EA “dumps DRM” for The Sims 3


Once again it seems that I’m reporting on a story only once it’s become old hat, but in case you missed the article, Electronic Arts, the champion of draconian digital rights management, have announced that it will not be enforcing mandatory online activation and limited installations for its upcoming juggernaut, The Sims 3.

It may not sound like much, but in my opinion this is huge. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve seen the back of over-intrusive DRM on EA products for good, but I take the fact that the company is omitting it from what will surely be their biggest PC release of the year as a tacit admission that such anti-consumer strategies don’t work. The DRM-infected Spore did, after all, notoriously become the most pirated game of all time, with cracked copies appearing on torrent sites before it had even hit store shelves, and the overall effect was simply to infuriate customers, leading to online smear campaigns, 1-star rating tag-teaming on Amazon and organised boycotts of EA products. So, if you contributed to any of these activities, wrote EA an angry letter or email, or did anything to publicly voice your displeasure at their noxious behaviour, give yourself a pat on the back, because this is a significant victory, and you made it possible.

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

Posted: Thursday, April 09, 2009 at 7:55 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web

Red Alert 3 expands

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

This might be a bit premature from my point of view, given that I haven’t actually completed Red Alert 3 yet, but the game is to receive an expansion set in March. Straight from the horse’s mouth a CommandAndConquer.com:

The third iteration of the Command & Conquer™ franchise’s beloved Red Alert™ series is returning with Command & Conquer™ Red Alert™ 3: Uprising exclusively for the PC. An epic single-player campaign expansion, the standalone title catapults players deeper into the Red Alert universe, giving them more of the action-packed gameplay they have been clamoring for, while offering a gauntlet of new and compelling challenges with the new Commander’s Challenge mode. Command & Conquer Red Alert 3: Uprising will be available for digital download this March.

“Uprising is a game that in many ways reflects the feedback we have gotten from the Command & Conquer community,” said Amer Ajami, Senior Producer at EA Los Angeles. “We’re giving gamers more of what they want - more of the fast, fluid and fun gameplay, more of the story we began to tell in Red Alert 3 and more cutscenes featuring top-notch Hollywood talent. At the same time, we’re excited we’re going to be able to bring new things to the mix, including new units and the Commander’s Challenge, which is a great way for players to hone their skills and get deeper into the combat.”

Command & Conquer Red Alert 3: Uprising takes players into the aftermath of the epic battles in Red Alert 3, with the Soviets still reeling from a crushing defeat, the Empire of the Rising Sun desperately trying to regain both honor and identity and the seemingly victorious Allies finding themselves in the midst of corruption and deceit within their own ranks. In addition to four mini-campaigns, one for each faction and one bonus campaign centered on the origins of the Empire of the Rising Sun’s commando Yuriko, Command & Conquer Red Alert 3: Uprising will also introduce the new Commander’s Challenge, enabling the players to test their skills against a set of nine commanders from different territories and difficulty levels in 50 unique challenges with their own special rules and unique conditions.

In true Command & Conquer fashion, top Hollywood talent will be delivering the gripping story in full HD live-action cinematics. Fan favorites Gemma Atkinson and Ivana Milicevic will make their stunning return to the high ranks of the Allied and Soviet leaderships and will be joined by an all new set of stars, who will be announced soon.

Command & Conquer Red Alert 3: Uprising is a standalone game and does not require Command & Conquer Red Alert 3 to play. This product has not yet been rated by the ESRB, PEGI or USK. For more information about Red Alert 3, please stay tuned right here at RedAlert3.com.

Unfortunately, as is confirmed here, this will be a single player update only - a disappointment given that the expansion to Command & Conquer 3, Kane’s Wrath, covered both the single and multiplayer sides of the coin. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, though: actually, provided we get plenty more cheese-laden FMV sequences in the single player mode, I’ll be pretty happy. What potentially is a deal-breaker that, so far, it has only been announced as a “digital download” - i.e., you can’t pick up a boxed copy. That, to me, seems pretty shoddy. I know we’re getting less and less for our money as it is (anyone remember when PC games came in big chunky boxes with nice thick manuals and, if you were really lucky, a notepad? Nowadays we’re lucky if we get a DVD case an a 10-page booklet printed on toner-saving mode), but getting nothing but a link to a downloadable file for your money seems pretty rubbish. Hey, the only thing to separate it from a pirate copy would be the fact that pirate copies are free (and illegal).

Ah, we’ll see. As it is, it just seems like another way of EA ripping off their customers… which, hot on the heels of the DRM fiasco, is exactly the kind of negative publicity they don’t need, or so I would have thought.

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 5:27 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web

Operation red menace

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Attention, comrades! Who can withstand the charms of Tim Curry hamming it up with his most overdone Rrrrrrussian accent?

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Ivana Miličević certainly can’t, which is presumably why she can’t keep a straight face during this mission briefing FMV. Call me crazy, but when I can tell people have had a lot of fun making something, I definitely find myself more likely to enjoy the end product. Silly, intentionally hammy video sequences like these are the perfect antidote to the sort of overblown, pompous imitations of Hollywood that we’re increasingly finding in computer games. The fact that the editor had enough of a sense of humour to leave the aforementioned flub in just seals the deal. You can watch the FMV in question on YouTube at https://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=16Mpc3ux4Wk - skip ahead to 4:25. (Miličević, by the way, appeared in Casino Royale as Mads Mikkelsen’s girlfriend - the one who did very little other than to almost have her arm lopped off. She also played Riley Finn’s annoying wife in that dreadful Season 6 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, As You Were, the only redeeming feature of which was that at least it wasn’t Hell’s Bells, which followed immediately after it. I’m still undecided as to whether her role here constitutes a step up or a step down from these. At least here, she and Tim Curry have fun trying to outdo each other in the “ridiculous accent” stakes.)

Yes, I now own a copy of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. As I mentioned in a previous post, EA have relented somewhat and released a patch for the game, allowing users to deactivate their copies and no longer be limited to the idiotic “five installs only” cut-off. Is the situation ideal? No, it absolutely isn’t. You still have to connect to EA’s server to activate your copy, just so you can play it at all (and that includes the single player mode), which is all well and good until EA either goes down the can or decides to stop maintaining the activation server (whichever happens first), and, in the event of a system crash, preventing you from manually disabling your copy, that means one of your five activations will be lost to the ages. Still, I can’t deny that this is a step in the right direction, and it gives me confidence that EA may, at least, have come round to the fact that their moronic rights management implementation may have done them considerably more harm than good. (Similar deauthorisation tools have also been released for Bioshock and Spore, the latter being the game that kicked off the public backlash against this whole sorry affair. Of course, whether similar tools will be released for Mass Effect, Crysis Warhead et al remains to be seen. Frankly, I’m not holding my breath.)

Still, at least I am now able to enjoy a very fun RTS punctuated by FMV sequences that are every bit as entertaining as the game itself. EA have created a great game here; it’s just a shame they had to turn so many potential customers away from it with their needless DRM.

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2009 at 1:01 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | DRM | Games | TV | Technology

Prince of Persia (2008) initial impressions

Prince of Persia

I picked up a copy of Prince of Persia for PC yesterday - the 2008 reboot, that is, not the original 1989 platformer of the same name. (Incidentally, I’m not what you’d call a fan of this trend of relaunching long-running game series and giving the new edition exactly the same title as the original. It just seems unnecessarily confusing and means you always have to clarify which one you’re referring to. Anyway, I digress.) My primary motivation in getting a hold of this game was its very pretty cel-shaded graphics, which, in terms of colours and overall stylisation, are not unlike those found in Eternal Sonata for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. That said, I don’t think anything else quite like it exists on the PC, so for me it’s pretty unique.

Prince of Persia (2008)

As has been the case with all the Prince of Persia games since Prince of Persia 3D in 1999, the gameplay borrows heavily from the Tomb Raider series, played from a third-person perspective and with an emphasis on climbing, acrobatics and puzzle-solving, albeit with an Arabian Nights twist. This time round, the central character of the Prince has been redone from the ground up, and, as is perhaps fitting for a game released in 2008, he’s a wise-ass punk who most sane people would dearly love to kick in the teeth. It could be worse, though: compared to what’s happened to Sonic the Hedgehog of late (a character who arguably always had an unhealthy amount of ‘tude, but which seems to have reached epidemic proportions in the last few years), he’s fairly bearable. And at least, this time, he’s teamed up with a female companion, Elika, who isn’t just a damsel in distress. Rather than simply being a sidekick, she holds her own and actually turns out to be pretty useful.

Prince of Persia (2008)

By “turns out to be pretty useful”, I should perhaps have said “makes the game incredibly easy”. There’s a lot of hand-holding in this instalment: Elika not only shows you exactly which path you have to take through each area (if you ask her), she also helps you fight and prevents you from ever dying by swooping down and pulling you to safety if you happen to mistime a jump. Given that the previous reboot of the franchise, The Sands of Time, was a little too obtuse for my tastes, I’m actually quite happy to have Elika along for the ride, but so far, the game certainly hasn’t offered anything approaching a challenge and, if the reviews are to be believed, this stays the same right up to the end. I’m not sure I’d call this a “casual game” in the most obnoxious sense of the word - in other words, something extremely simplistic designed for every man and his grandmother to play without any attempt to cater to core gamers - but if you’re looking for something that taxes the old grey matter, I suspect this isn’t it. Good thing it looks and sounds absolutely beautiful, so much so that it’s possible for me to overlook the relative lack of substance… kind of like My Blueberry Nights, really.

Oh, and it is indeed 100% DRM-free. There isn’t even a CD key, nor does the game check that the disc is in the drive before playing. This seems to be a change of policy for publisher UbiSoft, and I for one applaud them for not assuming that their customers are all potential pirates. I just hope it’s an intentional decision and not simply an oversight.

Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 7:51 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DRM | Games | Technology

Doing the right thing


I was informed today (thanks, Avanze) that the latest patch for Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 adds an option to deactivate your install of the game, freeing up the activation to allow you to install it on another system. In case you weren’t already aware of the scandal surrounding the game’s draconian DRM implementation, to briefly explain: you can activate the game on up to five different systems, connecting to EA’s server in order to authenticate your copy every time you do so. Until the most recent patch, this then meant that, once you’d used up your five shots, you’d have to call EA’s pay-by-the-minute help line and plead to be allowed to install the game again (a process that, as you can no doubt imagine, appears to be considerably less than straightforward).

I’m not going to call this new solution perfect, because it doesn’t explain what you do in the event of a system crash (presumably you can’t de-authorise an installation if your hard drive has been wiped), and it also adds the hassle of having to remember to de-authorise your copy before formatting your hard drive or upgrading your system. Additionally, I’m still not happy at all about having to “talk” directly to EA’s servers in order to activate my copy. What happens if, ten years from now, I decide I want to install the game again and I find out that they’ve taken the activation servers offline? However, it’s definitely a step in the right direction, so much so that I’m now considering picking up a copy of the game - something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now. Watch this space.

In the meantime, I’m also very excited to check out the latest revamp of the venerable Prince of Persia series, unnecessarily confusingly named Prince of Persia. A post by “UbiRazz”, a representative of the game’s publisher, UbiSoft, contains the assertion that this title will ship without any DRM - which is somewhat surprising as it is out of line with the company’s current policy regarding copy protection on their PC releases. Still, the game looks so damn cool that I’ve decided to take the representative at his/her word and pick up a copy.

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

Posted: Sunday, December 07, 2008 at 6:32 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web

Warner has Warner’d The Dark Knight


Screen captures have appeared for Warner’s upcoming release of what is surely its flagship title for this winter, The Dark Knight, and it looks like all is not rosy in Gotham City. Not that is ever was in Christopher Nolan’s plodding, po-faced and frankly yawn-worthy “why-so-serious” bore-fest to begin with, but it shouldn’t have looked like this. You want edge enhancement? It’s there in abundance. Smeared facial textures, you say? Got those too.

It becomes even more disheartening when you look at the comparison posted at the AV Science Forum, which places one of the DVD Beaver shots head to head with a frame from the same shot as seen in one of the downloadable h.264 trailers that accompanied the film’s theatrical release. Here is pure, unadulterated proof of image quality being degraded for a high definition home video release. You might find the notion of a freely downloadable trailer looking better than an actual Blu-ray disc release laughable, but I assure you, it’s anything but.

It’s also nothing new: this has been going on for a considerable amount of time now. I believe the first time I became aware of this practice was when I noticed how much worse The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’s DVD transfer looked than that of the trailer for the same film that was hidden on the Rush Hour 2 DVD. I noticed similar problems with The Dark Knight’s predecessor, Batman Begins: the high definition Windows Media trailer I downloaded from Microsoft’s web site looked excellent, but the eventual HD DVD release looked blurry and anaemic. Unfortunately, the DRM on the Windows Media trailer meant that, after a certain date, I was no longer allowed to play it (don’t you love DRM?), preventing me from doing a proper comparison, but luckily smart people have captured the evidence of The Dark Knight’s insidious mangling for all to see. Of course, the usual crowd of “it looks fine on my telly” and “direct screen captures aren’t accurate” ninnies are poo-pooing the evidence, but that’s nothing new. There were people who claimed (and still claim) that the HD DVD of Traffic wasn’t a standard definition upconvert, for crying out loud!

My plea to the studios is this: stop it. Just stop it. Please. You can’t fool us. We’re not stupid. We know you’re doing it. Now kindly get back to delivering superb discs that take full advantage of 1920x1080 resolution instead of diluted mush like this. Whether this was done at the DI or mastering stage, find out who is doing this, rap them soundly on the knuckles and bring in technicians who know what they’re doing. Thank you.

Posted: Monday, November 24, 2008 at 5:14 PM | Comments: 26 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DRM | DVD | HD DVD | Technology | Web

A rumble in the jungle

Tomb Raider: Underworld

Eidos Interactive have released a demo for the PC version of Tomb Raider: Underworld, the latest instalment in the long-running adventure franchise, due out tomorrow in North America and on November 21st throughout Europe. (Actually, the demo has been available since October 31st, but I only discovered it today.)

Anyway, the demo contains what I suspect is the first level of the full game, and, based on the 20-25 minutes it took me to complete it, Eidos have another winner on their hands, once against proving that they made the right decision in yanking development duties away from Core Design and handing them over to Crystal Dynamics. The most impressive feat, in my eyes, is that for once all the promised improvements seem to have been delivered. In the past, when Core had the development rights, the creative team would continually crow about how whichever instalment was currently in development would be “back to the drawing board”, “redone from scratch” and so on, but in the end they’d simply serve up last year’s game with a few half-hearted tweaks implemented, much like a reheated carry-out and considerably less tasty. With Tomb Raider: Legend, however, Crystal Dynamics started from scratch, putting together a compelling reboot of the series that succeeded in washing away the stench of the later Core years. With Tomb Raider: Anniversary, they came through again, building on the solid foundation of the original 1996 Tomb Raider to provide an updated, slicker and more challenging iteration of the game. Judging by the Underworld demo, this successful streak looks set to continue.

Tomb Raider: Underworld

The big focus this time round appears to be on two things: realism and player choice. While I tend to feel that making games as hyper-realistic as possible is overrated and an exercise in futility, I can’t deny that it’s appropriate to the Tomb Raider series, which has always been about the player infiltrating intricately detailed environments and relying on his or her powers of observation to solve complex puzzles. In that respect, a more realistic world helps make the experience more immersive, and I have to say that the new Lara Croft, motion captured from Olympic gymnast Heidi Moneymaker, is nothing like as clunky as I initially feared. Motion capture, particularly in computer games, where responsive controls and accurate movement are paramount, often strikes me as bland and detrimental to playability, but I have no complaints here. Ultimately, I suspect I’ll always prefer the more stylised nature of the key-frame animation used on the likes of the Guild Wars and Warcraft franchises (which I know have next to nothing in common, gameplay-wise, with Tomb Raider, but still…), but I can appreciate a nicely-done exercise in realism when I see one. Oh, and she’s still voiced by the delectable Keeley Hawes.

The other big thing, player choice, is realised in the fact that the game world is now a lot more open-ended, meaning that there is often more than one route to the end of a level, or more than one way to complete a given puzzle. This goes hand in hand with the increased degree of realism, because the more organic visuals mean that it’s no longer quite so obvious that you have to jump from block A to block B in order to progress. The developers seem to want to hammer this home right from the word go, starting you aboard a yacht in the middle of the water and leaving the you to decide in which direction to head. (Actually, at this early stage it’s fairly obvious that you need to head for the nearest stretch of dry land, but it’s a world away from plonking you at one end of a corridor and asking you to run to the other end of it.) Incidentally, I’m extremely impressed that, despite the massive increase in the quality of the graphics over Legend (which now looks decidedly quaint), the performance actually appears to have improved rather than worsened.

Tomb Raider: Underworld

It’s hard to gauge the overall quality of the game based on this brief demo, but what I’ve seen has certainly whet my appetite for more. This is definitely a title I’ll be adding to my list for Father Christmas. Oh, and as a plus, it doesn’t appear to have been infected with any objectionable DRM schemes: from what I can gather, it does use SecuROM, but, like Legend and Anniversary before it, only to check that an original disc rather than a copy is in the drive. In other words, no limited installations or mandatory online activations farrago. I don’t know about you, but personally I can live with having to put the disc in the drive when I play the game.

Posted: Monday, November 17, 2008 at 4:46 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Animation | DRM | Games | Technology | Web

Well, at least I didn’t have to buy an iPod

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King soundtrack

Earlier this month, I wrote an article on game music, listing my ten favourite pieces. One of these was the backing music to the introductory cinematic for the latest expansion set to Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft juggernaut, Wrath of the Lich King. The game itself was released in both vanilla and Collector’s Edition variants on November 13th, the latter containing a soundtrack CD showcasing 21 tracks from the game, composed by Russell Brower, Derek Duke and long-time Blizzard composer Glenn Stafford, who seems to have made a return to the game universe that gave him his big break after a brief venture with Sony writing music for the rival Everquest franchise. When I wrote the aforementioned article, I lamented the fact that there was no way to listen to the cinematic’s music without voice-over narration and sound effects in the way. It seems my pleas were heard, as Track 3 of the CD is that very piece of music in isolated form.

Given my thoughts on World of Warcraft, buying this release (and the earlier The Burning Crusade expansion, which is also required in order to play), in either its standard or Collector’s Edition guise, was out of the question. However, in a gesture that seems almost like tossing a bone to people like me who don’t like the game but love the music, Blizzard have released the soundtrack to download via their iTunes store for the price of $9.99 (or £7.99 if you’re in the UK). It does mean installing iTunes, a program I’ve never been particularly crazy about, but on the plus side it comes in Apple’s iTunes Plus format, which offers AAC encodes of the tracks at a reasonable bit rate of 256 Kbps and is completely DRM-free, meaning that you can easily re-encode them to a format of your choice and use them in your preferred music player. Okay, so the quality won’t be as good as proper uncompressed RedBook audio, but given the cost of the Collector’s Edition, and the speed with which copies of it have been snatched up, it’s a reasonable sacrifice to make in order to get what is, in my opinion, the more desirable component of that release - the music.

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2008 at 9:41 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Music | Technology | Web

Pleasure doing business


If you happen to have purchased or are contemplating purchasing any of EA’s recent PC games which come with limited activations digital rights management, you might consider reading this post by one unfortunate gamer who ended up with all three of his activations used up on his copy of Spore and attempted to contact EA’s customer support in order to resolve this problem.

Total Time I’ve Wasted: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Total Time I’ve Waited: 2 days, 11 hours, 30 minutes.
Issue Status: Finally Resolved.
Total number of days to get this issue resolved?: October 2, 2008 - October 7, 2008: 5 Days

PS. I note that the backlash against Red Alert 3’s DRM has kicked off with a vengeance on both Amazon’s US and UK sites. So far, the UK protesters have got a leg up over their American counterparts by getting the overall rating down to 1.5/5, while the US version is still hanging in there at 2/5. If I was in any way patriotic (which I’m absolutely not), I’d be shouting “Go Team GB!” (or something equally jingoistic).

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

Posted: Saturday, November 01, 2008 at 3:21 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web

Yo ho, yo ho…


I’m reliably informed that SecuROM-free copies of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 are, as of yesterday evening, widely available to download from torrent sites. Obviously, I’m not going to provide you with links to them (because that would be highly unethical, unlike EA’s treatment of its customers, haw haw haw), but I can’t imagine you’ll find them particularly hard to locate if you feel so inclined. I did, however, drop by one of the more notorious sites to check out some of the comments, and it’s quite amusing (and strangely heart-warming) to see all the first-time pirates asking how torrents work, how to burn disc images and mount virtual drives, and so on. If nothing else, one has to congratulate EA for encouraging so many people to develop this new interest.

So, the breaking of EA’s heavy-handed DRM mechanism occurred within about a day of the game’s release. Not as impressive as Spore, which was actually available to download sans SecuROM before its official release date, but not too shabby at all. So, apparently this sort of DRM is necessary in order to combat piracy, eh? Please forgive me for laughing uncontrollably from the sidelines as EA’s drones once again trip over their own tongues as they try desperately to convince their customers that, really, they’re getting a good deal out of this.

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

Update, October 30th, 2008 11:20 PM: If, like me, all this DRM stuff is getting you down, this might help lighten your mood.

Posted: Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 11:54 AM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web

An email I sent to EA today

Dear Electronic Arts Inc.,

Today, the latest game in your Command & Conquer franchise, Red Alert 3, and, until a few weeks ago, I was greatly looking forward to purchasing a copy. I participated in the open beta earlier this year, and what I saw of it indicated that you had a winner on your hands.

Unfortunately, I am writing to you today to inform you that I have decided not to purchase your game, the reason being that I have discovered that it is infected with a particularly obnoxious form of SecuROM content protection, which limits the user to installing the game a mere five times before having to either purchase a new copy or contact EA customer support via a pay-by-the-minute help line to ask for my activations to be extended (a right which, I am informed, EA will only grant at its own discretion).

To me, this situation is completely unacceptable. I am a PC gamer and have been for nearly two decades, and I am used to transporting my games from operating system to operating system, and from computer to computer, safe in the knowledge that, no matter how old the game is and no matter how many times I have installed it in the past, I will be able to do so again with a minimum of hassle. As a counterpoint, your greatest rival in the real-time strategy domain, Blizzard Entertainment, has explicitly stated that it will not be using SecuROM or any equivalent limited activations enforcement (https://blog.wired.com/games/2008/10/qa-blizzards-ex.html). Consider this, therefore, a sale lost of Red Alert 3 and a sale gained for Starcraft II. In point of fact, I am actually playing the original ten-year-old Starcraft at this very moment, a feat made possible by the fact that the complete lack of DRM has allowed me to install the game on at least half a dozen different computers and close to two dozen different installations of Windows over the years. More than a decade after its original release, Starcraft is still played daily by tens of thousands of gamers. Ask yourselves if Red Alert 3 and its draconian DRM can look forward to a similarly rosy future.

Obviously, I understand your need to protect your revenue, and I understand that your shareholders are probably paranoid about piracy, but when you are paying more attention to those that have pirated your software then those that have actually paid for it, I can only conclude that your sense of priority has become decidedly skewed. Your recent release of Spore attracted a considerable amount of negative press for its limited activations (https://www.amazon.com/review/product/B000FKBCX4/ref=cm_cr_pr_helpful?_encoding=UTF8&showViewpoints=0), and yet a DRM-free version of the game was available to download from torrent sites before it was even released on store shelves, proving beyond any doubt that such measures do not prevent piracy. If anything, they encourage it, given the number of Internet posters who have stated an intention to obtain the game illegally, citing the limited activations as their main reason for doing so. Spore was recently labelled the most pirated game ever (https://www.forbes.com/2008/09/12/spore-drm-piracy-tech-security-cx_ag_mji_0912spore.html). Congratulations on achieving this impressive record.

I have $50 sitting next to me on my desk. It’s yours if you want it. However, I can’t, in good conscience, hand it over until you remove the crippling and morally repugnant DRM with which you have infused your software.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Mackenzie
(A former customer)

Note: the image above was created by Alfredo Daniel Rezinovsky and is available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5 Argentina License.

Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 10:15 AM | Comments: 9 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Web

Starcraft II does the splits

Starcraft 2

Blizzard Entertainment’s annual BlizzCon convention in Anaheim, California has just come to an end. In addition to giving visitors an opportunity to attend Q&A sessions with the developers and play pre-release builds of upcoming games, this event is often the venue for the announcement of new games and a source for new information about already-announced titles. This year, with Diablo III having been unveiled a scant few months ago at the WWI in Paris, it was of no particular surprise that, rather than revealing a new game, the focus was on delivering additional information about the company’s three already-announced works-in-progress: World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, Diablo III and Starcraft II.

The biggest bombshell was certainly dropped for the latter. We already knew that Blizzard’s plans for Starcraft II’s single player campaign were ambitious, but, at BlizzCon, it was revealed that they were so ambitious that the development team came to the conclusion that they couldn’t possibly hope to complete their content for each of the game’s three races and still release the game in a timely fashion. Therefore, the decision has been made to split Starcraft II into three separate instalments, released over a period of time rather than all at once.

The gaming public, predictably, is up in arms, and I can certainly understand why: what this all boils down to is that players are now being asked to buy three products rather than two. I can’t claim that I’m not somewhat disappointed by the news, but at the same time I can understand the reason for structuring the game this way. As reported by Sarcraft Wire:

Blizzard faced a lot of challenges with StarCraft II, the behemoth of a project it is becoming. By the sound of Rob Pardo, the game was probably meant to be launched by now or something, in old internal plans. Meeting this problem of three HUGE stories, alternate missions and lots of ingame cinematics, a greater need for development time became apparent. The fact that they use this story mode apparently increased the required development by 3 or 4 times what it would have been in a simpler Single Player mode. They were faced with three options:
  • Simplify the campaigns significantly, and make fewer maps, cinematics etc.
  • Make each of the campaigns EPIC, but separating them into individual products.
  • Compromise, and do the epic pieces, but delaying the game greatly.
Out of these three, they decided on the second option, and all the fans at the panel gave them a sounding applause in agreement. Rob promised that this meant nothing for multiplayer, and this might be a very good way for lore and single player enthusiasts to get exactly what they want, without holding back the game for all progamers and multiplayer fans.

One-third of Starcraft II. (Remaining two-thirds not pictured.)

Above: One-third of Starcraft II. (Remaining two-thirds not pictured.)

The information seems to be pretty clear: when you buy the first instalment, you still get the full multiplayer experience straight out of the box, as well as the Terran single player campaign. The two subsequent instalments need only be purchased by those who want to continue the single player experience, and will therefore effectively act a little like the optional expansion sets that Blizzard has released for most of their previous games. I ultimately can’t say I’m thrilled about having to shell out cash for additional instalments of what was originally announced as a single, stand-alone product, but I do find this outcome preferable to (a) having the single player campaign significantly curtailed to get it out in a timely fashion or (b) having to wait years for the damn thing to come out at all.

That said, I’m sure this is going to be a tough sell for Blizzard. Plenty of people, already incensed why what they see as the money-grabbing venture that is World of Warcraft, see this as nothing more than an already minted company seeking to maximise their revenue by releasing one-third of a game and then charging extra for the remaining two-thirds. To be honest, they could well be right, but, for the moment, I prefer to see this as a glass half full venture: at least we’ll be able to play the game in a reasonably timely fashion, without the developers’ clearly ambitious goals having to be tempered in the process.

And hey, given that I probably won’t be getting Red Alert 3 now due to the colossal joke that is its limited activations issue, I need another RTS fix as soon as possible.

Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2008 at 1:12 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Web

How to treat your customers with respect

The Witcher

A big round of applause to Polish developer/publisher CDProjekt for actually giving their customers the respect they deserve. While Electronic Arts continue to shaft consumers with draconian digital rights management, CDProjekt have not only gone on record encouraging the rest of the PC games industry to abandon DRM altogether, they have also seen fit to reward people who bought their RPG The Witcher by providing a massive revision of the game completely free of charge.

The new version of the game, labelled the Enhanced Edition, is a direct response to community and critical feedback and contains a massive number of bug fixes, improved dialogue and animation, interface modifications and a host of other tweaks. The version on store shelves, which, as far as I can tell, will completely replace the original version once supplies are exhausted, also comes with a bunch of additional goodies including a soundtrack CD, a strategy guide book, a map and a “making of” DVD, but, for those who already own the game and don’t want to buy another copy, most of this is available to download for free.

I applaud CDProjekt, I really do. I don’t consider The Witcher a masterpiece, but the news that this new edition had been released was enough to prompt me to crack open the DVD case again and give the new and improved version of the game a whirl, and I’m definitely well on the way to sinking in several more hours of play-time. I also think that, if more companies took this attitude instead of looking to screw their fans at every opportunity (EA, I’m looking at you again), we would see far less piracy. Case in point: the DRM restrictions placed on Spore were intended to reduce the number of people playing pirated copies, but an unauthorised DRM-free version of the program was available on the major P2P networks before the boxed copy was released, and the irony is that those who download a bootleg for free will have a far more hassle-free experience than those who actually fork out for a retail copy.

Or, to use another example, Mass Effect. Like a growing number of EA-published games, the PC version features SecuROM DRM. I tried out the Xbox 360 version last night, and could really see myself getting into it. Unfortunately, I’m a died-in-the-wool PC gamer at heart and, try as I might, I simply can’t get used to controlling the game with a gamepad (I believe that the ideal control system in most cases, but particularly for first- and third-person action games, is a keyboard/mouse combo), so ideally I’d like to pick up the PC version. However, thanks to SecuROM, I won’t be doing this, so EA can consider themselves to have lost a sale to me because of their automatic assumption that anyone interested in playing their games is a filthy rotten pirate. Sucks for both of us.

Update, September 26th, 2008 05:40 PM: I’ve just discovered that another EA title and one of my most anticipated purchases of the year, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, will also feature the same DRM implementation and sneaky rootkit shenanigans as Spore and Mass Effect. In their immense magnanimity, however, EA have decreed that customers will be allowed to install the game not three times but a whopping five. How generous of them! I’m sure I’ll eventually come across some means of playing it, but I certainly won’t be installing a retail copy on my machine.

Posted: Friday, September 26, 2008 at 5:04 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web

Playing the integrity game, redux


Remember the Kane & Lynch: Dead Men reviews fiasco that kicked up a shitstorm last year? Well, I know how much you all enjoyed reading doctored reviews of a mediocre game, so guess what? I’ve got some more for you.

If you’re interested in the computer gaming world at all, you’ve probably heard of a little game called Spore, the latest creation of legendary SimCity and (shudder) The Sims designer Will Wright. You may also, therefore, be aware that it has attracted some controversy over its extremely stringent digital rights management (DRM). Basically, the game allows you to install it up to three times, after which you will have to get down on bended knee and beg publisher Electronic Arts to be allowed to once again use the software you paid for. Perfect for those of us who routinely reinstall Windows, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Satisfied customer #879. (Image: Wikipedia)

Above: Satisfied customer #879. (Image: Wikipedia)

Anyway, some people had had enough of being violated by the well-lubricated member of PC gaming’s most reviled publisher, and decided to let the world know they weren’t going to stand for this sort of infringement of basic consumer rights. Their retaliation came in the form of negative reviews on various web sites, stressing the overly draconian nature of the game’s DRM and urging potential customers to boycott the product (or at least be fully informed of the risks if they then chose to go ahead and buy it). One such site, Amazon.co.uk, decided to retaliate by systematically deleting negative reviews of the game. Positive reviews, now they’re fine and dandy, but have something less than glowing to say and you’ll quickly find yourself choking on Amazon’s ball-gag. (Some of the reviews were luckily PrintScreened before the evidence disappeared for good.)

It seems pretty clear to me that this is the Kane & Lynch fiasco all over again: (1) Publisher releases problematic product. (2) Reviewers/fans (delete as appropriate) respond with negative criticism. (3) Publisher leans heavily on sites on which said negative criticism has been posted. (4) Said negative criticism mysteriously disappears.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: a flood of one-star reviews which say nothing about the content of the game itself is hardly a measured response against some intrusive DRM. And you may be right. However, this still doesn’t change the fact that to dictate to consumers who have forked out money for a product how many times they can use it, which a number of publishers seem to be increasingly fond of doing lately, is utterly absurd and demands a frank and unequivocal response. It’s not a game that interests me greatly, but I am now even less likely to pick it up than I would have been before wind of this fiasco reached me. The greatest irony of all is that this is simply going to send more people scurrying to BitTorrent to download a crack to remove the DRM… or perhaps even a pirate copy of the game itself. Once again the studios bleat about piracy, the consumers get screwed, and the pirates shrug their shoulders and carry on as normal.

Update, September 12th, 2008 03:53 PM: Somewhat surprisingly, it appears that Amazon’s US wing is not expurgating reviews criticising the DRM.

Update #2, September 12th, 2008 08:37 PM: Oops, spoke too soon. It appears that Amazon.com have deleted all the reviews of the game. However, the overall 1-star rating, based on 2,216 customer reviews, still stands.

Update #3, September 13th, 2008 08:21 AM: And the Amazon.com reviews are back again. This is like playing musical chairs.

Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 10:56 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: DRM | Games | Technology | Web

Media Center is da bomb

Media Center is da bomb

I’ve been exploring some more of the new features included in Vista, in particular Windows Media Center, the all-in-one multimedia application that comes with the Home Premium edition of Vista. I’m particularly impressed by its TV recording capabilities, not least for its smooth, streamlined interface, excellently integrated programme guide (see the image above), and last but not least the fact that it actually detected and was able to interface correctly with my notoriously finicky USB TV stick. Until now I’ve been using the ArcSoft TotalMedia software which came bundled with the stick, but I think I’ll now stitch to Media Center as my recording device of choice.

Of course, there is the slight problem that Media Center saves your TV programmes in the DVR-MS format, which, in addition to having the capability to inflict all sorts of DRM nastiness on you, is not exactly the most widely-supported of standards. Luckily, those plucky reverse engineers anchored off the Barbary Coast have sprung to my rescue once again, this time with a helpful little program called AutoDVR Convert, which strips out the all the metadata guff and rewrites the file as a vanilla .mpg (MPEG2), all in a matter of milliseconds. Hoorah for the modding community!

Posted: Tuesday, April 08, 2008 at 11:15 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: DRM | TV | Technology

The fat lady sings

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD

It’s all over:

Warner to go Blu-ray exclusive from June 2008

In response to consumer demand, Warner Bros. Entertainment will release its high-definition DVD titles exclusively in the Blu-ray disc format beginning later this year, it was announced today by Barry Meyer, Chairman & CEO, Warner Bros. and Kevin Tsujihara, President, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group.

“Warner Bros.’ move to exclusively release in the Blu-ray disc format is a strategic decision focused on the long term and the most direct way to give consumers what they want,” said Meyer. “The window of opportunity for high-definition DVD could be missed if format confusion continues to linger. We believe that exclusively distributing in Blu-ray will further the potential for mass market success and ultimately benefit retailers, producers, and most importantly, consumers.”

Warner Home Video will continue to release its titles in standard DVD format and Blu-ray. After a short window following their standard DVD and Blu-ray releases, all new titles will continue to be released in HD DVD until the end of May 2008.

At this stage, unless HD DVD somehow manages to pull something miraculous out of the bag, the writing is on the wall for the format. On the plus side, it’s a positive thing, I suppose, that someone has taken a stance and decided to help steer the “war” towards an end. The only major regrets I have are that we’ll now have to endure months of squealing from fanboys on both sides of the fence, and that we’ll have to look forward to a future in which the dominating format is the one that supports region coding and more stringent DRM than the competition.

Personally, I’ll continue to enjoy my Universal and Paramount (and Studio Canal, Concorde, etc.) HD DVDs, as well as all the Warner HD DVDs I’ve bought so far. I suppose this means I’ll now move to buying Blu-ray versions of future Warner titles, but my existing collection ain’t going anywhere, and I think that’s what all the HD DVD customers who are feeling burned right now have to remember.

The funny this is that although, as a format neutral customer, this decision doesn’t really affect me one way or the other, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed. The whole affair leaves a sour taste in my mouth, particularly given that, as little as a month ago, Warner was still giving customers assurances that it wasn’t changing its format neutral stance. This is quite an about-face, and I feel really sorry anyone who got an HD DVD player for Christmas.

Posted: Saturday, January 05, 2008 at 7:29 AM | Comments: 14 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | DRM | HD DVD | Technology

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