The Ryan Lambie column: Rough Patches

Why are we tolerating console game publishers releasing unfinished games and fixing them with a patch? The curse of the PC after-market completion is now, sadly, universal...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

If there’s one thing that makes my heart sink when I fire up a game, it surely must be those three words ‘searching for updates.’

For me, one of the worst offenders had to be the PC MMO Pirates of the Burning Sea, released earlier this year; after waiting patiently for it to install, I excitedly booted the game up and prepared myself for some serious cutlass/eyepatch action. Predictably, the familiar ‘searching for updates’ dialogue box appeared before I could begin playing, and I slumped gloomily into my chair. The update weighed in at a ludicrously large 700MB – the equivalent to downloading 20% of the entire game. Particularly annoying when it took Flying Labs about ten years to program the thing in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong –  the ability to continue to make improvements to games after you’ve bought them is a sometimes a good thing; as irksome as they so often are, patch updates are understandable – and inevitable – in the strange world of the PC, where hardware combinations are so varied that it’s impossible to cater for every potential conflict that may arise between a game and an exotic component.

Recently though, there’s been a worrying trend; the patch, once a phenomenon peculiar only to PC gaming, is becoming increasingly ubiquitous throughout console land too – and this is where things get really annoying.

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One of the positive things about consoles (and one advantage they have over the home computer) is that, by and large, they’re all the same (they don’t all have different graphics cards, sound cards, processors and operating systems, for example). Why then, are updates so common on the 360, PS3 and (to a lesser extent) the Wii? I could be getting cynical in my old age, but it seems like a cunning way of releasing a product only 90% finished.

Rockstar’s Bully: Scholarship Edition for the 360 is a case in point – it suffered from random freezes, faltering sound and a jittering frame rate, leading some to suggest that the game was released unfinished and untested.

‘I am horrified, and we are now working around the clock to rectify this situation,’ a Rockstar spokesperson said in a statement. Or, in other words, ‘oops.’

The PS3 version of Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 had similar teething problems when it became apparent that its online mode would be unplayable without a hastily written patch. And even the Wii isn’t safe – Japanese fans queueing up to buy the first available copies of Super Smash Bros Brawl were each given a slip of paper that warned them that it wouldn’t work without an update.

To make matters worse, it’s not unknown for these updates to cause more problems than they fix; one patch for Bioshock on the 360 caused a rash of stuttering frame rate issues for a number of players. Patches are frequently made to system software too, just to keep import gamers and hackers on their toes – a recent patch from Nintendo not only rendered Freeloader discs useless (a piece of software which allowed foreign games to be played on a UK Wii), but also put paid to an exploit that allowed files to run from an SD card.

In a way, it’s surprising that we gamers aren’t more vocal about the issue; in no other form of entertainment do you see this kind of after-market completion. It’s the equivalent of going to the cinema, watching three quarters of a movie and being given a DVD-R on the way out with the ending on it. It’s akin to buying a book and only receiving a photocopy of the final chapter through the mail three weeks later.

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There’s no point in complaining of course – with nearly all PCs and most consoles connected to the net, it’s clear that the patch update is here to stay. And sometimes they’re positive – a belated fix is better than nothing, after all – and can get rid of exploits that allow certain gamers to cheat (particularly annoying in online games).

But when we’re supposed to pay anywhere between thirty and fifty pounds for the latest full-price game, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect it to be 100% finished and 100% playable.

Ryan writes his column every week at Den Of Geek: you can find last week’s here