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Patch This!

An look at the most annoying aspect of the PC Gaming industry...

Microsoft calls them ‘Service Releases’. Most companies call them patches or bug fixes. I call them something completely different. Whatever the name, they’re a fact of life in the world of PC gamer and it’s about time someone looked into the whole messy pit. That’ll be us then.

Before I launch into a rant about why patches are such a painful part of modern gaming, I should point out that not everyone sees them as a ‘bad thing’. Certain PC magazines have indeed applauded the practise of patching games. The offer of free units, maps or editors for games through patches, seems to blind them to the rather bleaker side of the whole affair.

Not only that but it is all too common to see an extremely buggy game get a fantastic review in a paper-based PC magazine. The problem here is, the reviewer’s comments and analysis are often used to rush on last minute changes in code. These changes aren’t tested properly and end up ruining the game with crashes and glitches aplenty. If I said ‘Braveheart’, you might understand what I was saying.

So are patches a heaven-sent bonus or the work of Beelzebub on a bad day? We felt that an important subject like this merited more than a one-sided rant and so decided to let the software companies involved have their say. Except they didn’t want to say anything. We contacted over a dozen of the biggest names in the business and not one had a comment to make on the subject. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Unmoved by their silence, we then thought we’d talk to someone with a good knowledge of the scene. Run by Matthias, Patches Scrolls is one of the best independent patch sites out there and has a database going back several years. To start with, we asked him if he thought patching games was beneficial or just an inconvenience?

Matthias “It's a two-sided sword, actually. When a patch is plainly issued to fix bugs in a game, which shouldn't have been there in the first place, it's a unnecessary pain. If it also adds benefits - new levels, support for new hardware, etc. - it's a welcome addition.”

Jazzer “Are companies releasing games unfinished knowing that they can patch them up later?”

Matthias “I wouldn't be so friendly here - they hope, they can raise enough money to afford making patches and eventually finish their games.”

Jazzer “Do you think the situation is getting better or worse?”

Matthias “With the increasing pressure on companies to release faster and more games every year and the possibility to introduce fixes through automatic updates after release, it is getting worse.”

Comfirming the worst, we went on to ask Mattias what he thought of the plight of the gamer without net access…

Matthias “As a hardcore gamer you have no chance but to be on the net. Surely you can get patches through magazine CDs, but the print magazines can only put as many patches on their CDs as they get supplied by the companies. Also when I look at what I have to add every month…

If they would add every patch coming out during a month, they would have to put out one CD with patches alone every month.

Add to this that more and more games come out as online-play only where everybody has to have the latest patch in order to compete in the games, you are screwed if you don't have those in time.”

An important point. For some reason, it’s assumed that everyone is on the net. Not true. And many of those that are new to the whole business and struggle to navigate through page after page to find the latest patch. (No, I’m not being patronising - we were all new to the net once.)

Whatever way you look at it, patching can be an ugly practise. If this is true, who are the worst culprits? It’s a hard one to answer but for simplicity’s sake, we did a quick poll of the office. Naturally, the Editor had the first say.

Fuse! “The worst in the industry? Oh gowd, I don't think I could settle on any few, I think they've all gotten piss poor! I didn't know how to feel when Westwood's NOX decided it absolutely MUST update it's self when I attempted to check out it's multi-player aspect. On one hand, it might be fixing bugs that I hadn't noticed and probably never would, but on the other hand it obligated me to a download, and then reloaded the entire game. As impressive as the whole process was from a design aspect, it should not have been a requirement. The fact that patching software has become so common place that creative and interesting ways to do it have arisen is very disturbing.”

Our resident artist-guru type wasn’t about to let this opportunity go amiss either…

Noxious? “Deadlines are evil things, almost as bad as the publishers who set them. The nature of software doesn't help things either. Too often it is easier to publish something slightly (I'm being nice) incomplete than to take the time to finish it in the first place. So it gets fixed with a patch. Want to hear a scary thought though? Most people don't download patches. I work with computers on a daily basis and even though many of them only contain the annoying game of solitaire most have not been patched at all. I see at least one machine running Windows 95 a day. Plain old Windows 95, not 95a, 95b, or 95c, just Windows 95, and Service Pack 1 for Win95 was free. Of the machines running Windows 98 almost all of them have never been to the Windows Update page, which makes me wonder why the hell the page is so slow. What of NT boxes? I find most running the Service Pack that shipped with the PC.

The same goes with browsers, drivers, and even games. People don't like to maintenance their computers. Browser versions get passed by, drivers run several years outdate, and games on the PC are complex enough, let alone patching them. Those who don't think PC games are complex need to work with a Playstation for a day. To play a game on the PC you have to know your computer. Does your box meet minimum specifications? Is your 3D card supported? Do you have enough hard drive space? Then it goes to the machine, you have to install it, and then configure it. Configuration is the first option I visit on loading a game. Set the video mode, set up the controls, and check the sound. Finally I'll start up the game find I don't like how I set it up and go back to the configuration. After two more trips there I'll either have found some settings I like or I've given up trying. Meanwhile the Playstation owner found a CD that was made for it, put it in, and started playing the game an hour ago. Throw in that I also look for a patch before I usually install the game and you have another step for the PC.

Odds are it will get a lot worse, and never get better. I'm sure that soon games will install and ask the question "Would you like to check the internet for Patches?" Before too long it will probably be integrated into Windows Task Scheduler. Just check the "Download all new patches" box and set it for a time when you're at work. Though, I'd be willing to bet that next to no one would use it.”

As for myself, I’d have to say that Braveheart, published by Eidos, was the worst example of a patch gone wrong. Originally, the review copy of the game was fine. Everything seemed to work beautifully. Then they slapped on some rather ill fitting copy protection and everything went pear-shaped. I can’t be bothered to list all of problems it had but suffice to say it was unplayable. A patch was promptly released which did nothing and in the end Eidos were forced to admit that they weren’t going to support it any further. Useless.

There are of course the people who get it right. My favourite patch was the last one for Total Annihilation that not only added improvements but also gave you some extra units. A few minor bugs were fixed but it was much more of an enhancement of an already excellent game rather than an overhaul of a buggy one. Half-life’s patch, with it’s inclusion of Team Fortress is hard to fault on generosity but the sheer amount of patches for the game is off-putting.

No matter where the discussion takes us, we come back to the vital question - why do almost all games need patching these days? One immediate answer would be that the hardware that games are being run on is developing at an incredible rate. This creates a lot of compatibility issues. A fair argument - after all, you can’t guarantee that your game released today will get on with a video card released 3 months later. Or can you?

And what about the argument that programmers just aren’t writing efficient code anymore, since they now have the luxury of very powerful machines? Is this at the heart of the problem and if so, what the hell do we do about it?

Interesting, and a lot to think about. In conclusion, it’s a bleak picture whatever angle you look at it from. The very worst aspect is the way that the whole practise has become acceptable. The issuing of patches has become so slick and predictable that no-one stops to question it anymore.

We all know that bugs occur and that bug fixes will always be with us but it’s the sheer amount of them that frightens me. One look at the log of a decent patch site and you’ll be amazed. The volume alone is staggering.

Later
Jazzer

(A big smiley face to Matthias at Patches Scrolls for his input in this article. A ugly sneer to those companies who refused to respond, which included Eidos, Origin, Seirra, GT Interactive, Virgin, Acclaim, Microprose, Lucasarts, Take 2 and Epic. Thanks fellas. For nothing.)

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