Great game add-ins. (software patches, revisions, user enhancements for computer games)
by Scott A. May
Joyful anticipation turns sour in a tale almost every dedicated computer game player has shared: After enduring months of splashy advertisements and media hype, you finally bring home that long-awaited software masterpiece. Expecting to be dazzled by state-of-the-art graphics and sound, you're instead greeted by an ambiguous error message--or worse, total system lockup. Several reinstalls and a half-dozen aborted attempts later, you contemplate a new hobby.
There are as many different variations to this scenario as there are games and IBM PC-compatible systems. Sometimes a program installs correctly and then fails in the middle of a play session--usually at the worst possible time. In most cases, these problems can be fixed with a simple change in your system settings or by creating a plain-vanilla floppy boot disk. More serious problems usually mean that there's a software bug or that your hardware is incompatible.
Less threatening, but equally frustrating, are games that run flawlessly but just don't measure up to your expectations. Some prove too difficult, while others aren't challenging enough. Features often touted in advance publicity aren't implemented properly, or worse, are dropped completely from the final design. For one reason or another, you're not a happy gamer.
Fixing a Hole
Game publishers respond to program failures, hardware incompatibility, and design suggestions with an almost revolutionary new form of customer service: software patches. Software patches afford consumers the unique opportunity to repair or enhance their purchases with minimal effort and cost. Like a digital bandage for ailing software, patch files are designed to swat bugs, tweak playability, and restore confidence in a company's product line. Patches are often innocuous, changing minor elements of a game to fix isolated problems. Sometimes, however, they constitute a major upgrade, turning a good game into a great one.
Entertainment software has grown to proportions unthinkable only a few years ago. Fueled by quantum leaps in technology and steadily plummeting prices, the oncestodgy PC compatible now finds itself the platform of choice for today's high-end computer games. Hundreds of third-party peripherals have rushed onto the scene: sound cards, game ports, video cards, memory managers, and disk compression utilities. Game publishers, used to the plug-and-play days of Commodore and Atari, suddenly find themselves confronted by almost unlimited variations in hardware configurations. Creating cutting-edge software that runs smoothly on every possible system has become a nightmare, while the persistent lack of industry standards in the computer game world assures that the problem just won't go away. Thus, software patches are born.
Upgrades and Bug Swats
Most software companies employ a full-time staff of in-house beta testers, whose job is to look under every rock in a fantasy realm and to log hundreds of flight hours, tracking the elusive bug. Given the sheer size of games and the number of game variables, attempting to eliminate all bugs is a daunting task but one most companies feel obligated to undertake. "Our beta testers catch most bugs," says Bill Linn, director of public relations for Sierra On-Line, "but it's like proofreading a novel: Everyone misses the occasional comma or quotation mark." Dan Riddle, customer service manager for Mindcraft, considers fantasy role-playing games to be the worst to debug because everyone plays them differently. "We've had people who say, ~I have a problem doing this.' Your initial reaction is, Why did you do that?" Riddle says. But, he acknowledges, ideally, games should be able to handle whatever a player wants to do.
In addition to answering to those hapless gamers who stumble into obscure programming traps, companies must also be ready for complaints from "grognards"--excessive aficionados in a particular field who love to grumble about technical inaccuracies. These are the players who can recite, from memory, the exact turning radius of the F4U-1A Corsair and the time it takes, with flaps down, to execute a 180-degree bank, as well as how much air speed you should lose during the turn. While this obsession with detail prompts some in the industry to mutter "Get a life," others welcome such nitpicking. Jerry Luttrell, director of public relations for Dynamix, admits to employing eight or nine grognards as beta testers for Aces over Europe. "We figured that if we can make these guys happy, then we know we've done our job," Luttrell says.
King of the Hill
If you were to select the king in the field of game patches, MicroProse Software would likely wear the crown. It's a title, however, the company is proud to bear, "We owe it to our customers to do our best," says Steve Albinak, manager of customer services at MicroProse. "Sometimes it may take a revision or two to make software that runs as tight as possible on as many platforms as possible." At the top of the company's all-time patch list is its massive medieval fantasy, Darklands. This software problem child received six separate patches before the company finally combined them all into a complete reissue of the game, officially known as Darklands 7.0.
Among patches that dramatically enhance their original programs, Dynamix's Aces of the Pacific 1.2 improves aircraft performance, enemy pilot artificial intelligence, graphic detail, animation frame rate, sound effects, and weapons performance. "Nearly half of the changes that we made in Aces of the Pacific," Luttrell says, "were from customer requests--things they didn't like or wanted to be done differently." Dynamix's patch for version 1.02 of Front Page Sports: Football makes a great game even better, increasing playability with vast improvements to the Al, the play-calling interface, the sound card support, the league options, and the statistical displays.
The advent of low-cost, high-speed modems has spurred increased interest in games offering null or remote modem play. Products not originally equipped with a modem option are often refitted through patch files or expansion disks. MicroProse did just that with the version 1.5 modem update to its best-selling racing game, World Circuit. Not only does the update provide a slew of major enhancements affecting graphics detail, frame rate, and control options, but two players can now tear up the tarmac, connected by remote or null modem link. Though initially available only through the patch, these improvements will eventually be included in the Master Players edition. Other games that have added modem options or fixed problems with existing remote play include Siege: Dogs of War (Mindcraft), The Perfect General (QQP), Tom Landry Football (Merit Software), and Falcon 3.1 (Spectrum HoloByte).
Games with minor problems are often updated with add-on disks, since most supplements require ownership of the original program. Spectrum HoloByte used Operation: Fighting Tiger not only to add new scenarios but also to automatically upgrade Falcon 3.0 to version 3.01. Other notable examples of this bundled approach include Gunship 2000 Mission Builder (MicroProse), Red Baron Mission Builder (Dynamix), Siege: Dogs of War, Megafortress: Operation Skymaster (Three-Sixty Pacific), and Great Naval Battles Scenario Builder (SSI).
Extending Life After Retail
Many games ward off planned obsolescence with integrated construction kits, allowing you to create your own diabolical levels, articulated missions, and custom characters. Such features not only draw players deeper into the game but also help sustain a product's long-term market appeal. One of the best is surely Stunt island (Disney Software), in which you can design, fly, film, and edit original stunts, then share your fabulous footage with friends. Another new breed of construction kit can be found in El Fish (Maxis), an electronic aquarium simulation that allows you to spawn exotic new species of fish, then share your mutations with other aquarium owners. Of course, the classic success story is Accolade's lucrative line of golf simulations, each containing full-featured course designers. You can't swing a nine iron around most major online services without hitting dozens of 18-hole courses for Mean 18, Jack Nicklaus Unlimited Golf, or the latest in the collection, Signature Edition.
Companies often rekindle interest in previously released products with stand-alone construction kits. Red Baron Mission Builder brings a whole new dimension to this best-selling air combat simulator. Likewise, the Gunship 2000 Mission Builder renewed excitement in a product whose shelf life had otherwise peaked. An unusual case is Mallard Software, whose Aircraft & Scenery Designer and Aircraft & Adventure Factory benefit users of another company's product: Microsoft's Flight Simulator 4. Compuserve's Flight Simulation Forum bursts with hundreds of unique aircraft and scenery packages created with Mallard's programs.
Taking Matters into Their Own Hands
By far the most fascinating and controversial area of game patches is that of user-created hacks and enhancements to commercial products. Unlike illegal hacks used to break copy protection, these playful modifications seek to extend legitimate interest in popular games. Typical hacks merely instruct players how to hex-edit specific data files to generate supercharged aircraft or the ultimate role-playing heroes. Some actually change or add features to a game, while others are sophisticated, self-contained editors, designers, and managers.
Officially, software publishers neither condemn nor condone this practice, yet they privately express wonderment at players' dedication to their products. "Most designers are excited that people get so involved with their games," says Khris Brown, product support manager at LucasArts. "We can't deny the fact that these user modifications can sometimes increase the shelf life of a product." Brown cautions, however, that experimenting with hacks can be like putting leaded gasoline in a car clearly marked for unleaded gas. Once a player ventures into this gray area, the manufacturer can't be responsible for the consequences, good or bad.
LucasArts happens to be the target of some of the most prolific and unusual game hacks. A current favorite is the X-Wing Mission Design Kit by Henry Chang. This menu-driven program allows you to construct X-Wing missions--a feature not included in the original game--with complete control of all ships, space objects, and mission objectives. Another LucasArts title to spur enormous hacker activity is the company's best-selling combat flight simulation, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. The most plentiful hacks are user-modified aircraft, commonly called hexed planes, that range from subtle corrections of erroneous flight models to outrageous fantasy designs. Samples of this last category include a 700-mph Messerschmitt Bf109G-6 (which flies at nearly twice the actual aircraft's top speed) and a jet-powered B-17 bomber equipped with oversized guns and rockets. Among the most ambitious hacks is Anthony Shimizu's SWOTL Manager 2.1, a TSR program that adds new menu options, such as reviving dead pilots and viewing up to 100 modified aircraft. Similar character editors and game managers also exist for Red Baron and Aces of the Pacific, Planet's Edge (New World Computing), Civilization (MicroProse), Their Finest Hour (LucasArts), and Pacific War (SSI).
The high-end flight simulator Falcon 3.1 has also inspired an overwhelming number of exciting and inventive user enhancements. There are so many, in fact, that one enterprising player created a menu-driven shell to consolidate the plethora of TSRs, hacks, and editors. In the sports world, there are team and league editors for FPS: Football and Tom Landry Football, as well as terrain editors for Stunts (Broderbund) and pit stop managers for Mario Andretti's Racing Challenge (Electronic Arts). Fantasy role players can also dig behind the scenes with character editors for Darklands, Eye of the Beholder III (SSI), and Might and Magic III (New World Computing).
Where to Go for Help
There are almost as many sources for game patches, revisions, and user enhancements as there are materials to choose from. Some software publishers automatically mail free upgrade disks to registered game owners (another good reason to fill out those pesky registration cards). Others report that they will gladly mail free upgrades in response to requests made either by mail or by phone. Modem users have a much wider choice when searching for help, add-ons, and enhancements. Subscribers to national electronic information services such as Compuserve (GAMERS, GAMEPUB, and FSFORUM), Genie (Scorpia's Games Roundtable), and America Online will discover a gold mine of patches and game supplements. In addition, most publishers maintain customer-service bulletin boards that are stocked with upgrades, custom levels, hints, and tips. Check your software manual for BBS telephone numbers.
Only the Beginning
The items mentioned here represent only a small portion of a much larger (and still growing) overall picture. As long as software publishers care about the quality of their products, and customers enjoy using them, computer games will continue to enjoy a healthy life after retail.
AMERICA ONLINE 8619 Westwood Center Dr. Ste. 200 Vienna, VA 22182 (800) 227-6364
COMPUSERVE P.O. Box 20212 Columbus, OH 43220 (800) 848-8199
GENIE 401 N. Washington St. Rockville, MD 20850 (800) 638-9636
Beyond Fun and Games: Educating Players
Where do you fit in this tangled web of bugs, patches, and hacks? The recent boom of low-cost, high-end PCs has put killer game machines on the desktops of a record number of first-time computer users. Thanks to the number of disparate system configurations, game publishers have recently found themselves in the awkward position of not only selling their products but also educating customers about computer hardware. As a result, entire chapters of game manuals must address the basics of hardware and software configuration, potential problems, and possible solutions. For companies to admit that it's a hassle, however, would be like biting the hand that feeds them.
Let's face it: it's a jungle of hardware peripherals out there. If you're a computer novice and want to play games, you'll need to know about sound cards, game ports, modems, video cards, drivers, disk compression utilities, memory managers, diskcaching tools, and opetating systems. Confused? Now, try installing a hardware-hungry game like Origin's Strike Commander. It's no wonder that good customer support is a game publisher's most valuable asset.
While companies struggle to make games that run perfectly on every possible system, what can you do to help?
Get to know your hardware. It may sound condescending, but the solutions to most problems are within your grasp. Get an updated beginner's guide to DOS, memory management, and hardware configuration. Learn which gaming peripherals--usually sound cards and joystick ports--are most likely to cause conflicts with other hardware or software settings.
Read the troubleshooting section of your software manual. If you're still stumped, hit the phone before hitting the roof. In addition to checking with the software company's technical support line, try calling your local dealer or a PC-knowledgeable friend.
If you have a modem, query other game players. There may be a local BBS in your area, or you can check out the game sections of national services like Compuserve, Genie, and America Online. Besides finding hundreds of fellow gamers online, you can often direct questions to actual company representatives. If your software needs a patch, you'll most likely find it here.
When in doubt, stick with popular, proven accessories. Many gamers have been burned by cut-rate peripherals promising 100-percent compatibility with better-known products. Stick with the top-of-the-line accessories if you want to be safe.
If you follow these guidelines, you'll soon be enjoying the thrill the best computer games offer. And in no time at all, you'll be winning.