Thursday 12 August 2010

It's not a trap! (Is it?)

Perhaps you remember from the start of the year my industry-shaking boycott of games including Ubisoft’s “Online Services Platform”? It’s been hard work I can tell you, getting up early each morning to man the barricades, exercising massive willpower to not be tempted into buying any oh-so-lovely looking games… All right, that might be a very slight exaggeration, there are only a few games that include it: The Settlers 7 (I loved the first Settlers game, way back whenever it was, but haven’t really got the time to sink into building a Kingdom), Silent Hunter V (I dabbled a bit with submarine simulators like 688 Attack Sub and Silent Service, but never really had the patience for all that creeping around and carefully deriving firing solutions as opposed to grabbing a plane in a flight sim and shouting “DAKKADAKKADAKKA!” a lot) and Assassin’s Creed II (currently filed under “maybe pick up if it’s in a Steam sale in a year or so for a fiver”).

The one Ubisoft game I’ve really been interested in is RUSE, a WWII RTS which has been delayed a couple of times, postponing the reckoning when my brave moral stand might actually be tested, and this morning news filtered through from Rock, Paper, Shotgun that it won’t be an issue after all. Apparently:

When R.U.S.E. is released in September, it will benefit from Valve’s Steamworks API to offer the best community experience to players. Consequently, a Steam account and Internet connection will be required to activate the game, as per Steam policy. For this reason, R.U.S.E. will not use the Ubisoft protection. Single player can be played offline.

Well huzzah! (So long as this isn’t just a cunning ruse.) Clearly this was entirely down to my threatened boycott; I’d better turn my powers to good, so listen up, like, banks and governments and stuff: I’m totally boycotting you until world poverty is ended, yeah! Back in the real world, though…

Some people [citation needed] might suggest that Steam is another form of DRM and not so different to Ubisoft’s Online Services Platform, and back in 2004 when I first encountered it as a mandatory component for authenticating Half Life 2 I was sceptical, but it’s turned into a really great platform. It keeps everything up to date by toddling off and grabbing patches in the background, the Steam store offers some fantastic deals during sales, and the community features tie in beautifully allowing you to see if friends are online and what they’re playing, invite them to games or jump in and join them (where the game supports it) and chat via text or voice. I haven’t had any problems with connectivity either, my ADSL line dropped out for an evening the other day, but switching Steam into Offline mode it was perfectly happy to fire up Borderlands. It’s not perfect, you still need to connect for initial authentication, there’s the possibility of problems with Steam affecting your games, if you get locked out of your account you’re pretty much screwed, but there’s clear added value; by using Steam RUSE avoids the hassle of having to create yet another account for some service and dig through it to try and find your friends there. Services like Good Old Games may be superior in offering DRM-free titles, but I can live with Steam’s compromise between restrictions and features. Especially when compared with Microsoft’s Games for Windows Live.

Games for Windows Live offers many of the same features as Steam such as digital distribution, patching and a community. In most cases, it does them very badly; patching is probably the best example. If you’re running Steam in the background and there’s no other internet activity, Steam slips off like a well trained valet, checks for updates to your games, downloads them, installs, and pops up a discrete notification: “*ahem* I took the liberty of updating Borderlands to Version 1.31, sir. I’ve also put the brown suit out for luncheon, I believe Lady Malvern is expecting you at half past.” I’m pretty sure it will quite happily load up a game that hasn’t been patched to the latest version as well, I can’t remember it ever being an issue. G4WL, on the other hand, is like a stroppy bouncer. “Oi, v1.2 only, sling yer ‘ook!” it’ll bellow if you fire up a game you haven’t played for a while; it’s sometimes possible to ignore it, log out of G4WL and play the game anyway, but some games then sulk and won’t let you access any of your saves, so it’s best to sigh and click the “update” button. At that point it just sits there, with an incomprehensible lack-of-progress bar that doesn’t really do anything; you can’t carry on and play, can’t go back to Windows and do anything else, you just have to leave it there and hope it actually is downloading a patch (if you’re very, very lucky), though more often than not it just gets confused by something and falls over in a heap after half an hour with an incomprehensible error message. Several times I’ve had to go off and track down patches for a game elsewhere, download them from a browser (during which time I can still use said browser to look at other sites) and manually install them; if that’s the update model I haven’t got a problem with it, but don’t include a “feature” in your distribution system that’s worse in almost every way! It’s all the more baffling as Microsoft could be in such a good position; the system ties in to the massively popular XBox Live (which, by all accounts, works very well on the console), but you can’t do much on the PC apart from send messages to XBox users as cross-platform play seemed to begin and end with the abortive Shadowrun. Steam had an advantage of being a component of massively popular games like Half Life 2 and Counterstrike, giving Valve wide initial distribution; with G4WL being mandatory for PC titles like Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV, Microsoft had a chance of starting to build up similar membership, but don’t seem to have done anything with it, leaving Games for Windows Live as a stunted half-arsed port of XBox Live that barely acknowledges the existence of arcane technology like a ‘mouse’. Which still makes it more useful than Ubisoft’s Online Services Platform.

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