Home Upcoming Reviews About
Ethos and Riddles talk about video games...
            Can you handle it?
by Ethos

Sunday Soapbox: DRM and Public Relations

Monday, March 8th, 2010

drmAs you may have gathered “This Week is Copy Protected” was more of a gimmick than an actual “theme week” – regardless, I hope it made some sort of statement to… someone. And if it didn’t, maybe a little soapboxing will.

Ubisoft’s anti-piracy measures for the PC version of Assassins’ Creed II have been widely publicized, widely discussed, and widely lambasted. For good reason, too – People don’t like that they have to be connected to the internet to play. People don’t like the idea of losing progress due to an internet crash. And, more than anything, people don’t like the idea of a multi-million dollar corporation penalizing their consumers needlessly, in a desperate scramble to protect their aforementioned millions of dollars.

We’ve seen stupid gimmicks like this before. Remember back in the day when record labels like Sony BMG would release CDs replete with software that was required to play the disc on a PC?

Remember how well that worked?

If you had to choose between paying your hard-earned dollars for a CD that you couldn’t even use properly on your own PC, or downloading that same CD for free, sans limitations, what would you choose?

Using that rhetorical question as a springboard, I’ll go out on a limb here and claim that, if anything, Ubisoft’s new DRM method has made people want to pirate Assassin’s Creed II even more. Hence why it has – supposedly – already been cracked. Ubisoft is denying it, but there are plenty of people on the internet claiming that they’re playing Assassin’s Creed II, in its entirety, on the PC, without being connected to the internet. And the game just came out three days ago.

drm2People like to rebel against authority, particularly when they feel the “authority” in question is being tyrannical. To date, Ubisoft has sold over six million copies of the original Assassin’s Creed. When the console versions of Assassin’s Creed II were released back in November, it sold almost two million copies in a single week. So, when they roll out an intrusive new DRM measure, do they expect to look like anything less than a bunch of rich, paranoid asshats desperate to protect their millions?

You have to understand, this is how pirates justify their piracy. Pirates are convinced that the big rich game companies are only getting richer, and because of that, they’re perfectly justified in downloading games for free. Subconsciously, they view game companies as “enemies” – enemies that have more money than them, and charge too much for their games.

And, frankly, a lot of companies do a good job of fitting that bill. Take a look at, say, Activision. Easy to pick on, yes – but legitimately so.  When their CEO, the infamous Bobby Kotick, admits outright that he’s only interested in games that can be “exploited every year on every platform” and have the potential to become “$100 million dollar franchises” that makes him look like a cash hungry douche. That makes him and his entire company appear to be out-of-touch with everything other than the bottom line. That makes Activision look like the stereotypical big, rich corporation that’s after a gamers’ wallet, and nothing else. Subsequently, that makes people not give a shit when they illegally download Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

And they give even less of a shit when they find out that the game generated over a billion dollars in sales anyway.

DRM3Activision’s one of the more obnoxious examples, but they aren’t the only one. One of my personal pet peeves happens to be everyone’s favorite Nintendo, and I’ll tell you why: they’ve abandoned every customer who made them what they are today. They promise “hardcore,” and they give us Wii Music. They built a gimmick that resonated with non-gamers, (or “suckers” as I like to call them) found out that there’s a virtually limitless supply of these suckers, and left the rest of us to rot. And they don’t give a shit, because god knows they don’t need to. I don’t like giving Nintendo my hard-earned dollars anymore, because a) they don’t care about me, and b) they don’t need it anyway.

At this point, you might be asking: “What, then, Riddles? Should rich companies become less rich?” No, of course not. The issue I’m alluding to here is simply that of public relations. If game companies want people to stop downloading their games, a good first step is to make gamers like them. Instead, like the music industry before them, the game industry seems convinced that the best way to combat piracy is to do the exact opposite: antagonize, inconvenience, and in some cases, criminalize the consumer.

James Burt is an Australian man who uploaded a copy of New Super Mario Bros. Wii to the internet. It was downloaded over 50,000 times. So, Nintendo sued him for $1.5 million dollars. Reportedly, an agreement was reached in which Burt will pay a lesser amount, but the actual amount was not disclosed. And one has to wonder how much “lesser” than $1.5 million they would agree on.

Back in 2008, five different U.K.-based videogame companies announced their intentions to slap lawsuits on 25,000 people. One of these people was a woman named Isabela Barwinska. A company named Topware dragged her to court and forced her to pay them $30,000 for illegally downloading a game called Dream Pinball 3D.

Remember back when Napster was a big deal? Like, such a big deal that everyone’s favorite group of thrashers, Metallica, filed a big stupid lawsuit against them? Remember how bad that entire ordeal made them look? Remember how much respect they lost amongst their fanbase?

Remember when Blender magazine ranked them #17 on their “biggest wussies in rock” list? I actually don’t remember that part; I just read it while doing research for this article and thought it was funny.

drm-is-badThese are mistakes that the game industry must learn from. What do you think Topware gained from their lawsuit? In all likelihood, they did nothing more than bankrupt a hapless pinball fanatic. And, in the process, they made themselves look like assholes. The same can be said for Nintendo and their crucifixion of Mr. Burt. Granted, Ubisoft’s DRM method for Assassin’s Creed II isn’t nearly as cruel or offensive as these lawsuits, but unfortunately, it has the same negative effect on the all-important relationship between game companies and the consumer.

The disturbing thing is that these draconian methods seem to be on the verge of becoming a trend. Take Sony and their ridiculous “entitlement” system for the recently-released SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3 for the PSP. In order to play the game online, you’re required to register your copy online, which requires a special code. Thinking about picking it up used? Well guess what: a new registration code will run you an extra $20. But hey, at least those nasty pirates won’t be able to play online, right?

Again: won’t this only encourage piracy? Imagine yourself as Average Joe Gamer. You don’t have a whole lot of extra cash on hand, so you decide to wait a few months and pick up a used copy of SOCOM 3 when the price drops. You visit your local GameStop and walk up to the desk with a copy of the game, only to be informed by the kind and knowledgeable clerk that, in order to play the game online, you’ll be forced to shell out twenty more dollars.

If I was Average Joe Gamer, I’d probably walk out the store, direct a silent “fuck you” towards Sony, go home, and download a cracked copy. For free. And the same goes for Assassin’s Creed II. I’ll take my copy sans internet-requirement, please. I mean, come on… aren’t games one of the first things we gamers reach for when the internet goes out?

And what about when Ubisoft’s servers go kablooey?

There’s no easy answer to the issue of piracy. I recognize that. And by all means, the game industry should continue to take measures to discourage illegal downloading. But it can’t be at the cost of sacrificing good relations with gamers. Intrusive measures such as those employed by Ubisoft and Sony will, inevitably, accomplish the opposite of their intended effect. People will rebel because of the inconvenience, and people will rebel because they feel like the companies deserve it. And, given the way they’re all acting about it, who knows – maybe they do.

Sunday Soapbox: Accepted Idiocy

Monday, March 1st, 2010

If you all keep up with the best feature on the entire site, Scatter Storming, you’ll know that I just (basically) started and finished the God of War Collection version of God of War 2 over the past few days. I’m not going to revisit my impressions, but know that they were generally quite positive.

god-of-war-collection-funI give that warning because the issues I have with the God of War series rattle me to my core as a gamer. God of War 2 ups the ante with better puzzles, better environments while maintaining its deep combat, but then beats the player over the head with absolutely inane mechanics. I understand that there needs to be a visual response to prove that Kratos is a badass, but holding the R1 button to watch a short treasure chest opening animation sets the mood without the necessity to button-mash just to open most of the doors. Hastening the inevitable arrival of arthritis to my hands really doesn’t make me feel like Kratos is really strong, but just cramps my hand and makes me really annoyed. There isn’t a single thing about the mechanic that adds anything to the experience. It’s not thematically relevant, it doesn’t require skill, it doesn’t require choice, it doesn’t add depth to the story or mood, it’s just flat out annoying as shit. I’m aware that the timing is a factor in some time-based puzzles, but there are better ways – that the game actually employs on occasion – to add an intense finale to such a type of puzzle.

god-of-war-collection-colossusIf that’s not bad enough, the series decides to maintain its absolutely idiotic quick-time event mechanic. It needs to go, no question. Especially because the second game actually has better boss fights that require some thinking to defeat, so there’s more to them than just slashing away on easy mode. That should be the sort of trial and error that large battles require: educated guesses on how to find a clever way to the boss’ weak spot. Definitely NOT missing a quick button press or mash resulting in instant death and a rematch. After using skill and deductive thinking to defeat an enemy, it is counter intuitive to rest the outcome on a semi-randomly generated quick-time event. Darksiders got it right when after a well-fought battle, you were treated to a God of War-esque brutal kill animation, except that it was a reward. You were able to actually watch the kill play out and feel like you earned it, not be too focused on goddamn mother fucking quick time events to appreciate the awesomeness of the sequence.

The strange thing is that God of War seems to be praised for popularizing this “technique”. Chris Roper of IGN’s review of the second game mentions the switch to the circle button instead of R1 for opening doors, but doesn’t cite either as a detriment to the gameplay, and there isn’t even a cautionary mention in the closing comments or subscore summaries. Just because the rest of the game is really well put together does not excuse such asinine mechanics. I will go as far to say that it is the anti-gaming mechanic.

Well that’s it for my first Sunday Soapbox. It’s fun to let my already annoyingly strong opinions loose!

Sunday Soapbox: Riddles’ Visit to Toronto

Sunday, February 21st, 2010
Not home sweet home.

Not home sweet home.

Toronto has been a novel experience in more ways than I thought it would be.

To begin with the obvious: I’ve never been in a city this big before. The closest thing I’ve ever seen (sadly enough) is Nashville, the state capital of Tennessee. I’ve spoken plenty about about Nashville in the past, and I’m about to do it again:  it’s a narrow, crowded, labyrinthine sham of a city. And, much like Tennessee as a whole, there’s really nothing there. At all. Murfreesboro (where I live) may be every bit as pointless as Nashville, but at least it doesn’t try to hide this fact.

Toronto felt authentic from the moment I stepped out of the Pearson airport. Why? Public transportation! A concept that, until now, has been entirely foreign to me. Nashville has a bus system that nobody uses, but aside from that, EVERYONE in Tennessee drives. Everywhere. All the time. That’s part of the reason why Nashville tends to be such a convoluted mess; if people could just leave their cars behind and walk, the city would be that much nicer as a result. However, people in Tennessee are more or less grafted to motor vehicles from birth, so that’s not something that will happen anytime soon.

That isn’t to say that people don’t drive in Toronto, but the city also features a number of entirely competent, convenient public transportation modes. Confession: until last Tuesday, I’d never ridden in a subway. Not sure how I managed to go twenty years before having that experience, but… I did. Regretful, yes, but better late than never. The Subway is most definitely an experience everyone should have at some point in their lives, for more than a few reasons.

But I’m pretty sure the concept of a large city isn’t nearly as foreign to the lot of you as it was to me, so I’ll spare you an in-depth review of something as commonplace as a subway system. I’ll venture a guess that you’re more interested in what it’s like to share a house with everyone’s favorite Ethan “Ethos” Pipher. To answer that question, it’s quite… relaxing? Relaxing, decidedly low-key, and not as creepy as you might imagine. For example, I’ve yet to be raped in my sleep. There are a lot of heterosexual men walking around in their underwear (myself included) but that’s more or less the extent of the creepiness.

Oh, wait. There was the “podcast” we recorded. That was… that was definitely… yeah. I won’t attempt to describe it here. It’ll be on the site soon enough. You can listen then, and despair.

Ahem. That aside, I’ve mostly been doing a lot of glorious nothing while I’ve been here, which is more or less what I expected. Movies, videogames, Scrubs, and more videogames have composed the majority of our daily itinerary, and it’s been great. It’s a novel experience to be around people who are actually as nerdy, messy, lazy and carefree as I tend to be. The absence of passive-aggressive judgment for said habits is nice as well.

(Not to speak ill of all the wonderful people back home, of course.)

A brief aside: Ethan, Pogo and I went to see Shutter Island last night. I won’t talk about it at length, only because to reveal anything about the movie would be a disservice to anyone reading. Suffice to say, it was fantastic – I’ve never worshiped Scorsese, and I’ve always hated DiCaprio – but if they keep making movies like this, that’s going to change. Shutter Island is a must-see. Don’t read about it, and don’t talk to anyone who’s seen it – just go see it yourself.

To use that gushy tangent as a springboard, the theater we saw it in was huge. It had an escalator in it, for Christ’s sake. I’d never seen anything like it.

Which, in a nutshell, sums up my thoughts on Ethan’s penis Toronto – it’s huge, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s been less than a week, but I feel like it fits me more than anywhere else I’ve ever been. I like being able to walk practically everywhere. I like that there are more attractive Asian women here than I thought existed. I like that the tapwater doesn’t taste like sewage. I like that a ride on the subway system can be about as entertaining as your average primetime programming. I like that this city actually has a personality to it that you simply can’t find in a place like Tennessee.

Oh, and I definitely like the fact that I’m considered legal to drink up here.

Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything I don’t like about Toronto. As I sit here in this uncharacteristically large Starbucks, typing this article and basking in the atmosphere of actual “city folk,” I find myself wishing I didn’t have to fly away three days from now. In the back of my mind I’ve always known that in all likelihood, I’d be leaving Tennessee behind at some point in my life. Visiting Toronto has solidified that thought as a fact. Will I end up living happily ever after with Ethos in his magical city? Probably not, sadly, only because moving from one country to another tends to be something of a bitch. But hey, there are plenty of comparable cities in my country as well – albeit with the same ridiculous drinking age of 21.

Sunday Soapbox: BioShock and the Death of the Cutscene

Monday, February 15th, 2010

BioShock1It’s not often that a game like BioShock comes around.

And odd thing to say, seeing that it “came around” some years ago. Right now, the gaming world is busy playing through and sizing up the long-anticipated sequel, BioShock 2. Anyone who’s read my two separate impressions of the game knows that, despite all my prior misgivings, I’m having a blast with it.

Playing BioShock 2 has made me realize what an influential game the first BioShock was. BioShock 2 doesn’t feel as fresh as the first game did, and here’s why: not only have I seen these gameplay mechanics and storytelling conventions in BioShock 1, but I’ve seen them in countless games since. I thought it before, and I’m almost sure of it now: BioShock may, in fact, be the Ocarina of Time of this generation.

Quite a bold statement, you say? Well, here’s another one for you: in this console generation, videogames have finally come unto their own as a legitimate and unique form of storytelling, and BioShock was one of the main proponents of this movement.

BioShock was one of the first games to effectively tell a deep, involving, and well-written story entirely devoid of non-interactive cutscenes. You’re never, ever taken out of the gameplay in BioShock – you’re in control the entire time. The plot is developed through dialog spoken during gameplay, as well as numerous “audio journals” scattered throughout the world.  Even during the game’s most pivotal moments – for example, the fated meeting with Andrew Ryan himself – you never left the world of the game in favor of a cinema.

As a result, BioShock was a very unique, immersive, and seamlessly story-driven experience. It was proof that games could tell stories – not movie scenes interspersed throughout gameplay segments, but games themselves.

Dead SpaceThe number of games that have adopted a similar or identical model of storytelling are numerous and obvious. Dead Space, for example, is almost identical in its storytelling: almost no cutscenes are utilized, all dialog is spoken in-game, and dozens of audio/video logs develop the game’s mysterious backstory. The seamlessness and consistency that comes with such a model allows developers to craft a more immersive, poignant atmosphere – can you imagine if Dead Space utilized traditional cutscenes to tell its story? Much like BioShock, Dead Space thrives on its constant, unsettling atmosphere – and being broken from such an atmosphere for the sake of watching a movie would cause the game as a whole to lose its frightening effectiveness.

It’s not only Dead Space, of course. Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted, Mass Effect 2, and perhaps even Modern Warfare can all be considered part of BioShock’s legacy in some way. In Arkham Asylum, how dull would it have been if we only ever heard Mark Hamill’s rendition of The Joker when he appeared in cutscenes? Listening to his jeering voice over the asylum’s intercoms was one of the most awesome things about that game.

And in Uncharted 2, what if you had simply watched a cutscene of Drake battling his way up that train? It must be noted that the Uncharted series still makes fairly liberal use of the non-interactive cutscene, but it combines them with fantastic sequences of interactive storytelling. (Incidentally, that’s one of the main reasons why Uncharted is so awesome.)

BayonettaThere’s nothing wrong with the traditional cutscene, of course. We’ve been watching them for years, and there’s no reason to entirely do away with them now. Games like Uncharted 2 show that there’s still a place for them in the current gaming landscape, but they are to be used sparingly. Take Bayonetta, as a bad example – well-done as the cutscenes were, many of them felt entirely out-of-place in this day and age. Why, exactly, do I need to watch a movie scene of Bayonetta and Jeanne dueling? Why can’t I just fight her myself?

In the game’s defense, you are indeed given the pleasure of fighting her yourself – but only after sitting through a lengthy and entirely superfluous cutscene.

Videogames are the art of interactivity, and to create an artful interactive experience, it’s crucial to achieve a certain level of immersion. Gameplay segments should never feel like obligatory hoop-jumps that connect non-interactive plot points. Rather, the player should feel that with every passing moment that they play, the story is advancing. The player should feel, quite literally, like they’re playing through a story – not as if they’re advancing through a level in order to get to the story.

The reason BioShock was and is such an amazing experience is because it’s not something that can be fully replicated through any other medium. The same story told through film wouldn’t even be comparable. It thrives on its atmosphere, and atmosphere in a videogame thrives on interactivity. Not every game needs to be BioShock, and not every game needs to tell its story through audio logs; however, games do need to remember that it’s not what a gamer sees, but what a gamer does that defines an experience.