Swimming with Sharks: Polytron and Microsoft

In the highly competitive Xbox Live Arcade space, indie go-getter Polytron released their long-awaited puzzle game FEZ earlier this year. While many fell in love with its off-the-wall puzzle solving and incredible soundtrack, others – myself included – became frustrated by framerate issues, crashes, and load times. Other bugs were reported to include occasional save game corruption and complete inoperability on certain Xbox 360s.

So, as any developer would, Polytron decided to fix the game with a title update. In June, that patch was released but created some even harsher problems. This time, save games would become corrupted in the update process. Hours later, the patch was pulled down to mitigate any further damage.

Polytron decided to go timed exclusive with Microsoft, beholden to all their policies and procedures. Last night, Polytron issued a new statement saying that they were going to just re-issue the patch and be done with it. “Because microsoft (sic) would charge us tens of thousands of dollars to re-certify the game.” Phil Fish writes, “It’s a shitty numbers game to be playing for sure, but as a small independent, paying so much money for patches makes NO SENSE AT ALL.” Fish continues by explaining that the save game corruption only happened to “less-than-one” percent of the people who grabbed the patch within the hours it was available.

If the patch was available longer, would the percentage increase?

In an interview with Hookshot, Tim Schafer stated that it costs $40,000 to issue a patch. If you just go by the only available sales number for FEZ, that’s a whopping 4% before Microsoft’s cut. There’s no guarantee that they’d get through unscathed.

But the problem here is that the cost was a known quantity. Polytron decided to go timed exclusive with Microsoft, beholden to all their policies and procedures. This is the only game they’ve created and it took them five years to do so. Hindsight being what it is, Fish states, “Had FEZ been released on steam instead of XBLA, the game would have been fixed two weeks after release, at no cost to us. And if there was an issue with that patch, we could have fixed that right away too!”

If Microsoft’s own certification process was bulletproof this entire situation wouldn’t have happened. Placing a monetary barrier on issuing patches appears to be a move to discourage tons of title updates for Xbox games. This cost also means the game needs to go through certification again before the patch can be released. So, in theory, the certification process should reject anything not up to snuff. In theory.

If Microsoft’s own certification process was bulletproof this entire situation wouldn’t have happened. In its first incarnation, FEZ would have failed certification and Polytron could have taken the time to fix the most glaring problems prior to release. Instead, Microsoft let it through – bugs and all.

This isn’t the first we’ve heard about smaller developers being unhappy with how Microsoft treats the platform. Team Meat was expecting significant promotion for Super Meat Boy, but ended up getting pushed aside. N+ creators Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard have stated that there are quality issues at play, causing the platform to be oversaturated with bad titles.

Not all developers are beholden to these exact policies though. Mojang was granted a limited number of free title updates for Minecraft, proving that the terms are negotiable. Markus Persson states they had to fight for them, but I’m willing to wager that Microsoft’s yearning for Minecraft made them more amenable to Mojang’s terms.

Where does the fault lie: on the small developer who didn’t know what they were doing, or on the giant corporation that should have caught the issues? Even with its lengthy development time, Polytron should have taken extra time to do more testing on FEZ before release. Additionally, Microsoft needs to be more welcoming to the smaller studios or at least ensure that their certification process is sound. But with Microsoft’s passive-aggressive approach in hiding Xbox Live Indie Games, something tells me they just don’t care enough to fix the problem.

NB: We’ve learned that the first patch after release is free, so Polytron hasn’t paid $40k as of yet. The text has been updated to reflect this.

About Jim Hunter

Jim Hunter is Editor-in-Chief of Splitkick and host of the Rocket Jump podcast. He has three kids and is constantly cranky, but also highly awesome.
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