Ask LH: Why Do Games Have Such Enormous Patches?

Ask LH: Why Do Games Have Such Enormous Patches?

Dear Lifehacker, I recently pre-purchased Wolfenstein: The New Order for PC. I chose the DVD rather than a Steam download because my 4G broadband limit is 15GB per month (there’s no ADSL where I live). The game arrived yesterday and I eagerly installed the four DVDs one by one. When I returned 10 minutes after inserting disk 4, Steam had automatically downloaded 10 GB of “updates”, thus breaking my internet connection for the rest of the month.

I can’t even play the game yet because the install is not complete. How can a game not be playable out of the box? And how can a game released less than two weeks ago need 10+ GB of updates? Any insights? Thanks, Steaming Mad II

Dear SMII,

Patching of new releases is an annoying reality these days, especially for PC games as they’re rarely tested across the full range of hardware. Not too long ago, a “big” patch used to be a few hundred megabytes whereas today it’s not uncommon for updates to contain several gigabytes of data. A recent example was Dead Rising 3 on the Xbox One which required an update that totalled a jaw-dropping 13GB.

The reason for these beefy updates vary, ranging from major gameplay refinements to ensuring compatibility with fresh DLC. As you’d expect, sloppy programming and/or a rushed release date plays a large part too.

If you have a strict data cap or live in a rural area, there’s not a lot you can do about this. Your safest precaution is to disconnect before starting the install — if the game can be played offline, you may be able to access it without patching, although that obviously depends on the digital rights management and distribution models the game is tied into. Also, take the time to go through your games library and opt out of automatic updates for any games that have them.

It might also be worth contacting your ISP over the Wolfenstein update ambush. If you explain the download was completely unexpected there’s a small chance that they might cut you some slack this billing cycle. It can’t hurt to ask.

If any readers have data conversation tips or patch workarounds of their own, fire away in the comments section below.


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  • It’s even more annoying when you download the game from steam, and then when it’s finished downloading and installing, it goes into mega update download mode.. Why can’t they patch the damn things before they host them, or whilst they’re hosting them…?

    • ^ This times a bazillion!

      I can’t remember what game it was (I think it may have been of the Total War ones?), but it had an initial ~10GB download, then a 2GB patch, then a 10GB patch, then a 16GB patch, then another 10GB patch… WTF? seriously?

    • While it’s fair enough that you might need the latest version to play multiplayer online, what really bugs me is when I install old(er) Steam games from backup – completely single player, mind you – and stupid Steam/Valve force me to re-download the entire game from Steam because a newer version is available. That annoys me no end.

  • Bought Assassins Creed IV black flag. installed it and straight out of the pack it needed 25 GB worth of updates. just plain crazy! Even on a 50GB/month plan, thats a big chunk of data.

  • When the XBox One was released, the day one patch enabled the use of controllers. They did this to ensure that if anybody got their hands on a One before the release date, it would be useless. I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of thing happens with games as well.

    The silver lining is that if large portions of a game are broken, those portions can be fixed relatively quickly with OTA updates. Remember the days before automatic updating?

  • I remember downloading Planetside 2 off of steam, which in hindsight was a bad idea to begin with. It installed all the files through steam, all 14GB, i started it, then it went to the Planetside 2 start page, downloaded 8GB of updates and then sucked 2GB of Internet usage per hour…

    Another story was the famous 13GB patch for Dead Rising 3. The game isn’t too bad, it has an interesting storyline and a relatively big map for discovery but i wasn’t encouraged to explore or kill zombies or really do ANYTHING. I got it for Christmas and played it for 2 months before the nuke went off and made me start over again, I then realized that the time left before the nuke wasn’t a matter of progression in the story but an ACTUAL TIMER. I promptly un-installed the game after the 13GB patch, which would make it take up around 10-15% of my console.

    And finally the coupe de grace of updates. Any source powered game, the downloads are reasonable and the games are good but almost every week i get a 100mb patch on average, and i’m forced to re download (or verify) my 3GB of mods EVERY time i start up steam and play a game.

    Time to break out the Xbox and Arcade Machine.

    • The source updates are mainly due to valve using source as it’s testing platform, so things like big picture, controller support, surround screens, occulus rift etc so every Valve source game gets the update.

  • Ahh; the days of placing a disc in a drive or a cartridge in a slot and only having to wait for the game to “Load”. Now no matter how you game you’re at the mercy of your internet connection and for some of us the current “solution” just doesn’t’ cut it.

    • Ahhh, remember the old days of games full of bugs that couldn’t be patched and that had less programming in them than the loading screens in modern games… The old system doesn’t work for any decent sized game these days as they are so big and complex that you cant test for everything and at some point you just have to put it out and patch things as they come.

  • If you are on iiNet, Internode or Bigpond, use Steam Limiter. Really saved my ass a few times on my 12 GB plan after Steam sales leaving 70 GB of games to download

    • THANK YOU! I have wanted something like this for years and didn’t know that it existed!

  • Where the patch dance gets really entertaining is when you’re using an MMO with its own patch utility and install via Steam.

    Step 1: Install game.
    Step 2: Run game. It instantly downloads all the patches that fell between Steam’s snapshot and the current official version.
    Step 3: Make the mistake of telling Steam to check its local files. It re-downloads the broken Steam version of the files

    … and return to step 2.

    Just be glad it doesn’t check and revert to the Steam files automatically.

  • Incidentally, I notice the article doesn’t do much to address the actual question.

    The fundamental answer is probably: They are using really stupid patch programs.

    Many patches seem to take the form of entire new versions of any modified files. If a file is renamed, rather then coding this as a rename operation, it’s coded as “delete file X, and create new file Y, with the following content: [ content of file X ].” A small change to the middle of a large file, rather than saying “take this file and go to this location and change these bytes” consists of a fresh copy of the large file.

    Efficient patch generation is a mature field and the algorithms to generate the patches are well known. However, it’s much easier to just have a list of file names and checksums (or CRCs), and re-download the files where the checksums don’t match.

    I suspect that this process is imposed in part by the platform maintainers. It’s much easier to implement than an intelligent algorithm, and much less likely to go wrong if a patch fails partway through application. If you go back to the days when patches were primarily distributed on CD, those tended to be much smaller compared to content size.

    • This is exactly right, and I can’t believe that there has been no effort to tackle this by now. We don’t live in the US or Japan, and download quotas are a fact of life for us in the antipodes.

      It’s 2014, and the fact they don’t seem to have got to grips with delivering file deltas – or even just changed files – is appalling. So typical to have “patches” almost the same size as the original install – and it’s rubbish, because these games are not just one monolithic binary file.

  • I know people are complaining about the games having large patches, but I don’t think that is the real problem. I would rather have patches (large or small) than no patches at all.

    The REAL problem here is limited download bandwidth from our ISPs. And people accepting it as normal. I refuse to give my money to an ISP that limits the amount I can use it, and everybody else should too..

    • Nope, in this day and age, there is no need for them to assume you have unlimited download sizes, if they just updated their code efficiently. Do you think you’d patch your operating system regularly if you had to re-download effectively the entire install base every time there was an update?

      Leaving alone the download cap issue, do you want to wait for hours just to be able to play your game?

      It’s all very well these devs doing cute things with shaders and physics, but some basic deployment know-how and enhancement wouldn’t go amiss.

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