Ah, Valve, How Charming

Valve has consistently been remaining the voice of reason in the PC game industry.

In a situation where Activision has been systematically crippling Blizzard games with DRM, Ubisoft caused a drop of their PC sales with their own folly (with pirates as a scapegoat, of course), and EA is pressing on BioWare to turn their RPGs into shooters (to say nothing of the spyware vomit that is Origin), Valve’s Gabe Newell isn’t afraid to state the obvious.

He’s fundamentally right. Digital distribution is a competition between publishers and… people who can offer the same services cheaper. I’ve been saying this a lot, and I’ll say it again: DRM, ultimately, does nothing but complicate life for legitimate customers.

In general, we think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. For example, if a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable. Most DRM solutions diminish the value of the product by either directly restricting a customers use or by creating uncertainty.

Our goal is to create greater service value than pirates, and this has been successful enough for us that piracy is basically a non-issue for our company. For example, prior to entering the Russian market, we were told that Russia was a waste of time because everyone would pirate our products. Russia is now about to become our largest market in Europe.

I can see why.

Back in 2004, when Steam was introduced as a distribution platform with the release of Half-Life 2, the situation seemed hopeless. Russia was still covered with a network of semi-legal stores selling pirated games in heaps. Piracy was second nature for Russian software users through the nineties and early 2000s. Most people couldn’t afford licensed software or thought the prices were outrageous. It was not competitive. A lot of it still is. How many Russians do you know who have bought a retail copy of Windows? Or bought music in an online store? As long as there is no practical reason to prefer licensed versions, piracy will continue.

Meanwhile, back in those years, the prevalent forms of Internet access in Russia were dial-up and per-traffic billing plans for Ethernet ISPs. My ISP charged $0.05 per megabyte downloaded. Steam has an offline mode, sure, but Steam games, even those bought in retail, insist on downloading all available updates at first activation.

Under these conditions, introducing Steam in Russia seemed like tactical suicide.

And indeed, back then, Steam was widely unpopular around the world, and especially in Russia. Howeve, it has proven to be the right solution in the long term. Today, however, in the age of cheap and reliable Internet access, Steam has shown its true appeal.

Traditional DRM only makes users’ lives worse. With region locks, requirements for a CD in the drive, for perpetual Internet access (Ubisoft really shot itself in the foot with this one), registration forms, rootkits in the system, and so on. Under these conditions, pirated versions start looking more appealing — at least for purely single-player games. World of Warcraft, for example, has little to fear because you pay for an online service, one that private servers simply cannot hope to match.

Steam is a service, first and foremost. The convenience of having your games bound to your account, now and forever, on any computer you access. Automatic updates. No annoying third party DRM… usually (yes, I’m looking at you, Ubisoft). No tying to physical media.

Today’s Steam, a far cry from the messy state it was released in, found acceptance first and foremost in games where pirates couldn’t hope to compete with it. This includes, first and foremost, multiplayer games, where Steam provides instant tools for building communities. Even for single player games, now it is often more convenient to find a game on Steam than run around the city looking for a retail copy, or searching Google for a torrent.

I’m not saying Steam is perfect. A lot of its UI decisions are counterintuitive even now. Localization is often an issue: sometimes, for odd reasons, a Steam release is missing either the English version or the Russian version. (Steam has often allowed me to play English versions of foreign games, which I generally prefer, when only Russian versions are available in retail.) And now, since September, Valve has forced publishers to cut their prices in Russia. Not everyone likes this. Some publishers have decided not to release their games in Steam for CIS countries for this reason. I personally find it ridiculous. If the lowered price isn’t acceptable for you, let me pay the European price, just as long as I get worldwide access to the game. Why should I be treated as a second-class customer just because I have a Russian IP?

Nevertheless. Thank you, Valve. For not being evil.

And Another Quote for Today

Of course, the real problem isn’t women bishops, it’s bishops at all; or, rather, the creation of a set of people called ‘clergy’ and saying they are in some way different from non-clergy. Whether women are allowed in the clergy club is rather an insignificant point when the main theological failing is to have set up the club in the first place (and was compounded by not getting rid of the club properly in the seventeenth century when you had the chance).

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Sounds Familiar…

Amati, the last woman to race in Formula One, described her experience there for F1 Racing Magazine, saying: “It’s a male environment and they want to keep it that way – the drivers, the journalists, everyone. Only one person came up to me and offered me his hand at my first GP in South Africa – and that was Ayrton Senna. He came over and said, ‘Welcome Giovanna, I’m glad you’re here. My congratulations.’ The others ignored me, and when I failed they shrugged and said it was because I was a woman.” True Champions, it seems, are sometimes proven as Greats not just on track…

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On Skyrim and Hype

Recently I’ve been unnerved. The pre-election craze left me to spend two evenings doing nothing but reading about recent political events, and it seems that no matter what scenario unravels — a more peaceful or more violent one — the common people will be the ones who lose.

Anyway, still bitter after the My Little Pony hype — a show that I would just ignore otherwise, but which I got to utterly hate despite never watching it because of its obsessed fandom — I decided to finally take a peek at the next big thing, well, you know, that game with number five which is a sequel to the big thing of five years ago, more or less the same thing but with number four.

Hype has its downsides, and I’ve learned to set my expectations low by default when taking a look at big things, because a lot of the hype comes from blinded fanboys who refuse to see any fault in their precious franchise and from mainstream critics, who basically have to write positive reviews lest they lose the press benefits. But that’s just repeating the obvious banalities by this point.

Sometimes I get pleasantly surprised. Often I don’t. I thought Mass Effect was a genuinely great franchise despite my initially low expectations (I expected a bland KOTOR clone with silly implausibilities galore), and I thought Dragon Age was solid but needlessly dragging, unforgiving, and retreading on BioWare’s earlier grounds that had become cliche by that point. Certainly not the avatar of perfection on this sinful Earth whose very piss smells of nectar and makes flowers blossom. On the other hand, I installed the much-maligned Dragon Age II fully thinking it’d be good but not my kind of game, and well… it’s actually good, story-wise and presentation-wise, and my greatest issue with the game is the patently ridiculous and unfair encounter design: somehow they managed to make combat even worse than in DA1. (I’m expecting inquisitors with stakes and bonfires any time now.)

Even Portal, which I would call the overall best game I’ve played (first game, not second), would probably have ended up in my blacklist had I not had the fortune to play it before the hype wave started. But I was fortunate to play it when it was still not a big thing. I was looking for something to play while taking a break from Episode Two, and I thought I could as well try this puzzle game bundled with it. It was before the cake and companion cube craze started. The rest is history. Portal 2, on the other hand, was a big thing from the very start. I preordered it knowing exactly what to expect — more of the same, more puzzles, more portals, more Chell, more GLaDOS, more black humor — and that was exactly what I got, no more, no less. I don’t really have a problem with Portal 2 — it’s Valve’s best executed game from a technical standpoint. But story-wise it’s a sequel to a game that didn’t really need a sequel, and one that made the story of the first part retroactively impossible to take seriously, turning all of Aperture Science into a cartoonish farce.

Anyway, the great and bountiful Skyrim.

I’ll be brief. It’s atmospheric, yes. The music especially captures the mood from the get go. As a sightseeing exercise, a sort of fantasy Google Street View, or for someone who wants to actually pretend to be a denizen of a fantasy world — as opposed to realizing they’re a real person playing through someone else’s story — it may be the way to go.

Let me reiterate, Skyrim is not a bad game. It has its players and I think they deserve the right to enjoy a game they like. But it’s not my thing. It doesn’t inspire me, it doesn’t capture my imagination or instill a sense of awae in me. To my eye, it’s just unmemorable, in a “so okay it’s average” way.

One thing BioWare and Obsidian games in general did well is inspiring you to care about the world even in sequels. I’ll be honest: I started Skyrim completely new to the TES franchise. The earlier big things, namely Morrowind and Oblivion, passed by me.

I can start a BioWare or Obsidian game and immediately feel engaged, even when I don’t know anything about the setting. Here, after ten minutes of a scripted scene where I ride a cart while listening to small talk without being able to do as much as turn my head — a scene that would make Valve scratch their heads, then scrap the prologue and start over — I’m suddenly dumped into the world as ye olde Adventurer Classic, the one that fetches bear asses to ungrateful villagers, and I just find it hard to care, or to even understand why I’m supposed to care about these empty forests and bare hills, with bland and unmemorable NPCs in between.

B-O-R-I-N-G.

I heard that the focus is on immersion and exploration, but well, to immerse yourself into a setting and explore it, you first somehow have to start caring about it, which brings me back to square one.

And I’m probably a minority on this one, but to me, a game (except for little timekillers like Tetris and Minesweeper) is first and foremost a work of literature — like movies and TV series, but with different media possibilities and conventions in each form. And I prefer a game to have a story: a clear beginning, end, and a suitably complex storyline with a fleshed-out cast of characters in between. The TES series is… quite different and, again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not what I like in games.

Speaking of conventions, Skyrim deserves a special award for quite possibly the messiest video game UI I’ve seen. I’m not a designer by any means, but I’ve read essays and saw quite a lot of desktop software, and my experience as a programmer has taught me to distinguish good UIs from bad UIs. Bluntly, Skyrim doesn’t have a good UI. It breaks too many principles to count, the most important of which is the principle of least surprise. Conventions don’t exist for this game. Keys do unexpected things, widgets behave in an unexpected way, and just about every screen — trade, inventory, spells, you count them — is done in a “new and improved” way that goes completely against existing RPG traditions. I understand developers’ need to feel original, but originality shouldn’t get in the way of usability. Conventions exist for a reason: they let users easily get used to a new interface. Bethesda instead preferred to confuse the heck out of the user in the name of looking “trendy”.

With that said, I’m back to hacking and fireballing my way through the remainder of Dark Messiah. This game might not have been gushed by critics and fans, but I would prefer even a bad game (not that this is a bad game) that at least tries something interesting, anything at all, to a game that appeals to reviewers with form while feeling trite and hollow on the inside.