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Don’t diss patch notes – they’re more exciting than we’re willing to admit

I’m currently obsessing over the changes Wizards of the Coast is making to Dungeons & Dragons. If you don’t know, there’s a new edition of the game coming this year, in September, which means the whole thing – all the rules and character classes – are being updated. Over the past couple of weeks, Wizards has been revealing how. In other words, patch notes – it’s been sharing patch notes. The biggest set I’ve ever seen.

This excites me, and it’s made me realise something else: patch notes have always been exciting. I’d even go so far as to say they’re one of the most exciting things about games. And I know how this sounds! I know bullet-point lists aren’t sexy things. And if they are for you, well then, let’s talk. But no – it’s deeper than that. Hear me out.

Patch notes are a widely accepted thing but they’re not that old in console terms. It used to be games would come on a disk or a cartridge, and we’d put them in our machine and that would be it. Full stop. No more development. The game was as it would be forever more. But with internet capabilities came the ability to release updates – small ones at first and then larger ones – and this in turn allowed developers to keep developing games and making changes to them.

Jeff from the Overwatch team, in the first of many videos about the game, in which he’d effectively serve as talking patch notes for the community.Watch on YouTube

On PC, this had been happening for longer. Wherever there was an online game, there were updates. Ultima Online (1997) had patch notes, I’m pretty sure Quake (1996) and Quake 2 (1997) had updates, and of course EverQuest (1999) all the MMOs that followed did too. These games are my touchstones, so I’m sure there were others I’ve missed. But the one that really made me feel the patch-note magic was Dark Age of Camelot in 2001.

I felt the magic because I met the ideal requirements for it. I had invested hundreds and probably thousands of hours in the game which meant I knew it very well. Were something to change in the balance of the game, or in the world of the game, I would understand it and the ramifications of it. I also cared about remaining competitive in a game about fighting other players, so any changes to my character class were important. And I was somewhat bored. On some level, I wanted a change. Cue patch notes.

Patch notes were always exciting. There in black and white would be listed the future of the game. Which classes would be on the up, in terms of power, and which classes would be on the way down. Were there new things? How did they work? All the clues you needed to form assumptions were there. What did they mean for you? That was the question at the front of everyone’s mind, whatever the angle they were looking at the patch notes from. You could almost feel the mental energy directed at them – and this without anyone even loading the game. Theory only. And then arguments.

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My brain is doing a similar thing with Dungeons & Dragons now. I have invested hundreds of hours in characters in that game, so the changes being made mean a lot to me, because I don’t intend to stop playing. It was a similar thing with Overwatch too, when ‘Jeff from the Overwatch’ team would reveal overhauls made to characters in the game. Are my characters OK? Do I want to try something new? How does it all work? Mental arithmetic. Imagination. It kicks up into overdrive. To me, it’s as much a part of the game as the game itself.

It’s not just about balance changes. They’re the most important because they’re the most personal, belonging as they do to the characters we play. But patch notes introduce significant changes to the worlds we know very well too. I remember Blizzard introducing instanced PvP to World of Warcraft for the first time, and it was a huge deal. Similarly, I remember Blizzard introducing new raids to World of Warcraft, or new events, and they were also big deals. These days, you can broaden the boundaries further into single-player games. Look at what Larian’s been doing Baldur’s Gate 3. It changed the ending of the game, elongating it to give some beloved characters more air time. BioWare changed Mass Effect 3’s ending after the fact as well. Those are really significant things.

Think about board games, which I suppose are analogous to the way games used to be in how they’re set the moment they’re boxed. They’re a lot of fun but they’re static. The enjoyment eventually wears out. Where they stay alive is in change. I bet you altered the games you played as kids for the same reason. I know I did – we were forever changing the rules to forty-four save-all as we ran around the streets. It’s the same thing.

I know there’s another less welcome side to this that is buggy game launches and day-one patches and, I expect, crunch – before or after games come out. None of those are good things. But the ability we have now to prolong the lives of the games we care about, and to pull them apart and rethink them, excites me – just as it excites me to see the Dungeons & Dragons creators rethinking their 50 year-old game now. These are the things we like to think about, our escapes. And the conduit for it all?

Patch notes.


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