Electron Dance
17May/1621

One Point Nine

minecraft-dark-cavern

Making whacking great changes to a game is risky at any stage of its development. Once the earliest of early access enthusiasts have wired their brains to take advantages of a game’s mathematics or physics - choose your scientific class wisely - the spectre of player resistance is present.

But updates are also welcomed because they offer something new to see, to explore, to learn.

Although my love for Minecraft had withered over the last six months, I was excited to find out what was in Minecraft 1.9. The last update introduced stained glass. What would this one bring?

It brought us beetroot, a major retooling of The End and the worst Minecraft session I have ever experienced.

My wife and I rejoined the action at a new village we’d found while extending the yellow Mine Line. It looked familiar and I believed it was the first village I’d ever found, discovered during my early wanderings far from home when I would inevitably get lost and die. Of course, I hate villages.

minecraft-metro-may-2015

Villages are Minecraft’s implementation of the observer effect as your very presence puts them in peril. When you’re not nearby, villages are kept in stasis out of harm’s memory. Get too close and the village becomes active and night can bring the zombie hordes down upon them. Although you can make golems to protect villages, they tend to spend most of their time holding out little poppies like they’re collecting for charity while villagers get chewed to shit behind their back. We always wind up spending an hour making a stupid cobblestone wall around the village and planting torches on every available space. They go from villages to micromanaged fortresses.

Night fell and suddenly the village was beset upon by armies of creepers, skeletons, spiders and zombies. Now I don’t know if the spawning algorithms in Minecraft 1.9 had changed but we were overwhelmed with digital violence. What I did know was that combat had changed. Armour was weakened and attacking was now a little more sophisticated: out went the machine gun clicker, in came the “charged” attack which made attacks a game of timing. Wait... click!

Being assaulted by several creatures at the same time pushed us into fight-or-flight mode so our long-time conditioning took over: we kept hacking away at enemies in fear, unable to charge up an attack. We had equipped ourselves with the all-new shields, but holding up the shield for protection turns the ground to glue which makes retreat horribly slow. And a shield isn’t going to protect you or the village houses from creepers.

I was utterly shocked when my wife died, leaving me all alone in the night. I was desperate to save all the stuff she had been carrying, now sprinkled around like gibs, but I was already overloaded. Not expecting to die so easily, she respawned a bloody continent away. She told me there was a chest I could use put her stuff into but couldn’t find it anywhere. It was like being pinned down in a warzone. “Alpha Charlie to Control, repeat, we request evac and location of chest to secure munitions. Oh my God! They’re everywhere! They’re----zzzzk.” The penny dropped. The chest had been disintegrated by the creeper that had killed my wife.

While bobbing around the village taking pot shots at the hordes, I made a large chest and threw all my stuff into it so I could collect my wife’s belongings. But it was too late, half of her stuff went to inventory heaven. Vanished into thin air.

After day broke, I took stock of what had happened. Somehow I’d gorged through half of my food reserves to stay alive. My diamond sword had been heavily damaged and I’d lost my favourite enchanted helmet which allowed me to see under the sea. I’d even lost my temper with our children who were watching this carnage play out and asking questions - “why aren’t you killing them daddy” - while I was trying to retain my sanity.

Originally we were trying to do a little bit of exploration and construction, but we seemed to be spending all our time fighting and worrying about fighting, racing to the nearest bed at the first signs of twilight. Our session was over after two hours: I was glad to quit out of the damn game.

minecraft-beds-stairs

Our initial impression was that the game was ruined. There was only one thing we could do to save it. We made the sad decision to reduce the difficulty.

I wondered if the 1.9 release was going to pull me back into Minecraft’s thrall, but it turned out to be the final nail in the coffin. I had become accustomed to the nice balance we had between fighting for resources and building. I didn’t want to go full creative, because that was a world devoid of functional purpose, but neither did I want the night to become “Minecraft set against the DOOM soundtrack”. My wife, on the other hand, has persisted and enjoys it despite still finding the combat a little on the stressful side.

Of course, I could retreat to the 1.8 build as I’d backed up the world prior to trying out 1.9. But if you’re playing a game through a digital portal like Steam or the App Store, you don’t have that choice any more. If you don’t like the changes being made, tough luck. Join the future. A simple example: it’s no longer possible to watch the Portal ending before it was retconned for Portal 2.

In our brand new game-as-a-service world, there is no fixed product but a continuous, fluid experience on the other side of a Steam client. Steam will update games whenever it can and you might not know the game has been updated 15 times since last time you played. Everything has been done to make the action of playing a game as frictionless as possible.

If anything, it should act as another reminder that players have lost control of software; you only get a promise of access to something. A something that may not even be the same something you played yesterday. Our rights to time travel back to a version where something was gloriously broken or simply glorious have been revoked.

Any games you wish you could downgrade today? Please share your story in the comments.

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  1. I’ve got to say, it sounds like the new combat mechanics caught you more off guard than anything else!

    And I had no idea they retconned the Portal ending!

    I hear that GOG, through their Galaxy client, will be allowing optional updates with the facility to roll them back. That’s fantastic.

    So my downgrade anecdote: I played Bioshock 2 in one of its better states (vanilla 1.0) thanks to a hack I used to gut Games for Windows Live from the experience and, crucially, the auto-updater in the process (at the time I wasn’t aware of this and I only discovered it when I tried to player Minerva’s Den which requires the latest version). Had the updater worked however, I’d have been treated to a horribly borked soundstage that, sadly, remains unaddressed to this day.

    Unfortunately, GFWL has been officially removed from BS2 now (unfortunately?! What am I saying?) so Steam does the updating. This means that whether you like it or not, you’ve got to play Bioshock 2 with the sound issues. It was only recently that I realised, at long last, that someone has tried to restore the original mix: https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=322637977 What a mess 2K!

    Here’s the thing though: Minerva’s Den required the latest version to play, so that means that everyone who played it will have played through the game with quiet guns, muffled turrets and bot sounds, blearing ambient noises and giant holes in the soundstage. I’ve not read one review that noticed! That really bothers me, and no doubt it would bother audio professionals even more!

    All that said, I think these days if there’s enough of a backlash against a change or new feature, it’ll get addressed so hopefully you wouldn’t be locked into downgrade hell. It’d be the small things you have to live with, mixed in with the bigger things you probably couldn’t live without that’d be the annoying part!

  2. Not exactly the same thing (I guess this isue doesn’t usually arise for me since I don’t play through portals), but Blood and Laurels was destroyed by an iPad OS update and that makes me sad. Fortunately I managed one playthrough while it still worked but it’d be nice to revisit it. (Also Firefox was nagging me to update for weeks and the only difference I notice with the new version is that I’m back to the days of constant beachballing while I do things like try to scroll a window or type in a text box.)

  3. @Gregg – I never heard about these Bioshock 2 audio issues! I think I played it through on PC, a while after release, probably via Steam. No expansions involved. I don’t recall thinking the audio was screwy; it was a few years ago of course.

    I’m sure there are game updates I’d have preferred not to have, but none spring imminently to mind. However the lost histories of games-as-a-service, of the blurred lines between ‘complete’ and evolving digital products… you’re right Joel, this is something that we are increasingly going to see more and more of.

    Oh, I just thought of an example: the addition of the corpse clutter mechanic to Darkest Dungeon. Boy, were many players upset about that. So the devs put in a menu option so you could turn it off, if you wanted to play the game like tiny little baby man (and here I’m alluding to TF2, a game almost unrecognisable in comparison to its 2007 open beta).

  4. Gregg,

    One of the aims of 1.9 was to make the combat more tactical and difficult – the armour was explicitly downgraded. So it’s supposed to be more oppressive but that was really contrary to the Minecraft I’d become used to. I wasn’t really looking for more challenge. Even though my wife has got more used to it since we went full 1.9, I can tell she gets a bit tired after being ambushed numerous times.

    Portal ending is almost identical to before, but now you get dragged off by a robot, presumably back into Aperture Science.

    I’ve not played Bioshock 2 – it’s in my Steam library – so now I’ll never be able to enjoy the audio now I know I’m supposed to hate it, Gregg ;)

    Matt,

    I think we’ve been lucky in the past with operating systems moving forward, because emulation and the like has seen us through. But in the era of rapid updates and complexity of billions of programming APIs, I wonder whether emulation/fixing games to work on newer platforms is really going to fly in the future.

    Shaun,

    Yes there have been a few incidents like Darkest Dungeon. It’s the multiplayer where it seems to hit most.

    Also I’d like to add that once a studio goes out of business then no one is looking after the code any more. Whatever sits on the digital portal is what the game will always be. No more fixes and certainly no chance of reverting the code back to a previous build.

  5. This isn’t exactly the same, but I was one of the lucky people to have started playing The Sims 3 with the original retail edition. The physical copies that were produced after September 2012 came bundled with Origin, and the patch that was released around that time, 1.69, made Origin mandatory to launch the game for all copies, physical or digital, unless you purchased the game from Steam. So to avoid Origin you’d have to stick with an older patch level, which means not installing any expansions, DLC, and most mods produced at or after the patch’s release. The only way you could play those things without Origin was to obtain a Steam copy, or pirate them.

    On another note, most dedicated players avoided updating their games immediately. Not only were most mods incompatible with new patches, the updates often added to the mountain of bugs that altogether would make the game more painful than fun to play. (The fan site by Crinrict has catalogued 154 bugs, of which only 22 have been fixed.) And on occasion, the patches would add mechanics that made the game even more tiresome, like the Facebook-esque memories. “Bob Newbie just visited the park! He will never forget this experience bla bla bla”. Sims would form a memory of visiting the park, EVERY time they visited… And this is neighbourhood-wide, so there’d be hundreds or even thousands of superfluous memories bogging down the game. It was a while before a patch was released that added the option to disable memory formation…

    I haven’t touched Minecraft in half a year now… Your experience with the updated combat mechanics worries me, but thankfully I’ve got earlier versions backed up.

  6. I played the base game vanilla so I’ve limited experience what 1.4 did for it outside some spot dabbling! It was going from vanilla to 1.4 for Minerva’s Den, from the original mix to another, that made it more noticeable. The issues may very well be more apparent in the DLC to be honest. Which is a shame because Minerva’s Den is so good. It deserves better!

  7. Hi Autumn Dusk!

    I think it’s still a relevant example because it touches on something which I chose not to get into. If you surrender yourself to an older version then you won’t get any new *good* stuff which could also include mod compatibility and being able to hook up to friends who might go to a later version. There’s pressure to keep up to date, particularly if updates are automated for most of the player population. Even if I decided to stay on an older version of Minecraft, I’d feel like I was missing out on, say, the added richness in The End.

    Also I was the kind of person who never updated immediately. Most of the time, patches were just fixes and performance improvements. These days, because deployment is easy, there is less inertia thus you are much more likely to see a constant stream of gameplay tweaks and experiments. If you ever played Team Fortress 2, you were basically a rat in Valve’s lab! So now change is inevitable and something you can’t opt out of.

    There have been quite a few changes to Minecraft since 1.9 hit the digital streets – we’re now on 1.9.4 – including an icon which indicates when your attack has charged up. Previously, it was completely opaque until you struck! I feel like I’m looking for a “new” Minecraft-type game. Perhaps I just need to mod…

  8. I have Portal on the Orange Box disk for Xbox 360 console. …wininng?! Or did that get the retcon patch too? I haven’t replayed it in that long.

  9. Isnt this something to lobby the Global Librarian community about? Maybe not the smaller patches, but at least whole online worlds etc?

  10. Amanda: I don’t know. I had a quick look around but it looks like it didn’t receive the patch!

    Martin: The problem is getting a corporate entity to spend some of its resources on sharing the technical details with a third party. Because once the plug is pulled, no one has money to spend on rescuing the infrastructure. It’s why I worry a little about the collapse of a DRM solution: it’s goodbye games you bought on the service. If Valve went bankrupt and no one saved them, your games are gone.

  11. First time on this site; interesting article. You bring to light an interesting issue in modern gaming, Joel – one that I’ve been pondering since Steam came along and started foisting updates on us without much option. If I remember correctly, you do have the option to defer updates for any game until you manually accept them, but this still means you cannot launch the game (offline or on) until it has completed its update. Maybe one way to get around this is to start Steam in offline mode, but then at some stage you’ll want to buy/download a game and thus the updates flood in again…

    Was glad to hear of GoG’s approach; good old games indeed – odd bugs and all!

  12. My experience with Europa Universalis 4 are kind of the opposite of this. Every time the game updates it either breaks my saves or makes the game unplayable. Playing as Prussia once, I logged in after an update and found the map littered with unexplored territory which was previously explored. (This was really weird since it meant places like Milan or Bohemia were suddenly rendered these mystery pockets of 18th-century wasteland, where once there had been a city… very post-apocalyptic…) In my current game I was playing as the Ottomans and had amassed a huge empire. Loading my save not only rendered the *entire* map unexplored except for my provinces, but it also fundamentally *broke* my entire nation’s economy. What had been a well-ordered financial machine churning out hundreds of ducats each year became a catastrophic money sink, bleeding gold from every orifice.

    I’m actually really intrigued by this: updating your empire with new mechanics might mean that the very infrastructural underpinnings which allowed you to rise to power are nowhere to be seen. It’s almost like one of those “what if the internet stopped working” social collapse thought experiments, except more mysterious since I’m not even sure what it was that kicked the legs out from under my economy.

    More to the point, though, you can roll back EU4 (on Steam!) to an earlier version via the “Betas” menu. So thankfully my empire will survive while I play with an outdated version, and I’ll update once this game is finished. I think this is the way to go: giving players the option to roll back to any previous version they want. But Paradox (the devs) are particularly scrupulous about updates and patches since 1) they have a great mod scene and 2) offering free patches and upgrades to accompany DLC is a huge part of their income stream so they have an incentive to keep everything neat. Not many others would do this, I think, since they don’t see it as a priority to preserve the original game (as in the Portal example).

  13. Hi Jeremy – and welcome! I’ve just a quick search after reading your comment and you’re right, it is just about possible to freeze a game but it is by no means straightforward. I don’t see malice in the way things are set up, but there are some huge caveats as a result. A whole generation has surrendered the idea of owning a product… although they still think they do.

    James, hello again. I was just listening to your podcast on Uplink and Hacknet! With EU4 that’s definitely an interesting way to look at things – interpreting these external factors as organic changes to your world. But I’m not sure I could extend that to every game or even want to, because it’s really just spinning away the fundamental problem that control has been lost.

    As you say, I think only a few studios will go to the trouble of maintaining different versions for download. If I remember rightly, Puppygames’ Revenge of the Titans was a very different game back in the beta – that’s the one I reviewed with Gregg – but it changed substantially after many revisions, more traditional tower defence I think. I still have the original version here stored on my PC, but it’s striking just how much changes sometimes.

    How does Early Access fit into this? That’s like some insight into the developer’s construction process. Would we still demand the same respect of those as the production versions?

  14. Joel – thanks for listening again! :D I agree about EU4 – it’s fun to speculate about how changing the Simulation changes the rules of the game world and changes what it says about political entities/power/whatever, but that doesn’t change the fact that something has been lost if you can never go back to Version 1.0.

    This isn’t limited to games, either: look at Facebook or YouTube, any of these sites we use every day. We have little sense of how they’ve evolved over time since our memories of their past states are overwritten by how they are now; Facebook has always been ‘this way’ in our heads. Which leads to a problem of collective memory-loss: we can’t learn from the past if it isn’t documented somewhere.

    Good point about early access. I guess we think differently about preserving something once it’s done; the artist’s Workshop is more of a black box for us. But as a dev, I like to document my progress now and then with a screenshot, just so I can look back and see how much my game has changed over development. And I’m personally interested to see early Versions of games before they got all polished; prototypes for an early BioShock are nothing like the current build, for example, which might tell us something about what BioShock is / says.

    (Not sure if this will link with my existing account – I’m posting from a work pc waiting for someone to turn up and twiddling my thumbs…)

  15. I don’t remember the specific changes with Revenge of the Titans but it was quite a different experience from when the two of us originally played it. I had my reservations at first I admit, but I think Puppy Games definitely improved it. In fact, I’ve still got it (the new version) installed with my save on Saturn.

    Another anecdote that I just remembered: Shogun 2. I played the demo of the base game and loved it– the AI was formidable. Bought the complete pack with all the DLC, fully updated and ready to go. Many hours into the campaign, and much to my dismay, I discovered that the defensive naval AI was utterly broken. Apparently Creative Assembly introduced the problem with a patch for the Fall of the Samurai DLC and never fixed it. Cheers CA!

    And something else on the horizon: Evolve tanked hard last year and is currently undergoing some major changes for a future update in the hopes of attracting and retaining more players. I do worry that the game I enjoyed so much last year won’t exist in a few months. I trust Turtle Rock, but there comes a point where you’ve got to realise that some things just aren’t for certain people. What’s ‘the thrill of the hunt’ to me is a ‘running simulator’ to most players it seems. There’s a fine line between pandering and artistic intent!

  16. …but a dangerous chasm between success and failure!

  17. Gregg, the big one is of course anything which is primarily online. MMORPGs, MOBAs, online FPS games – all of them getting mercilessly tweaked, extended and overhauled as time goes on. Allowing users to keep their versions would fragment the online community and thus damage the availability of matches but the danger on the flipside is, as you point out, that the community hates the changes so much they walk away. Obviously something so hated would likely get reversed in short time, but the minority like yourself, might end up losing that game forever. And no one will ever remember it as the memory is worn away by the most immediate version as per James…

    James, yes there are times when I miss old Twitter when it wasn’t full of images and dancing GIFs and autoplaying videos. Nothing but pictures all day. But I’m sure some people would argue that, if possible, the process of development would be important to preserve as it may be useful and incisive in some way we can’t fathom right now. I imagine all developers are using source control and part of the reason we do that is because none of us can put a value on what we consider to be dead builds: if we have to revert to a previous version, recover an old idea, or do a direct comparison to see how things have turned out. We cannot value history as we create it, it is only through the perspective of the future does it become apparent.

    Oh but sweet Lord I would love to see some of the prototypes for Bioshock Infinite because I think that would be terribly instructive for many reasons.

  18. Payday 2 and Space Engineers come to mind, but Euro Truck Sim 2 on Steam explicitly lets you stick with older versions of the game: http://poweronselftest.tumblr.com/post/145028617502/one-point-nine-electron-dance

  19. Power On Self Test,

    I followed the link back to your tumblr and interesting! I didn’t realise ETS2 on Steam allowed you go with older versions (we’ve tended to play with the non-Steam version). I see what you’re trying to say here is that Steam isn’t necessarily the problem, that the developer isn’t supporting it.

    Now I don’t know how easy it is support but I’d guess, considering that most developers don’t, it’s not a piece of cake. I’d say that any time a developer spends time on something that doesn’t directly help the bottomline is a cost they have to justify. If older builds are allowed, it would also affect support e.g. people who forget their on an older version, people who don’t want to go major upgrade but want bugs fixed etc. I can see developers looking at the “everybody is on the same, fixed version” versus “where the who what how is going on” and thinking: yes, I’ll take the simple track. Rapid upgrades, thus far, have not shown much impact on sales of games in general. Players like not having to chase bugs more than losing old versions except in specialised cases.

    Unfortunately, that means it’s a default.

    I would be interested in finding out what goes into that decision on Steam, though! Thanks for the tip.

  20. As stated before in these comments, once the gameplay happens on-line it’s important that all players run the same version. ETS2 doesn’t do online (well, there’s an experimental mod for it if you really want to) so it’s not really a problem.

    The flipside of these forced updates is that Steam makes it really easy to stay up to date. I remember what it was like to play HL1-based games like Global Warfare on-line, before Steam was a thing. It’s nice that I no longer need to hunt down the right patches from the right websites before being able to join a server.

    Another game has come to mind for which an update was a bad thing: Train Simulator. It gets an update every year and from experience I know these updates introduce some significant bugs. I’ve used Steam’s offline mode to postpone the update for as long as I could, hoping that by the time I did finally update, the bugs would’ve been addressed.

    My plan was foiled in a day or two when I wanted to play another Steam-supported game online. I had no choice to switch Steam out of offline mode, and was then blocked from launching Train Simulator, until the update was applied.

  21. Yes, I agree, online play is an area where it would be difficult to remain on a previous version particularly if the games are run through central servers.

    Ah the old days when everything was so hideously manual! I’ve not gone into Minecraft mods but I believe it’s still a … “nostalgic throwback” shall we say to the days of tinkering with config files and hunting downloads.

    Funny thing, of course, I usually play games pretty late which means I only ever play “final” versions and these become the official state of the game for me. I rarely get impacted (although as I discussed in the newsletter last month, I got hit as Richard Perrin’s Kairo had a big update on Steam while I was writing a big mystery-busting piece based on the older direct download version). Minecraft is an odd one because it keeps getting these big updates every couple of years. 1.8 became “official Minecraft” for me.

    I’ve become too lazy these days. All the games I have interest in are plugged into my Steam wish list so, inevitably, when they come up for discount I just buy them there and nowhere else. There’s a reason I sell this to myself: most games I don’t care about playing again because there’s always so much to play. Which is kind of awful, really, because it means I’ve accepted games as consumable, throwaway.


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