Category Archives: Backwards Compatibility

Backwards Compatibility articles

Backwards Compatibility and Bug Fixing

A few weeks ago I ran into another incident where backwards compatibility and bug fixes just couldn’t coincide. The problem was in a SourceMod function:

int FindSendPropOffs(string property);

The purpose of this function was to find the memory offset of a property in a Half-Life 2 entity. It worked fine for months, until a user reported it broke on a specific entity’s property. The entity property layout looked like this:

 -- ParentProperty (offset X)
   -- ChildProperty (offset Y)

In this sense, ChildProperty‘s memory offset of Y was relative to X, and thus its actual offset was X+Y. However, FindSendPropOffs was only returning Y. This prevented lots of utility code from working with that specific property.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of bug you can’t fix — it would break backwards compatibility. Consider the following use:

Select All Code:
new offset = FindSendPropOffs("ParentProperty") + FindSendPropOffs("ChildProperty");

The above usage is written with an understanding of how FindSendPropOffs malfunctions, and corrects for it. But if we were to change how it resolved its offsets, that demonstration would no longer work.

The only thing to do is add new, separate functionality, and to document the difference in detail.

Backwards Compatibility Means Bugs Too

Sometimes backwards compatibility means preserving bugs. When working on AMX Mod X 1.8.0, we found a very nasty bug in the code for creating new-menus.

For the unfamiliar, new-menus are a replacement for the original menu code (now dubbed “old-menus”). They were designed to be much simpler to use, though the basics are similar:

  • menu_create() binds a new-menu to a new-menu callback.
  • register_menucmd() binds an old-menu to an old-menu callback.

The two callbacks are very different: new-menu callbacks have three parameters (menu, client, item). Old-menu callbacks have two parameters (client, keypress). They are mutually exclusive.

Yet, there was a serious, accidental bug in AMX Mod X 1.7x — menu_create called register_menucmd on the same callback it used for its own callback. Effectively, your new-menu callback could receive random, invalid data because it was being invoked as an old-menu handler and a new-menu handler. This created almost untraceable and inexplicable bugs in a few plugins that had ventured into new-menu territory.

Needless to say, the code was removed very fast. Then when it came time to beta test 1.8.0, we received two reports that a specific plugin had stopped working. One of its menus was broken. After successfully reproducing the problem, I opened the plugin’s source code and found why.

The plugin was calling menu_create on callback X. However, it never called any of the other relevant new-menu functions. Instead, it used old-menus to actually draw and display the menu. Effectively, the author had replaced register_menucmd with menu_create. He probably intended to rewrite the rest of his code as well, but forgot. After all, his functionality continued to work as normal! So when AMX Mod X 1.8.0 removed this bug, his plugin broke.

Deciding whether to insert backward compatibility shims is always tough. Generally, we always want plugins to work on future versions, no matter what. There is a rough checklist I went through.

  • How many plugins are affected by the change? One.
  • How many people are affected by the change? 100-200. Punishing one author punishes all of these users.
  • How much code exists that is affected by the change? Unknown, assumed minimal.
  • Is the compatibility change a design decision, or a bug fix? How severe? Severe bug fix.
  • Is the break occurring from valid API usage or invalid API usage? If invalid, is it a mistake that is pervasive? Invalid usage localized to one line in one plugin.
  • Is backwards compatibility possible? No, the flaw is too severe to revert in any form.
  • Are any of the affected plugins no longer being maintained? No.

Given the above checklist, we decided to allow for this one plugin to receive reverted functionality. menu_create will call register_menucmd if and only if the plugin matches X and the plugin’s version matches Y. We notified the author saying, “if you release version Y+1, it will break on future AMX Mod X versions, so you will want to fix it.”

The conclusion: backwards compatibility sometimes means preserving bugs. Unfortunately, this gives new meaning to bugs being “undocumented features.” In the end, choosing whether to preserve bugs (or indeed any compatibility) depends on how many users you want to affect and how badly you want to affect them.