung on them at the last second. Refusing to fix your game because the terms of your contract levy a fine for patches is a lame way to punish players, and that's the one group in all of this who had no say in how the deal was structured. In my opinion, that's a bum deal for people who paid for the game.