Editorial: Patching It

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Hello, and welcome to Friday! Today we will be discussing patching and the associated bugs they try to fix. Patches come in two flavours, firmware and game updates.

Used to bring new features and/or stability to an existing system, firmware patches nowadays are most commonly seen on consoles. It is not uncommon to update the BIOS on a motherboard, though games machines get updated more frequently now than personal computers. Updating the firmware on modern devices is a relatively painless affair, patches are downloaded and left to install with little user interaction beyond agreeing to terms and conditions. There have been some notable flaws in these updates though.

In November of last year a bug in new firmware for routers brought down one of the key internet pathways in the United States. When routers went down in the data centers, other organizations downstream were affected, including Time Warner Cable, Research In Motion’s BlackBerry services and various Internet service providers based in the United Kingdom. A fix was implemented quickly, but problems persisted for days afterwards.

I just do not want to touch it
Because a PSP is too heavy to hold for some

Consoles have often shipped with loopholes in the firmware which allow the use of pirated games and homebrew software, most notably the PlayStation Portable. Upon its release in 2004, the PSP was soon hacked. Eager coders began working on bringing a wealth of new software to the system including emulators for every console imaginable. Sony updated the PSP for its release in the American market in 2005, but within three months the new firmware was also hacked. Today it is easier than ever to install a custom firmware on the PSP without the need for the complicated tricks used in the past. It is only a matter of time before the Vita gets the same treatment.

While talking about Sony consoles it should also be noted that PlayStation Plus subscribers have the ability to get updates for the PlayStation 3 automatically, both firmware and games. The service will download and install all the necessary files while the machine is asleep. Receiving games patches on the PS3 has never been easier for the consumer, though it can still give developers headaches.

Bethesda have a track record of releasing games with numerous bugs in them. When a patch was released for Skyrim to fix the PS3 freezing issue, it had an unintended affect on the games dragon population. Many refused to enter combat with the player, and at times could be seen flying backwards. Playing Fallout: New Vegas on release was almost impossible due to amount of bugs present, including another PS3 freezing issue. A patch for the game on the Xbox 360 even prevented unlucky gamers from loading their saved games until another update was rolled out a few days later.

Better not to play it at all
More like collection of bugs

Having to apply multiple updates on the 360 can be expensive for developers. It is no secret that Microsoft charges $40,000 to certify each game patch beyond the first for the system. Polytron, the developers of Fez had to leave in a save game deleting bug because they could not afford to pay the fee. Even large development houses are not immune to the charge. Konami recently updated Silent Hill HD Collection for the PS3, but had to forgo a similar patch on the 360 as it did not make financial sense.

One could argue that games should not be released unfinished, thus avoiding bugs altogether. As an industry though, gaming has a history of patching incomplete games. The earliest patch was for Mathew Smith’s 1984 Jet Set Willy on the ZX spectrum. POKEs were distributed via magazines to fix four major bugs in the game, including the attic bug which turned four other screens into instant kill areas.

Not all games are patched to fix problems. Whatever misgivings one may have about games requiring an internet connection, these games often have regular content updates. World of Warcraft is almost at version 5.0.4 and is going to celebrate its 8th anniversary in three months time. Regular patching has seen a wealth of new content flow into the title, keeping it fresh enough to attract new players even as veterans leave while waiting for the next expansion.

At the end of the day developers will continue to push out unfinished games as long as publishers hold a shipping date over their heads. Few game devs have the ability to release games when they are ready like Blizzard and Valve do. The industry as a whole would need to change if we were going to see an end to major bugs on the day of release.

Have you managed to brick a system attempting to install homebrew on it? Can you remember the days before major patches? let me know in the comments!

5 comments

  1. I’ve never bricked a system, but I’ve had to fix several bricked systems.

    These days, homebrew developers are pretty good about coming up with ways to actually repair bricking: PSP Pandora batteries, for example, which anyone with the time can learn how to make.

    I like patches, personally. One of my biggest gripes about games in the 90s was that–though they were often released in a more ‘finished’ version than are games today–they were seldom updated consistently over a long period of time, and additional content was the exception rather than the rule. Unreal Tournament seemed amazing at the time: huge patches with loads of new maps and even new game types, all released free of charge and regularly to the delighted playerbase. Now, such things are more common–though there is an increasing desire to charge for the additions in the form of paid downloadable content.

  2. “It is no secret that Microsoft charges $40,000…” ALRIGHT, I GET IT, lol. jk

    I really do see the increased prevalence of patches to be a doubled edged sword for all the reasons mentioned above. But I’d argue that the negative side is beginning to outshine the positive, in terms of the increase of paid DLC and the increase of plainly broken high profile, high budget games being released with the intention of falling back on early buyers as bug testers (why pay for QA when people will pay YOU?). I wouldn’t say to get ride of patching as a viable option for developers, though. MS charging [FEDERALLY CLASSIFIED DOLLAR AMOUNT WITHHELD] is detrimental in many ways, I feel. I’m honestly not sure what could be done that would be effective and fair.

  3. I couldn’t resist throwing that in there Mel :)

    Maybe I’m too used to playing MMOs, but the first thing I do when I see a patch is check to see what changes are made. Usually it’s bug fixes but occasionally developers throw something extra in, like additional content or new game play.

  4. Patches SHOULD be great. They SHOULD provide an opportunity for developers to make an already good game even better by creating additional content and removing any bugs which escaped testing – and if you only play Valve games then this is EXACTLY what you will get.

    Sadly however, when it comes to the professionalism of software releases, mean quality tends to trend toward the lowest rung. The SNES and PS1 didn’t allow patching, and so if you wanted your game to stand out then it had to be reasonably polished from the outset – but with the advent of patches suddenly games are able to be released in an unfinished state which can be patched later (if it accrues enough sales to justify the expenditure).

    Basically, I do not believe that any developer would opt to ship a substandard product if they had the capacity to provide extra polishing, but I do believe that the advent of patches has probably made it manifestly more difficult for them to secure a deadline extension from their publisher unless their game isn’t literally in tatters – and sometimes not even then.

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