I decided to let the story of Fez‘s game-breaking patch-to-a-patch grow a bit before I commented on it, and I’m glad I did, since the story has undergone some dramatic developments in the past week. But now it’s time to reap the delicious, bountiful harvest.
The expectations for Fez have been outrageously high ever since its announcement in 2007, and it has remained in the public eye for the past five years thanks to its well-publicized development troubles and a number of abrasive comments from its creator, Phil Fish. We see shades of Fish’s personality in everything from his tweets, to official Polytron press releases, to media interviews, to his appearance in Indie Game: The Movie, and it’s all remarkably consistent. He’s a guy who wants desperately to succeed but takes it fairly hard when he fails, and despite the wads of cash he’s undoubtedly made since Fez was released, he’s hit a few minor post-release patch issues that have earned him a beating in the press.
The problem with making a successful or popular game is that people have increased expectations. Gamers are an incredibly entitled bunch, and in order to be a strong developer, the best way to deal with it is to suck it up and soldier on. Bioware tried responding to fan outrage with their Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut DLC, but popular opinion was still only mixed at best; it’s simply impossible to please the mob completely. Industry vets like Reggie Fils-Aime and Randy Pitchford are able to deal with the tons of expectations and criticisms hurled against their products on a daily basis by calmly sticking to their guns; hell, Pitchford had Duke Nukem Forever to apologize for, and he and Gearbox are still some of the most beloved developers around.
Therein lies Fish’s problem; he’s an ordinary Canadian twentysomething with all the insecurities and anxieties typical of someone of that description. I saw them everywhere at university, and none of them were trying to ship a highly anticipated XBLA game on top of their usual daily stresses. He’s a normal, emotional human being thrust into a situation that’s extraordinary even among his game industry peers: people want to play his first game so badly that they get angry whenever another deadline passes without the product being in their hands. With Polytron being a tiny three-man operation, Fish probably doesn’t have any media training, which is why he sometimes says things people don’t like. He doesn’t have the benefit of Pitchford’s years of industry experience to know how to properly deal with fan entitlement, and he lacks the almost superhuman immunity to criticism typical of most high-profile players in this industry.
The $40,000 XBLA re-certification is prohibitively expensive for an indie developer (if it does cost that much; Fish strikes me as a bit of an exaggerator, and Microsoft refuses to reveal the price tag for re-certification), so Polytron was faced with a choice: re-upload an old patch that fixed the bugs for all but a few players, or pony up the cash and pray that, for $40,000, they can eliminate the few remaining issues with a new patch. Fish made the decision that I, as an impulsive adult in my twenties, would have made: he put the old patch back up, knowing that a few paying customers would be unable to play the game but saving his company $40,000. Offering refunds (is that even possible on XBLA?) should be an obvious next step. I don’t know what Polytron’s financial situation is like, but even with all the Fez profits, $40,000 is a serious hit to take, and I can see why Fish, as someone just becoming accustomed to real success, might balk at that number.
On the other hand, can Fish really afford to be an impulsive twentysomething when paying fans are concerned? This isn’t a case of fan satisfaction, as with the Bioware fiasco; this is a case of a glitch actually preventing people from playing the game to completion. Bioware wasn’t obligated to fix Mass Effect 3′s ending, but Fish might be obligated to fix Fez‘s stability issues. It’s one thing to make an unsatisfying yet fully functional game, but leaving a broken game unfixed is a whole other ballgame. The argument Polytron makes (and they seem to admit that even they’re not fully satisfied with this argument) is that Fez is mostly fixed without the new patch, with only a tiny fraction of players still running into game-save issues. So they’ve still managed to satisfy the vast majority of players without breaking the bank…but given the high standards of the industry, even among indies, should they have spent the money and tried to eliminate the issue 100%?
I think the hefty price tag for re-certification is less about gouging developers and more about discouraging them from having to patch their games in the first place. It forces developers to raise their QA standards to the point where they dare not push a game out the door unless it’s virtually bug-free, or else they pay the price down the road. It lets people make the argument that none of this would have been an issue if Fish had coded the game properly the first time, but the re-certification issue is still a bum deal for financially insecure indie developers, and combined with the near-total lack of advertising for indies on the Xbox Live Marketplace, it could be why we’ve seen nearly every good XBLA game ported to Steam in recent years.
Speaking of Steam, much of these issues stem from the time frame of Fez’s development cycle. In 2007, XBLA certainly looked like the place for indie games, with Castle Crashers tearing up the charts; The Behemoth proved there was a market there, and suddenly guys like Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish began prepping their own games for the platform. But a later year, Audiosurf would launch exclusively on Steam, proving that the PC was a viable alternative for indie devs; the years that followed would see an exponential growth in both Steam’s userbase as well as its indie catalogue. It attracted indie developers because it gave them front-page advertising, better sales figures, and an simple patching process. Meanwhile, Fish was still developing for XBLA, but a better market had developed elsewhere while he was taking his sweet time. Had Phil Fish begun development on Fez within the last two or three years, he would have undoubtedly been less eager to jump at Microsoft exclusivity and would’ve been more likely to focus on a Steam version. I just hope Fez‘s XBLA exclusivity runs out soon so I can actually play the damn thing on Steam.