"What's The Point?"
Of course, lack of time is not the only reason for a point release... Talking about Heretic II,
Marcus Whitlock commented that "point releases are also a good way to stir up fresh interest in
a game that's been out for a while, so of course ruling out future point releases would be crazy."
In the past stirring up "fresh interest in a game" has usually been done with commercial Mission
Packs - Quake and Quake II each had two official Mission Packs, Hexen II had one, and Sin, Shogo
and Blood II all have Mission Packs under construction at the moment.
But some companies also release free add-ons for their own games to help boost interest in an "old"
game. For example, the mother of all Point Releases was Ultimate Doom, which added a fourth episode
to id's groundbreaking FPS game. That was released many months after the original game, and contained
genuinely new material by members of id and third party designers, not just recycled left-overs. Of
course, as well as giving the hardcore Doom players a treat it no doubt also helped renew interest in
the game and boost its sales...
Monolith are considering further Point Releases for their games. Brian Goble told me that "at Monolith,
we encourage and listen to user feedback - the good and the bad. We've already received a ton of great
suggestions from the gamers and we do our best to add new features that we also think are doable and
will enhance the gameplay experience - assuming we can fit them into our development schedule."
As Brian Goble's final comment suggests, there is of course a limit to all this. Marcus Whitlock
put it well when he said "we could go on forever, adding new stuff, but of course then we'd never
have time to start our next projects."
The latest Unreal patch is another example of Point Releases that add genuinely new content, containing
new improved weapons sounds and effects and an enhanced scoreboard, as well as the latest improvements
to the game's originally lack-lustre netplay. Tim Sweeney explains the reasoning behind the uber-patch -
"We want to improve a lot of things in Unreal based on gamers' feedback, especially from deathmatchers.
Unreal single-player was pretty close to what we wanted, but it's taken more time to get the Internet
play "just right" in gamers' eyes. This is the team's first major deathmatch game, so we've been
learning a lot as we go, much of it after release."
Unreal's history of patches also reveals another reason for Point Releases though - public beta testing
for future projects. Tim Sweeney told me that "other improvements are under development in conjunction
with Unreal Tournament, which shares the same codebase and directory structure as Unreal, so improvements
move back and forth between the two products seamlessly."
In other words, as well as keeping the licensees and players happy, the patches and Point Release for
Unreal were also testing the ground for Unreal Tournament. Of course, this is nothing new - id
released GLQuake and QuakeWorld for Quake. GLQuake added 3D accelerator support to the game, and
QuakeWorld added vastly improved netplay. Both were a testbed for features that would be central
to Quake II.
This benefits both the developer and the players, and is generally a "good thing™".
And Your Point Is?
So what does the future hold for point releases? And are they really justified?
Zoid told me "I think it is fine for patches to release new content - they are enhancing the game." However
he also assured me that "Quake III will be released when it is ready", saying that the game "is more focused
on the multiplayer aspect (with bots fulfilling the single player role in some sense). This reversal of the
design changes a lot of the focus."
Tim Sweeney approves of point releases .. to a point - "I'm all for point releases that add new features or
support hardware that has just come to market. It's great to see game companies that stand behind and enhance
their products after release."
However, he's also brutally honest when it comes to his own baby, Unreal - "I think games that ship
with promised features either missing or broken is a very bad thing for the industry, and we made that
very mistake with Unreal's initial Internet play. Game developers should do better. We are certainly
going to learn from past mistakes and be more focused on the quality-control side of development."
Marcus Whitlock agrees with him - "I will say, that from a creative point of view, point releases are a
great idea... I mean you can't find fault with wanting to add some extra value to an already great game
can you? As for whether they should be used as an excuse for releasing buggy, unfinished games, I
personally don't think that's legit. But here at Raven - we KNOW we did a great job in getting a 99%
bug free product out ON SCHEDULE, even if there were a few extra goodies (not bugs - cool features)
we had to leave out."
And Brian Goble follows a similar line - "I think the goal should always be to release a stable and fun
game with all the major features that were originally planned. There are probably very few games that
shipped with *all* the features the developer initially wanted, and a patch is a great way to add some
of the favorite features from the "cut" list after the game has shipped. :)"
So it looks like the future is bright, in theory at least. Games will be released as complete as possible,
and point releases will add in new features and content that had to be cut to meet deadlines. And we'll all
live happily ever after. Or something like that...
I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to reply to my questions - Brian Goble of Monolith, Tim Sweeney
of Epic Megagames, Marcus Whitlock of Raven, and Dave "Zoid" Kirsch of id.