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Patchouli Stink

Patches. They’ve been a part of PC gaming for so long, a growing number of gamers weren’t around when publishers only had narrower customer-interaction channels in the forms of letter mail, telephone, and eventually pioneering online services such as CompuServe.

Broadband certainly played its role in turning post-release patching from a “version 1.0b” exception into across-the-board convention. The reality of it truly hit me the day I waited for a fat Battlefield 1942 patch to download, only to find out its size owed much to the new, swirling, animated EA logo that was crammed in, courtesy of corporate rebranding. (“Challenge Everything,” including my patience.) I reluctantly accepted this, and have since plodded along with a pretty set pattern: install a game, check the version number in the release notes (hoping it’s actually stated), go to the publisher’s site (hoping they still exist), find the latest cumulative patch (hoping I don’t hit a broken link), download it, and run the installer.

I was surprised then, after recently installing my v1.0 retail copy of Relic’s Company of Heroes, to find a patch page full of links to torrents. I may be making something about of nothing, but, torrents? I had two off-the-cuff thoughts: aren’t torrents synonymous with piracy, and, are all of Relic’s CoH players using a torrent client?

Now, I know a BitTorrent file is not guaranteed to point to illegally distributed content. Kind of like how an unmarried man who spends a lot of time loitering near playgrounds and owns a van with an ample supply of lollipops in the glove compartment isn’t guaranteed to be a child molester. In Relic’s defence, there may be a cost-savings benefit by offloading all that traffic from their servers by using the peer-to-peer method (one of the CoH patches was 1.8 GB); nevertheless, I just find it ironic that the protocol used to distribute the patches is also what’s enabling piracy to be more pervasive than ever in PC gaming. (Case in point: coming up with a game name off the top of my head, I googled “silent storm” and “patch”, and got a torrent link on the first results page.)

The second issue, the format of the patches, assumes the person downloading them knows what a torrent is, and if so, even has a client installed. Consider two safe assumptions: BitTorrents may be the norm for a younger and/or more tech-savvy demographic, but they’re by no means universally used; people playing CoH are mainly in their 20s and 30s instead of, say, their 40s and 50s — the key word here being “mainly,” not “exclusively.” So while there might be significant overlap between the demographics of the BitTorrent sharer and the RTSing PC gamer, it’s not comprehensive. What you end up with is a subset of paying customers that a) likes to game it up, and b) doesn’t know how to torrent it up. Not only do they have to jump through a series of hoops to patch their game, but in doing so, become equipped with the means and knowledge to hop on board the casual piracy train. More irony.

(I can’t ignore the game’s auto-update feature, but this route can be awfully slow, and there are people who, having spent the time waiting for updates to download, would rather have the actual files on their own hard drives for future reinstallations.)

Given this seemingly “odd” distribution choice, I looked for examples of BitTorrents being used for “good” instead of “evil.” One application was by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which a couple of years back offered episodes of its TV show, Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister as BitTorrents. The first North American television network to do so, they drew inspiration from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (also state-owned), which distributed one of its more popular shows, Nordkalotten 365, via peer-to-peer networks as well. Aside from respectively reminding me of a couple of things — namely, young politician wannabes can be pretty annoying, and I don’t understand Norwegian — these served as uncommon examples of the potential of digital distribution, and a possible sign of good things to come.

So then why does game patching via BitTorrents seem so strange to me? The key differences are the broadcasters offered a self-contained product (i.e., a TV show episode), and consciously targetted a younger, social-networking demographic that watches more video streamed off the web than caught off the air. In other words, the broadcasters supplemented their traditional (TV) and newer (web-casting) distribution channels with BitTorrents, creating three types of audience, who can be defined by their age and technological inclinations. Now, if a AAA developer were to seed a complete game as a BitTorrent, relying on some kind of central management to ensure legitimate use, that would be quite adventurous; however, initially distributing a game through conventional channels (brick-and-mortar stores), then offering patches only through peer-to-peer networks seems almost lazy and presuming of their customer base.

Then again, I’m the one who didn’t feel like installing a torrent client and manually running 12 incremental patches, and in all honesty, I don’t really know why the patches-as-torrents method was chosen. So maybe I am the one who’s lazy and presuming.

What I do know is if, for superficial reasons, I get a hankering to watch some Band of Brothers after playing some Company of Heroes, the easiest route will be to use that little torrent client that wasn’t on my hard drive until I had to patch my game.

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