Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Yet Even More About Evil DRM From Hell.

The story so far: Piracy drives PC games makers mad with rage. Ubisoft responds by releasing its games (most notably Assassin's Creed 2) with DRM that requires a constant internet connection. Your connection goes? So does your game. Everyone not a PC games maker gets justifiably enraged. Games ship with this DRM, and entirely predictable disasters occur.

So I stepped into this crapstorm and
wrote an article which got quite a bit of attention. In it, I said that, entirely apart from the practical considerations of this DRM (which I think is a terrible idea), it would work. Which is to say that it could stay unbroken for the first 1-2 months of the game's release, when the title will get most of its sales. The Internet responded by calling me a moron, as it is an issue of religious faith that DRM can be broken instantly.

So let's look back in and see what's been going on. I think it is interesting in several ways.

The DRM has, apparently, 6 weeks after release, been released in a cracked form that is easy for the average laymen to install. Six weeks. In other words, long enough. I've read
two articles to this effect.

(Some people on forums have claimed that a tricky-to-install crack was kicked out 4 weeks after release, but who trusts random people on forums? I have seen nothing in the Gaming Press on the topic. Which says a lot about the Gaming Press. But more on that in a second.)

So, and this point is very significant, I was right and everyone who criticized me was wrong! It's official! I win teh Internet!

(Happy dance.)

Ahem. Anyway.

Also, while crackers will get better at beating this DRM in its current form, it will only get better. I and others have
suggested ways to make it stronger. It's only a matter of time. And that means that this DRM, loathsome as it is, is here to stay. If the game company executives were crazed enough by piracy to implement it, they're crazy enough to keep using it. Insert dire predictions about the future of PC gaming here.

But I want to chip in one more comment here, about the lamentable state of the gaming press. I honestly think that this new DRM is one of the biggest stories on PC Gaming in years. How Ubisoft's system works will determine if PC Gaming has a future, and how much that future will suck. It's an interesting story. So why hasn't anyone at the gaming sites actually investigated, like actual reporters, whether the DRM was cracked or not?

Look at the articles I linked to. One by
the Escapist, long one of the best and most thoughtful sites writing on gaming, and one by cnet, a company with actual reporters and resources. They say that crackers have claimed they've broken this DRM (something others have claimed, only to be proven wrong). Why don't they check? If it's worth reporting on the claim, isn't it worth reporting on what reality actually is? I think this quote from the Escapist article (whose sole source is the cnet article) is very interesting.

I don't know if the claim is legit and I have neither Assassin's Creed 2 nor the patience necessary to dick around with warez sites and cracks in order to find out.

Now, I'm an Indie gaming developer, so calling out members of the gaming press is a very stupid thing to do. So I'm simply going to say to
Andy Chalk, the author of the Escapist piece, that this is a great opportunity to do some investigative reporting and scoop everyone else in the world on a story of some interest. Go get 'em! I'd link to you!

But anyway. Since this sort of DRM seems to work well enough, the people who can make the decisions about whether to use it will feel that their decision was justified. Remember, they see piracy as an existential threat. This is important. They believe that unless they reduce piracy, the PC gaming biz is not worth it. When someone sees something as a life or death decision, they won't care how angry people get on the forums.

So I suspect you'll be seeing a lot more of it in the future. And, when enough of the titles people really want come out with it, most PC gamers will either grit their teeth and put up with it or abandon the platform.

And, as for me? I blame the pirates. Ubisoft's system is obnoxious, but it is legal, and they are in their right to do it. In a democracy, we all get what the worst of us deserve.

God, if I try to write about this again, please strike me down with holy, peace-bringing fire.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How I Saved the Gaming Industry Overnight By Being Awesome

There's a web site out there called RPG Codex. They write about me a lot, sometimes even kindly. There is something they said about me recently that I wanted to respond to. Not to criticize, but to comment on. I think there are things to be learned about Indie gaming and game development in general. (Emphasis mine.)

In ten years, Jeff Vogel - the man behind Spiderweb Games [sic] - has released an impressive eleven games... or the same game eleven different times if you want to be a hater. Through the 2000's Jeff released Avernum 2-6, Geneforge 2-5, Nethergate: Resurrection and Blades of Avernum.

If there's anyone who owes his success to the "just make a sequel" methodology, it is Jeff Vogel. While the professional studios fail left and right, Jeff has somehow or another managed to chip out a tiny niche market for himself. And pretty much only himself. He's nestled into it now and is well and truly quite snug.

Updating little if anything of his games over the past decade, Jeff has simply added story and new locations to explore. He's changed some bits and pieces as he goes of course but the core technology has almost always remained consistently the same. The graphics too. In any other genre this would be a death knell but when it comes to RPGs, it seems the shittier the graphics, the more chances there are of having more interesting role-playing elements.

There's a lot I can say about this, but I'm most interested in the bit about how I have not changed my core technology in ten years. And you know something? They're exactly right. In fact, my "core technology" is so rough and low-budget that I am embarrassed to call it "technology." I still use it year after year. And yet, somehow, during the last decade, my fan base and profits increased dramatically.

If you asked me why I used that same old clunky game engine and why I am still using it, I would give this answer: Because I am really smart and cool and awesome. And if more people emulated me, the game industry would not be near so messed up.

Now, mind you, I don't write the same game again and again. That's like saying an author who wrote ten books wrote the same book each time because they are published using the same paper and ink. Did I write a whole-new story? Then it's a whole new game.

But it's gotten to the point where a company is expected to be ashamed for using the same engine for more than one title and a few DLC packs. The Gold Box games and the Infinity Engine are rare exceptions.

This is such an astonishing waste of resources. When I start a new game, I spend 3-4 months rewriting the worst or most dated part of my engine, and then I take that old (but solid) engine and make the coolest story I can with it. It's a small company. Our resources are desperately limited. Thus, I don't spend time remaking things that already work. If my wolf icon looks good, why make a new wolf icon just for the sake of making a new one? Instead, I focus on the story, the one thing that truly needs to be all new and excellent.

And the big companies, who make AAA games with these amazing awesome big-budget engines? They should re-use more of them! The Dragon Age engine is very cool. Make ten games with it! And not just piddly Dragon Age DLC either. Make games that are cyberpunk, horror, science fiction, fantasy in a new setting. The budgets will be much lower, and that makes it easier to take risks. And use the same dragon model. It looks really sweet. And, once the engine is a drained husk (in, say, five years), then spend a lot of money making a new one.

(And, while I'm dreaming, why not use that engine to make more, cheaper, shorter games. Games short enough that people could actually reach the ends of them. I think part of the reason Portal and Braid are so lauded is that they're short enough for normal people to see the end.)

And if more assets are reused, there will be less work for the artists, coders, and testers to do. They just add to each game the assets and features that specific title needs. Which means that they might be able to spend less time in the crushing permanent crunch mode that burns most developers out young.

Most people will dismiss this idea out of hand, saying that I don't know anything about the realities of the business. And they are probably right. I'm just a dumb, little nobody. But I am running a profitable game company. But Electronic Arts and Activision (the company that owns Blizzard!) are losing bazillions of dollars. Development studios have been closing left and right. Games are crazy expensive to make and burn developers out. Massive layoffs are endemic.

Spiderweb Software, on the other hand, have seen sales drop about 10% during the big recession, but we're still comfortable and quite profitable. And I'm supposed to be ashamed of my business model? Pish!

And, in some ways, the industry is moving slowly in my direction. Once, in the heady early days after Doom came out, every company had hotshot coders who wanted to write their own 3-D engine. These days, companies wisely just license the Unreal engine or whatever. Now it is common to license graphics engines, sound engines, video engines, physics engines. Reusing old resources in new games is already the right strategy. I just take it to the natural extreme. Others should follow my worthy example.

And, in the long run, I don't think gamers will really care if three games use the same dragon model.

So thanks to RPG Codex for the press. I will address their comments about how hardly anyone else does what I do in a future post, because I have something to say about how awesome it is to have competitors.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Great Scrabble Controversy of 2010!

So yesterday the Internetz reported that, in some places, the rules of Scrabble would change to allow proper nouns. Gaming geeks like myself were completely outraged. Many flecks of spittle hit many monitors. Then the dust cleared and it began to appear that we had all been played in a careful bit of PR. Which is all to the good.

But why would it be such a terrible, terrible thing to allow proper nouns in Scrabble? It's a nice exercise in Game Design 101, methinks. Try answering the question for yourself. Go on. I'll wait. I'm sitting right here, chin in my hand, listening to the White Stripes and waiting for you.

OK. Got your answer? Well, here's mine.

One. In games, the ability to determine whether a move is legal or not is kind of a good thing.

When you play Scrabble, you first point at your dictionary and say, "That is the dictionary" and then you had a foolproof way to settle any argument about whether your awesome play of "quitzwij" gets 80 points or not. Sure, your dictionary might suck and not always approve of words you are SURE are correct, but at least you have a final arbiter.

But what if proper nouns are allowed? Well, there is no single authoritative dictionary of proper nouns, and there never will be. Thus, there is, like, no hard and fast way to determine what you are ever allowed to do in the game. This isn't a way to get people to play a game. It's a way to get people to argue.

Sure, each individual house could then come up with a stack of books and have them be the source of all legal proper nouns. An Atlas. An encyclopedia. An almanac. But there are several problems with this. First, that's offloading a lot of design work on the players, which is lazy and sucks. Just saying, "Grab a dictionary" is infinitely more reasonable. And, second, it makes validating a move far more time-consuming. Looking something up in the dictionary? Fast. Looking up one name in in eight books, less so.

Two. There are too many proper nouns, so there are too many legal plays. Just about any short combination of letters with a vowel or two is a name for something SOMEWHERE.

Here's an exercise. Go to Google and just generate a short random word with a vowel or two. Search for that random word and see what you get. For example, I literally slapped the keyboard to generate "Jihnu". I searched for it, and found several people with that name.

Amazing! Before, J, I, H, N, and U would have required thought to play. But the magical alchemy of this rule change have transformed those letters into 15 points of gold! And I didn't even have to, like, know anything.

Having a puzzle where every answer is correct takes a bit of the fun out of doing puzzles.

Three. It completely changes the nature of the game. Maybe you like the newer game, maybe not. But it worked extremely well for decades as a game of strategy and grammar, and objecting to completely reworking it is entirely understandable. At this point, you can accuse me of hating change. Well, once a game has reached a certain status and omnipresence, it shouldn't be changed unless the change is a clear, unarguable, huge improvement. Want a game where you get points for thinking up city names or whatever? Good for you. Invent it.

But, as I said, it looks like this is just a big misunderstanding and a PR bonanza for the Scrabble people. Which is good, because now we can focus on rules to classic games that should be changed.

My favorite? The Income Tax space in Monopoly. That's the one where you pay $200 or 10% of the value of all your holdings. Which means that the space invites you to grind the game entirely to a halt while you haul out an adding machine and add and subtract and carry the two and figure out exactly how much money your position is worth. Who still thinks that adds to the fun?

But my favorite part about the Income Tax space? The rules specifically say that you aren't allowed to figure out how much 10% is before you decide to pay $200 or 10%. Here's a game design tip I'll give you for FREE. If a design element requires you to place rules on what a player is allowed to think, you might want to reconsider it.