The Downside to Digital Distribution

Written by Antony Leather

April 30, 2009 // 10:27 a.m.

Tags: #bluescreen #left-4-dead #patches #steam #survival-mode #valve

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.
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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!
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