25 October 2008

Multi-Post I

Just a few tidbits I wanted to touch on here, a couple of issues I've wanted to mention that aren't complex enough to warrant their own post.


First of all, I've been seeing a lot of forum buzz around Fable II regarding how allegedly easy it is. This notion interested me, since I felt the same way for different reasons. The general consensus seems to be that since combat isn't "challenging", the game as a whole fails to challenge. I also find myself breezing through the game, but not for lack of trying, so to speak. One of the big selling points for Fable II (aside from the disappointing co-op) was the revolutionary control scheme. Though more of an evolution than a "revolution", the much lauded single-button combat means that combat is more skill-based. No memorizing complex combos or sifting through magic menus mid-combat here. Push the button you want for the action you want when you want it. This means that when facing the game's opponents, you can concentrate on fighting them instead of the control scheme. This doesn't mean that the enemies are any less deadly, only that your ability to beat them isn't hampered by poor design decisions. For a seasoned gamer, used to dealing with handicaps of this nature, this would make the game seem "easy", but I know several people who's experience with the game has been enhanced by these gameplay mechanics. I just wanted to dispel any perceived notion that Fable II is less than a fulfilling experience.


More and more people inside of the gaming industry have been pointing to games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band as musical influences. They say that radio stations pick playlists that compare to music rhythm games in order to capitalize on their popularity. I think that select individuals among us forget there's a world outside of video games. Let me clear things up with a helpful pie chart:

Hopefully, this clears up the issue for some of you.


Lastly, I just wanted to hop on the bandwagon and point out how awesome Jonathan Coulton is. I'm pretty late to the party, I know, but anyone who knows me will tell you that it takes me a while to pick up on new things. If you don't know, Coulton is the musical mind responsible for Still Alive and Skullcrusher Mountain, familiar to anyone who enjoys Portal or Rock Band. Still Alive was great, but it took me hearing Skullcrusher Mountain as well to make me realize, "Gee, maybe I should listen to some of this guy's other work." I now count myself as a fan and I haven't looked back. The music is well constructed and the lyrics are always clever and original. If you haven't already, check out his website. And his music. I personally recommend Brand New Sucker, Chiron Beta Prime, and Sibling Rivalry.

21 October 2008

Tom Clancy's EndWar Coming to Handhelds

I just read here that Tom Clancy's EndWar, in development by Ubisoft Shanghai, is getting a PSP and DS release in addition to it's console and PC releases. To those who don't know, EndWar is Ubisoft's new real-time strategy game, set to revolutionize how we think about RTS on consoles with its voice controls and simplified, fast-paced gameplay. I didn't know what to think of this game when I first heard of it, but I had a chance to play the beta when it was released earlier this year and I've been hopelessly addicted to the demo since it hit Xbox Live marketplace. I've been anxiously awaiting this game's release ever since.

So, of course, I was happy to hear that a handheld edition was in the works as well. RTS games are severely underrepresented on handhelds, particularly the DS. I know part of this lies in technical limitations, but an unorthodox RTS like EndWar would be just the thing to change our expectations of what a portable RTS can do. I mean, hell, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings was fun enough. Unfortunately, I read on to learn that both of the portable EndWars are turn-based strategy games. Not only that, but that they're completely eschewing EndWar's "simplicity is perfection" philosophy with 20 unit types per faction, incorporating ground, sea and air tactics. What? Even the screen captures make the games look less like EndWar and more like a fancy Advance Wars knockoff. Don't get me wrong; I'm sure both of the games will be excellent in their own right, especially if they maintain the standard of quality set by their console counterparts (if nothing else). I just thought that a portable EndWar had potential for so much more. The simplified rock-paper-scissors RTS formula of EndWar would make for a seamless transition to handhelds, with the expected graphical downgrade (though, on PSP, maybe not so much). Hell, the DS is uniquely equipped to handle voice commands!

At any rate, keep an eye out for EndWar this November, regardless of the platform you play it on. If you're an RTS fan at all, it's at least worth a look.

10 October 2008

Starcraft II Trilogy

News just came out of Blizzcon that the much anticipated Starcraft II will be split into three separate retail releases, titled Terran: Wings of Liberty, Zerg: Heart of the Swarm, and Protoss: Legacy of the Void. The announcement just broke so details are scarce, but the bottom line seems to be that if you want the complete SC2 single player experience, you need to buy three different games. Now, this raises several concerns.

When I first heard about the Activision/Blizzard merger, I had many deep reservations. Given Blizzard's track record for enjoyable, highly polished games (Warcraft, Diablo) and Activisions reputation for milking any and all gaming cashcows till the teat runs dry (13 Tony Hawk games in 10 years?), I was afraid that the quality of Blizzard's stable of classics would noticeably decline. In that context, it would be difficult not to see this announcement as the latest symptom of Activision's "business first" attitude affecting Blizzard's game line, but this news isn't all bad.

First of all, we don't know how much each installment is going to cost. We might see three releases for $40 each. Even $50 each isn't that far fetched, with today's pricing standard moving towards the $60 spectrum. Of course, any of these prices can only be judged on the merit of how much content comes in each bundle. Activision Blizzard insists that each installment will be a title unto itself, with the same content as the original game, if not more so. This is a valid point, if true. It's validity stands to be seen on release day. Only time will tell.

Which brings me to my next point: we just don't know yet. What we do know is that all three releases will come with fully-functional multi-player. We also know that all three factions will be playable in each version. Despite the bleating from the dissident section of the Blizzard community, there's no evidence that this decision was inspired by a search for more money. More likely, the work on the various faction campaigns took longer than expected and, to offset rising development costs and to appease a loyal fanbase waiting too long for a sequel, decided to break up the offline content into three packages with consecutive release dates. This way, gamers can get their hands on the multi-player and dig into the Terran campaign without having to wait the months for the Zerg and Protoss stories to be finished up.

Of course, this is all conjecture. It's also completely possible that those evil suits at Activision have strong armed Blizzard into digging a little deeper into the wallets of their fanbase for two unnecessary retail bundles. After all, money is the only fuel that can sustain the fires of their hell forges, where they offer their sacrifices of forsaken children to their dark lord, Cuthyl'Naruus.

01 October 2008

Spore DRM: It's A Bitch, Ain't It?

Digital Rights Management (DRM. Copy Protection, by any other name.) is most definitely the hot topic in the PC gaming scene right now, specifically in Spore. Console gamers... well, they'll just play in the sand, blissfully ignorant, won't they? Somebody who's never had to coax the game out of their disc via installations, driver updates, driver downgrades, and various other ancient voodoo rituals couldn't comprehend the implications of yet another barrier on the road to JUST PLAYING THE DAMN GAME. And that's a shame since, even sheltered as they are playing on their Xbox 360s and PS3s, they're not totally unaffected. A distressingly large portion of the console gaming population can attest to the abomination of copy protection embedded in PSN and Xbox Live downloads. Microsoft, in recent months, has introduced an online tool to allow people to transfer DRM for their 360 downloads between consoles, but even this isn't foolproof (I have my own experience with this, but that's a horror story for another day.). But I digress.

The fact is game publishers have resorted to punishing paying customers for piracy, something they, as paying customers, have nothing to do with. At all. Apparently, the next best thing to shooting yourself in the foot is aiming for the vital cash flow. Furthermore, DRM doesn't obstruct pirates. It barely registers as a hurdle. Most modern DRM is code written by companies who do nothing but DRM work (Securom, Starforce, etc.). If 5 different games all have Securom security on their discs, the groundwork for that code is probably similar, if not identical. Pirates are elite hackers on steroids and most copy protection measures are just another line of code for them to glance over on their way to converting a game from a disc to a digital copy to be distributed online.

So, copy protection doesn't bother hackers. That leaves customers. (Just to clarify real quick, those are the people trying to give these companies money.) Unless you've been living under a rock (or a console), you've probably heard about the DRM controversy surrounding Spore. Spore uses the Securom protection and requires online activation to access all of the game's features. In addition to all of this, EA decided to limit the number of online activations to three(3). This number was later increased, after much bitching from the peanut gallery, to five(5). In addition EA dismissed the whole issue from the start, saying that only 10% of their user base has tried to install more than thrice. This could likened to Toyota releasing a 2009 model car that, when crossing the Ukrainian border, explodes. Then saying "Less than 10% of our customers drive our product in Eastern Europe." It's THAT level of willful ignorance.

Of course, this is only an obstacle if you bought the game. If you acquired the title through a less legitimate source, say, a torrent site, then these little nuisances are conveniently weeded out in the piracy process. So, again we're back to punishing consumers while exalting pirates. Yes, EXALTING. In a world where companies exhibit such flagrant disregard for their "valued customers", pirates take on the role of modern-day Robin Hoods (Maybe, "|20|}1|\| |-|00[)$"), taking it all back for the little guy. Well, thieves are thieves. From a PR perspective, companies like EA couldn't be dealing with this issue any more ham-handed. It ought to be a rainmaker: people are stealing from them. For them to take that and turn THEMSELVES into the villains takes a special kind of incompetence. The kind that usually makes you eligible for government assistance.

Electronic Arts and every other publisher out there needs to make a few vital changes in their position. Firstly, just accept the fact that some people are going to steal your product. If it bothers you that much, get on Congress' collective ass to pass harsher penalties for distributing protected IP illegally. Or, better yet, take a nod from Stardock and assume a much less authoritarian position. i.e. start making it worth more to buy your product than to pirate it. Spore should be a natural in this regard. One of the games biggest selling points is the ability to seamlessly integrate other people's creations into your games, as well as share your creations with everyone else. This is something you need to register with a legitimate copy to do. You shouldn't NEED to saddle your software with viral copy protection (Securom DOES affect system performance. Don't let anyone tell you different.) and draconian install limits. This is paranoia on your part. Nothing more.

Which brings me to my second point: start treating people like potential sales instead of potential criminals. The glass really is half full, EA. A quick glance at gaming forums will tell you that a good portion of people who pirate your game are honest folks who bought the game and are determined to actually PLAY it, despite your best efforts to the contrary. Your attitude towards your customers has done more to drive them to piracy than the price tag ever could have. You've taken the stance of a metaphorical old man, shaking his cane and yelling from his stoop at the kids skateboarding in the street. Stop it. It's not going to change anything and it just makes you look cold and out of touch.

That being said, I'd like to address the individual for a moment here. If you pirate games just to avoid paying for them, or anything else that couldn't be defended as a "legitimate" reason (acquiring out-of-print games, a backup copy for a legally owned game, nonsense like this Spore business), than you are a criminal. A SWAT team's not gonna come bust down your door any time soon, but, morally, you know you are wrong. If you have the money and want a game, go buy the damn thing. Somebody worked hard to make that game and they'll never receive due credit for their work unless somebody buys it. If you just gotta get you some free games, there are other options. Do your part to end this pirate-publisher hostility.

That ended up a lot longer than I planned. Shoudn't be surprised, though. It's a complex issue. The bottom line is publishers need to take responsibility for their role in the issue and generally loosen up, while the pirates themselves need to find something better to do with their talents. Like hacking the e-mail accounts of corrupt political figures.