When I phased through the ground of Night City during a recent marathon of Cyberpunk 2077, I remembered that there is a group of gamers who will never play anything but a perfected, stable version of this game. As I endlessly fell and had to physically restart my Xbox, I felt intense jealousy for “patient” gamers.
Patient gaming, as a phenomena, came around the same time as video game companies embraced the downloadable patch as their solution to all their quality assurance (QA) problems. Why spend precious time squashing bugs and balancing combat for the Gold Master that will ship on discs when you can just force players to do a 50GB Day One patch? That could shave a month off of development! Time is money!
It wasn’t always like this. Before the online gaming craze that began in earnest with Sega’s Dreamcast and broke into the mainstream with the Xbox 360, games had to be released to customers in rock solid condition. The lack of an internet connection meant that, like other works of art, a game was a static piece of product that users either liked or didn’t. A Super Nintendo or PlayStation 2 game had to work as described or else suffer the consequences of bad reviews published in magazines which, unlike blogs, could not be updated, and negative word-of-mouth. In very rare cases, developers would quietly push a minor bug fix on consumers during a game’s second or third printing. Then came Xbox Live and its convenient updates which, while useful, are widely abused.
Time is money.
As a response, the patient gamer movement grew — first as an outgrowth of a 2012 Reddit thread in r/gaming by u/Jetmax25 called “Being Poor Sucks.” The post was a meme of the Pokémon Slowpoke that read “I JUST BOUGHT FALLOUT NEW VEGAS. ANYBODY WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT?” The feeling of waiting at least 6 months to play a game — for whatever reason — and having nobody to share the experience with in your social circle or on zeitgeist-chasing social networks, resonated with users. The subreddit r/patientgamers, which is dedicated to gamers who only play games six months or longer after their release, now boasts 397k members, as of publication.
Nowadays, people become patient gamers for a variety of reasons, including the 6-12 months it usually takes for modern developers to iron out the issues in their enormous AAA games. As the customer base for gaming ages and takes on responsibilities like work or children, older players simply no longer have the time in their lives to consume games during their initial hype and release schedules. The hype itself is often a turn off; what average gamer can honestly say they don’t have a backlog of titles they purchased after getting swept up in a game’s marketing? Waiting a few months can help a time-constrained player sort out a worthwhile experience from a flash in the pan. Then there’s the massive savings one can secure after developers start discounting titles that have fallen out of public consciousness.
“As a patient gamer, this really helps me making fully informed decisions and not filling up an arbitrary backlog with homework, doing things I won't enjoy,” says u/pbnn in r/patientgamers. “It guides me towards trying franchises that respect their fanbase in long run, through ongoing patches (e.g. rebalancing characters in fighting games) or a commitment to a particluar experience and perfecting it (e.g. Monster Hunter), while it keeps me away from buying the Bioshock collection on the Switch or from lusting after Cyberpunk too much.” [sic]
The subreddit itself is currently flowing with lively, long-running, and thoughtful discussions of games like 2017’s Prey, 2015’s Yakuza 0, and 1998’s Half-Life. Its top post of all time is a rant imploring other gamers to remember that the hobby is meant to be fun, not stressful. Popular topics of discussion year-round are about which games properly respect users' time, how high developer’s standards for QA used to be, how relaxing it is to allow yourself to play a game on easy mode if you’ve got limited time, and a complete and utter rejection of the backlog.
“Fallout 4 was what made me transition,” says u/HightowerComics. “They ran out of those Pip-Boy editions in the Americas, but I managed to find a redditor who lived in Iceland, where they were still in stock. Dropped like $250 or so to get it shipped to America... only to be greeted with a boring story, constant glitches, repetitive gameplay. Haven’t touched it in years and the stupid Pip-Boy is just collecting dust on my shelf. I decided that game marketing was too deceptive and elected to never repeat my mistake. And then, in my infinite wisdom, I made an exception a few months ago and pre-ordered the Avengers game. Hopefully I learned my lesson the second time!” [sic]
When No Man’s Sky first launched, its media cycle was consumed by just how deceptive the marketing for the game had been. While it delivered on many initial promises (like algorithmically generated alien worlds), the game was an empty and hollow experience — like a beautiful Broadway set for a show with no script. After multiple iterations and expansions, the game is now a beloved gem that many have poured significant portions of their lives into. For the patient gamers that waited for these upgrades and improvements, it's never been anything but a work of art.
The gaming industry’s obsession with pre-orders is not an accident. But, although this new normal is frustrating, it's hard to place blame on one specific reason. Retail partners, desperate for a competitive edge over online stores like Steam and the PlayStation Store, throw lots of incentives at customers to pre-order. Nearly every game now comes with a steelbook case, a set or stickers, or small keychain as a physical momento players can look to when they need reassurance of their commitment to a particular company or title. But gamers that participate in pre-orders have almost no way of knowing if the product — which can often take months between purchase and release, even without the customary delays — will be anything like what they were expecting.
Fallout 76 was legendarily one of the most disastrous releases in gaming history. After leveraging one of gaming’s most beloved franchises, the game was broken, entirely focused on selling microtransactions, and lacked the NPCs and storytelling that had, until then, been the IP’s defining characteristic. Millions of players pre-ordered the title. In the week that followed its release, the game’s price dropped by a third from $60 to $40. A couple weeks later it dropped another $5. It can now be yours for $13.19 on Steam. Patient gamers don’t pay premium prices.
Additionally, when players buy games later in their lifespans, they’re usually packaged with all the game's DLC, which the developer offers to existing players for an additional fee, in what are usually called “Ultimate” or “Game of the Year” or “PlayStation Hits” editions.
This sporadic purchasing also encourages players to actually finish the games they buy. Video games are, despite what has been said by snobs, an art form which should be appreciated as complete artistic statements. There is no benefit to the artists, developers, and gamers when players buy loads of titles that contain a hundred or so hours of content and only spend a few days with each. The only people reaping rewards from this are bloodsucking executives who, if they had their way, would only ever make free-to-play casino-themed mobile games.
These frustrating dynamics also bleed into the gaming community itself.
These frustrating dynamics also bleed into the gaming community itself. Customers, having invested time, energy, and money into a game based solely on its advertising, promises, and hype, are incredibly defensive of titles before they’ve even come out. Gaming reviews are deeply flawed, for many, many reasons which were recently outlined in an excellent article called “The Cyberpunk 2077 Review Drama” on Kotaku, but if you ask any journalist (especially women) they’ll tell you that anything but a glowing review of a much anticipated release earns them death threats. This, despite the fact that the people sending the death threats have not yet played the game. If a buggy or disappointing game does get a good review that it doesn’t deserve, gamers accuse journalists of being paid by gaming executives to lie to their audience (access journalism is bad, but this is not a thing). Critique and analysis go out the window when people’s limited time and money are invested in the success of a venture.
This climate of high stakes, emotional exchanges between overworked devs, terrified journalists, and overburdened consumers is unsustainable. Nobody is winning right now and, honestly, thank God that Cyberpunk 2077 imploded in such spectacular fashion. This should be a much-needed wake up call for an entire industry.
"A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad," Shigeru Miyamoto said about Super Mario 64. Say what you will about Nintendo — and we have — but they’re absolutely right. This is frustrating for fans eager to get their hands on Metroid Prime 4 but this commitment to patience, thoroughness, and excellence is the sole reason that the Nintendo Seal of Quality still holds weight to this day.
Game developers have their work cut out for them. Their employees need to unionize, they need to stop making promises based on concepts they’re excited about but cannot yet deliver on, they need to stop trying to design one game that will please everyone on earth by committee, and they need to make the unpopular decision not to focus on pre-order sales and years-long marketing campaigns. While it’s hard for suits to ever willingly give up power, executives and advertising people should not be dictating development timelines for reasons that should be evident to anyone reading gaming news for the last few weeks.
Journalists need to make similarly hard decisions. There are other, less volatile, ways of differentiating your publication than access and exclusives. Readers are craving more than speed and volume. Writers and editors covering games need to turn off their comments sections and focus not on their most vocal reader's reactions but on what they actually believe to be true about the material. Criticism is not a spectator sport and it is broken when we confuse it for populism.
And if consumers don’t want to find themselves again talking to Microsoft’s Xbox customer service about how broken their $60-$100 game is, they’re also going to need to mature in their consumption habits. Games are not like music or movies, despite what George Lucas, Kanye West, and Tom Hooper would have you believe. The complexity and size of modern AAA games necessitate that they be living works of art, subject to refinement, revision, and expansion. The age of calling a beta the “finished product” and letting your early audience function as a massive QA department isn’t going to end anytime soon. The success that is Hades, a game that was developed openly with fans in an early access program, argues that maybe this should be the future of game development — but only when its done honestly.
To get there, consumers need to stop pre-ordering. They need to stop bitching and moaning every time a game is delayed. They need to demand that games be labelled “early access” or “open beta” if that is the actual state of the project. There needs to be a cultural shift that allows, or even encourages, critics and journalists to spend as much time as possible properly vetting and experiencing things before demanding their opinions on them. Gamers have to stop getting financially, emotionally, and psychologically invested in games before they have any idea how they work, what they cost, and what kind of value they can expect in exchange for their time.
The gaming industry is in dire need of patience, even if that’s not what capitalism and advertising incentivize. Changing our relationship with experiences as fast-paced, immersive, long-term, and expensive as video games is not going to be easy, but r/patientgamers tells us it's possible and, boy, do they seem happy right now.