You can learn a lot about a developer from its patch notes. For one thing, you can tell that they’re still updating (or at least fiddling with) your favourite game, long after the shine has worn off and the community has moved on.
Apart from serving the valuable purpose of keeping fans informed of changes to a given game, patch notes give us an insight into the minds of the people behind them. Their priorities, their relationship with the community – and whether they actually care about fixing game-breaking bugs.
Here are some examples of the type of patch notes you might find out in the wild, and what they say about the devs that publish them.
1. The conscientious developer
As the industry moves towards games-as-a-service, with new characters, modes and stages getting rolled out on a seasonal basis, keeping things balanced is becoming much more of an ongoing process. Many MOBAs and fighting games are constantly being updated to the latest version in order to preserve the competitive balance of the game.
But gamers aren’t known for their equanimity when it comes to their favourite characters getting nerfed. As a result, we’re seeing many devs putting out not just bullet points detailing which changes have been made, but often in-depth explanations of why those changes were necessary. Probably the best example is Blizzard, whose patch notes for Overwatch go deep into why the adjustments are made.
Image source: Battle.net
It’s not a tactic that’s going to stop every player getting salty, but it might prevent the whole fanbase decamping for another title the next time Roadhog gets nerfed. Devs that tend to put out notes of this nature are savvy enough to know that the future of games-as-a-service depends on keeping their playerbase sweet.
2. The Victorian parent
On the far side of the conscientiousness spectrum are the devs who deliver their patch notes with the air of a Victorian parent packing their child off to boarding school for a decade. Lowering their newspaper, these devs glance disinterestedly at a fanbase crying out for information, and seem to say “this is for your own good; listen to your elders. And stop sobbing, you’re making a scene.”
FromSoftware, the studio behind Dark Souls and Bloodborne, is particularly partial to this type of patch note. Each is an emotionless catalogue of balance changes and bug fixes, completely devoid of any scrap of comfort for the distraught gamer whose Rifle Spear has been downgraded from top-tier beast killer to toothpick. Sometimes, they won’t even tell you what they’ve changed.
Image source: PlayStation Japan
But the fact is that the devs who put out this type of patch note have a singular vision for their games, and are fiercely protective of their role as creator. Sure, we might occasionally get thrown a bone as the result of a fan petition, but these devs tend to be responsible for unique games, and we love them for it.
3. The penitent dev
It doesn’t matter how many bugs get flagged in testing before the game’s release, the sheer onslaught of players in the early days of a new release mean that tons of new, potentially catastrophic faults are going to be found. That’s exacerbated by punishing release cycles and marketing expectations that mean games are often shunted out the door before they’re ready, like throwing someone out of a helicopter when they’ve only got one strap fastened on their parachute.
Consequently, many triple-A devs are likely to have all hands at the pumps for launch, resulting in day one patches that run the gamut from minor technical improvements to essentially bolting a whole new game onto the release version.
The accompanying patch notes range from terse declarations that texture pop has been fixed to barely-concealed cries for help. Often you can even see the flames from the dev’s screen on your own and hear, as if from a great distance, the wails of a team who are so deep in the crunch they don’t remember a time before 20 hour work days and sleeping under their own desks.
Unfortunately, when you see patch notes of this type, all it suggests is that that particular developer is a victim to a crushing work cycle.
4. The myth-maker
Back in the halcyon days of arcade releases, Midway Games’ Ed Boon included numerous hints and teases to hidden Mortal Kombat fighters in menus and flavour text within levels.
Fans who dug around in the test menu discovered the cryptic phrase ‘ERMACS’ written under ‘Reptile Battles’ and, because of those other teases, decided that Ermac had to be a hidden character. The fact that the phrase actually stood for ‘Error Macros’ did nothing to deter the hype for the mysterious fighter, and Boon eventually created a character with that name from whole cloth for Ultimate Mortal Kombat III.
Years later, other developers sometimes use patch notes for myth-making of a similar nature, to build excitement or point to an as-yet undiscovered secret in the game. Various patch notes for Ghost Recon: Wildlands noted that “something was seen roaming the mountains” and “an unusual noise was heard near a ruined hut”, hinting at the existence of enemy sniper El Yeti.
Weirder still, the elusive Frog Fractions 2 was discovered when fans noted that an update to the seemingly-unrelated Glittermitten Grove was half the size of the game again, and the patch notes included several words pertaining to a Frog Fractions-related ARG.
Devs who use patch notes this way tend to have a good understanding of what their fanbase obsesses over (and the ability to exploit it for word-of-mouth).
5. The Joker
There are a lot of developers out there for whom the act of making a game is one big joke. Titles like Behold the Kickmen were born as a joke, so it’s not surprising that the developers would extend the fun into their patch notes, too.
Take Goat Simulator, the patch notes for which read like the midnight scrawls of an opium-addled Romantic artist, and are all the weirder for the fact that some of them turn out to be real descriptions of in-game changes.
The dev teams behind these games tend to be impish and self-aware, gamers themselves. Just as their games react to and send up the industry, so too does their documentation.
6. The Maniacs
Which game has the best patch notes? Crusader Kings II has the best patch notes. I don’t even need to explain why, just have a look:
- If married, women now fool their husbands about the parentage of children born from the bastard birth event.
- Characters of a religion where priests are not allowed to marry will now divorce their wives if ordained
- Fixed some bugs with how dead spouses are handled
- Changes to the bastard children of Antso IV of Navarra
- AI: Will no longer accept giving away women as concubines to characters whose religion they will not intermarry with.
Here’s the thing with Crusader Kings II. None of this is a joke, it’s all deadly serious. The bastard children of Antso IV of Navarra really were not working as intended, and needed a change. This is a function of a game with true depth being played by people who respond to every detail, and find the tiniest imperfections. Patch notes like this are a product of a rare kind of game, and a rare kind of developer-player relationship, one where the implications of dead spouses are understood and taken seriously. The rest of the world may not ‘get it’ but then, that’s because they’re missing out.
7. The Visionaries
Did you know that, for years and years, John Carmack kept up a running commentary on what he was dealing with? Carmack’s .plan documents (archived here) are a 1990s goldmine of development at the sharp end, ranging over diverse topics in Carmack’s inscrutable style. Are they patch notes? They’re almost the prototype patch notes, reflecting both id’s open development style and forward-thinking approach to community engagement.
Anyway, this is a goldmine and well worth a browse. I’m not going to pretend I understand a lot of this stuff, and indeed many of the entries are little more than technical lists, but it’s an amazing insight into one of our industry’s defining minds. You could even argue, and I would, that Carmack’s flitting instincts, his assertions and questions, build up into some form of surrealist poetry. I’ll leave you with this, an entry from March 1996.
Capped Health at 250.
+ solid, invisible brushes
+ don't send linear entities in signon message
+ write a message trace printing mode
+ is 256 angle quantization from client hurting us?
+ sky animations use the wrong time base
+ centralize the connection process
weapon switching is wrong
no twitch in god mode
if a linear update entity doesn't get an update in a packet, remove it
bound upper client message sends properly
RELEASE: bump protocol version numbers just before releasing