Thursday 30 May 2013

How Call of Duty ends

This week I realised I don't care about Call of Duty.  What I caught of Modern Warfare 3 looked terrible and by the end of MW2 I did not want to know more about that story so I'd skipped it.  MW2 managed to hit peak crazy by the time it ended and there was nowhere the series could go that I wanted to join it.  But Black Ops was rather enjoyable, Mason and I had found out what the numbers mean, and eventually BlOps2 arrived on my doorstep to partake in.

It was during a section filled with unskippable cutscenes (at least they seemed to be unskippable, they had a pause menu rather than a skip option and I couldn't work out how to make them go away and get to the bit where you can actually play the game) which would eventually end with a grenade and a civilian getting married in a cutscene.  There was an area that is bugged (as in I could Google and find people describing the exact details of what was wrong and advice to restart the level to fix it rather than anything useful you can do because the checkpoint seems to encode the corruptions so going back will never unstuck you) and after a long time looking for an enemy to kill to trigger the next section and an NPC unlocking a door to a cellar, I decided the enemy probably fell out of the level or was outside of the invisible walls preventing my free movement so I would never be able to progress.

I tried getting back to the checkpoint a few times but every time played out the same way, whether I triggered the optional extra wave of enemies by climbing up to the sniper's nest or not.  So I restarted the entire level and watched the many cutscenes and 'played' a section where I found out I could just run around and not actually play the game, just sprint between the checkpoints with a 'rage' buff making this very quick (also making it even more obvious that the scripting was changing my selected weapon rather than the level contents having anything to do with what weapon I had equipped).  Then I got to the actual game bit with shooting.  I made my way to the assault the mansion section and the bug was there again.

"Walk forward you useless NPCs, you need to unlock something so I can continue playing!"

I restarted again and walked away to make a cup of tea while the game played a cutscene to itself.

This time I managed to not encounter the bug and so got into the cellar to kill some more bad guys before triggering the final cutscene where we saw the grenade go flying from a different perspective than the flashback cutscene that had come just before the level started.  But I didn't care.  I didn't care for the story.  I didn't hear the numbers.  I didn't even want to hear the numbers, to find out what they wanted to tell me.

There is a difference between doing something you want to do and doing something so it is done.  I wasn't playing BlOps2 because I wanted to do it.  I was playing because I wanted to have played it.  And at that point I realised I didn't even care to have played it.  Who knows how many more hours I would have thrown away if I hadn't repeatedly walked into that bug and taken a step back to work think about what I was actually doing.

I'm done.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Rental & Game Purchases and Why it Matters

I am not going to touch the approach Microsoft (MS) used for this reveal. I believe others have quickly gotten to the core of the issues that this presentation had compared to the focus Sony decided to take a few months ago. This is just about the details, as they have been confirmed via interview, of how DRM is handed on this new device for physical software purchases.

I don't buy used (unless I need to get my hands on Shadow Hearts: Covenant because at some point I lost a box of PS2 titles during a move - this does not appear to be for sale new anywhere from old stock, digitally or not, and so I cannot give either the developers or whoever owns the rights to the stuff they created any money; also see System Shock 2 until a month ago) and this goes as far as looking for new stock for PS2 titles (as in I just paid for a new copy of Persona 3 FES a few weeks ago). That said, there are no more demos and the TV/movie/music world has moved to a subscription model so I do rent games and consider this a normal part of consuming mainstream media. I often buy them once I've played them but only the ones I want to own so one day I will play them again without the need to worry about the previously discussed used game hunting where you pay some 'collector' rather than anyone related to actually creating the thing (seriously, if you have a mass produced PS2 title on ebay for £100 go jump into a fire and if you own the rights to it then PSN is a solution to my desire to give you money, even if I'm going to also need you to not track illicit downloads as I grab the ISO to actually play on a better device called my PC).

That said, my major issue here is not that rental services won't stock Xbox One games (for all we know MS have got a plan for rentals just like they have a plan for used that no one is allowed to know because it is anti-consumer and so not telling us is better than confirming our worst fears). My issue here is that it is a step beyond signed code and signed code was already the limit of my acceptance of 'purchasing' this product rather than getting it as part of a £10/month or less, all you can eat subscription which is clearly labelled as a rental agreement where I own nothing and when it ends I have nothing but my memories.

Right now I buy a console game for my closed platform console (which cost me less than it cost them to build it and ship it to me + pay staff along that chain to help move it) and the signed code on the disc and any anti-piracy techniques they use to press it allow the box to recognise the disc and play the game. This will work as long as I can get a box to run and the discs haven't degraded - at which point, where the 30 year old silicon / foil coated plastic is probably no good, we hope that a preservation effort has been in place to collect archives of the data, that I retain my right to hold private copies of, and an emulation device that reads and executes it in a close approximation of the original device. This is what a console game purchase means and is how they can maintain the same unit price despite dropping replication costs (memory chips on a cart anyone? manuals?) and a widening customer base that more than makes up for their extravagant R&D and (more critically) advertising budget. Inflation makes me feel like the deal I am getting is pretty good still.

Whatever policies MS put in place for used and rental services for the Xbox One in the future, the games are not auth'd by having signed code and security features on the disc you buy. The console sounds like it will still require signed code (and maybe the discs have some security features to stop them reading in other bluray drives and stop BD-Rs reading as normal discs in the Xbox One) but the auth is a cd key that uses an online check to refresh the auth status and so far sounds like it expires after 24 hours.

If you cannot get online in 24 hours then it doesn't matter if you have a disc with the game on, your games will not launch. If MS cannot get their servers online for the window when you need then then you cannot play any of your games. If MS retire their servers or allow EA to run their own auth boxes and EA retire those servers then you will no longer be able to launch your games. They will simply not work. This is a rental service without the corresponding price change. With their throw away comments about b/c MS have said they do not care for the cultural artefacts being generated on their platform. There is no retro gaming to MS. There is no generation of objects with ongoing value to society. "Games do not matter" is the message.

There is merely product to be consumed before it goes bad, rotten. I do not feel the need to consume from the trough being offered to survive, there are alternative channels where I can avoid contributing to people who have this disregard for the value of the product, who only focus on the cost/price and pumping swill. I play to relax, to express action in a safe virtual space, to communicate or spend time alone, to look at a space and rule system developed by someone whose perspective may be foreign to me. But this is not the only place I can pay people for their games, DRM free is a thing and so are open platforms and there are a lot of good games out there vying for my time and money.

How is this different to Valve/Steam? Other than the many games that don't use Steam DRM and so are just using it as a pipe through which I can access the data, even Steam DRM is built on top of an open platform (as in Windows is open, not FOSS 'open'). Owning the CPU means I can subvert this system, it means that there can not be a perfect offline DRM system as I can get between the hardware and the game/ecosystem and lie to it. If you give me an auth ticket that lasts for 12 hours then I can make sure the auth system never thinks it is more than 12 hours later by lying when it asks the time. Even if you try to tie the in-game systems into the clock (so I can't lie while playing), this only means I can't play for more than 12 hours at a time (then I quit and reset the clock to the start of the 12 hours) and even this is a hack away from defeating. Steam currently gives out auth tokens that last for 2 weeks (and simultaneously unlock all games that use Steam DRM) and is so popular I probably won't even need to use my expertise to defeat it if the servers ever go down.

Open systems mean we have a much better chance of exerting the rights we are paying for. The console system only works because they had physical tokens so they lasted effectively forever (until it was so historical that Moore's law and accumulated knowledge could be used to break down anything that was locked) and a razor/razorblade model to give out subsidised hardware to make cash back on a cut of every sale (so us hardcore gamers who paid for a lot of titles were ideal customers for software and hardware groups).

You can't just try to import the anti-consumer side of the Steam digital store DRM system onto your closed platform and expect it to be fine without changing your pricing strategy. Especially when you're also telling consumers their existing digital purchases will not play on the new xbox without so much as a mea culpa. Especially as a mandatory DRM system rather than an optional service for the developers on your system to utilise if they want to.

This proposed system, from the outlines they have currently explained, is too defective by design for me to sign up. I want to give someone money for new Forza, Halo, any Remedy titles, and more. But not at those buy prices for a rental. I want to own these potentially classic games to play when I want, just like I can with the decades of accumulated history of gaming I have on my shelves and (open platform) digital stores.

Saturday 18 May 2013

The Coffee or Beer Price Comparison

There is a rallying cry behind the call for cheap games to be purchased blindly by other consumers. The sales pitch from fans of a game or shills who are paid to astroturf online discussions (isn't that an awesome thing that actually exists as a potential spend for advertising money) is that the consumer isn't losing much if the decision is a bad one. The golden example is via comparison: "it only costs as much as a pint/coffee!". The problem is this analogy breaks because you repeatedly buy identical drinks. If you waste money on a game you wasted a one-shot buy and almost certainly didn't gain any useful information compared to the value of the spend.

When you spend £2/3 on a drink to find you don't like it then it cost you that much to find out that (at only one a week - those who have the daily coffee retailer ritual on the way to work or who drink freely down the pub from only a select pool of tastes should try multiplying the numbers accordingly) you shouldn't spend £150/year on buying more of these. The potential benefit was that this could be your new favourite drink or drink you must buy when you're in that mood. The cost of a few quid is against a future potential spend of thousands on buying the same, dependable option over and over again, replacing a former choice with either a lower cost or better quality making the decision. No need to get a free taste when you've got that upside, give it a go when you're next grabbing a drink and expand your knowledge of the field.

When you spend a few quid on a game that is not to your tastes (and possibly not to anyone's by being plain bad) then you have spent that money that would otherwise buy you what could be 10+ hours of fun for nothing and you have not learnt anything beyond possibly steering clear of games from that dev (who release a product every year? in a pool of thousands of choices?) Even if you had otherwise continued to obsessively buy every game from that dev then it would only save you a few quid a year. Ye, not exactly a valuable bit of info to exploit in future sensible purchasing decisions.

The demo is a long established model to allow players to decide if they want to purchase your full product and if we really want to go by the numbers for beer/coffee then for a £5 games you should possibly offer a 5p demo to give the equivalent value to the total buy in vs the initial taste test. But at 5p then that is all going to middlemen (card processing etc) so you might as well give it away for free and see how many people want to own the full game. So rather than telling anyone that they should buy a game sign unseen because it is only as expensive as X, tell them to grab the free demo or check out this great LP/QuickLook and try before they buy. The only people who gain from consumers being uninformed is people peddling substandard wares. The way to long term health for the games development ecosystem is by trying our best to match up people with money with the games that give them the best value for that money. We don't want to scam a quick buck, we want to establish games as a major art form in the 21st Century that provide relevant entertainment and culture to the masses with each sale a best fit for that consumer.