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The Xbox One-Eighty


I swear. You go to see Man of Steel and the whole world changes. James Gandolfini, a man who changed the face of television with his portrayal of Tony Soprano passed away and Microsoft reversed all of their crappy DRM and online check-in policies.

What an afternoon.

I have to say, this reversal was pretty damned shocking. When you’re this involved in gaming, it’s easy to think that the rest of the world feels as strongly as you do about things, but in many cases, it’s just the echo chamber effect and the stuff that you vocally despise isn’t that big of a deal to the greater game buying public. Clearly Microsoft felt that the backlash shown at E3 as well as the love shown to Sony over the PS4 was enough to make them change their minds and not wait until the console launched to see how the public reacted. I don’t have access to pre-order information, so it’s possible that pre-orders were down, but I doubt it. I would imagine that pre-order allocations were low enough to let the hardcore Microsoft fans get their hands on a console at launch as well as let Microsoft PR send out many the press release touting how the Xbox One sold out at launch. I don’t have any hard data to back that up, just things I’ve heard here and there about pre-order allocations at various retail stores.

It’s interesting to see what Microsoft felt was necessary to withhold as a result of the DRM changes, things like family sharing and being able to install the game and just play the installed game. Seems to me that both of those things could still exist, and still exist with a mandatory, once a day check-in, only with the new policy, customers could choose to enable the daily check-in so that they could make use of those features. Microsoft seems to be missing the point that choice is the key word here. If people want to have game sharing, fine, let ’em, but they have to have daily check-ins enabled, as does everyone they share with. Ditto for game installation. This binary set of choices seems arbitrary and a little punitive, to be honest, as if they’re saying, “Oh yeah, well then you don’t get these awesome things here that we haven’t really talked about but trust us, they’re awesome.”

Honestly, I’m not sure what to think about game sharing. You’ve got a blog posting making the rounds today from a supposed Microsoft employee working on the Xbox One that states that Family Sharing was just glorified demos. I’ve got other people saying it was full game sharing. If I had to guess, it was somewhere in between with publishers deciding the level of sharing. I mean, if it was full game sharing and it allowed you and nine other people to split the cost of games, why wouldn’t Microsoft be shouting that from the rooftops? I mean, they can’t be that bad at PR, can they?

As expected, once the reversal was announced, out came all of the people who were for these restrictive policies, even if they never mentioned it in the past. Gizmodo thinks that the Xbox One just got “way worse” as if it were a given that Steam type of sales would come to the Xbox One, you know the same way that the current spate of Xbox OnDemand games are so darn inexpensive. Yes, I would like to download JASF, an 18 month old game for thirty bucks. I mean, why wouldn’t I? It’s not like I can find it cheaper anywhere.

It was also cool to see CliffyB head back to Twitter to tell all of us ungrateful children that this why we can’t have nice things and that tacked on multiplayer and tons of microtransactions are all but inevitable now. Look, I’ll admit that there’s no easy answer to this whole thing but as I’ve said before and will continue to say, you are blaming the consumer for a problem they did not invent. If the only way you can add “value” to your game is with tacked on multiplayer then you didn’t do a very good job making your game. Nintendo said it best when they said that the best way to keep people from trading in games is by making a game they don’t want to trade in. Cliffy also brings up Blood Dragon and Minecraft as games brought to us only via digital distribution and he has an excellent point there, except he’s leaving out one very important detail: cost. Minecraft is twenty bucks and has infinite replayability. Blood Dragon is 15 bucks and gives around 12 hours of content, and good content too. How am I supposed to feel good about buying digital games at 60 bucks a pop when it’s clear publishers can charge less? The lack of tacked on multiplayer and microtransactions is supposed to make me feel better? Never mind the notion that microtransctions going away simply because stuff is digital is patently ridiculous.

I do applaud him for wanting to make sure that every game developer gets paid for every sale of their games, but that’s assuming that publishers aren’t screwing with the numbers in some capacity to minimize the amount of royalties paid out. I don’t want to tell the guy what to do with his spare time, but if you really want to make sure developers get their fair share, maybe work towards removing the horrible practice of tying development bonuses and payment structures to arbitrary Metacritic rankings. Or, and here’s an idea, maybe work towards making sure that those in development and QA have some semblance of a personal life and aren’t made to work in sweatshop conditions for eight months of crunch time only to be fired before their game is released. I’m sure every developer laid off in the time between the game is finished and is released need only wait by the mailbox for the royalty checks that the publisher will undoubtedly send them!

I’m glad that Microsoft changed their policies, because the old ones were so anti-consumer that it bordered on abusive. It doesn’t change anything for me though, my PS4 preorder stands. For one, I don’t like the idea of game developers knowing that they have Kinect at their fingertips. I still remember all of the shitty ways that Sixaxis motion control was tacked on to early PS3 games and I don’t want to be working out and playing an Xbox One game and have to start waving my hands all of sudden, nor do I want Kinect’s ability to read my heart rate to result in an unnecessary call to 911 because it thinks I’m having a stroke.

Second, while I think that this move effectively places Sony and Microsoft in their respective corners in regards to DRM with neither willing to go beyond what they have right now for fear the other will pounce on them about it, I don’t like the fact that this stuff can all be turned back on with a simple software patch. This isn’t me being paranoid, this is simply acknowledging that Microsoft has a clear vision of a digital future, and the Xbox One was a part of that. Their vision hasn’t changed, they’re simply reacting to the rejection of that vision. As time goes on, they may start changing things here and there to take smaller steps to the same place rather than this giant leap. As they take those steps, I may decide that I want to go along with them, but I need some time to see how they manage it rather than blindly trusting them.

Finally, as it should be, it’s all about the games. The PS4 has more exclusives that I want to play. The PS4 also allows indies to self publish, which means I can play Transistor on it. Compare that to the stance towards indies that Microsoft has and it’s not a hard choice to make. Guess not all developers deserve to get as much money as they can from their work, just the AAA development studios.

So yeah, I’m glad that Microsoft reversed their policies because it means that if they keep them reversed, once the console gets a price drop or two as well as some exclusives I care about, I can pick one up and go back to being a two console household. It also means that with the PS4 and the Xbox One on relatively equal policy footing, the competition between the two can go back to being about the games. What it doesn’t mean is that I’m going to fall over myself praising their decision. Like I tell my kids when they complete a chore, I’m not going to congratulate you for doing something that you should be doing in the first place. Microsoft should have done this in the first place. Let’s not forget that.

Jumping the Shark Podcast #137

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Bill was born a traveling man and so he’s MIA just one more time this week, as Brandon and I pick up the reigns for Jumping the Shark 137. This week we get back to focusing on games as I prove that even a generally sober guy can drive like a maniac when behind the wheel of Driver: San Francisco. Brandon, meanwhile, has grievances to share with Risen 2. And we continue our addiction in Summoner Wars. Finally, we talk about the uPlay hacking fiasco and why Ubisoft’s insistence on having it install alongside their PC titles is emblematic of a self-defeating industry that’s utter determination to control how we play threatens to instead drive gamers out of the hobby.

iTunes Link
Past Episodes
Edit Type: Skype
(The embedded feed is after the break.)

How DRM Killed My Bioshock

Here at No High Scores we’ve, rather justly, beaten the topic of DRM in games into the ground, and I’d imagine we’ll continue to do so. In most cases, like in talking about Diablo 3, we’re talking in the relative abstract about the way in which stringent online authentication demands can cause real problems for gamers. It’s a real concern, but in the here and now, it’s largely nuisance issues. Sure, Diablo 3 servers go down, but they go back up. You can have DLC headaches with Bioware games, but they generally get cleared up eventually. There’s a lot of frustration, but no impassable roadblocks to speak of. Mostly, we talk about and live in fear of the potential for nightmare scenarios that could permanently block you from playing a game you’ve purchase. This past weekend, I hit on exactly that…

I’ve been dating. This is not a dating post and I don’t intend for it become one, but it’s how the story starts so you’ll just have to grit your teeth and bear with the notion that a member of the opposite sex finds me charming and rogue-like. It’s a mystery that will confound scientists for decades. Anyway. We were kicking back in my living room recently when she inquired about the creepy doll-like object I had hanging from the fireplace. You might have seen him before:

Hat tip to Brandon, by the way. He bought it for me. It’s awesome.

At this point she knows me well enough to know I’m a big geek and a gamer. I don’t talk about games a lot with her, but I have no reservation about launching into an abridged explanation of Bioshock, Big Daddies, and what generally made the game tick. It’s an interesting game and a very discussion-worthy premise. She was rather interested and I noted that I thought the first five minutes of Bioshock are among the very best I’ve seen from video games. I still find that initial descent into Rapture an incredible thing. So I decide to go do a quick game install and let her see it for herself. Why not? If you show a girl Bioshock and she bolts then it was never meant to be. Right, Wayne?


The game install is slow, but I return to the PC a half hour later and see this error message:

Why wasn’t the download server responding? Your guess is as good as mine, but near as I can figure from an hour of Google Kung Fu, the SecuROM installer included with the boxed version of this game can be rather persnickity. The server it’s trying to access is there, the Auto Patcher just can’t get to it. I’ve seen various forum posts indicating potential firewall interference, antivirus software interference, browser settings issues (including it just not liking specific browsers), and more. I tried a few simple solutions (turning off my a/v and firewall), but neither worked. Another potential solution, that I’ll get to, I haven’t tried yet. Try explaining the intricacies and pointlessness of DRM insanity, by the way, to someone who only plays Scrabble and Sudoku on an Android phone. It’s not exactly a selling point on this industry.

The problem, however is not that the game wouldn’t install without phoning home to the server to authenticate. I never even got as far as providing a software key or anything. And the game did install. As soon as it was done installing, however, it immediately phones home for the patch. When it can’t locate the patch server you are faced with two options: Retry or Cancel. Retry works about as well as you’d expect. Cancel immediately removes the install and returns you to the Windows desktop. In other words, every time I try and troubleshoot my way around this, I have to reinstall the game from scratch.

Thanks, 2k!

This, my friends, is the DRM nightmare scenario and we’re going to run into it more and more often in the years ahead. The game installed just fine when I bought it. It even installed just fine a couple of years later when I installed it again. This time, however, I’ve hit a brick wall, that sure, as a more advanced PC user, I might just be able to work around. But what about Joe Average? Is he going to be able to find the forum thread that says to try uninstalling (not just turn off, but uninstall) his anti-virus software? Or that he should leave the error message up, move the install directory to a new location, click Cancel, and then move the folder back?

What’s he going to think? What did my Special Lady Friend, a potential casual gamer in the making, think?

I’ll tell you what they think: Well that’s pretty stupid. Why even bother?

And they’d be right.

This isn’t even some crappy one-off game bought from the bargain bin at Wal Mart. This is for a flagship IP for 2k Games and I can’t so much as install it because of a DRM scheme that demands access to a patch server immediately upon the completion of installation. This is where PC gaming is headed and it’s incredibly not worth it because your average (non-dedicated) gamer is going to do the same thing I did, remove the game disc and toss it back on the shelf (or into the trash). They’re also not going to do something that I will do: Because I am who I am, I’ll end up buying and writing about Bioshock Infinite when it arrives. Will Joe Average buy anything with Bioshock in the title ever again?

I rather doubt it.

The Slippery Slope of Diablo’s DRM

Diablo 3's DRM model means it belongs more to Blizzard or your ISP than you - are you happy with this model for all digital media

There’s been no shortage of pixels expended on Diablo III over the past couple of weeks. Reviews have mostly been very positive, some critics have talked about its worryingly addictive qualities in the face of what ought to seem like relatively weak play and a lot of gamers got very angry over their inability to play right after launch due to server overload. Some people have made light of this and, in fairness, entitlement-rage in gamers is never a pretty sight. But to me, this is indeed an occasion for rage. Serious rage. Just not over entitlement.

The fury unleashed by the initial unavailability of the game was a consequence of its DRM model, which requires players to be online all the time even when playing solo. However, that DRM has other consequences that don’t seem to have been widely considered. It means that if your broadband provider has a blip, as is not uncommon, the game boots you out and you may loose progress. If there’s a broadband outage, you can’t play. If, like me, you’re fond of taking a laptop on road trips or flights to help keep yourself entertained, then Diablo 3 as the source of that entertainment is not an option. The product which you’ve paid good money for is not really yours at all – your access to it hangs on the whim of a number of outside agencies who at any time may fail to live up to the service you expect, or pull the plug entirely. There are advantages too, of course, such as the ease with which you can join multi-player games and cloud storage for your characters, but Blizzard could easily have given you these benefits of always-online as an option, providing a get-out clause for people who want to play on the move. They didn’t.

This is a new and extremely dangerous precedent. Think about it for a moment: by accepting that this is a valid model for the publisher of a video game to thwart pirates, you are effectively condoning similar action by the purveyor of any digital content. You’re telling the people making the next generation of games consoles that you don’t mind if you can only play a game on it – any game at all – when it’s online. How about if you couldn’t watch the DVDs you own without an internet connection? How about if you couldn’t play the MP3s you own, or read the e-books you’ve bought, without an internet connection? Does that suddenly seem so fair and reasonable as it does with a video game?

If you think I’m overstating the issues, then perhaps you should know that copyright people are very happy to leverage child pornography in order to get governments and legislators to do what they want. That’s the kind of people you’re dealing with here, and to think they aren’t looking at the widespread acceptable of the Diablo III DRM model and not twitching with delight, or that that it’s not being stored as ammunition for use in the debate over denying access to used games, is naive. If you’re a Diablo III owner, I suggest you at least stop and think about the wider ramifications of what you’re signing up to before you next play the game, otherwise the unfortunate consequences could be with you sooner than you think.

Jumping the Shark Podcast #124

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This week on Jumping the Shark, the gang gathers round a fire to talk with Dirk Knemeyer of Conquistador Games about his first professionally published board game, Road to Enlightenment. As has been mentioned several times, Bill and Dirk are good friends and Bill’s been involved in the playtesting of this one for some time now, giving it his big honking seal of approval. After that, it’s all Diablo 3 and our preliminary thoughts on the new systems in play – what works, what doesn’t (like the servers), etc. Joins us once again for the show that never ends – well, at least not for an hour or so.

iTunes Link

Past Episodes
Edit Type: Skype
(The embedded feed is after the break.)