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Xbox One11!one1!

The Xbox One reveal reminded me, forcibly, that Microsoft is the company behind the console. I mean, obviously, right? But between Windows 7 and Bill Gates building better condoms, I temporarily forgot about Games for Windows Live, Windows 8, and all the markedly cynical shit the Redmond company pulls as it endeavors to further erode all consumer surplus and out-EA EA.

Remember the always-online brouhaha? Well, the new Xbox doesn’t require an always-online internet connection. Except when you play a game for the first time. Or if the game company feels like pulling a Maxis and “off-loading computations to the cloud.” And just kidding, your Xbox needs an internet connection to phone home once every 24 hours or it presumably bricks itself until you do.

So how often does it check your connection? “Depends on the experience,” Harrison said.

“For single-player games that don’t require connectivity to Xbox Live, you should be able to play those without interruption should your Internet connection go down. Blu-ray movies and other downloaded entertainment should be accessible when your Internet connection may be interrupted. But the device is fundamentally designed to be expanded and extended by the Internet as many devices are today.”

Oh, how nice of them that your Blu-ray movies “should” be accessible when your internet connection is interrupted.

In return for all of these restrictions, you get to opportunity to… pay full MSRP for all your games! There are no used games for Xbox One, there are simply game disks which will prompt you to pay a “fee” of the full price of the game to play it. Remember when we thought EA eliminating the Online Pass was a gesture of contrition and good will? Surprise! It was cynical bullshit because Microsoft is handling the Online Passes now and adding them to 100% of all future Xbox games.

A lot of the Xbox Apologists have pointed at Steam in making their arguments that things are not so bad. In fact, there is talk that you may be able to sell your used games game licenses to other people on the Xbox Marketplace, in a sort of virtual GameStop setup. Okay… details? If it is true, and assuming you can set your own price, and assuming there isn’t exorbitant fees, then great! We just had to give up renting games, letting your friend borrow your games, and in the case of Steam comparisons, getting 50% discounts on brand new games released just three months ago.

I am not an Xbox customer; I neither bought any of the prior consoles nor plan to purchase this new one. But this sort of shit will affect every one of us. We already see DLC for our PC games delayed because of “Xbox exclusives.” Ports of future Microsoft games could be pulled from Steam just like EA pulled theirs, ostensively so we can have the privilege of paying more money for no conceivable consumer gain. What we see today is what we can expect more of tomorrow – not just from companies like Microsoft, but from everyone who thinks they can get away with it.

And that sucks.

Wait, When Did THIS Happen?

European Courts have ruled that it is legal to resale digital software licenses:

Buying and reselling any form of digital software is perfectly legal, the Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled. Software authors – or in the gaming world, publishers – can not stop customers from reselling their games, even if the publisher attaches an End User License Agreement prohibiting resale.

“The exclusive right of distribution of a copy of a computer program covered by such a license is exhausted on its first sale,” the court has found.

This ruling covers customers in European Union member states, and games bought through services such as Steam or Origin. [...]

Okay, so I do know when it happened: July 3rd, 2012. But… who… when… huh? That is damn near a year ago. Has anything gone forward since then?

I mean, the absolute latest news was April 2nd, when a US District Court stated that reselling iTunes songs violated copyright laws. Conversely, buying textbooks from Thailand and selling them in the US for profit is legal, according to the US Supreme Court. As is streaming TV service Aereo, for that matter.

Looking at that European ruling again, I would actually say there wouldn’t be any contradiction in reselling a license. You aren’t copying any files, you are merely removing your own rights to a digital good and granting them to another… and they’re the ones downloading it. Hell, in an always-online-esque DRM scheme, such a transfer would arguably be the safest for the publisher considering the seller literally cannot access the game anymore (as opposed to the honor system when it comes to reselling music CDs).

Obviously every publisher everywhere would fight tooth and nail against this breaking of their digital monopoly, just as companies like Microsoft (and Sony for a while) contemplate ways to smother the used game market. But the question of licenses has yet to be settled, and I am inclined to show uncharacteristic optimism in this regard. Most people would not look at playing Halo at a friend’s house as piracy or consider yard sales as theft, and yet that is what these companies would want you to believe.

Personally, I think it is only a matter of time until logic and common sense forever strip the asinine “you don’t own a videogame!” argument from corporate apologists everywhere. Physical game or license, you nevertheless (should) have the right to sell it. Nothing less makes sense.

The Next Xbox May Have Always-Online Requirement

The rumormill is a-churning away on this piece of news:

“Unless something has changed recently,” one of the sources told us over email, “Durango consumer units must have an active internet connection to be used.”

Durango is the codename for the next-gen Xbox.

“If there isn’t a connection, no games or apps can be started,” the source continued. “If the connection is interrupted then after a period of time–currently three minutes, if I remember correctly–the game/app is suspended and the network troubleshooter started.”

Lending a sort of credence to the entire affair, and once again proving that people become drooling morons on Twitter, is this series of Tweets from the Microsoft Creative Director, Adam Orth. I will go ahead and transcribe them here instead of just posting pictures of tweets like the dozen lazy websites I checked before realizing that no one else was going to do it:

Sorry, I don’t get the drama around having an “always on” console. Every device now is “always on”. That’s the world we live in. #dealwithit

I want every device to be “always on”.

Alex Wells: Off the top of my head I know 5 people who own 360′s who current have no access to the internet. They would be screwed.

@TheonlyAlexW Those people should definitely get with the time and get the internet. It’s awesome.

Manveerheir: Did you learn nothing from Diablo III or SimCity? You know some people’s internet goes out right? Deal with it is a shitty reason.

@manveerheir Electricity goes out too.

Sometimes the electricity goes out. I will not purchase a vacuum cleaner.

The mobile reception in the area I live in is spotty and unreliable. I will not buy a mobile phone.

Microsoft apologized for the tweets by someone “not a spokesman for Microsoft” a day later.

Personally, I feel this is one of those rumors stupid enough to be true. Microsoft is already requiring the Kinect to be running the entire time the Xbox 720 is on, because somehow it’s important to Microsoft for there to be a camera trained on your living room the entire time you are playing Halo 5. Besides, this is not even the first time we have heard about this – here is an article back in February from an insider saying that Xbox games will require an online activation code and installation to the HD, thereby making the disc worthless to anyone else. It is not much of a leap to go from online activation keys to always-online.

Lost in all of this, of course, is what possible benefit there is to the consumer. Always-Online is not a feature, no matter how hard EA’s COO spins it, it’s a restriction. You have to be online to pay an MMO, or PlanetSide 2, or whatever other multiplayer game, yes, but that is because those individuals are not in your house. The single-player campaign or indie game or whatever is in your house and doesn’t require outside intervention except arbitrarily. Remember the SimCity fiasco? There were zero server-side calculations, or at least calculations that needed to be sent out to EA’s bank of super-computers (…lol) to process. Even if you could argue that Leaderboards or cloud saving were worthwhile features, no rational arguments were given as to why they could not simply have been optional.

Adam Orth’s analogy with cell phones is particularly instructive in regards to these corporate drones’ idiotic thought processes. Does your smartphone simply shut down and become unusable the moment you lose coverage? Or can you continue playing Angry Birds or taking photos or listening to music you saved to the device? Whether I am always-online already or not, there is no benefit to the requirement.

In any case, I cannot possibly imagine a better advertisement for the PS4 than the next Xbox coming out with an always-online requirement. Will it sway a majority of people away from the Xbox? Probably not. But as the margins in the console business continue getting slimmer, perhaps there will be enough losses that these anti-consumer practices will stop making their way out of the fevered wet dreams of CFOs everywhere.

And if not, well, there is always the $99 Ouya, right?

SimSlum

I have less than zero interest in the latest SimCity.

Granted, I have not played a Sim City since SimCity 2000, or Streets of SimCity if that counts. Indeed, Streets of SimCity was perhaps one of my favorite PC games from the 90s (has it really been two decades?) precisely because you could import your SimCity 2000 save files and then drive around at street-level. One of the augmentations to your vehicle, aside from rocket launchers and machine guns, was a sort of gliding mechanism that allowed you to fly around if you hit a sufficiently high hill. So, of course, I would use the infinite money “cheat” (about as silly as saying Minecraft building-mode is cheating) to construct the largest possible hills and then sail my way across thriving metropolises. SimCopter, I believe, also allowed you to fly around your own cities, but I never had that game.

Regardless, the latest SimCity has a number of fairly baffling changes to the core formula, the foremost of which is a sort of forced multiplayer integration, from which all other terrible design flows. Yes, you can play it single-player… by creating your own private region and not inviting other people in. But the concept of “regions” at all exists because the default is building cities connected to other peoples’ cities. Which, in a vacuum (preferably the vacuum of space), is fine if it were not for the results:

  • No offline mode.
  • No individual Save/Loads. As in, you cannot build your city up, unleash a disaster, then reload once you’ve had your fill.
  • Rollbacks due to server strain/lag/failure means you can lose hours of progress.
  • Individual cities are microscopic compared to the series.
  • No ability to landscape the terrain.

If I have mischaracterized any of the above qualities, please let me know.

Again, this is somewhat moot considering I skipped over SimCity 3 and 4, making it unlikely I was going to purchase SimCity 5 to begin with. But… well, this sort of direction for a venerable franchise makes me less likely to ever buy back in. I never really “got” the people who decried radical franchise reboots like Syndicate until this version of SimCity came out. Interacting with individual Sims is cool and all, but the rest of the social nonsense was never what these games were about, at least to me. And yet, now, to an entirely new generation of gamers, it will be.

Sigh. Get off my lawn.

Always Online: Missing the Point

I still have a problem with the always-online trend, but it actually comes from the other direction. Fundamentally, I am always connected to the internet… but that does not mean I always have a connection capable of running a client/server game without lag.

Spotty Wi-Fi? It happens. ISP having issues with Blizzard’s servers? Been there, done that. Indeed, Time Warner (the only cable internet provider in my area) frequently has intermittent disconnects in the 11pm-3am time period when I am most active (I work 2nd shift). And obviously playing multiplayer games like FPS and WoW is impossible when, I dunno, I am downloading torrents, Steam/iTunes/antivirus programs decide to update, someone on the same connection boots up Netflix, and so on and so forth. Any of those other things are about 1000% more likely than lugging a laptop onto airplanes, trains, or buses.

So please don’t construe this always-online DRM as a value-added feature when it is nothing but movie executives futilely pushing 3D movies because it eliminates the majority of piracy. There are better ways of eliminating that kind of piracy, but the movie industry is choosing the one that makes them more money.

Speaking of choosing the option that makes them more money. Tobold mentions that the cash AH in Diablo 3 necessitates a constant connection, but cheating prevention is honestly a red herring as Tycho from Penny-Arcade divines:

For my part, and I’m not, like, The Lord or anything, but the gulf between able to install a Spawn copy of the game and not being able to play offline at all seems pretty deep. Don’t really know what else to tell you. I saw that Blizzard came out with a response response, expressing their surprise at the consumer reaction, when this is more or less how consumers react every single time they learn the precise circumference of their golden leash.

By their own admission, Diablo isn’t not really focused around a PVP experience; if you’re playing with someone who has duped items or whatever, all it means is that you will be more likely to defeat Satan. Without a means to gain advantage over another, “cheating” as a concept becomes substantially more opaque. Who is the cheated party, precisely? Satan the Devil? Fuck him, who cares.

Who is being cheated? This is the part of the movie where, in a series of retrospective realizations cut with you looking at your own face in the rearview mirror, you come bit by bit to the heart of it. The person you are cheating is Blizzard, Blizzard in the aggregate, with your attempts to interfere with their digital marketplace. You mustn’t play offline or goof around with your files or any other naughty business because they are endeavoring to transform your putative ownership into a revenue stream.

There, now don’t you feel better?

Diablo 3 was going to spawn a black market(place) if Blizzard did not do anything, but there were other options available. Flagging items as being offline-only, having separate offline characters*, or hell, even turn item/gold duplication into a (somewhat hidden) feature, preemptively destroying that market. If you choose to log onto some epic’d-out guy’s server, it is indistinguishable to you whether said guy hacked the items into existence or bought them all from the AH. Don’t group with that guy. This is Bashiok:

Q u o t e:
but it also has the potential to damage the game economy and overall experience for the many thousands of others who play World of Warcraft for fun

We still think that’s true for a MMO in which thousands of players co-mingle in a persistent world and vie for supremacy in eSport competitions or ‘world first’ boss kills in raids. Neither of these are true though for a co-op action RPG.

The worst that could happen is you open your game up to the public, someone jumps in wearing some awesome gear, and you don’t know if he found those items himself. But that’d be the case whether we offered an official way to buy items from other players or not.

I have a hard time reading that and accepting the premise that cheating harms anything, especially under the Diablo model of a co-op dungeon grinder. Hell, I have a hard time accepting the premise of a co-op anything that you play with total strangers all the time as opposed to with people you know, but that might just be me. I would never open up a public Minecraft or Magicka or Portal 2 or Dawn of War 2 server, for example. Competitive game modes like TF2 or Counter-Strike or WoW BGs are one thing, “intimate” team projects you cannot quickly exit are quite another.

*Blizzard did address this by saying they did not want someone leveling up to the cap, eventually coming around to the whole online idea, and then realizing that they would have to reroll completely. To which I reply: you are allowing the buying and selling of characters. Throw down $20 and you can have a fully epic’d, level-capped character to play around with online. Problem solved.