Thursday, 30 July 2009

Castrating copy protection, again

I have now come to the definitive conclusion that copy protection is not designed by people who plays games, but instead by people who simply do not fit in to social circles because they drown new born puppies in raw sewage.

The case that has finally threw me completely over the edge was an experience that my girlfriend’s dad has just had. He is a fan of EA and Maxis’ game Spore and so has bought the full game, Creepy and Cute parts pack and the latest expansion, Galactic Adventures. He has given them money to enjoy the game as and when he pleases, completing the widely accepted concept of trading money for goods and services.

Unfortunately a hard drive on his machine half melted in between gaming sessions, but luckily it had nothing critical or more importantly Spore related on there. It of course came as a very odd surprise that the Galactic Adventures expansion stopped working after he had removed the faulty device. Being particularly computer savvy, he checked every possible solution and decided he was stumped until he tried putting the duff hard drive back in. Miraculously the game worked again, and all he needs to do to keep it functioning is to keep a broken device hooked up to his machine, taking up valuable space and power. Alternatively, he could just download a crack carefree and be done with the hassle.

The problem was that because he altered the hardware on his machine, Spore decided it was trying to be played on another computer, and so rather rationally decided to swallow its brain and never work again. Of course this won’t happen to most people because not many computers are designed to be modular, with the idea in mind to upgrade and replace hardware every so often. Oh wait…

Limited installs have been used as copy protection in a few instances now and are never popular. It really doesn’t help that the software can not tell the difference between a new computer and a modified one. They do clearly work as an effective means of digital rights management however, and the fact that Spore became the most pirated game in the history of everything is purely coincidence.

The sad truth is that piracy can never actually be beaten, as there are always people willing to dedicate themselves to cracking the toughest codes. It is now becoming a war of principles more than anything as games companies need to be shown that legitimate customers will not be pushed around. Why should paying customers have to jump through ever more ridiculous hoops that the pirates can simply work around?

Such hardware scanning digital rights management software will only really stops people sharing individual copies of the game rather than fighting the mass distributors on the internet that seems to be turning in to the 21st century Wild West.

I am in no way condoning piracy here, but I am condemning the anti-piracy measures which cause more problems to paying customers than to the bandwidth bandits. Piracy is harming the game industry, but turning on the consumers surely hurts it even more. Games like Sins of a Solar Empire, which carried no protection on it at all certainly did not make headlines for being mass pirated.

At this stage, finding a viable solution to stop software piracy is about as easy as teaching a snail construction and carpentry skills, and so we all just need to learn to live with it for now.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Playing online: a right or a privilege?

Most of us now take for granted that games we buy will have an online feature letting us connect to the wonderful internet and hear the screams of ten year olds beating each other to death with pixels. It almost seems to be a pre-requisite these days, and with online cooperative modes now seeming to be the flavour of the year, whether you want to compete or work alongside other people, we are all being targeted to make the leap to playing online.

Being a PC gamer longer than anything else, the concept is not entirely new to me. I remember waiting until off peak hours so the 56k connection would not cost so much as I played Counterstrike 1.5 over the World Opponent Network (WON). This was pre-broadband popularisation and pre-Steam.

When broadband and Steam were at my finger tips though, there was so much fun to be had. With no monetary restrictions on gaming time, and a still developing but relatively good online gaming service, I was set, and the rest, as old people say, is history. Roll on seven years and here we are, with popular games such as Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead and Counterstrike: Source all free to play (once bought of course) over Steam, and many more games using similar systems, I find myself asking one question. Why should Xbox 360 owners have to pay for such services?

It just puzzles me how Xbox Live Gold is so popular considering that players have to pay for something that all other systems can do for free. If everyone on earth was me, there would be riots about such a thing, Xbox effigies would be burned and cars tipped over. In fact, it really is a good thing that there is just one of me.

I can see an attraction to Xbox Live itself, with persistent stat tracking, achievements, friends lists, a reputation system and gamerscores, which help to show what some people value most in life. In fact, as far as I can tell, it offers a very similar service to Steam. I’m not saying that the system isn’t good, I’m just not entirely sure why it should be paid for. At the end of the day, it is the only service around on the 360 that lets you play online, and so there is no alternative but to pay it for the privilege. In fact, I might try and bring a new saying in to use; “Life’s not fair, just look at Xbox Live”.

The service, as you may or mayn’t, be aware costs £10 for three months or about £35 for a year, which is a saving of about £5 if you do buy it annually. Maybe the price is not that unreasonable, considering what you get, but £35 is enough for a new game, and Steam is free. I suppose it is just the principle that irks at me the most.

At the end of the day though, are most of us happy to pay that amount just because we have to, or is the difference in quality so noticeable that £35 a year is justified? Maybe it is just the way companies run. Valve has a history of amazing bargains, with offers such as the Orange Box that offered Team Fortress 2, Portal and the three games from the Halflife 2 saga for £25. So Steam being free comes as no surprise, where as Microsoft has more than enough critics that would insist they are money grabbing, but unfortunately that battle has tainted numbers due to the ever long fan boy console war.

For £35 a year, you could argue that you are increasing the replay value of every online enabled game you play by at least 50%, which isn’t bad really. Will this trend catch on though? Have us PS3, Wii and PC gamers been spoiled for too long? I certainly hope not, and such a move could drive a limit on the number of consoles people own. I can’t imagine many multi system owners would be happy to subscribe for online play on four different machines.

This post can also be found on GhostStorm.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Enemies that aren't fun to fight

Do you ever sit there being painfully inconvenienced by a heat wave, trying to find a little bit of relief in an ice cold drink, only to discover that a wasp has decided to give swimming a go in the bottom half of your coke? It gets very frustrating. A similar equivalent to this in the gaming world is when you are knee deep in a euphoric massacre of enemies that you enjoy lopping in half, right up until you reach the half way point in the adventure and get confronted with an enemy that is as much fun to fight as a trip to the dentist with Hitler.

A lot of games have the tendency of throwing a brand new enemy at you, perhaps when you get to another region or point in the story, but they are not always that fun to fight. They are usually quite difficult to reflect the expected ramp up in difficulty, but in doing this, they occasionally impact on the point of a computer game, and abruptly decide that beyond this point, combat will be a struggle, not fun.

There are a few games like this that have really struck the wrong chord on a personal level and have caused me to memorise many a level as ‘that bastard hard one that made me break my lamp.’

In Resident Evil 5 for example, all was going swimmingly. Random villager after random villager was falling to my feet, and even though it sometimes did get a bit claustrophobic, it was still a fun experience to fight them. Then came the Ndipaya tribe. The politically correct bunch of African zombies complete with war paint, masks and spear chuckery all designed to make your day worse.

As a rule, I appreciate that zombies are supposed to be relatively stubborn when it comes to dying, but these guys took bullet after sodomising bullet and it seemed to have very little detrimental effect. Even when they fell down, allowing you to do the merciful thing and stamp on their head, they would jump right back up again like every actor in a kung fu movie would, somehow springing off of their back instantly. It just felt like hard work trying to cut them all down. Like scrubbing a wall that never gets clean, it was difficult to see my efforts make a dent in their relentless attacks. After the first one or two encounters, needless to say, I was frustrated that there would probably be more.

It is not that I do not appreciate a more challenging enemy, I just feel there should be more to it than just needing to pump them full of more bullets/arrows/hammers. Challenges should come from things like taking on the Scarab Tanks in Halo. They are huge, towering enemies that need to be boarded and killed from the inside out. They introduce a variation to gameplay that made the monolithic slog a more unique experience than just covering up the regular bad guys with more armour.

A similar problem happens halfway through Crysis when the aliens arrive. Sneaking around and taking out Korean bases as a one man army was fantastic fun, but then the aliens arrive and ruin it all. You were no longer the most unstoppable force on the island and the majority of your suit functions (the most defining features of the game) are utterly useless when fighting them. Being able to kill a man by throwing a chicken at him with great force is fun, but doing such a thing to the super flying alien is off the cards. They were just fast flying targets that needed to soak up a lot of bullets before they died. Hardly an innovative way to end the game with a challenge like that.

Finally I will give a quick mention to The Flood in Halo, as they are quite frankly irritating. There is nothing fun in fighting them, and they seem to go on forever without easing up. Battling parasites is generally not considered a fun activity, and this bunch are no exception. Their sole tactic is to rush at the player until there is nothing left to rush at, which might seem surprising at first, but it gets tedious shortly after. If I could choose to nuke any enemy from orbit, put the remains the box and nuke it again, it’d be those guys.