Patches!?[“The Blue Key” is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch column from writer Connor Cleary. In this analysis column, he examines the potential negative impact of post-launch patches and buggy game releases. He also suggests that it might be time for the big budget companies to take a cue from an indie scene business model of beta-monetization.]

With the ubiquity of internet-connected consoles, developers can now patch bugs even after the game hits the shelves, which is a wonderful thing—in theory. But you may have noticed, as I have, that more and more companies seem to be treating their paying customers like beta testers. This is simply unacceptable, and it is bad business as well.

For a variety of reasons I will refrain from mentioning specific titles or companies, but I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who have felt duped after buying a brand new game at full price only to have it freeze their system at random and frequent intervals—among other things.

It begs the question: What do we, as gaming consumers, want? Do we want to pay full price for that new game now, even though it is a glitch-fest? Or would we prefer to wait for a delayed release so the company can polish it? Let's return to that question in a moment.

For now, consider this scenario: Company X repeatedly releases games that are notoriously buggy, glitchy, and/or freezey for the first few weeks of their lifespans, and Company X develops a reputation for it—I'm sure we can all think of a few of these.

As a result, Consumer Group A stops buying Company X's games at launch, preferring to wait a few weeks or months for the company to release a handful of patches. Consumer Group B on the other hand, who did buy the games at launch, get sick of dealing with bugs and freezing and trade in or sell the game back to the stores. (Not to mention the negative word-of-mouth and internet buzz generated by Group B whining to their friends and on the internet.)

So by the time Consumer Group A gets around to picking up the game, many of them are buying the game used. With the constant stream of high quality, must-play games coming out, it's easy to put off purchasing any given game until a more stable build is released.

In this scenario, we see a two-fold negative impact on the profits of Company X. First, they lose immediate, short-term profits because fewer consumers are buying their game at launch. And second, they lose long-term profits because the early-adopters are trading in/selling back, and the late-adopters are buying used—so none of their money gets back to the developers or publishers. This may be a hypothetical scenario, but I think it is a very realistic one that could end up being seriously injurious to certain companies over the long term if they don't adjust their approach. Interestingly enough, it may be time for the big companies to take a cue from the indie scene.

Many developers are on a budget and a time-line set by either their publishers or simple budgetary necessities, so it is understandable that they might be pressured into or willing to release a game on it's announced release-date rather than take a delay for polishing. (There are also other factors like pushing to release a game before a big holiday season, etc.) This option is made more viable because they know they can continue to patch it up as they go.

But there is an alternative, and it's one we see happening all over the indie scene: getting consumers to voluntary pre-purchase in order to play the beta. This is one way to get money flowing in before the game's official launch, and it could allow studios that are running to the threads of their budget to keep polishing a little longer.

The first step is usually to create hype and anticipation by releasing a free, early-version demo and/or starting an alpha-testing phase—either open or closed depending on the needs of the developers. If the game is good enough, this should produce the hype that will be necessary for the next step, which is offering access to beta-testing with a full or reduced-price pre-purchase.

Thanks to Blizzard's StarCraft II we now have a precedent for this type of beta-monetization in the high-budget market, since these are roughly the steps they took—they actually took it up a notch by only allowing players into the beta if they pre-purchased the more expensive “Collector's Edition.” Obviously there are issues with using such a highly anticipated game as an example, but if we look at successful indie games like Minecraft we see that the IP doesn't need to have a rabid, preexisting fan-base to make this approach successful.

So here we find ourselves back at the question that I posited earlier: Do we want to pay full price for that new game now, even though it is a glitch-fest? Or would we prefer to wait for a delayed release so the company can polish it? The answer obviously depends on the individual, and on the specific game in question.

The beauty of the beta-monetization system is that the pay-for-beta players are willingly volunteering to put their money down up front, and they are volunteering to play a glitchy game; as opposed to the increasingly common feeling of paying full price to participate in a post-launch beta phase that we never signed up for. This system also gives the community the feeling that they are involved in the development process, and the sense that they are actively helping to create the best game possible.

Obviously this approach won't work for every developer every time, but it is one way that developers can make the extra time for themselves to polish a game before it goes to the press. In any case, the industry should take note that gamers are getting tired of games that are still a mess when they release, and are going to grow increasingly wary of buying games early in their life-cycle if the trend continues.