Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Battlefield 2142: this is nuts.

So, I bought Battlefield 2142 a week ago. I bet it's pretty fun, but I haven't played it. As far as I know there's no technical issues. Why can't I play it? insane copy-protection.

See, you're only allowed to register an account if the CD-key currently in use has never made an account. They don't tell you this, anywhere. They also don't tell you that BF2 account names can't be used again for 2142, either as an old account or as a duplicate name. (update: apparently you can sign up as a BF2 "veteran" to get a special icon, a free unlock, and a unique taunt. This was marketed poorly and probably would have prevented my name-guessing issue entirely.) So, the game is 24 hours old, and I'm trying dozens of names, none of which work, and I suspect some error might be at work. I fill the name box with gibberish I'll never be able to remember for the life of me as a "baseline" account I never plan on logging into. It works, which elates me, so I go back to trying names. About 4 more trials and instead of the "already taken" error, I get one that tells me the CD key has already made an account. Crap.

I immediately contact tech support. I still haven't received a response. (update: for the record, it was roughly 5.8 business days before I got an answer - a request for information.)

The Battlefield series has always been known for ridiculous copy-protection but this takes the cake. I'd like to know why on earth I can't make unlimited accounts, even if they are deleted after a period of inactivity. One can make players (with unique unlocks) at will within an account, so why the 2-tier account/player system anyway? One has to connect to the internet to play (well, play the game proper at any rate), so it's not like duping offline installations is possible. Just what the hell are they up to?

What they're up to is growing the market for illegal dealings. EA has a long history of treating game copying like a cold war arms race, but this approach is flawed. Beyond a certain point (and we reached that point about 10 years ago), copy-protection doesn't discourage stealing, it encourages it. The baseline crime only decreases a certain amount based on how easy it is to steal. Beyond that limit, the people who steal games will go to the ends of the earth to steal your game. For many, it's a challenge which must be met; it's fun. It's a purely reactive effect and so the mutual escalation is all coming from EA's side of the table. They look at the correlation and treat it like an ever-looming threat that they have to keep up with, and all it does is cost them time and money.

I'm so fucking tired of being caught in the crossfire. I just want to play my fucking game that I payed $50 for, pretty please.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Never alone.

Sometimes I think that I'm alone here in Tucson, AZ, and that all the game developers are on the east and west coasts, in Europe, in Japan. This is a silly thing to think though. This is an excerpt of what was at the top of the business section in the Daily Star today. It's an article about the limited supply of PS3s (putting the final nail in my coffin prediction in light of the massive number of units Nintendo has).
Robin Marshall may qualify as coolest mom in the world.
When her 15-year-old son, Colton, said he wanted to camp overnight outside a computer game store to make sure he could reserve the soon-to-be released PlayStation 3, she said he could skip school the next day.
She even lent him her cell phone and sent him off with some Goldfish crackers and juice to wait outside EB Games, 9525 E. Old Spanish Trail.
"We only live maybe five or 10 minutes away. So I packed him a bag and gave him some snacks," Marshall said.
"He wants to be a game designer, and that's pretty much all he's ever wanted to be. He's a techie. He's just so excited, he can hardly wait."
The article goes on to give a little info on the limited supply of PS3s. It doesn't discuss the PS3 hardware itself or mention competition.

I've met (on the internet) and heard of people like me, people who have wanted to have a hand shaping video games their whole lives, but they've never lived in Tucson. I don't think I'll find and contact him; I'd be pretty creeped out as a 15-year-old if someone four years my senior called me at home and said, "Hey I read about you in the paper. Let's talk games." I don't consider myself shy or socially awkward but that's a little much even for me. I'll just take the story at face value and breathe a little easier that I'm not alone in this.

I've been doing a lot of thinking over this article about a young man I'll probably never meet. It makes me wonder, how many lives do we touch without realizing it? How many times might an offhanded comment I made led to someone re-thinking their lives? What deeds have I done, insignificant and instantly forgotten, that stayed with someone witnessing it for days, months, forever? But of course, we can never know.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

First-person shooters need more interactive environments.

And here's where you say, "You idiot, they've had interactive environments for years! If you want anything more you're just being a dreamer who isn't willing to face the harsh realities of game limitations!" Well... not quite.

We've made good progress so far, with Half-Life 2. With the Havok engine and the gravity gun, physics have been taken pretty much to their limit as far as interactive environments. Mini-games which require special input, puzzle-solving and the like are pretty much at their limit too. Take a look at something like Prey, or if you're old school something like Marathon. Rigid puzzles have been an example of the interactive environment for a long time.

But these take the avatar out of the picture. There is a strong disconnect between the player's avatar and the environment, one that has become more and more striking as the rest of the genre has fleshed out.

I was inspired to write this because of a preview video I saw of Red Steel. In it, the person trying out the game was peeking out from behind a wooden beam, trying to shoot someone at a distance, when most of the bullets just went into the beam. There was no physical way to get closer to the beam he was shooting. Could you make this kind of mistake in real life? There's a problem here. Curiously enough, the answer has been around for years and years, but everyone figured it was something that could be done a better way, if only games became (impossibly) more advanced.

And so this possibility was left to gather dust and eventually forgotten. There is a certain drive to make everything about a level as dynamic as possible to keep the players immersed. They don't want to see the exact same obvious event happen exactly the same way every single time they try to get through an area, so AI pathing and scripted story/cinematic events are concealed as much as possible, when the developers are unable to do away with them entirely. But there's one scripted thing in the levels of an FPS no one wants to get rid of, and for good reasons: the ladder.

The ladder has never been and will probably never in our lifetimes be completely a dynamic aspect of a game's physical rules except in the most rigid of contexts. In every shooter you've ever played, the ladder has an invisible aspect to it, a cleverly-disguised surface or line which is totally imperceptible to the player, but tells the game, "Treat this area of space, indistinguishable to this dumb game engine from all the space around it, like a ladder, so the player can climb it." This is the solution we've been looking for. I'm not the only one to realize this. Slip Call of Duty 2 into your XBox 360 and walk up to any low ledge away from debris. An icon appears; a button press stalls your action for two seconds as you heave yourself over. The invisible, imperceptible ladder, in horizontal form.

The method is proven; grab a Tony Hawk game and start scoring grinds and lip tricks. Obviously a decent game can be manufactured from these invisible player-environment connectors alone. So I say, next time you give a player a wooden pole, put that pole in the center of an invisible area, a small post, that tells the game, "Treat this area of space like something the player can brace his gun against." Not only will the player not fire into the pole like a retard, but in fact be more accurate and far, far more immersed.

Some say that re-iterative development can only take a genre so far. Some of those even say the FPS is dying. It's not; this is not a plea over what can save the genre. It's a prediction of the future. Like all mechanics, it will be in some popular FPS games and not others, but FPS still has an ace up it's sleeve, and it's not ready to fold just yet.

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