Fez, Fish and The Problem with Patching
Polytron's Phil Fish lands himself in controversy again - but is Microsoft the real villain?
Five years in the making and launched exclusively on XBLA earlier this year to rapt acclaim, Fez is one of the darlings of the indie development scene. Few would argue with the game's charm, imagination and artistry, and while its commercial success hasn't scaled the dizzy heights enjoyed by the likes of Minecraft or Journey, it's certainly earned its keep, with sales estimated above 100,000 units.
If the game itself attracts little but positive comment, its creator, Phil Fish, is rather more divisive. Abrasive and reactionary in his dealings with, well, just about everyone, he threatened to overshadow the imminent launch of his own game with headlines about ill-considered public statements - from telling a Japanese developer at GDC that Japanese games "just suck" (later clarifying in an "apology" that what he meant is that they're "f**king terrible"), through to his assertion that "gamers are the worst f**king people".
"Your users are quite entitled to excoriate you for using them as hostages in a debate with Microsoft which is of no real relevance to them"
I'm not actually tutting at that - god knows my own Twitter feed wouldn't make for polite dinner conversation much of the time. It's actually rather wonderful that indie development has given us personalities in the place of press releases, and that we're finally seeing the rise of the videogames auteur. It would be dull if they were all blandly nice; a bit of arrogance, a lot of humour, the occasional artsy tantrum and even some old-fashioned abrasive swearing isn't just entertaining, it's good for the healthy development of a creative medium.
Fish, however, clearly took a step back and realised that he wasn't happy with where his new-found notoriety was bringing him. He dropped off Twitter (his personal account being replaced with a much less controversial corporate account for his studio, Polytron) and went rather quiet overall. Oddly, even as the press worked themselves into a lather over Fez, Fish wasn't talking to any of them.
This week, though, he's right back in the heart of a controversy - but this one, arguably, is over something rather more concrete than some poorly articulated views on the state of the Japanese creative industries. Fez was patched towards the end of June, fixing a number of issues with the game. Within hours, though, it was clear that the patch was corrupting save games for a number of users - "less than a percent", Fish estimates, but it was enough to have the patch pulled from XBLA.
So it remained, until July 18th, when Fish announced that he was planning to put the patch live again - without fixing the corruption bug. Somewhere in the region of 1% of players who download the patch (assuming everyone does, that's about a thousand players) are going to find their save games corrupted. The other 99% will find their game improved significantly. There is, as far as I can tell, no way to figure out which group you fall into until you actually install the patch.
Why isn't Fish going to fix his game? Because releasing a new patch, with the save corruption bug fixed, would involve going back through Microsoft's certification process. Every developer gets to release one patch for free as part of their inclusion on XBLA, but subsequent patches are expensive - certification costs tens of thousands of dollars. Fish isn't willing to pay, pointing out that he's already being charged significant amounts by Microsoft for distribution on XBLA and that the existing patch is fine for the overwhelming majority of users.
"Regardless of whatever deal Fish made with Microsoft, consumers bought a game from him - from Polytron - and they're entitled to be supported and treated well"
As with the issues around his GDC comments, I can see the point Fish is making, but wince at how poorly he's making it. He's attempting to point out how poorly Microsoft's policy on patching treats developers, who are forced to choose between leaving their games unpatched or spending huge sums of money on certification to fix what could be quite minor issues. In the process, though, he's leaving somewhere around a thousand of his consumers high and dry - and many others won't know whether they should install the patch or not, given the uncertainty over who'll be affected by the corruption bug. Those consumers have every right to be deeply angry. Regardless of whatever deal Fish made with Microsoft, consumers bought a game from him - from Polytron - and they're entitled to be supported and treated well. He made a broken patch; from a consumer perspective, he should fix that problem, and excuses and rationalisations do not and should not impact on a consumer's right to a product that isn't broken.
Of course, Fish is in a Catch-22 situation, and I do have some sympathy on that basis. He wants to highlight what he sees as the flaws in Microsoft's policies. Only a developer like Fish, who has sold a large number of units of a critically acclaimed game, is in a position of power and influence sufficient to bring that kind of problematic system under scrutiny. Yet equally, a developer like Fish, having sold that large number of units, can obviously afford to pay Microsoft's certification prices. Fez has grossed over a million dollars, and even after Microsoft has taken a lump of that, it would be outright negligent and irresponsible of Fish not to have money left over to cover an unforeseen problem like a reissued patch. Catch-22. If you're able to complain about it, you're also able to pay for it, and your users are quite entitled to excoriate you for using them as hostages in a debate with Microsoft which is of no real relevance to them.
"I don't care how indie you are, or how free and loose your ideas of commerce and creativity may be - once you've taken a million bucks from consumers, professionalism isn't optional"
Equally, though, one can have sympathy with Microsoft. The company gives one patch for free, and charges for subsequent patches - not because it's greedy and avaricious (it does lots of other things for those reasons, of course), but because it doesn't want to see XBLA games being released buggy or incomplete and patched repeatedly. The Xbox is a console, and players expect not to be confronted with the kind of endless match of bugs and patches which so often afflict PC games. Microsoft has a duty to its consumers to try to enforce that, and ultimately, Fish bears responsibility for creating a patch with such a serious bug in it. As a company (Polytron) selling a product to consumers, Fish has clear responsibilities. Why should Microsoft bear the costs of certification for a bug it did not create? (There's an argument that Microsoft's own testing should have caught the bug, but I'm unaware of the details of the contracts involved and can't comment on that - even in that case, costs should be shared, not entirely borne by Microsoft.) Or is Fish arguing that there should be no certification process at all - that Microsoft should let him release uncertified code onto the Xbox 360, potentially compromising the security of the console or of the Xbox Live service?
When you dig into it, the root of the problem is a clash of two different worlds. Indie developers are often idealists. They want to play in a world that's totally unfettered - release code, patch, experiment with ideas. That's great, and it works fine on platforms like the PC, where consumers are used to that idea. On consoles or mobile devices, it's not fine at all, because there are immense security implications - not just for the platform holders and other publishers, but for users, too. The reality is that once you have a game that's selling tens of thousands of copies to people who have paid real money for it, you have absolutely immense responsibilities. In that context, Phil Fish's complaints about Microsoft's system start to look more immature than anything else. Perhaps the system should be improved, or reconsidered - but to screw over paying customers in order to make your point, or to balk at paying a fee on a basis that seems to boil down to a shocked expression and "but I'm an INDIE developer, doncha know!", is unpleasant and unprofessional. I don't care how indie you are, or how free and loose your ideas of commerce and creativity may be - once you've taken a million bucks from consumers, professionalism isn't optional. This is the dark side of the ongoing indie revolution. I hope we don't see very much more of it in the future.