Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Game Room

New to Xbox Live Arcade this spring is Game Room, a virtual arcade space where you can play retro arcade and console titles and issue game challenges to your friends.

The games in Game Room are pretty faithful recreations of the originals. You can even select different viewing options, including the original arcade feel that replicates the pronounced curves of the CRTs used in the old machines. Unfortunately, the same can't quite be said of the controls. Games that control with a joystick seem to work just fine, but games with special controls aren't quite as good. The arcade console Tempest, for instance, had a knob that allowed for very quick and precise control over your paddle. That control over both speed and precision is just something that doesn't work quite well when translated to pushing a stick left and right. The old Intellivision console had a numeric keypad on its controllers, and so each keypad button that a game uses is mapped to one of the buttons on the controller. While they made their best attempt at grouping like functions on the controller (i.e. Sub Hunt had keys for ¼, ½, ¾, and full speed, which are all mapped to the four cardinal directions of the D-pad), you still have to take some time memorizing the translation before you can play the game effectively.

On the plus side, this app has some serious potential for sucking some money away from me. On the first day alone, I was eager to buy Tempest and Yar's Revenge. The challenges are a great idea, letting you call out or answer a call to play a certain game based on certain rules (e.g., who can last the longest in Tempest, or who can get the highest score with the default settings in Centipede). The "medals" you can earn in each game are kind of a neat idea, too, as they give you something to shoot for outside of simply playing the game, but they're straightforward enough that you don't have to go out of your way to get them (no having to set up a "custom room" with a second controller plugged in to boost).

However, there are more than a couple negatives. For one, the user interface doesn't feel like it was tested for usability. There is a "showcase arcade" where most of the arcade cabinets are already set up, but to enter it, you have to press 'X' on the main menu. Why not just make this a menu option? The first time I entered the showcase arcade, it was from accidentally hitting X, and it took me a bit of time to figure out, first, where I was; second, how to get out; and third, how to get back in if I wanted to. And, whether in the showcase arcade or your own, they opted to preserve a "realistic" arcade feel by having actual arcade cabinets and, almost always, an Avatar playing at each one. It's all well and good, except as you're browsing the arcade, it's difficult to see what machine you're looking at. The game's title in its original font and design isn't always legible when seen on a virtual cabinet on your TV screen, and the Avatars' large heads tend to block most of the game cabinet's screen and even some of the name placard.

A rather glaring UI issue that I find completely annoying (and really fuels my doubt as to whether it was tested for usability) is the Atari 2600 console screen. The Atari 2600 had a series of switches on the console that you used to select difficulty and game types, and to start or reset the game. To access these switches, you press a button on your controller, and a pop-up window with those switches appears on the screen. However, this pop-up window almost completely covers the game screen, so as you're pushing, for instance, the Game Select switch, you can't see the screen to see what game you've selected. You have to keep closing the window to peek. It borders on unusable.

Another issue I'm running into a lot is connectivity. Very frequently, I get a warning message about not being connected to the Game Room server. Fortunately, most of the time, it's recoverable. When ending a ranked game, I'm warned that failure to connect to the server could result in a lost score, but I have the option of hitting 'A' to try again, and it almost always connects on that second try. (Or, if it fails, it doesn't tell me.) When I view my challenges, I frequently see "Challenges are not available", and I have to back out and re-enter the challenges list before the message goes away and the challenge list is active.

Whether this is related to connectivity or not, I don't know; but I have had my medals and level reset once so far. I had already earned six medals (three each in Tempest and Yar's Revenge), and I had ranked up to Level 2 (and earned an achievement for the trouble). But one night, I thought I'd check my profile, and I noticed that my number of medals had somehow dropped to 3 (only three medals that I had in Yar's Revenge as of the night before — which, if I had thought about it, I might have realized it seemed odd that the game seemed to be "re-awarding" me the medals as I was playing Yar's, because it probably was) and my level was back down to Level 1. I worked on and re-acquired my medals in Tempest (which was no easy task, since I'm not nearly as skilled in Tempest as I am in Yar's), and sure enough, the game made a big deal about awarding my medals and showing me level up to Level 2. (No extra achievement points for doing it twice though.)

And, I shouldn't forget that, on that first night, Game Room wouldn't even let me buy any games. I'd press my button, but nothing would happen — no points deducted from my account, no new game for my arcade. It did seem to resolve itself by the next night, but of course that meant I wasn't purchasing my games on "release day", which meant I didn't get the free "mascot" with each arcade game I bought.

And that's when I can even start the application. Fairly randomly, Game Room gets stuck in the "Loading" screen, where the progress bar stops at about ¼ and never moves forward, until I force an exit to the dashboard and try again.

The concept behind Game Room is a good one, good enough for me to fight through the issues to get to the actual games, relive some old memories, and reclaim my title as a Yar's Revenge champion. But the issues are numerous, enough to make a lot of people I know forgo the experience altogether, which is really a shame.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

EA not learning from Ubisoft's mistakes

It wasn't that long ago that I was writing about Ubisoft's abysmal DRM scheme, that makes their games unplayable if your internet connection isn't perfect (or if their servers go down). Well, it seems EA isn't learning from that mistake, as Command and Conquer 4 suffers from the same problems, where a hiccup in a network connection in a single-player game causes an expulsion of the game (and associated progress loss).

What is amazing to me is how the EA blogger that broke this news then goes on to justify this, by saying it's not fair to call it a "single-player game" since it's constantly uploading stats and downloading unlocks.

Excuse me? It's not fair to call a game that you play by yourself a "single-player game"? Oh, he thinks we should call it an online-only game, "which it basically is". Yeah, it basically is because of the obnoxious DRM installed with the game.

Oh, but wait. EA has a perfectly logical explanation: It's not DRM. See, it's a service. You can install the game on multiple computers, create multiple "Commander Personas" (save files?), play the same save from any computer, and even run the game without the game disc.

Really? Funny, I can do all of that with, say, Diablo 2 (well, with a "nocd" hack to play without the disc). If I want to play my saved game on another computer, I can copy the save files on a USB stick. No internet connection required.

Yes, EA. If you require me to connect to your server to play the game, that is DRM. You do get points for adding features to the service, but the service is still DRM. You can't just redefine it away.

Friday, March 19, 2010

F- you, Fisher!

I got a chance to play the demo for the upcoming Splinter Cell: Conviction on Xbox last night. I've enjoyed the Splinter Cell games in the past, even if it takes me an excessively long time to play them (I think I may have a tendency to "over-stealth"). I've missed out on the multiplayer, but the single player experience is one I've found to be fairly well-done.

The demo is certainly interesting. The game play is really intense. The demo starts out with Sam Fisher interrogating someone in a bathroom for information leading to the people responsible for the murder of his daughter. While Fisher has never exactly been hugs and kisses before, this scene is particularly brutal. See, new to interrogations is the use of the environment to encourage the victim to talk. What that means in this case is, if you're standing near a urinal, Sam will take the guy's head and smash it into the fixture, repeatedly, until the porcelain basin is destroyed. The guy will then give up some information, which is projected on the walls of the room. The effect has a very dramatic, cinematic feel, like a scene out of Natural Born Killers. To get more information, Sam can take his victim over to the bathroom's mirrors and smash his head into them, or use his body to break down the stall doors. It's almost unsettling in its brutality.

The demo then flows into the next mission, where you must infiltrate a warehouse. The transition is, again, very movie-like and very well-done. If it's any indication of the final game, then there is going to be very little in the way of "loading times" as each mission is just going to flow right into the next one. Very nice.

The game has a very easy-to-use cover system, where holding the left trigger lets you take cover behind obstacles, and tapping A lets you move from cover to cover. It's a convenient way to not only discover not only where you can take cover, but get to those places without fighting your controller or the environment. The "tagging" system offers a very easy way to take out enemies quickly (tag up to three enemies, then hit a button and Sam takes them out automatically), but to keep from making the game too easy, you have to "earn" the tags by getting in close and taking people out with a punch.

Objectives are projected onto buildings and scenery. It fits the whole cinematic theme and has the added bonus of guiding you to your destination. In the back of my mind, I'm wondering if there's going to be an instance where the projected text is going to be hard to read because of perspective or contrast with the environment, but it definitely didn't come up in the (very short) demo.

The big downer, though, was what happened when I encountered enemies in the warehouse and started taking them out. Every time I was discovered, or took a bad guy out, the survivors who were now on my case would shout obscenities. And not just any obscenities, either; most common were "F-bombs" of some form or another, followed closely behind by taking the Lord's name in vain. They were loud, punctuated, and it happened every time. And I could find no in-game option to censor the language.

Call me a "prude" if you wish, but this is not something I want to hear when I'm playing a game for my own entertainment. (At least, when I'm playing online, if another person takes their language over the top, I have the option of muting that player.) I don't like it; my wife, who is nearly always sitting in the family room reading while I'm playing, doesn't want to hear it; and we don't want our toddler, who lays around the room while I'm playing until he finally falls asleep, to be exposed to it in our house. It's one of the main reasons I stayed away from Gears of War, it's one of the reasons I shunned Rainbow Six: Vegas, and it's why I'm going to avoid Splinter Cell: Conviction this year.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Ubisoft proves piracy pays

Computer software publishers have a problem. Ideally, they want to get as many people as possible to be able to purchase, use, and enjoy their software. But, because a computer program is a set of digital instructions that can theoretically be copied indefinitely, they want to ensure that the only people who are using said software are those who have paid for a legitimate copy and not just copied the bits.

As time and technology have moved on, companies have tried more and more aggressive methods of protecting their product to try and prevent people from using an unpaid copy of their programs; and those who circumvent those methods, the "pirates", have become more adept at defeating those methods and distributing the fruits of their labors, i.e., free, unprotected versions of the software.

Where I've noticed it a lot lately, since it's my hobby, is in the realm of videogames. EA had been taking a lot of bad press for implementing what were seen at the time as tight restrictions, limiting the number of installations and requiring their games to re-authenticate with an online server every few days before allowing any play. Other companies have had their own DRM schemes that people seem to alternately complain about and accept as the cost of doing business, whether it's the "stealth" install of device drivers like SecuROM that try to authenticate your disc or the requirement of logging in to an online-enabled account.

The current bad boy of DRM, though, is Ubisoft, who has one-upped the DRM policy on their newest game Assassin's Creed 2 by having the game require authentication with their servers not just on installation, nor periodically at launch, but continuously during game play. If the game at any time loses its connection to the server, it immediately kicks the player back to the main menu, causing the player to lose any in-game progress since their last save (a problem exacerbated by the fact that the game apparently doesn't allow you to save at any point, just at designated checkpoints).

Even the most cursory analysis reveals several fatal flaws in this approach. First, requiring an internet connection at all means taking this game traveling (or attempting to use in a home without an "always-on" broadband connection) is pretty much out. Second, home internet services are not 100% stable. I've had my Comcast cable internet connection drop during an online gaming session within the past month — briefly, but long enough to kick me out of the Xbox 360 gaming session I was playing at the time. Third, users on a wireless connection are even more prone to interference that can disrupt their connection. Again, I've had my wireless router hiccup more than once in recent memory. My PC doesn't usually take too long to reconnect before I'm surfing off to the next web page, but if I happen to be streaming a video at the time, then restarting is typical. That's an extremely minor annoyance in web surfing; but if it meant losing progress in a challenging videogame where I've struggled to reach the next checkpoint? That goes way beyond "annoying" and well into "return game for refund" territory.

That alone should cause people to hold a tea party in protest. (Keep in mind that this is a single player game, something one would rather expect to play offline.) But those issues only address the customer's side of the connection.

This weekend, Ubisoft's DRM servers went down, which meant, no matter how stable your own internet connection was, the game was completely unplayable. No one who owned the game was able to actually play it, because the game couldn't contact Ubisoft's incommunicado servers.

Except, of course, if you pirated it. See, the DRM, much like any other DRM in existence, was cracked within days of the game's release. (Most of the time, it's just a question of whether the crack is going to be released after or before the game itself.) And those who pirated the game were playing a version that did not require contact with Ubisoft, and therefore were completely unaffected by this fiasco. (More or less; the crack is still in progress in that a user can launch a game without the server, but there are still issues when the game attempts to check during play. It appears to be more of an issue with Assassin's Creed 2 than with Silent Hunter 5, which has a similar scheme but "phones home" less frequently.)

The problem, which has been noted time and time again and is summed up nicely in this recent Penny Arcade comic, is that companies like EA and Ubisoft attempt to combat piracy by implementing stronger measures to force the software to only work when they want it to. However, these stronger measures not only completely fail to deter pirates (who often have a cracked version of the same software within the same week of the product's retail release), but they also drive potential paying customers away — frustrated by these "piracy protection" measures that effectively prevent them from playing the game they legally purchased, they will either not buy the software, or they will seek out the pirated versions themselves, which offer a superior product by not failing to work when some irrelevant criteria check fails to pass. The companies take this increase in piracy as a call to action to combat it with even stronger DRM measures, pushing more people to piracy to avoid them.

And sadly, it's the law-abiding, paying customers that lose.