The last thing you want on Christmas Day is for your kids to be unable to play the game console they’ve waited so long to enjoy. Read on as we highlight why you need to pre-game your console gift-giving experience.
Update: This article is still relevant in the age of the Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch. We originally wrote it for a previous console generation, but we still recommend you update ahead of time for a better Christmas day experience. The latest consoles (and their games) still need updates.
Why Do I Want To Do This?
If you’re not a gamer yourself, you might be curious as to why we’d recommend unpacking your child’s game console and setting it up just to turn right back around and repack it for them to open on Christmas Day.
Unlike the game consoles of today the consoles of yesteryear, ranging from the early first-generation game consoles like the Magnavox Odyssey right up to fifth-generation consoles like the Sony PlayStation, had hard-coded firmware that rarely (if ever) received any update.
The Super Nintendo Entertainment System you bought back in the 1990s is still running the same operating code that it shipped with (and most likely still plugging along just fine despite 20 years of no updates). Game consoles were simply designed differently back then because there was no easy mechanism by which they could be updated.
Starting with the sixth-generation of game consoles and the introduction of over-the-network updates for the original Xbox game console suddenly updating your game console became “a thing.” That thing has proved to be a persistent element of modern gaming and the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii, and Switch all feature over-the-network updates as do many handheld gaming platforms like newer versions of the Nintendo DS product line (so, in fact, the tips in this PSA also apply to portable game devices too).
Not only do the game consoles themselves need updates but the games we play on them need updates (and often need to be downloaded in the first place before we can even begin to update and play them).
Why does it matter, in relation to your gift-giving, that modern consoles all have over-the-network updates? It matters because these updates are large, fairly frequent, and even on a good day can take a bit of time to download and apply. A good day for console updating would be a random weekday in the middle of the year when network traffic is at a low point.
A bad day for updates? Christmas Day, when millions of people around the globe open up their Christmas presents, plug them in, and slam the game maker’s networks with requests for updates. What might have been anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours’ worth of updating on a regular day might not even happen at all on Christmas Day because of the increased traffic. Compounding the problem is the fact that many game consoles are very insistent on applying updates and once the process is started you’re stuck waiting it out.
To further compound the problem, in years past we’ve seen DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks launched against game networks right around the holiday. In 2014, for example, a large DDoS attack against both the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live brought both networks to their knees and made everything from updating your console to even playing online nearly impossible for players around the world.
All these things (the necessity of console updating, the large download size of updates for both consoles and games, the Christmas Day server overloads, coupled with the possibility of another DDoS attack on the game networks) paint a pretty clear picture. If you want your kids to be able to sit down and spend a lazy Christmas Day afternoon playing video games then you’re going to need to update the game console ahead of time with any updates, download any games (and/or the game updates), and have the console ready to rock the minute it comes out of the box.
With that in mind let’s take a look at how you can best accomplish the task.
Hide the Update Process
“Hide the update process?” you say, “Of course I won’t let the kids see me updating the console!”; don’t worry, we’re not doubting your ability to hide the physical act of unpacking and updating the console. We’re encouraging you to be stealthy in how you do it.
If you know your kid’s game network login and password don’t use it to update the console. It’s very common for electronic devices to send automated messages (or, more specifically, for the networks they join to send automated messages) like “Hey Steve! Welcome to SuperFunGamingNetwork! Your new UltraConsole is online and ready to go! Check out these free games you can download today!” When your kid gets that email or message to their gaming account, then the gig is up. They’ll wonder why a brand new current generation console is now on their account.
To avoid that first see if the console will update without being logged into a given profile. If it doesn’t update without being logged into a given profile, create a profile for yourself. Although there are many pay-services on modern gaming networks all of them allow you to make a basic account (for updating the console and downloading games) for free. Use that profile to do all the updating and, hey, maybe after you gift the console you can use that profile to play with the kids.
Download and Update Games
If you want to go all out, you can not only update the console but also download any games and apply any updates that are available. As we mentioned above just like the console needs updates the games often have updates too. We don’t get as much time to game these days as we used to and let us tell you, it’s annoying to boot up the old Xbox after months of it sitting idle only to have every game we want to play need to update and restart.
For games with physical media, you can pop the game in the console, launch the game, and it will generally download and apply any updates. You could also take this time to copy the game to the console’s internal hard drive if your console supports such a thing (this way the game will load and play faster).
There is one part of this section that does conflict with the previous section. Many game consoles, especially when you buy holiday bundles, come with voucher codes for games. These vouchers are either for a specific game or offer the user the ability to pick one out of three available games or the like.
On modern consoles the game purchases, even if they are voucher purchases, are linked to the specific user account of the user who submits the voucher code. In this instance, if you use the “stealth” profile you made in the previous step to download the game from the game maker’s network, then the game becomes linked to your account (and not your child’s). This only happens with digital downloads, however, and not physical media. None the less it brings us to a final consideration.
Consider Your Kid’s Age and Temperament
For young kids setting up the console in advance is a sure win. They’re young, they’re super excited to play with their new game console, and they likely don’t care about or even consider the update process. They just want to play with their new toy (and there’s nothing wrong with that).
For older kids, the whole process of setting up the console, seeing it update, and, of course, using the voucher codes to select and download the games, is a big part of the process in much the same way that building the gaming PC is a part of the process for many PC gamers.
With that in mind, you may consider a sort of compromise when dealing with older kids and the gift of a new game console. If you want your older child to have the experience of unpacking the game console and preparing it themselves (and certainly many gamers young and old would tell you that the unpack/update experience is fun in its own way) you might consider unpacking and updating it with them a few days/weeks in advance so it’s all ready to go but then putting it aside until Christmas. You lose the “Surprise!” factor on Christmas morning but you also get to have a bonding experience with them and the anticipation (and knowledge that console will be ready to go) will definitely keep them excited until Christmas.
Update via USB on Christmas Day
If you just can’t bring yourself to break the seal on the box and do the updating or you want your child to have the experience of updating the console after opening it for the first time themselves, there is a workable-but-less-than-ideal solution.
Both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One support USB-based updating. While over-the-network updates are preferred (and the documentation for the Xbox even discourages you from doing USB updates), you can download current updates to a USB drive and keep them on hand for Christmas day. This way you can preserve the magic of opening a fresh new console and still have a way to apply updates that isn’t network dependent.
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