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Half Death: Episode 3

If you haven’t already heard the scuttlebutt… well, I’m sorry. The former lead writer for the Half Life series has released what is widely reported as a summary of the hitherto (and likely forevermore) unreleased Half Life 2: Episode 3. While it is being termed “fanfic” by the author himself, keep in mind that Marc Laidlaw left Valve in January of last year, and there are no other writers from the series remaining in Valve.

Read at your own risk unforeseen consequences.

Divorced from physics-based gameplay and otherworldly vistas, the plot ends pretty quick. And it certainly still leaves the door wide open to some kind of proper Half Life 3. But… this is closure enough for me. It feels right. While nothing can really assuage the ire I feel after the ending of Episode 2 almost ten years ago, this nevertheless meets me halfway. It lines up with pre-established lore, and completes the themes presented since the original game.

Which makes sense, coming from the person who wrote everything in the first place.

At the same time… goddammit. Valve hasn’t released a single-player game since Portal 2 in 2011. That’s more than five years ago, for those (not) playing at home. And really, they don’t need to anymore. Steam obviously more than pays for itself, as evidenced by the non-standards of Early Access and shovelware that make it to the front page. For all intents and purposes, Valve has taken the ball and gone home, having monetized every inch of the field. They built it, we came, they left.

Oh, well. At least there are all these other games I can play on Stea…

…goddammit, Gabe.

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Steamy

I am not a frequent reader of Polygon, but their recent (hit) piece on Steam is interesting. There is a lot going on in the article, but these are the two thesis paragraphs:

This, then, is Good Guy Valve — a corporation which employs precision-engineered psychological tools to trick people into giving them money in exchange for goods they don’t legally own and may never actually use while profiting from a whole lot of unpaid labor and speculative work … but isn’t “evil.”

This is the Good Guy everyone seems too afraid to call out, the toxic friend who is so popular that upsetting him will just make things worse for you, so you convince yourself he’s really not that bad and that everyone else is over-reacting. Once the Good Guy illusion has disappeared, we’re left with the uncomfortable truth: Valve is nothing more than one of the new breed of digital rentiers, an unapologetic platform monopolist growing rich on its 30 percent cut of every purchase — and all the while abrogating every shred of corporate or moral responsibility under the Uber-esque pretense of simply being a “platform that connects gamers to creators.”

Basically, Valve conned us 13 years ago into believing they were the Good Guys, to the point that we unapologetically ascribe sins to Origin and UPlay that Valve themselves invented, and still perform where not prevented by EU law. Shkreli would give his left nut for the amount of free advertising that blasts over the internet for every Steam sale. All of this, all of this free money coming in, all this outrage over other corporations screwing over customers and employees alike… and we still eat it up for Valve.

I will admit that this article gave me pause.

It is a weird situation to find myself in, especially given that I am Pro-Consumer. Have you heard about Consumer Surplus? I invented that term. I will talk all day about how obscene it is for Blizzard to charge $25 for a character transfer, but spend zero time talking about how Valve takes a 75% cut of community-created DotA item/model sales.

That said, I’m not entirely sure there is a contradiction there, much less a cause for proletarian revolt.

Look, most of us grew up in the pre-Steam days. Do you remember what buying PC games was like? It was chaos. Sometimes you needed to keep the CD in the tray to play the game, sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes the publishers installed a rootkit on your machine, sometimes they didn’t. The first time I ever “pirated” a game was with Command & Conquer 3 because the disc I bought from the store wouldn’t play; there was either a scratch on the CD or some bug or something, but it instantly crashed on boot. Downloading a Day 1 crack on a game you just bought for $50 and couldn’t even return is pretty emblematic for that time period.

In short, Steam saved the PC gaming industry. It provided a framework in which the industry could grow, while simultaneously providing immense value to gamers. Steam sales actually were revolutionary at the time – the only times you ever got a discount elsewhere was when the game was in a bargain bin. Steam sales are disappointing these days, for sure, in a world of GreenManGaming, Amazon discounts, and all the other storefronts. Whom deliver Steam keys 99% of the time. Which is what most gamers want, considering the platform itself is immensely stable in comparison to oh, say, RockStar’s Social Club.

There are legitimate complaints regarding Steam. The Support sucks, so I have heard. It took them entirely too long to introduce Refunds, and I understand that that only came under threat of court orders. I’m also sure that the author’s claims regarding reimbursement percentages for selling character models is probably true.

But overall, I think the article is mostly attacking a straw man. There will be Valve fanboys, just as there are Apple fanboys. The difference is that Apple is a walled garden of overpriced, proprietary bullshit. Steam appears to be a near-monopoly… but based on what, exactly? Origin (or GOG, etc) might indeed be the better gaming platform these days… if it weren’t for the fact that they have an absurdly low (in comparison) library of available titles. Does Steam have exclusivity agreements that nobody knows about? If not, who is really responsible for its market share? No one is stopping anyone from opening a competing service that only takes 25% of the cut or whatever.

The bottom line is that nobody is being tricked here. Uber intentionally treating their entire workforce as contractors to avoid paying for health benefits or time off is not at all the same as “tricking” people into buying videogames over the internet. The damning “culture of cliques” at Valve is laughable; welcome to everywhere. Hell, if you want to see an abused workforce, take a gander over at Amazon warehouse for a moment.

“Good Guy Valve” is a marketing fiction, sure… but built on the back of a decade of actual value.

Ringing Endorsement

Does anyone else remember playing Dungeon Defenders? You know, that 4-player co-op pseudo-tower defense game from a while back? I knew that the sequel was in Early Access, so I decided to check on it’s progress since it reappeared on my Steam window.

“Still in Early Access, eh? Let me check the reviews…” Top one:

DD_Review

Oh, Steam. Never change.

Although the review goes on to point out that things have since changed – the endgame grind has become easier than before, best weapons were nerfed, etc – the juxtaposition between the 1,095 hours played and the Not Recommended score is just… I don’t know. Funny? Sad? Nostalgic from an MMO perspective?

The developers actually responded to Karthu’s review, assuring him that the changes are a work in progress as they shift some of the systems around in an attempt to provide more depth. Which highlights the Sisyphean absurdity of the situation even more as this dude played an Early Access game for over 45 days straight. Or to put in another perspective, that’s roughly 2.5 hours a day, every day, since it’s Early Access release on Steam (December 2015).

I dunno, man. That sorta sounds like a ringing endorsement to me. Even if it no longer takes 50+ hours of grinding the same map to get the best weapon. Especially if it no longer takes 50+ hours of grinding the same map to get the best weapon. I guess we’ll see.

It Worked

The final (?) chapter of my GTA 5 woes has come to its end.

After uninstalling the “corrupted” GTA 5 installation, I emailed GameBillet to ask them to reinstate their download page that I had brief access to when I originally bought the GTA 5 key from them. From there, I committed myself to downloading 30 individual 1.9 GB files from their servers.

Nothing (other than Steam) is ever that simple though. The first problem I encountered was the fact that Chrome would hang on 100% download completion without actually “finishing” the file. This was not a GTA 5-specific issue, but rather something I have been experiencing for the past month or two with Chrome, even on 125 KB downloads.

Chrome_Stop

Ain’t nobody got time for that. Except for me.

To ensure this would not be a factor, I ended up reinstalling Firefox and downloading from there. This prevented the hung downloads, but Firefox was unable to handle downloading more than six files at a time, so that is what I limited myself to.

The next issue was that after a day of this, I couldn’t log into my GameBillet account, and the “forgotten password” request couldn’t be completed because it stated that my email account didn’t exist. Pretty goddamn strange considering I had two emails from their support team not four days ago. Luckily, I was able to find the original email that contained the download links, so I could still download direct from there.

The final boss, as in most RPGs, was somewhat of a let-down. Having downloaded all the .bin files, I had to run the installer to combine them. Which meant duplicating the 60 GB files on my SSD because of course. After deleting some other games I doubt I’d ever play again (or at all), I logged into Rockstar’s shitty Social Club interface…

…and had to download a 2 GB patch. At 200 kb/s. Fine. I made the time.

Then, the moment of truth.

GTA5_Success1

Never felt so good driving around a corner.

It worked. It really worked. I was able to get to and through the 2nd mission. I didn’t play for much longer beyond that point, but at least I did not run into the exact same breaking point as before, and that’s something.

While this remains another example of my parsimony biting me in the ass, I don’t really blame GameBillet in this scenario: I blame Rockstar and every game maker with their own shitty download client. If Social Club downloaded at more than 200 kb/s, I wouldn’t have had to use a VPN and it wouldn’t have corrupted my files. The real lesson learned here is that Steam fucking earns their 30% cut, and Rockstar is going to eat that cut every goddamn time from here on out.

The Curse that Keeps Cursing

Hey, do you recall the travails associated with my attempting to install GTA 5 through Rockstar’s shitty “Social Club” nonsense? Well, I finally decided to quit hesitating and go ahead and start playing the game.

Oh, wait, there’s a 1 GB patch to download first. At 200 kb/s, again. I think the most baffling part of this – besides the fact that I can use a VPN to magically make the download go back to 2 mb/s – is how it says it is downloading at 200 kb/s, but literally nothing else will load properly. I tried to load Google to see if this shit got fixed somehow else, but Google literally timed out. So whatever the launcher is doing, it is doing so badly to effectively kill the entirety of my internet.

With everything downloaded (via VPN), I finally booted up the game. And it worked through the tutorial and the first few missions. Then… it didn’t:

GTA5_1

Really? Really?

I was on the way to repo a motorcycle in the game, passed some invisible line, and the entire game crashes with that error. After several repeated experiments, it appears the crashing is related to either loading a cutscene that would trigger in that area of town, or simply loading that section of town. Either way, the game is functionally useless because I cannot progress past this point.

I looked online for solutions, and the culprit is likely some kind of corrupted file. Which, per the source, can occur if the original download is interrupted. Hmm. Where have I…

The one “quirk” with this “solution” is that Ultrasurf cycles through various proxy servers at certain intervals, which technically interrupts the download. For the most part, the GTA 5 launcher will pause and then resume the download no problem. After 5-10 cycles of this though, it will stop the download entirely, forcing you to press Retry to get it moving again. I’m not in a particular mood to babysit this download for eight real-time hours, so I had to look for another solution.

Enter Advanced Mouse Auto Clicker 4.0

…oh.

There is no official way to check for corrupted files via Social Club’s launcher, for the record. I ended up finding a Reddit thread talking about downloading and creating a goddamn Python script to check your files. Which I did so, and everything came back OK. Found a slightly more up-to-date list to add to the script, but still no errors. Rockstar themselves suggests uninstalling and reinstalling.

Fuck. That. Shit.

Honestly, at this point, I’m sorely tempted to chalk the whole thing up as a total loss. As in, deleting GTA 5 and just never playing it. I mean, technically I can wait for another year or whatever and try and snag the game in a Steam-specific sale and be done with it that way. But I’m already out $28, so there is no “deal” possible in this scenario.

There is one other scenario in which I might salvage this situation: I contacted the retailer to re-enable a direct download of the individual installation pieces of the game. My hope is that it won’t download at 200 kb/s, and thus I can download sans VPN and without mid-download micro-interruptions. There is no guarantee that it will work, and shit is already annoying as hell, so this may just be another variation of Sunk Cost Fallacy.

But Christ Almighty, have I learned my lesson. Some people might cry about Steam being a monopoly, but if Steam is a monopoly, it is precisely because of the incompetence of everyone else. It has literally been 5-10 years since I’ve remembered that I’m a PC gamer. You know, that unfortunate kind of gamer who can buy shit that doesn’t work out of the goddamn box. Who else would put up with that?

Digital Resale

As you might have heard, a French consumer group is suing Valve over, amongst other things, the inability of customers to resell their Steam games. The actual likelihood of this case being successful is rather low, as a German consumer group sued Valve (for the 2nd time) and lost last year. Which is interesting, considering reselling software licenses was ruled legal in Europe back in 2012.

The entire issue is fascinating to me though, as it touches on a lot of philosophical, economic, and even political points. There has been this historical dichotomy in gaming since at least the 90s, where we (in the US) have just simply accepted that computer games cannot be resold, but an entire industry can be built around reselling console games. I mean, think about it: why? Why the difference?

It seems we just kinda decided – rather arbitrarily, I might add – that because the PC disk wasn’t necessarily after installing the game, or that it’d be too easy to copy, that we shouldn’t be able to resell it. But what does that actually matter from a rights perspective? “You don’t own the game, you own the license.” Yeah, unless it’s an Xbone copy of Call of Duty, or a music album, or a DVD, in which case it apparently doesn’t matter.

If you have been following this blog for any particular length of time, you might know that I am a stalwart consumer advocate. And thus, I also agree that we should have the right to resell game licenses. None of the counter-arguments are at all compelling, and mostly seem to revolve around “it’s always been that way” or “think of the children game developers!” About the only halfway interesting one was something along these lines:

As a consumer I do care about this, as I can only see digital resales being viable if the game enforces online authentication every time you start up the game. Physical games don’t need this as they use authentication with the physical medium, you need the disc to play.

Some people also brought up the Xbone launch debacle. The problem is… these are non-issues. The Xbone was going to require a constant internet connection, or at least the ability to phone home every 24 hours, which has nothing at all to do with licenses. Requiring a connection for when you purchase or sell a license? Uh… yeah. That’s fine. You’ll presumably need a connection to download or sell the goddamn game in the first place. There is zero reason to require verification after that, other than to be nosy.

As for the impact to game developers? I mean this in the kindest way possible: not my problem. Nor is it yours. It is intellectually dishonest to wring your hands over such a development if you aren’t already very concerned about, say, Steam sales in general. Businesses are abstract, amoral entities that don’t give two shits about you. They are not your friends. If it were up to them, games would cost $2,000 apiece and require you to drive to their headquarters to play them.

Will game companies start doing more micro-transactions/DLC/services bullshit to recapture funds lost by a used game license scenario? Maybe. Then again, that sounds exactly like the same dumb argument that we shouldn’t be paying fast food workers more because it encourages businesses to replace workers with robots. Guess what? They’re going to do it anyway.

Honestly, just like with everything, it’d be best for everyone involved if game companies got ahead of the legislation on this. I don’t see any reason why Value couldn’t implement a system of resale that includes a cut for both Valve and the developer. When I sell a Steam trading card for $0.10, Valve takes two cents. No particular reason why Valve couldn’t take 30% (or even more) of the resale value for facilitating the transaction, and give X amount of that to the developer. If Valve, et al, tries to fight the future on this one, they might be stuck with a defined activation fee at best, while gamers trade licenses on eBay, Craigslist, etc.

Review Bombing

Three years ago, I wrote a post called The Weaponization of QQ in which I discussed “review bombing,” e.g. the practice of people writing negative user reviews out of spite. At the time, one of the particular objects of ire was Mass Effect 3. The user rating has trended upwards from 3.7 to today’s 5.4, but there remains 2518 positive vs 2372 negative reviews. And the vast, vast majority of the latter straight-up include passages such as the following:

I would have given this [Mass Effect 3] just a five, as it’s just that, an average game. However, since it’s clear that Bioware bribed journalists and reviewers to give their game a good review, I decided to counter the inflated reviewer scores and give this game a zero.

Now in the waning days of 2015, I am here to say that the practice is, unfortunately, alive and well.

One of the more topical targets is Fallout 4, which also sits at 5.4, primarily due to “reviews” like this:

Overrated Bethesda is back at it again, and they created another piece of garbage idiots to j!zz over. For starters this isn’t a 0/10, it’s more of a 4/10 but I’m trying to even the score because the fanboys are giving the game a 10/10 without explaining anything.

The above opening continues with some actual criticism of game mechanics and such, which puts it in a shockingly vanishing minority of these sort of reviews. Many are just like this:

Slacktivism at it's finest.

Slacktivism at it’s finest.

It is not entirely clear how many of these people even played the game.

Fallout 4 is not, of course, the only high-profile victim. Even media darlings like GTA 5 are not immune:

Useful.

Useful.

Back in June, I had to scroll through thirty-eight (38!) negative Steam reviews to find even one that contained useful information about the actual game. The rest were simply outrage over one of the Steam sales in which Rockstar apparently increased the price ahead of the sale, via adding in-game currency as the only available bundle, thereby possibly disabling Steam refunds. Which is certainly an entirely valid concern by itself, but not one that really has anything to do with reviewing the game.

The first time I brought this up, I was concerned about what possible effects these user review bombings might have on the direction of developer game design. Now? I’m much more concerned about how devalued this practice has rendered user reviews and, by extension, all our opinions. Perhaps developers have never been overtly concerned with user reviews, so review bombing doesn’t matter. But they mattered a bit for me, when determining if a game might be worth playing. And now that resource is gone, to be replaced with the outrage of the day.

Black… Wedthurfriday

The deals, they have begun. My own shopping list:

  • | | Far Cry 4 – $15 (@Ubisoft); $22.50 Gold Edition (@Amazon)
  • | Dying Light – $20.39 (@Steam)
  • || GTA 5 – $26.99 (@GameBillet) $35.99 (@Steam)
  • |??| Darkest Dungeon – $11.99 (@Steam)
  • |??| Life is Strange (1-5) – $10 (@Square-Enix) $13.39 (@Steam)
  • || Divinity: Original Sin – no sale (?!)
  • |??| The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky – $9.99 (@Steam)
  • |??| Shadow of Mordor GOTY – $14.99 (@BundleStars)

Just to be clear, I’m not buying all these games. The ones with a green checkmark? Yes. Red circles are not good enough of a discount to purchase, and the question marks are, of course, question marks. This entire exercise is kind of superfluous given how I am still trucking through Fallout 4 (70+ hours), but hey, the less of a gap between mainlining high-quality entertainment, the better.

I may or may not update this post with additional deals as they catch my eye.

Edit: Life is Strange is $10 on the Square-Enix website.

Edit2: Apparently Far Cry 4 sale on Ubisoft went away. Amazon has Gold version up though.

Edit3: Ooo… GTA5 down sub-$30.

This is Why I Steam

Saw that Witcher 3 was $27 on GMG. Bought it. Time to download & install.

Ehh... alright.

Ehh… alright.

Oh, right, this is a brave new DRM-free world in which I have to manually download and compile all my shit in 4 GB chunks. Let me get right on that, every 30-45 minutes, for the greater part of an afternoon.

Hey, finally done downloading. Now to just run the setup…

This is fine.

This is fine.

Okay, “Grand Old Games,” you win. I’ll download your Steam Galaxy client to get this sorted out. Oh, there is even an Import folder option, so I won’t have to redownload 33GB of files? That will certainly salvage my evening!

dot dot dot

dot dot dot

So here I sit, five hours later, starting the download from scratch within the Galaxy client and deleting 30+ GB of game files that would have instantly, invisibly worked on Steam ages ago. All to avoid some hypothetical apocalyptic scenario in which one of the most successful videogame companies and digital storefronts of all time shuts down the money-printing machines. Or my Steam account gets closed under mysterious circumstances and never gets sorted out. And, you know, my entire library of titles end up moving to GOG where I could have bought them in some parallel DRM-free world.

Competition is good though, right? Yeah, it’s worked out great when Mass Effect 3 is trapped on Origin and the goddamn DLC never goes on sale because EA doesn’t have the balls to reign in Bioware’s insane adherence to their arcade token currency. If ME3 were on Steam, we’d sure as shit have seen a dozen DLC sales by now. Or how Witcher 3 is requiring this nonsense, bringing up the total number of game launchers on my machine to 3-5, depending on if you count Battle.net and uPlay or not.

Good thing we have all these launchers competing on sales though, right? Or wait, was that 3rd-party game sites selling Steam/GOG/whatever keys? I honestly don’t even remember the last time I bought a game within Steam, or any client. Why would I?

…well, now at 13.9% downloaded. Guess I’m going to have to find something else to do. GG GOG.

Moving and Ownership

All this week I have been in the process of packing up my apartment in preparation for a move in meatspace. It is just a move across town, and there isn’t too much stuff, but the process always feels exhausting. Packing up the essentials feels really easy, but then you get to all the miscellaneous stuff that you hardly ever use, but would likely miss if it were discarded. For example, how many of your pots and pans do you use on a weekly basis? Do I really need a colander, much less two of them?

What really struck me though was when I packed up my PlayStation 2. Both the system and the games didn’t take up all that much space, but I pretty much turned on the system once in the last year, during an abortive attempt to play FFXII. I kept the system around because at some point console designers decided backwards compatibility wasn’t a priority, and why get rid of it if I still have all my classic PS1 gems?

It was at that point that I realized that I didn’t really need these things anymore. In fact, why I had physical media of any type was a hold-over from what feels like ages ago. I am pretty sure that all the PS1 games I own are also on the PlayStation Network, or even on Steam. All the games and systems and movies I own could easily fit on the external HD the size of my hand. I should be finished packing by putting on a backpack, minus that behemoth of a PC I use.

At the same time… it’s hard. First, you have to fight against the feeling of conservation. Why throw anything away? It’s something that still has use, still has value, albeit diminished by the passage of time. Second, there are all the what-if scenarios and general optimism. Maybe I’ll suddenly find myself on a retro-gaming kick, yeah? Playing old games in 640×480 resolution blown up on my wall via 100″ projector screen… that’s the life. And what if I suddenly drop everything and go teach English in Japan? Surely I’ll want to pack… err… uh.

The interesting thing to me about this whole experience is my evolving concept of ownership. Back in the day, I fought hard against “all-digital media” and the notion that nobody ever really owned anything, they just licensed it. I was there jeering at Microsoft along with everyone else during the Xbone E3 reveal. The curbing or removal of the secondary game market was an existential threat in my mind.

Now? In the middle of packing up my life, I feel I’d be better off owning less. I’m not going to play Kagero: Deception 2 again. Or any of the Tenchu games. Even if I felt like I had the time and inclination, it’s tough going back to anything less than 720p at this point. The game discs might have retained some value – I certainly made a few hundred dollars selling my SNES classics a few years ago – but is that value worth the time and eBay headaches? When I finish a Steam game, I delete it and then set the Category to “Finished,” which I keep minimized. I don’t think I have ever gone back and played any Finished games.

Games are largely experiences and experiences only. Some have replay value, sure, and others (like MMOs) can keep you entertained and experiencing them for weeks/months/years to come. The vast majority though? One and done. The more time passes, the more I feel these accumulation of games are no different than old newspapers; the hoarding of which is something less deserving of a nostalgic nod and more of a questioning eyebrow.

I’m going to lug around my box of historical gaming debris this time around – there’s no sense to unpack what I’ve already packed – but the odds are good that this will be the last trip they make in my possession, one way or another. And I am becoming increasingly okay with that.