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.

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Latest comments (32)

By "screwing over the paying customer", you mean spending two months with Renauld preparing a patch that works to cover 99% of the issues that those paying customers will face, right? That thanks to what amounts to one oversight when delivering that patch, something that as they state would be easy to fix, because it's the second patch is now subject to prohibitive fees.

Honestly, this is nothing to do with big business vs indie and I'm stunned at the few editorials I've read on this matter taking this stance. It's about a policy that actively results in people getting crappier games because of the fees required to put a patch through cert. How anyone can defend a policy that results in people getting a worse user experience, I have no idea.

It's not the dark side of the indie gaming revolution at all, it's a side that's fighting for better policies so that people can have better games.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Robert Fearon on 20th July 2012 7:48am

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Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 9 years ago
Robert I'm not surprised that the game has to be recertified at all. Even the smallest patch can have game wide effects that will only be found in testing.

For me the question that surrounds this is how much testing is enough? In my eyes, Microsoft have certified the product and therefore is compliant to the Xbox360 standard of quality. Both they and Polytron can only test so much though and is less than 1% in reality a broken product?

Just create a system to refund the affected customers and, although they won't be jumping for joy, everyone can go home happy. If this was a packaged product and an A or S class style bug of that magnitude was found, the customer would be entitled to their money back.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters9 years ago
It's a tricky one, really. Microsoft want to discourage developers from releasing any old crap with the unprofessional "well if it's broke we can just patch it later" attitude, but at the same time it allows situations like these, where some people end up with a broken game and no way of obtaining a refund. It's a system that works well against the big companies for whom tens of thousands is small enough to be budgeted for, but big enough that they'd go out of their way to put a bit more effort into testing more thoroughly in the first place to hopefully avoid it. Any game developer knows it's impossible to 100% guarantee your game is bug free, and similarly that any bug fix you make can have knock-on effects that cause further, potentially more severe, but rare bugs, and that if the bug isn't widespread, it's simply expensive and dangerous to try and fix it.

Microsoft can't really back down either and say "oh go on then, just this once we'll give you a free cert", as every other developer would demand the same treatment. Hopefully though, it'll make other small companies realise their budget needs to account for things like this, or they risk facing upsetting their customers.

If anything, Fish's statement has done far more PR damage than the bug itself, because it's stirred up resentment in people the bug didn't even affect in the first place. I understand his business decision, but he should have kept his statement less defensive and eager to throw the blame at MS, and just take it on the chin and say "sorry".

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dave Herod on 20th July 2012 9:13am

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Show all comments (32)
Terence Gage Freelance writer 9 years ago
The thing is, no matter how unfair Microsoft's policies for patching and certification might be, Fish knew all this before he signed the exclusivity contract, and considering he's been saying that this wouldn't be a problem on PC it begs the question why didn't he release Fez on PC in the first place?

Basically, he's got into bed with Microsoft and is now moaning about it. I find it hard to have much sympathy; especially given how arrogant he has previously come across.
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Because in 2009 when Fez signed XBLA was seen by many as the service to be on if you were an indie and you wanted eyeballs. Steam hadn't long released Steamworks and its indie catalogue was bare, direct sales would have been a massive uphill struggle to do the numbers an XBLA game could do at the time for vast amounts of indies... it's easy to look at Fez in the context of where we are now but things were massively different when that contract was signed.
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Matt Walker Production Coordinator, Capcom9 years ago
From Dave Herod:
"Hopefully though, it'll make other small companies realise their budget needs to account for things like this, or they risk facing upsetting their customers.


I understand his business decision, but he should have kept his statement less defensive and eager to throw the blame at MS, and just take it on the chin and say 'sorry'."

This, a million times this. Well said.

While I honestly don't know if the guys at Polytron even have 40k to spend on paying for cert (no one knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that they've made tons of money on this anyhow, right?) the attitude that "we're indie so the rules don't apply to us" is ludicrous.

Perhaps if Mr.Fish hadn't treated his producer like shit they would have budgeted for these kinds of scenarios?
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Sam Brown Lead Audio Programmer, TT Games9 years ago
It's interesting to weigh up the consequences of either fixing or not fixing a bug. It's a bit simpler in our sector of the market - there are some jurisdictions where you can actually go to prison if you cock it up badly enough. That really focuses the mind during final testing, believe me.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters9 years ago
@Sam - It depends on the application and the impact of the bug. If it's a gamer having his day ruined by his save game corrupted, it's hardly a big deal compared to aeroplanes falling out of the sky because of bugs in the autopilot system. Critical systems have to be as damn near perfect as possible, which means that their budget has to devote a significant amount of resources to verification, validation, testing and simulation of every line of code that goes in, but it's known about and planned for right from the start. In a game, that would be so expensive and take so long as to not make games even worth making any more.
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Brian Smith Artist 9 years ago
So is the game broken completely for the 1% or is it just a broken save that can be written over by a new game save. If it's broken completely then Fish is a pile of poo but if it's just a save knackered, then I can understand this to a degree. It's one thing for MS to be prohibitive to patches through being costly but 40k, really. Surely the issue can be less spikey if it was just re-balanced... How about 10k or 5k, some amount that would be prohibitive but not outright silly.
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Gareth Lewis Programmerist 9 years ago
@Sam & Dave - Whilst it's unlikely that games will ever go down the route of have full testing coverage, I would imagine that Polytron could find themselves in legal hot water if enough of their customers find save corruption a real issue and some lawyer picks it up as a 'not fit for purpose' / class lawsuit type issue.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters9 years ago
@Gareth - From what I understand, the game only affects save games from before the patch, and starting a new game in the patched version has no problems. So, it's annoying to lose your progress, but it's not the end of the world and if anyone takes it to court in my opinion I'd say they're being very harsh and unreasonable.
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Gareth Lewis Programmerist 9 years ago
@Dave - If that's the case, it sounds like a complete storm in a teacup then.
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John Bye Lead Designer, Freejam9 years ago
"[Microsoft] 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."

This is a spurious argument. Platform holders test everything before it can be released and reject your submissions if you don't meet their (often very anal) technical requirements or if they find any major game stopping bugs or lots of more minor issues.

If you submit a blatantly buggy or incomplete game it won't be cleared for release and you'll have to fix and resubmit it anyway. I believe this starts to cost you money if you resubmit more than once or twice, to encourage developers to get it right first time as far as possible, and not use the platform holder's certification department as a free external QA team.

Obviously sometimes bugs do slip through testing though, as happened here, and in those cases the best thing to do for everyone concerned is let the developer release a patch as quickly and cost effectively as possible.

Also, as others have pointed out, gamers increasingly expect regular updates to add content, improve functionality and, yes, fix any bugs that did slip through testing. This is commonplace on mobile, and console makers need to move with the times to allow and even encourage it.
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Jack Nilssen Independent Game Developer, Dark Acre9 years ago
Perhaps after Fish & Co. make another few million with the PC release they'll revisit their position. More likely they'll end up like Team Meat and be too busy swimming in piles of cash to give a rat's about their alpha customers, the gamers they were so eager to serve by being on console and reaping the financial rewards of XBLA exclusivity.

It really is spit in the eye of the most devout supporters, and again a glaring example of how even some of the brightest independent developers are completely negligent and ignorant of the business aspect of what we do.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 9 years ago
I dont think microsoft should charge for this, I do think they have to have stricter ules on debugging and aproving software.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 20th July 2012 3:14pm

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Wojtek Kawczynski Managing Director, Studios, TransGaming Inc.9 years ago
Technically consumers buy their games from Microsoft, not from the developer, so your statement "consumers bought a game from him - from Polytron" is incorrect.
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Corin Cole9 years ago
Not necessarily relevant to the debate, but interesting regardless to note that the cost of patching it is almost four times the total sum of the purchases of the 1,000 people this bug is estimated to affect.
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Greg Costikyan Senior Game Designer, Playdom9 years ago
There's a reason indie developers are drifting away from XBLA, and this is symptomatic of it: Microsoft has never really gotten its head around the fact that indie games cannot be treated in the same fashion as multimillion dollar budget AAA titles, and that certification processes that are entirely reasonable for big-budget games do not make a lot of sense at the scale of indie games.

Nonetheless, it's also pretty clear that Fish is being an jackass. The customer comes first.
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Roberto Bruno Curious Person 9 years ago
I don't even have much sympathy for Phil Fish, and I think it's his fault for signing the contract in the first place.. .And yet I won't even try to argue that a policy that actively discourages developers from offering post-release support on their games is pure idiocy, hurts the customer and it needs to go.

It doesn't really matter whatever apologetic arguments one can try to throw in this discussion, this will not change.
Discouraging developers from improving/fixing their games = an idiot policy.
And whoever claims that "this prevents developers form being lazy with QA" is just delusional, naive or both.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Roberto Bruno on 20th July 2012 5:09pm

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If this bug was such an obvious problem, then why was it not caught by MSFT during certification QA? You can't just put any patch through. Also, need to point out that MSFT does not give refunds to users by policy. If you bought the game, patched and then had it rendered useless, well too bad because there is no recourse for the consumer.

FYI - Inides can't directly publish games on XBLA. Either MSFT is the publisher or another third party publisher is handling customer service. So it may not be Polytron's call on whether to patch the game or not.
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Scott Berfield Executive Producer, University of Washington9 years ago
The developer owns responsibility for detailed game test and holds teh relationship with the customer. All Microsoft tests for in Cert is adherence to TCRs (Technical Certification Requirements) and gross functionality - had they noticed this bug, they would have certainly failed the patch, but functional test is not Cert's responsibility. Polytron screwed up and shipped a patch that is broken. They need to make it right. Not a lot of wiggle room on the part of Polytron - they are doing business with a lot of consumers and they owe it to them to fix the issue. The cost of Cert is going to be far less than the cost in their reputation -- which they are not going to salvage by blaiming Microsoft for their mistake. They should suck it up and spend the money (which used to be around $10,000 -- not tens of thousands -- but maybe it has gone up)
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Scott Berfield Executive Producer, University of Washington9 years ago
So you go to GameStop for support on bugs in games you by there?
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Iain McNulty Person doing things 9 years ago
I propose a solution to this patching problem, based on Microsoft's existing policies.

On the XBLAIG channel, how much you are allowed to charge for a game depends upon how large it's file size is, I believe at the moment you can charge as little as 80MSP as long as your game is less than 150Mb in size.

As such, I think Microsoft, and Sony, should introduce a sliding scale for certification prices for games being released on their XBLA and PSN platforms, depending upon how large the game is. The current one-size-fits-all policy does not work.

I should also add that charging $40k to test a game that will only be tested by a handful of people for less than a week (like in the case of Fez) is extortionate, especially knowing that another game such as CoD or Battlefield will also be charged that same $40k to test the game using up to 20 people (if not even more) over the space of a few weeks.
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"The cost of Cert is going to be far less than the cost in their reputation"

I don't think it is, really. Given the press treatment of Polytron (whether deserved or not I don't really care about, regardless we're seeing reviews of Phil Fish appearing on followed by a less than nuanced discussion of his stance in the latter half of the article), I think we're past that. I genuinely don't believe that patch or no patch would make that much of a difference here.

And for some perspective, as far as I'm aware, you can clear the cache and restart the game if you're amongst the 1% and it will be fine. Losing a save is never ideal but it's far from the crap-o-geddon scenario that's being painted around this issue. The issues are fixed, there's a save corruption bug but you can just restart the game and away you go, everything will be fine.

But anyway, I don't like to talk in terms of what a developer should do. I know one developer who having to submit a patch to cert once more would have crippled them (further), even at $10k. No amount of the press or the public insisting that they should patch the game would have made that decision less ruinous. The main difference being, they just kept their gob shut and no-one was any the wiser as to why a second patch never emerged.

Which, obviously, when people stay shush like that, leaves the problem still there for someone else to run into down the line.
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Tom Hunt Game Developer, neocade9 years ago
"Abrasive and reactionary in his dealings with, well, just about everyone"

Something about this tells me that the author of this article has never actually met Phil Fish
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Jean Carrieres Senior Producer, Behaviour9 years ago
It's a little disingenuous to sign a contract accepting certain terms, then reneging on said terms and not delivering proper support to paying customers. Unless, of course, it's demonstrated that MSFT hid these patch costs from the initial agreement (which I doubt).

This boils down to dollar signs. Polytron clearly values the money they'd save over the quality of their game (or their reputation). Not unlike "big" companies.

So maybe that's a sign that Indies are turning corporate after all... (Unless they were like that all along.)

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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 9 years ago
All in all, but You could also put the blame on MS for not finding the bug themselves.. One might even suggest MS didn't find the bug deliberatly so the developer has to fix it but has to pay for getting it published.. I personally still want to know why it should cost so much money for something getting certified as it clearly shows the certification is almost worthless.
Any developer knows that you can test as good as possible but 10 or 100 testers will never find as much bugs as 100.000 players can.. No test driven development can even prevent that (and if you think it does, then you're one hell of a naive developer who really needs to get his/her head out of that fantasyworld he/she's living in)..
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises9 years ago
If I were in Phil's position, and had just sold 100,000 copies for $10 each. I would pay the $40,000 or $50,000 to Microsoft to fix it and make things right. I might complain about it to the media, and haggle, and try to get more free publicity for the game. But a week or two later I'd pay up, and get another round of free publicity.

Although the best option would be to plan ahead for corrupted save files, and have the game make backup copies. Maybe even with the option of having the game upload them to my company web server for repair. That would save $40,000 and everyone's games.
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David Amirian Writer 9 years ago
i think this is squarely the developer's fault. they are supposed to play by the rules and they knew about all of this way before they went exclusive on XBLA, i'm sure. now they're whining about it.

if you want a steam-like system, you should have released it on Steam. If you want to release it on XBLA exclusive, then you have to play by their rules. Why would you agree to those terms if they were no favorable to you or if they did not do what you wanted?

i think Microsoft probably could ease the fees a bit depending on what kind of company is publishing a game, but i don't think they're in the wrong at all. they need to influence developers to not release a buggy game. Sorry, but I'm not going to pay to beta test your game.
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Richard Hill-Whittall Director, Icon Games9 years ago
Completely sick and tired of the sort of nonsense developer bashing here.

The fact is platform holders like Microsoft have horribly outdated systems that stifle developer creativity and are heavily biased towards big developers/publishers.

Phil is spot on with his comments.

In the age of the sort of flexibility platforms like iOS & Android offer, not to mention the good old PC, developers shouldn't have to put if with this sort of crap to get their games out.

Within reason you should be able to release patches as necessary without charge - this should be encouraged; especially if new features can be introduced. This benefits the customer - not some outdated s*&t policy of restricting developer input into their titles once they have shipped.

Downloadable titles should be all about flexibility, not sticking to boxed product mind-sets.

And as to the 'well you signed a contract' rubbish - you don't have a choice. Sure you could ignore the platform, but that really doesn't benefit anyone does it!
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Fyzard Brown Sales Associate, VideoGameAdvantage9 years ago
It's not there to stifle but to make developers spend more time to fine tune their games. Console players are not like PC players who are used to broken games put out with multiple patches. Remember Ninja Gaiden II's problem that took almost half a year to fix? What about those people who no longer have internet or are not in a position to update the game with a patch? They get to be SOL because of stuff like this.
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Jean Carrieres Senior Producer, Behaviour9 years ago
I'm assuming Fish is at least a moderately intelligent individual. When deciding to go with Microsoft, he looked at the process, the costs & risks involved, and made an educated decision. He must have seen that it would bring him profits, despite the downsides, and decided to move ahead. (The alternative is that he just signed without reading the terms and made a wild gamble, which would speak poorly of his business sense.) In any case, Microsoft did not force him to develop for XBLA. (At least, I haven't heard any evidence to support that.)

So at the end of the day, the bet paid off. Now, in order to provide proper customer support for a console he chose to develop for, he's got to pay some fees to have his patch re-tested. This is the professional thing to do, regardless of whether you're Indie. Especially if you have the money in the bank.

So no, no breaks for Fish. Cough up the money and learn the lesson. Customers come first.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jean Carrieres on 23rd July 2012 10:03pm

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