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The Downside to Digital Distribution

Posted on 30th Apr 2009 at 10:27 by Antony Leather with 22 comments

Antony Leather
Joe and Clive both wrote about digital distribution recently. In fact, this was actually going to be a post solely dedicated to the new survival mode in Left 4 Dead, however seeing as the game has developed some gremlins and I can now barely run the game at all, my enthusiasm has waned somewhat.

It all boils down to the fact that my PC is constantly in a state of flux. I usually reinstall Windows a few times a year to clear out the crap, and like any good PC user, I regularly install new patches, updates and drivers. This is before I even get to hardware and my PC's specfication rarely stays the same for more than a few weeks as I swap stuff around trying to get better cooling or a higher overclock. It's often a pain doing all this, but I probably wouldn't have it any other way.

So, after not playing Left 4 Dead for a few weeks recently, I fired it up again for a quick bit of zombie mayhem only to find it was less than stable. The game was stuttering at regular intervals with the sound repeating itself in an endless loop. Sometimes it would crash completely and other times it would resume after 30 seconds or so and I would find myself at the receiving end of kick votes and endless comments such as "Kick him!" and "Idiot is AFK!"

I couldn't believe it. My favourite game was crashing for the first time since its release last year. I'd never had a problem with a Steam game before so automatically assumed it was due to changes in my system that I'd made since I last played it. I removed the new soundcard and switched overclocking profiles and also rolled back to older graphics card drivers. I also tried different RAM and a different GPU.

The Downside to Digital Distribution The downside to digital distribution

I found a few videos on Youtube depicting my exact problem and also a possible fix, which was to disable multicore rendering in the advanced section of the game's options.

When all this failed to fix my problem, I decided the only other thing it could be is that Left 4 Dead had been updated and one of its many patches that are installed automatically had caused the problem. At least three patches had been released since the game played fine on my system and so any could be the cause. Now with most other games, I could uninstall and reinstall them and leave out the suspect patch to see if it was the cause, but this isn't possible in most games distributed via Steam.

Crashes aside, when it does work, Left 4 Dead's new survival mode is fantastic. Sadly, following the most recent (23rd April) patch the crashing has become considerably worse and my machine is now bluescreening or coming up with the error code "nv4_disp display driver has stopped working properly." I haven't been able to play for more than three minutes at a time and there are several large threads on the Steam forums with people describing the same issues.

While it's annoying I can't play the game at the moment, what's even more frustrating is that all my attempts to fix the game turned out to be a complete waste of time. My point is that's it's all very well dropping patches and fixes every five minutes that are installed automatically, but it can make troubleshooting an absolute nightmare, especially if you don't play the game regularly. This applies to all automatic update services and not just for games either. I've known plenty of non-gaming applications to go haywire after new Windows updates and the like have been installed.

As it happens, in an act of desperation, having tried two Nvidia graphics cards I then borrowed an ATI Radeon HD 4870 from work and this miraculouly cured the problem for the time being. At least I should get to blog about the survival mode next time!

22 Comments

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Krikkit 30th April 2009, 11:37 Quote
I've been having problems with L4D too. I've had the nv4_disp.dll crash go on, as well as a couple of others, although it seems to have sorted itself again now.

That, and the stats tracking since the update has been woeful. I've lost all my times from the in-game stuff, and had a gold and 3 silvers wiped from the achievement list as well.

At least Valve bother to patch problems though! It's not terminally broken like some games.
Fod 30th April 2009, 11:43 Quote
this isn't a problem with digital distribution :-/
as a multiplayer game, you'd be forced to patch the game before hopping onto a server, regardless of how it was delivered to you.
Bauul 30th April 2009, 13:07 Quote
As Fod points out, as L4D is a multiplayer game it's rather a moot point. True back in the day you could try out the different patches to see which one broke your system, but at the end of the day you're still going to have to install the latest patch if you wanted to play the game. I guess the technition in all of us would like a bit more control, but it's not really going to help even if we could.
DraigUK 30th April 2009, 13:07 Quote
I understand your frustration but agree this is not a problem of digital distribution in itself or a Steam problem. It's a Nvidia driver issue. I'm sure one of the patches caused it, and it needs to be fixed, but this would happen regardless of how the patch was applied.
steveo_mcg 30th April 2009, 13:25 Quote
tbh i'll live with it occasionally breaking to alleviate the problem of trying to find patches for older games, spend ages a few years ago trying to find a good source for the 1.3 patch for BF2 the patch had been out for a while and most of sources were no longer listing it, bloodly pain in the arse.
Combatus 30th April 2009, 13:50 Quote
I'm not really saying it's a problem or a major flaw, in fact automatic patching is a hell of a lot easier than manually downloading a lot of the time. It's more of a 'down side' hence the title! As it stands, because the game automatically patches though, I couldn't play the game AT ALL with an Nvidia graphics card, online or offline.

"as a multiplayer game, you'd be forced to patch the game before hopping onto a server, regardless of how it was delivered to you."

In most non Steam games, there's still plenty of people playing with older patches for some time after a new one is released. At least in this situation you might still be able to play the odd game instead of being totally shut out. I remember a certain patch with BF2 caused a memory leak and in the end EA advised people not to install the patch, and for those that had done already, they were forced to reinstall the game. I'm not saying that we should dissect every patch for every game before we install it, but in an ideal world there would be some kind of roll back to at least rule out a patch as being the cause of system instability.
Gremlin 30th April 2009, 15:16 Quote
The games developed some gremlins? you mean i have cousins now?
frontline 30th April 2009, 18:40 Quote
If you think L4D is bad, spare a thought for those of us still playing Day of Defeat Source, which gets broken every time there is an update for the OB game engine. Broken demo playback, map glitches, no-recoil exploits, game bugs. The list is endless, however with only one guy working on the game part-time now, the future is bleak...
yodasarmpit 30th April 2009, 18:48 Quote
I fail to see how this can be linked to the distribution method, a patch is a patch whether it be installed via disk, automatically via steam or any other method.
The problem is purely with the patch in question.
paisa666 30th April 2009, 21:37 Quote
Quote:
Now with most other games, I could uninstall and reinstall them and leave out the suspect patch to see if it was the cause, but this isn't possible in most games distributed via Steam.

Dont miss the point ppl, the problem in question is not the crashes, but the inhability to test the game with diferent patches to see witch one caused the problem, and this inhability is because the patches are distributed via steam, no matter if you reinstall the game, once you log in steam will automaticaly update your game.
AstralWanderer 30th April 2009, 23:22 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by
Agreed - this is really a problem specific to Steam's auto-patching.

There are other downsides to various digital distribution systems (e.g. pricing that fails to pass savings onto customers, online activation, background processes) but a system done right (and GOG is the only example I can think of, though most shareware also qualifies) can avoid all of these.
nicae 30th April 2009, 23:59 Quote
Looks more like a hardware frustration blog post than something on digital distribution. Yet, not only do I agree with the author's final point, I must add the problem of not really being able to get your money back for games that don't work (E:TW, almost) or stink. I think I'll have to take the "Try before you buy" route and never again pre-purchase anything on Steam like I did with E:TW. This one should be purchased maybe a year after release with several patches on top. As a bonus, you'll likely get a better price too. Never again will I fall for this trick. :|

GTAIV could fall into the same category, but the product had less issues upon release (for me). Fully patched, it's a charm. I hope E:TW get's there with haste!
AstralWanderer 1st May 2009, 00:47 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by nicae
...Yet, not only do I agree with the author's final point, I must add the problem of not really being able to get your money back for games that don't work (E:TW, almost) or stink...
At the risk of going a little OT, anyone in the EU/EEA has the legal right to get a refund for products purchased online, for any reason, provided they request it (and return the item) within 7 working days. This is provided by the Distance Selling Directive which, in the UK, is implemented by the The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 (see section 10, "Right to Cancel").

Now computer software (along with music and video recordings) is exempted if unsealed (i.e. if you open it, you can't return it) but that can't really apply to downloads. And if Valve refuse to issue a refund, and you paid by credit card, you can ask the credit card company to reimburse you instead (as they are jointly liable, under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 - see here for a template letter).

The one gotcha is since Steam ties all your purchases into one account, Valve could do something nasty like disabling it completely (causing you to lose access to all your other purchases) in retaliation for any credit card chargebacks. In such an event, you could make a court claim for a refund of all content purchased, but since Valve Software do not seem to have a legal presence in the UK (nothing shows in a Companies House search), enforcing any judgement might be difficult. So this could be another downside to Steam itself.
Nicb 2nd May 2009, 05:44 Quote
hhhmmm, I do not really see the reason for complaint about Steam in particular.
The reason why I say this is because if you go to the "Properties" of each game you own on Steam and then click on the "Update Tab" and choose for the game to not be automatically updated. Then if there is an update available you can view the forums for a few days to see if a lot of people are having problems with the update and then make an educated decision if you should down load it or wait for a fix.
Dreaming 3rd May 2009, 23:21 Quote
I know what you mean about Left4Dead, the new patch broke my graphics card. I don't know whether it exploited a vulnerability or whatever but BFG agreed to replace it and Valve said they were aware of the problem but left it there. Just on the steam forums within 3 days or so of the patch there were another 7 users with the same graphics card that was as dead as mine in the same way. Also another 40 users getting random crashes and BSODs.
Mister_X 5th May 2009, 15:53 Quote
Oh I get this error too black screen with a sound loop, sometimes it recovers itself other times if you Ctrl+Alt+Del then go back to the game it kicks it back into life.
After exiting the game a little ballooon tip is on the taskbar "Windows has recovered from a serious error" or words to that effect.
If anyone finds a fix for this PLEASE let me know i will be eternally grateful ( other than buying an ATI card)
DraigUK 5th May 2009, 15:59 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Nicb
hhhmmm, I do not really see the reason for complaint about Steam in particular.
The reason why I say this is because if you go to the "Properties" of each game you own on Steam and then click on the "Update Tab" and choose for the game to not be automatically updated. Then if there is an update available you can view the forums for a few days to see if a lot of people are having problems with the update and then make an educated decision if you should down load it or wait for a fix.

This.
SirFur 5th May 2009, 21:32 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Nicb
hhhmmm, I do not really see the reason for complaint about Steam in particular.
The reason why I say this is because if you go to the "Properties" of each game you own on Steam and then click on the "Update Tab" and choose for the game to not be automatically updated. Then if there is an update available you can view the forums for a few days to see if a lot of people are having problems with the update and then make an educated decision if you should down load it or wait for a fix.

I quite frankly have to agree with this point. Either some of us forgot about this option (I did) or we all assume that steam's patches will always work (which, unfortunately I do). The question is why do we expect all patches to work fine?

I suppose one problem with this is that if you were to play the game you'd have to install the patch if playing online.
Chocobollz 10th May 2009, 14:32 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Mister_X
( other than buying an ATI card)
Why? They're better than NVIDIA anyway (at least for now) :-)
Bluefan 19th May 2009, 19:41 Quote
Quote:
... I then borrowed an ATI Radeon HD 4870 from work ...

You're a lucky guy with a job like that ;)
wiak 27th June 2009, 07:11 Quote
bluefan he surly is :D
ArsanEmmanuelle 27th June 2009, 08:28 Quote
Great layout! I love the tiny heatsinks, and the huge
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