Did You Really Beat Elden Ring?
Contributed by DJMMT
My title is quite inflammatory, but I don’t actually want to belittle anyone’s achievement of having rolled the credits on Elden Ring. What I really want to talk about is patches. More specifically, patches in PVE games that make the game more difficult.
Patches are common. They have existed since internet-based game services became mainstream. And even before that, we had expansion packs that applied patches to games as part of their updates. Developers have been changing how games work after release for decades. But what doesn’t get talked about enough is whether or not that’s really OK in the context of changing games for reasons other than fixing bugs and removing glitches. Consider this situation:
I go to a digital store such as Nintendo e-Shop, Steam, or the Google Play Store and I see a demo for a new turn based tactical RPG. In this demo, the characters can all move three spaces per turn. It’s a set mechanic that cannot be altered without modding the game. Every character can move only three spaces per turn. I love the demo. So I buy the game. I play the game for several hours over the course of multiple weeks, and I love every minute. Then, before I’ve managed to beat the game, the developers put out a patch. The patch changes the game so that now every character can only move two spaces per turn. I hate this change. It completely ruins the game for me. I’ve paid money for a product and then the product was changed to be different from the product I originally purchased and no longer enjoyable for me. Is this OK?
This is a very straightforward and dramatized scenario, but at a technical level this is what patches often do with games today. Consumers buy products and then those products are changed after the initial purchase in often devastating ways. Most recently, we’ve seen this with Elden Ring. Now I haven’t personally played the game yet but the internet was ablaze for a few days after a large patch fundamentally nerfed a number of weapons. Obviously not everyone was personally affected by this change, but a large number of people appeared to be based on how it was trending. In this case, many players were forced to completely change their build and playstyle, because the effectiveness of the gear, specifically weapons, they were using had been severely crippled. Personally, I don’t that’s fair.
I want to clarify that I’m discussing Elden Ring as a PVE game here. I’m sure there are arguments that can be made about PVP balancing in a discussion of this specific game, but I consider Elden Ring a PVE game first and foremost. The PVP is superfluous and irrelevant to this discussion, for this specific game. Generally speaking, I very much support balance patches in true PVP games. The major issue here is that a game was changed in a noticeable way without the permission or desire of the people who purchased that game, fundamentally changing the original product they agreed to pay for. Now of course some asshole can argue that legally speaking they didn’t buy the game. They only “licensed” the game and as such the publisher, and by extension the developer, can change it however they want. Sure. Legally speaking that’s true. But this isn’t a blog about legal discussions. It’s a blog about how decisions in the gaming industry affect actual gamers.
Is it OK for a developer to make a game harder than it originally was, knowing full well that it will negatively affect many of the players that have already purchased the game? This becomes especially important to discuss for a FromSoftware game, where people often get stuck and can’t make any progress because of it. It’s one thing to make a game easier. That may reduce the “fun” for some players, but generally speaking it’s not going to make the game an unplayable waste of money for a majority of them. But making a game harder can have serious affects on many players to the point of making the game impossible for them to progress through. At that point you’re talking about basically stealing $60 - $70 from people. Because the product they bought no longer exists and the new product, post patch, might not be a game that they actually wanted to play when they made the initial purchase.
Another big issue that comes from patching games to be more or less difficult is that it has the potential to splinter the player base into factions. For instance, back in 2013 God of War: Ascension had an extremely difficult section called ‘The Trial of Archimedes’. This was a mandatory part of the game that you had to get past to see the end of the game. But it was so incredibly difficult that it started trending. Eventually the fan outrage about this section was so bad that PlayStation ultimately released a patch making it more manageable. They even made a blog post about it back then. This helped many players get past this obstacle, but it also created a split in the player base between people who had beaten the Trial of Archimedes pre and post patch. Suddenly you had a completely measurable and objective way to compare performance/skill of players in single player game that wasn’t tied to numbers in a leaderboard. The players that had beaten this challenge before the patch were better than those who couldn’t beat it before the patch. The problem was that this doesn’t account for new players. In my case, I didn’t even start the game until a week after the patch went live. So I didn’t get the chance to find out if I was actually good enough to beat it pre-patch or not. That’s pretty unfair when you think about it.
Now we come to the point of my title. If you beat Elden Ring before the patch, assuming you did use one of the weapons that were nerfed, you had an easier time of it than anyone who buys the game post patch will even have the opportunity to have. It’s quite possible that many future players will not be able to achieve certain things in the game that they would have been able to before the patch went live. Does that not cheapen the triumphs of pre-patch players? Can you really say that you beat Elden Ring if the game you played was considerably easier than everyone else’s?
This isn’t the players’ fault. But it does cause a big problem for players. Especially when discussing a game known for its difficulty and a rabid fanbase that defines its entire self-worth by a player’s ability to overcome the game’s difficulty. How can one claim “git gud” if they played an easier version of the game?
There are really two issues here. The first is the issue of making games harder than when first released/purchased, as that negatively affects players at an individual level. But the second is equally important when so much of modern gaming is tied to its online communities. How can anyone, barring full replays of games, claim to have truly beaten a game when what the game doesn’t remain consistent? Did I really beat God of War: Ascension on hard mode? The difficulty setting was on hard, and I never used the reduce difficulty function. But the fact remains that I did not beat the game before the Trial of Archimedes was patched to be easier, even though other people did.
I’m not saying patches shouldn’t exist. There are countless examples of how patches not only made games more enjoyable but were required to make a game actually playable. Patches are crucial in an era of so many games being released in an unfinished state. I genuinely don’t believe the industry could survive today without the ability to use patches. Even Nintendo Switch games tend to have day one patches. But there does need to be a bigger conversation about what it means for developers to just arbitrarily decide to fundamentally change a game people are already playing. Especially in a PVE scenario.