I’m currently playing X-COM: UFO Defense — a game I have never played before — and I wrote up a History Lessons post about it before realizing that I probably shouldn’t post it due to a conflict of interest. Sorry! I will have to come up with other posts (like this one) while I’m playing it.

Playing X-COM has further delayed my playthrough of Skyrim, but this had an unforseen advantage: last week, Bethesda released the full modding tools for Skyrim along with a high-res texture pack for the PC version, and both are free to all who purchased the game. This means that when I do play Skyrim, I will not only get some shinier graphics, but can also make use of a variety of community mods that will surely crop up now that the tools are available. And that doesn’t even take into account the various patches that Bethesda put out shortly after the game’s release. The news got me thinking about what it means for a game to be “finished”.

Most of you have probably heard of Minecraft, the indie smash hit that saw its creator, Markus “Notch” Persson, become a millionaire virtually overnight. What interested the gaming press most about Minecraft was that a huge amount of those sales came when Minecraft was not finished; it was still in alpha or beta, with purchasers being entitled to all the future updates for free. Notch became a millionaire before his game was even officially released, and when it finally was, the gaming press published reviews for a game that everyone had already been playing for over a year. Sure, there were some additions that came with the official release version, but to most players, Minecraft was already old news.

Clearly, the story of Minecraft is a fascinating one, a smash success that no one, including its creator, saw coming. But when I think about the fact that most of those sales came before it was “finished”, I wonder whether that fact is actually remarkable. How is it any different than what Bethesda is doing with Skyrim? Sure, Skyrim was labeled as “finished” before it ever went on sale, but any purchasers earned the right to further bugfixes, patches, and now a full set of modding tools and some enhanced graphics. If the modding tools had marked Skyrim’s official release, with the earlier iterations being the game’s beta period, it would be no different than Minecraft’s model.

And it’s not just Bethesda. CD Projekt, the company behind The Witcher and its sequel The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, are also known for showing a strong commitment to improving and further developing their games after release. The Witcher was notoriously buggy on release, but the team not only provided extensive patching but eventually released a new “Enhanced Edition” with re-translated and re-recorded dialogue and other major improvements. With The Witcher 2 there were far fewer problems with bugs, although the team still put out several patches in short order. But then came the announcement of version 2.0, which included an all-new tutorial, a new game mode, and a new difficulty setting with new in-game items. And now, the team has announced an Enhanced Edition for the second game, which will add new locations and characters to the game’s final chapter, as well as new animations and cutscenes. This is all free to anyone who has purchased the game; when I start a second playthrough of the Witcher 2 there will be a lot of new content waiting for me.

CD Projekt have stated that this type of continued support for their games is their philosophy for addressing piracy. They do not spend their resources trying to fight the pirates, but instead reward their customers with added value and support (although they got in trouble for a controversial attempt to prosecute pirates which seemed to go against this philosopy; the prosecutions were later abandoned). Regardless of how one feels about the piracy issue, other publishers and developers are seeing the wisdom in continually adding value to their products. Bethesda’s strategy with Skyrim isn’t new; its earlier games have benefited greatly from their freely available modding tools, allowing players to use huge amounts of player-created content and keeping the games fresh for many years. Downloadable content (DLC), both for free and for purchase, has become standard practice in the industry, featuring prominently in most mainstream releases. And I haven’t even mentioned any online games. Massively Mutiplayer Online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft have been going strong for years due to continual updates that keep players interested and maintain a solid player base. Even smaller-scale games like Valve’s Team Fortress 2 have enjoyed great success through a policy of continuous updates.

In light of all these games, Minecraft doesn’t seem so unusual. There’s a shift happening from our traditional view of games as finished products towards a view of games as services; we will purchase not just the game as it is, but also the enhancements it will receive in the future. While this is a big change in the traditional view of the market, it is one that more and more consumers are embracing. Some high-profile indie games like Overgrowth and Natural Selection 2 have been very successful by following Minecraft’s example literally: letting players purchase the games now even though they are still under development, and providing these purchasers access to each new build as development progresses. And some games are going even farther. Double Fine, the development company started by industry veteran and celebrity designer Tim Schafer, just made major news when they started a Kickstarter project to fund a new point-and-click adventure game to be developed by Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island fame). They asked for $400,000 to be donated in 33 days (at least I think it was 33 days). They got the $400,000 in under eight hours, and in 24 hours had over $1,000,000. At the time of writing (3 days into the Kickstarter) the count is now at $1,500,000. All for a game that hasn’t been made yet, and hasn’t even started to be made yet. Of course, donors are offered various rewards based on the amount donated, including a guaranteed copy of the game, a copy of a documentary film about the making of the game, the game soundtrack, and posters signed by the developers. But the donors are still paying for value that will be added later.

Overall, I think this trend towards continued development and improvement in games is a positive one. While there will always be games that are finished and released with no further development, in many cases the extra effort put into games post-release really makes a big difference in the actual and perceived quality of the game. And with customers showing greater willingness to fund such models of development, we should be seeing a lot of projects like this in the future.