Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A new decade, new DRM

Activation limits for games caused a lot of negative feedback from the gamer community. People felt that their games went from an ownership model to a more limited, renting model. The obvious thing to do for a publisher after all this backlash  would be to ease their DRM measures. So what does Ubisoft decide to do? Introduce a new, draconian DRM scheme of course!

So, what does their new baby do? Each Ubisoft game will regularly connect to one of their back-end servers. In other words, you have to be on-line all the time, even when playing a single player game. They're trying to put it in a nice spotlight: you don't need your CD in the drive any more! And your game saves are stored on their servers! A very useful feature promised by Valve years ago but it doesn't change the fact that you have to be on-line all the time. At least with Valves Steam I still have the option to use my off-line mode

This does mean that you won't be able to play on your laptop. Want to play half an hour on the train or on the plane? Bad luck. What if you have a shabby wifi connection that sometimes fails like I have? Well, your game will pause. If I would be in the middle of an exciting game and suddenly I'd get the "please wait while we try to connect to the internet" message I'd  get seriously pissed.

But above all, what’s the use? The first game with this protection scheme will be protected for a few days or weeks. Then a handful of determined hackers will crack it. Your games will be saved to your local disc and you’ll never have to use the Internet. From one point of view the hacker gets a better version then the customer (idem dito with the x activation limits, a pirated version doesn’t have those and thus is better). All this does is forcing people to download the crack if they want to play on the train. Do you really want customers to go look for cracks and hacks? Maybe next time they’ll just download the full game instead of just the crack.

So I'm sure that it will fail as an anti-piracy measure just like all previous attempts (minus subscription based games like mmorpgs) did. What is it good for? It's another way to reduce the second hand market which the publishers hate so much. There are very few second hand PC sellers here in Europe but the market is bigger in the USA. It's another step away from the ownership model:

Can I resell my game?
Not at this time.

Can I resell my game along with my Ubisoft account?
Your Ubisoft account features your personal data and cannot be given or sold to anyone.

Another measure that will punish those players who are still willing to pay for a game while it won't affect a single pirates copy. It's about time that publishers understand that they should convince people to buy their games by offering better content then the pirate versions. Not like it is now: the pirated copy plus a disk full of DRM. For on-line games you can offer big and fast servers. For single player gamers there are also options. Online achievements, online save games or profiles are great to prevent loosing all your data in a PC crash and sure provide a bonus compared to pirated versions. You can also add some free DLC to your game. It's a lot easier to get the DLC when it asks you at start up then having to search for torrents every time a small DLC package is available. But make sure that all these extras are optional. At least that way your bought version will offer something more than a pirated copy. Forcing people to pay for something that they can get better for free makes no sense at all.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rent a byte

On-line multimedia distribution is growing at a steady pace. Amazon is renting out books for its Kindle device. Game distributors such as Steam are generating more and more income. At the other side of the ocean movie providers like Netflix and Hulu are popular. And today there are two big announcements. Youtube will offer full movies for rent. And today Greenmangaming wants to offer second hand games... digital games.

An interesting idea but I can't see how they will manage to pull it off. Publishers seem to have put second hand sales into the same category as piracy. DRM schemes such as the infamous "three installs and you're out" are there to stop second hand sales. Stopping pirates will be the official version but it doesn't stop a single pirate as they never even see those installation limits. A sad case where the pirate is better of then the buyer. From a publishers side it's simple. If they sell their game for a third of the price to you they still get a third of their money. If you buy it for a third of the price in a second hand store then they will get nothing. Greenman promises to deliver a part of the profits to the publishers. But will it be enough?

Of course, renting out media only works through DRM. iTunes has its DRM on mp3s, Amazon on its books and Youtube on its movies. Services without DRM such as gog.com are out of the picture. If you paid for the game, you can download it and install it ad infinitum. Selling a game to greenman should stop making it working for the seller. And that's just not possible without DRM.

Then there are the bargain deals. Steam is now running a “Buy Men of War and Men of War: Red Tide” for about 10 euros. Men of war is normally up for 12 euros and the expansion for 20 euros. If you put the resell value to respectively 6 and  10 euros then you have a problem. I could buy both games for cheap and resell them after the bargain period to make a profit. Forbid bargain deals to be sold?

The only way I can see this work if they offer their own Steam-like digital distribution  centre. You could buy their games and resell them for a third of the price. The second hand game could then be sold in their store for two thirds of the price. It's a system that might work. But which publishers are going to want to sell the game for less profit then a full version?

What I find most interesting about all this is however that we're not really talking about second hand items. If I buy something in a second hand shop then its quality will have deteriorated. A book will have some ripples in it, a game will have scratches and a car will have less kilometres left in it than a new car. We're OK with that because the price is lower. Those bytes you downloaded from Steam? They're still as good as the original. Buying the original gives zero benefit from buying a second hand copy. Buying a game "second hand" in this case will always be better then getting it new as you get the same product for less money. So the only value difference is in what people give them. And that's usually just wanting the newest, shiniest games. We might end up with a hierarchy of gamers. Those who really want to play a game buy it first. Then those who can wait a bit buy it second hand two weeks after the release. But is this really different from the current system? Now they just ask full price in pre-order and drop your price in a bargain weekend a few weeks later.

Selling second hand games is an interesting idea and I'm curious how they will pull it off. It could be great to offer games to people who have some patience. But I doubt that it will be ever be more than a platform to sell B grade games. The future will tell us.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pay now or pay even more later

This week I got this e-mail from Funcom:

Character Deletion Alert

Thank you for playing Age of Conan.

As part of our maintenance your account is now flagged to have your characters below level 20 deleted as part of maintenance. Please re-activate your account now to ensure that your characters progress and names stay intact.

After seeing last weeks phishing mail I had to take a look at the source of the e-mail as I suspected that this was just another scam. After all, why would any company want to destroy their customers property? But no, it's not a scam, the e-mail does come from Funcom.

Two years ago, I've bought Age of Conan as a pre-order. And I stopped playing after only a few days as it quickly became clear to me that this game wasn't my thing. Having my ass kicked time after time by two mobs of my own level got frustrating really fast. Frustrating enough to go play something else. Interestingly, when I shared this experience months after my Conan adventures with my WoW guild mates the response I got was "Did you play a Bear Shaman"? Maybe I just took the wrong class. I remember having some difficulties in WoW with my low level warrior. Whatever causes those problems, it's small stuff like this that is enough to remove the fun part in Funcom. It's a shame as I really do like the Conan franchise. Robert E. Howard made an excellent fantasy setting with his Conan books. Those books still offer good reading decades after they've been written. Howards universe is more mature then Tolkiens, it's refreshing to see an mmorpg which doesn't see the world through 12+ goggles.

Since I didn't play this game for a long time deleting all my low level  characters won't change much for me. None of my characters were above level 20. It did make me think about my WoW characters though. What if they decided to delete all my lowbies if I stopped playing for a year between expansions? I'd be loosing my bank alt which stores all my gold! They'd force me to either pay €15 to reactivate my account for a month and send all my items to my higher level characters or loose the equivalent of months of playtime. That would piss me of in a major way. In the end I'd cough up the €15 to save my time investment. They'd gain a few euros at the cost of pissing of their customer base and harming their brand name.

Their given reason for doing this is a joke. "Maintenance"? You mean your maintenance will be so specific that it won't touch any high level characters? Give me a break. Other companies manage to keep your characters for over a decade. All it costs them is a few bytes on a server. It's obvious that this is a way to force some players to return to the game and fill the publishers pockets.

I can only imagine if you descubsribed from Funcoms maillist or if that e-mail lands in your spam mail. You reactivate your account when the next expansion hits and you're hoping to pick up the game where you left it. Only to enter a game where all your belongings have been destroyed. It might be enough to stop playing all together. Destroying players characters will destroy their reasons to come back. If my high level WoW characters were to be deleted before the next expansion hits the shelves there's a big chance I'd stop playing WoW. Relevelling my characters from scratch again before I can do the new content isn't  appealing. Deleting characters is preventing your customers from ever coming back.

I do wonder if the money Funcom makes by this action will be worth the bad reputation they've built up with it. Personally, I now think less of Funcom. And no, giving me seven free days when I reactivate my account won't be enough to restore your reputation.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Please give us your WoW account

This week I found this in my mailbox:

At first glance it looks like a genuine e-mail from Blizzard, it even passed Hotmails spam filter. But I quickly remembered that I didn't get this kind of e-mail when someone changed my password and actually hacked my account two months ago.

Giving this message a closer look quickly gives more hints to show us that it's a fake:
  • "you Login verify your password" - Bad English in an automatically generated mail? No professional company would send this mail let alone one based in the United States;
  • "If you are unable to successfully verify your password . using the automated system" - That's not even a proper sentence.
  • As every WoW player should know, Blizzard will never ask you to enter your password.
  • Any login site should have the https protocol.
  • The e-mails source code shows that the e-mail comes from the IP 66.7.192.88. This links to frontierfuelcompany.com, not to blizzard.com like their authentic e-mails do.
After seeing all this it's clear that this mail is an obvious forgery. But in the name of investigation I clicked on it anyway and both FIrefox and Internet Explorer tag it as a phishing website. Ignoring the phishing message and continuing to the site shows the regular WoW login website. Of course with the difference that your user name and password will also be forwarded to someone else...

Luckily this phishing attempt was poorly done. But I can imagine that quite a few people could be fooled by a more professionally looking e-mail. If one in a thousand falls into this trap and you send a million mails then you've got quite a few accounts. Add to this brute force dictionary attacks or keyloggers and I'm sure every WoW player knows someone who has seen his account hacked.

It's no wonder that Blizzard is considering to make their authenticator mandatory. Once everyone has one the amount of hacked accounts should be greatly diminished. The main reason to do this is probably to reduce operating costs. Having to hire dozens of people that do nothing all day but restoring accounts isn't a fun way to spend your money. And being in the news with "Thousands of WoW accounts hacked" won't really improve your company's image either.

Blizzard also reduced my major problem with the authenticator: the costs. Two months ago they asked €8 posting costs for an item they sold at €6. Nowadays they're asking $6.650 or €6.99. Yes, we Europeans are still being ripped of as we'll pay half more than our American fellow gamers. But it's a move in the right direction. I even wonder if it wouldn't be cheaper for Blizzard to just give everyone an authenticator for free. Wouldn't it be cheaper then having to deal with thousands of hacked accounts?

So the next step I predict will be to give free authenticators with Cataclysm or Starcraft 2. At which point it will probably be mandatory for all these games. Sad that we need one but it seems to be a necessary evil.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

DLC - Directly Lost Cash?




The prices of games have been more or less steady the last decade. Now and then a game such as Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 2 comes along and causes a fuzz by raising the price but overall prices don't change much. The development costs of games keep on going though while the player numbers don't increase by that much. So publishers have to keep on trying to find more ways to get the money from our pockets without raising the retail prices of their games. DLC seems to be the newest card they've pulled out of their bags and it's quickly gaining more and more popularity.

At it's base, it's a nice idea. Instead of spending four years creating one big hit-or-miss blockbuster you can spend some time to create smaller pieces of content. If you can add a few hours of gameplay for $5 everyone will be happy. The customers will have a reason to keep on playing your game and the waiting time between content will be reduced. For the publishers, it's pure profit, there are no retailers who grab at your money with their filthy paws. One week after its launch Dragon Age already lured in a million dollars in cash from its DLC alone so there's some big profit in it. And Bioware plans to keep releasing new DLC for years to come.

Despite all of its potential DLC still forms a controversial topic these days. I suspect that it's partially because we, pc gamers, have been spoiled by developers such as Valve or Blizzard. Blizzard is still releasing free patches and the occasional map for starcraft ten years after its launch. And Valve are the masters of free content. If I take a look at how Team Fortress 2 looked when I bought it and how it looks now there's a huge difference. Every few months they'll release a free content patch with new maps, new items and give me a reason to install it again. When we're used to that kind of free, dedicated support then why would we want to pay for some horse armor?

Recently even Blizzard has been adding DLC to their games. Pandaran monks and little Kelthuzads are now available from their pet store... at a cost of $10 each. I find this price point to be very high for an item which has no use but I'm sure that these two items will have make Blizzard a few hundred thousand dollars. Luckily, so far all the content you can buy in WoW have been luxury items. You can pay to transfer your server, buy a minipet or even change your race but none of this will make you better at WoW. If they'd ever go so far as to sell epic weapons or armor I'd never look at my account again.

On the other side we have Bioware which has been really pushing DLC with their latest release. They added Shale, a companion which you can only get with hard cash (he is free the first time you play). Shale is a companion which is interweaved through the entire game. This seems to be a case where they programmed it and later decided to pull it out of the game and ask money for it. Asking money for something that should be in the original game is unethical. They do this again by adding a chest for your items in the second DLC package. A chest for your stuff is a must have in an RPG with a limited inventory, I would have cursed if I didn't have one. It was already hell to play with just my inventory plus the chest they added later on.

Then they added an NPC in your camp (see screenshot) which would link you to their site! One minute you're talking to him and expecting to get a quest. The next minute your suspense of disbelief is completely shattered as you get the option to visit the Bioware site and spend some of your money! If you really must promote your items then show me a banner in a game launcher but please don't ever promote your DLC in game again.

And finally they also added the Dragon Armor. Sure it's fun to get a powerful item but this item was so powerful that I didn't replace it during the entire game. RPGs are about pimping your characters, finding a sword with one more +awesomeness! If you're just throwing us an ΓΌber item at the start of the game you're ruining that part of the game.

Bioware has now announced their next expansion for Dragon Age. It's going to cost $40 and it will be released four months after the original game was released. Four months to finish a full blown expansion? Forgive me for thinking that this expansion might just be a big, overpriced DLC package. Are the borders between DLC and expansions beginning to fade? We'll see in a few months.

Like it or not, DLC is here to stay. As long as they're adding new, exciting content at a reasonable price it can strengthen a game. And if we see a minipet priced for $10 we can just decide to pass it. After all, voting with our wallets is the one right publishers can't take away from us.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mirrors Edge - Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fastest of them all?




In the near future all of our networks are monitored by a totalitarian government. I'd personally start encrypting all my traffic with 512 bit protocols. Others might start using carrier pigeons. Apparently the men of the future opt to use runners to distribute information. Probably because DICE didn't feel like making pigeon game. 

You are playing Faith, a runner who is discovering the secrets of the regime and is getting high on their Top Ten most wanted list. She'll run from the cops, save her sister, run even more and of course, save the world. The story is told with nicely animated cutscenes but it failed however to keep me really interested. It all felt like something that's just there to sew all the levels together.

The designers opted to choose for a first person experience. This is a bold decision as most platform games are played in third person (think Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider). Melee fighting is also difficult to pull of in first person.  It took me a while to figure out how to beat the cops which all have guns while you have none. The best way to do it is to quickly run to an opponent. Then they will try to knock you down with their weapon. While they do this there is a small time frame during which their weapon will turn red and you can disarm them. This happens with a nice animation and you got yourself a nice gun! From there on it plays pretty much like a regular shooter. Hide behind cover, shoot someone, take their gun and take cover again. Walking around with a heavy weapon seriously limits your speed however. It's also impossible to do most of the acrobatics while carrying a gun and the average gun only has a few bullets. It's clear that the fighting is seen as an intermezzo between running sessions. From time to time you'll see a few soldiers, get rid of them, drop your weapon and continue running.



The bulk of the game comes from the acrobatics you can pull of. Faith has a diverse gamma of stunts. She can climb, roll, do wall jumps,... She also has to build up her momentum. If you start running you'll notice that you run faster and faster. This is needed to pull of some of the more difficult jumps. The levels are divided in outside levels on rooftops and in inside levels. Outside you'll be jumping from building to building, hang on rain pipes and jump from cranes. Inside you'll have to get from room to room passing small corridors. The level design in this game is really standing out. You always know where you have to go and you'll often have to think a few minutes on how you can get there. I've never been stuck in this game for longer than fifteen minutes. At some times it wasn't immediately clear to me what I was supposed to do but I always figured it out. What if I try to walk up the wall and then do a sideway jump? The player is also visually aided by the use of the color red. If you need to use a ladder, it will get red. Once you're down the ladder it will turn gray again. It's a clever system which avoids backtracking, you won't accidentally use those stairs again. And if you feel up to it you can turn of the hint system.

The other thing that stands out in this game are the graphics. Not in a "let's throw as many polygons at the screen as we can" way but in its artistic design. The game uses a smart coloring scheme. Most of the world is colored with white, blue and green. The red color is kept for the hint system. It all looks very slick.

Overall I had fun playing this game. It won't make my list of favorite games of the year but it was well worth the three euros I paid for it. It's a game that is showing potential but still has a few rough edges to work out. The story could use some polish and the fighting can be improved. I'm sure this will be done in Mirrors Edge 2.

It's great to see that EA dares to start a new franchise from time to time. Especially when it's basically a new genre such as Mirrors Edge. Creating another expansion for the Sims or FIFA 2010is a failsafe way to create some extra cash. This game is great for everyone who wants to try out something entirely new. And if you want to see more refreshing games it's well worth buying this one.