Thursday, May 15, 2008

Piracy is Here to Stay

"With great power comes great responsibility." Wise words, Uncle Ben, but someone at BioWare wasn't listening. For those who hate following links, the short version of the story is that BioWare was going to implement draconian anti-piracy measures in Mass Effect and Spore for PC. In the end, they won't be doing it, but it wasn't for the lack of trying. Indeed, I tend to agree with Penny Arcade when it comes to predicting the next step in the war on piracy, a war that has a long history of going overboard.

What's interesting is the widespread reaction among the gamers:
Not only does this not make me want to buy the game, this makes me want to download a pirated and cracked copy even more
Funny, isn't it? I mean, when someone mentions using RFID for shoplifting prevention, you'll hear all sorts of privacy concerns and doubts about usefulness of such a system, but you won't hear people say they'll go shoplifting in protest.

So what is it that makes us perceive and react to piracy in such a different way? Let's take a look at some of the factors involved. Be warned, though: there's no magical happy ending to this story. Whether the hero defeats the villain and gets the girl remains to be seen.

Thou Shalt Not

Back where I originally come from, some 15 years ago, shops didn't have any shoplifting prevention mechanisms besides humans and, if the shop was large enough, mirrors. We all knew shoplifting was wrong, that it was stealing, that it was crime. We also knew that getting caught would have serious repercussions. Yet there were kids who did it. Not out of necessity, either. They did it for fun. It was challenging. It was a game.

Where am I going with this? There are several points I'm trying to make here. First of all, crime has a lot to do with perception. Sure, there's law, with its letter and its spirit and a bunch of lawyers and politicians to play with it. If you break the law, you're a criminal and that should be it. And yet, none of those kids saw themselves as criminals.

Second, it's in people's nature to do as they wish and rules be damned. You can try to educate them, to impress upon them that such behavior is wrong, but there will still be those who will do it and for a variety of reasons, too.

It might sound like I'm trying to justify piracy, theft and crime in general. I'm not. I'm trying to point out that they will always exist and that reasons for it are not as monolithical as we would like to believe. After all, it would be a lot simpler if people committed crimes because they're evil, but the world doesn't work that way. And if we want to do something about a problem, we have to understand the cause.

Can't Touch This

Every time I rent a DVD, I have to watch one of the MPAA's anti-piracy videos. There's no way to skip it, of course, so each time I'm freshly reminded of the first and foremost difference between stealing and piracy: intangibility. In order to steal a car, a handbag, a television or a DVD, just like in the video, you have to reach out and grab something tangible. There might be a lot of objects like that one, but there is only one of that particular object and it's not yours. Taking possession of it is clearly identifiable as a crime.

Things are not as intuitive with music, movies and software. Sure, if someone invites me to their house to watch a DVD with them, it's not a crime. They're sharing their property with me of their own will. If they offer to give me a lift in their car, it's the same sort of thing. But you can't copy a car like you can a song, can you? You can't parody a car, either, or quote it.

Intellectual property is a complicated and muddled concept and requires an equaly complicated and muddled definition of fair use. With the massification of the digital content and media, things got even more complicated and muddled, which brings us to the chaos we're living nowadays.

And chaos it is. How else would you call it when in one corner you have people who demand that all the digital content be free, as in free beer, and in the other corner you have giants like RIAA suing random individuals?

The Age of Middlemen

So far we've looked at some of the factors causing the piracy. But what about the effects of it? Organizations like MPAA and RIAA are claiming that they are losing money. Publishers like EA are complaining about the same thing.

Let's get one thing clear from the start: developers need game sales to survive. They develop games for living and their money comes from sales, just like your money comes from the job you're doing. There is no doubt that if you install and play their game on your computer without buying it, you're using the products of their work without them receiving your money for it.

Notice, however, that I haven't mentioned publishers in previous paragraph. What does RIAA stand for? Recording Industry Association of America. The keyword here is "recording". The people RIAA represent are those who make money by selling sound recordings of music. That used to be very straightforward: they used to sell records.

Vinyl records are a bitch to duplicate. As long as they were the medium for sound reproduction, the recording industry could control the music industry by controlling the medium itself. The advent of magnetic tapes brought the first crisis. The big guys freaked out, tried to defend their territory and lost. That was the major turning point in the history of copyright.


Notice how MPAA is making a lot less fuss than RIAA? You know why? Their industry kept evolving. Sure, nowadays you can watch DVDs on your HDTV in your home-theater, but nothing beats seeing the very first screening of the long-awaited movie in your theater of choice. Besides, everyone and their grandmother will have seen the movie before it comes out on a DVD.

The first important factor here is that movie industry still has a meaningful experience to offer to their customers, beyond merely distributing the medium on which the content is stored. The second important factor is that there's ample segmentation. You can choose how much you care about a movie: will you go to a theater or buy a DVD? Or you might rent it before deciding whether to buy it. Or you might just wait for it to come out on cable. Plenty of options out there.

RIAA, on the other hand, got stuck. They just sat there while their golden goose spread its wings and flied away. Well, they didn't just sit. They kicked and screamed and made a hell of a fuss. They're still doing it, in fact. But they failed to adapt and are paying the price for it.

It's something I realized when I went to a Dream Theater concert in March this year. These guys didn't only play their instruments and sing their songs. No, they staged such an impressive multimedia spectacle, that I didn't even mind the fact that they didn't play most of my favorite songs. After a show like that, which in itself must have made them a pretty penny, they could've sold me their newest album without needing the middleman at all.

Or could they?

Eye of the Beholder

Piracy, like I said, has a lot to do with perception. You can call it culture or mindset or education, but the fact is that I don't know many people here in Chile who buy their music. If you look at it from their point of view, the reasoning is simple: why should they? It's out there on the Internet, for free. We all use MP3 players these days, so why should anyone pay for an overpriced lump of plastic that later you have to insert in a drive and rip and transfer to your player before you can listen to it comfortably?

Musicians, that's why. People who make that music need the money. Then again, the record industry screwed things up on that front too. The public perceives them as people who take huge cuts of profits and exploit the authors. It doesn't make piracy right, but it makes it justifiable in people's eyes. We come again to perception.

And perception is a lot bigger problem than most of us would like to admit. Could Dream Theater really have sold us their music directly, without going through the recording industry? Why would we buy it, when we're so accustomed to getting our music for free?

Detox: Rehab or Jail?

A habit is formed. How do we break it? MPAA seems to think the answer lies in the propaganda. The effects remain to be seen, but I personally doubt it will have any significant effect. RIAA, on the other hand, thinks the answer lies in the law enforcement. We've all seen how that's working out so far and I think we can agree that the idea is laughable.

What about software? Specifically, what about games? The software industry in general is not as monolithical as recording or motion picture industry. For example, applications targeted at big corporations don't have to worry about piracy too much, but their target is not as big as the home user market. Each type of software has its own worries, but games are in a particularly hairy situation.

The problem with the games industry is that it resembles the recording industry. As the saying goes, the developers make the game and the publishers make the money. They're not limited to being middlemen, though. Often they also finance the development, which gives them a bit of versatility when it comes to surviving the paradigm shifts. However, the fact remains that the online distribution channels will be making the publishers' role as middlemen increasingly obsolete as time passes. Of course, online distribution brings its own middlemen, as casual game developers are discovering.

Safe Hex: ACME Copy Protection

So how does the software industry fight piracy? We geeks tend to believe that everything can be solved by technology. Thus the copy protection mechanisms.

Now, wiser geeks know that technology is not an answer to everything. As Fravia used to teach, there is no copy protection that cannot be broken. The one time I thought I found an exception to that rule was when I used Kali. I was wrong, of course. The program itself is just a client for the centralized service and, as such, it can be copied as freely as you want. It's semantics, I know, but it's important.

The reason why it's important is because that solution doesn't apply to most games. The most notable exception are the MMOs. Incidentally, it's a pretty important factor for the popularity of this genre among the developers.

The rest of the genres have to choose whether to use copy protection mechanisms or not. If they do, they have to decide how strong to make it. Unfortunately, strong often means "problematic for the legitimate customer" along with "difficult to circumvent". This is what creates reactions of outrage, such as the reactions to the abortive attempt to "secure" Mass Effect and Spore.

No Silver Bullet

Okay, so the neither the propaganda nor the law enforcement nor the technology solve our problem. What's the answer, then?

Unfortunately, nothing worth doing is ever easy. First of all, there is no silver bullet. There's no magical solution to this mess. You can bet that the real solution won't bring you quick bucks and instant happiness.

I'm no expert on these matters and I can't say with certainty how to deal with this. However, I have a hunch and I'm willing to bet it's a good one: nurture the market.

Take the situation here in Chile. For one thing, games are outlandishly expensive. It's not just the price itself, it's how that price compares to people's earnings and other products. Second, there are too few stores selling games and their selection usually leaves a lot to wish for. There are too many obsolete games and too many crap games and too few hot items. Third, the same comments apply when it comes to renting games. Still, there are people who buy games. We do it because we like those games, we appreciate the effort it took to make them and proud to own them. But there's a lot of room for improvement.

What about countries like United States? Adapt. MMOs are just one trend. The Sims games are innovative in that they introduce a social component and allow people to create whole communities around them. Episodic content is another idea that has yet to be fully explored. Who knows what interesting new idea will come along next?

Above all, nurture the market. I don't know any comic book fan that opted to photocopy a comic book instead of buying it. They love comic books. They're quite fanatical about them. Games need the same kind of fans. And they sure as hell won't get them by treating their customers like criminals and making games even harder to install.

And Yet It Moves

So, what, piracy is here to stay and we have to learn to deal with it? Is that it? All this writing and I have no groundbreaking solution?

Yes, that's more or less it. I did warn you at the beginning that the future is still uncertain. Yet I'm sure it's not a dark one. Consider the fact that Sins of a Solar Empire has no copy protection and doesn't seem to need one. Consider the fact that casual games are successful enough to make Rockstar VP nervous.

Are "hardcore" PC games a dying market, then? Not at all. There will always be market for them and, if the industry does its homework, it won't be just a niche market. Though the lessons to learn may be hard, failing to learn them won't be fun, neither for the industry nor for the gamers.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Assassin's Creed

How can you know whether a game is good without playing it? You can't, really. It wouldn't be fun if you could, right? Fortunately, there are people out there who play games and then tell you about their experience. Some of them do it professionally, some of them just because they think the world really needs to know about those games. Assassin's Creed is one of those games that are good enough to make me want to join the latter group. However, unlike most such games, it also has defects that appeal to my inner ranter. Perfect blogging material.

Just to make it clear, this is not a traditional review, rich in detail and sprinkled with screenshots. My goal is not to give you a detailed description of what you experience as you play Assassin's Creed. If that's what you're looking for, then I recommend the Gamespot reviews, for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. What I'm focusing on here are the strengths and weaknesses of the game. The idea is to help people who never played it before and people interested in game design.

Still with me? Okay, let's delve into Assassin's Creed.

Stunning Visuals

You know how games always look a lot better in reviews and trailers than when you actually play them? I expected the same to happen with Assassin's Creed. To say that I was surprised is a huge understatement. This game is simply beautiful.

My PC has a dated CPU -- the installer warned me that I don't fulfill the requirements -- but my nVidia 7900 GTX more than compensates for it. Even so, I can't configure the graphics to maximum quality and detail. Or rather, I could if I didn't mind playing a slideshow instead of a game. As it is, the graphics are still stunning.

Everything is richly textured and beautifully illuminated. Each city has its own personality. The devastating aftermath of war in Acre makes itself evident not only in its burned houses and damaged city walls, but it also permeates the very atmosphere of the city, thanks to the greyish lighting that stands in contrast to golden colors of Damascus and Jerusalem.

The animations flow smoothly and every now and then you'll get a very dramatic angle that showcases your prowess at swordplay during a fight with guards. Of course, sometimes the game will get it wrong and you'll get a spectacular shot of a tree or a merchant stand between you and the camera.

Another excellent detail is the blurring effect the game applies when you lock on a target. It's supposed to make you feel like an assassin focusing intently on his victim and it does a great job.


When I first saw the word "parkour" my reaction went along the lines of "huh?" It turns out that most of us know of it as "free running". It also turns out that it's not the same thing at all. I won't pretend I'm an expert and, for that same reason, I won't explain the difference. You have Wikipedia for that and you can blame them for any eventual error in it. Suffice it to say that the gameplay of Assassin's Creed incorporates parkour in a most enjoyable way.

I remember that one of my friends once proposed to make a game about free running. We shot down that idea for various reasons -- where the hell were we going to get money for an AAA game anyway? -- and one of them was the fact that we thought it wouldn't be interesting on its own, that it needed something more. I still believe that, especially after playing Assassin's Creed. There's something immensely satisfying about ending your crazy race over rooftops with a spectacular pounce and stab that brings your hapless victim down with a startled, strangled cry.

By the way, if you're into game development, I highly recommend reading this Gamasutra article on parkour in Assassin's Creed and Crackdown.

Music and Sound Effects

When I heard that Jesper Kyd composed the soundtrack for the game I had high hopes and I wasn't disappointed. I personally think that he didn't outdo his work in Silent Assassin, but the score is still great: subtle enough not to intrude on your experience, yet dramatic enough to establish the appropriate mood.

I also liked the way NPCs contribute to the game's atmosphere: preachers, beggars, merchants and passers-by all have something to say and they do it in a way that successfully recreates the bustle of a living city. Of course, they have their limitations. If you start paying a lot of attention to them, you'll find them repetitive; but if you focus on your mission, like an assassin is supposed to, they'll provide a rich auditive tapestry to serve as a background.

Good Plot

I firmly believe that games are essentially stories created, in part, by players. Whenever you find yourself gushing with enthusiasm while you describe a match of Unreal Tournament to your friends, you're telling them a story. That said, games don't necessarily need a plot. But if you're going to play an assassin, it's good to have something to motivate you to kill your victims, right?

I'm usually quite critical about plots. It comes from being a fan of books in an age where most people read only newspapers or technical books, if that. I am glad to say that Assassin's Creed has a rather good plot. It's interesting and it's not shallow. Not one among the characters is what he or she seems to be at the first glance. There are layers to be peeled and they reveal that the world around you is not black and white, even though it would be a lot easier on your conscience that way.

Altaïr himself, the character which you control, is a decidedly unpleasant person at the beginning, not likeable at all. You might think it's dangerous gamble to do that to the character with whom you're supposed to identify, but it works out surprisingly well.

Major Cliffhanger

Few are the works that can get away with a cliffhanger. Endymion pulled it off and lived to tell (the rest of) the tale. Assassin's Creed tried to pull it off and excelled at pissing me off. And everyone else, judging by the reactions.

Yes, it's true that almost all of the mysteries that plagued you during the game are resolved at the end. But that's not enough for a satisfying ending. I don't know about people at Ubisoft, but I like closure at the end of the game. It doesn't hurt the sequel at all, just look at the Sands of Time. Here's an idea, Ubisoft: go read Jim Butcher's article about story climaxes. Just in case it doesn't help immediately, the ingredient you're missing is what he calls "resolution".

Cheesy Dialogue

Like I said, I'm a fan of books. That makes me spoiled when it comes to things like plot, dialogue and character development. I'm aware of that and I try to keep it under control when I'm criticizing a game. After all, games are a different medium and one of the worst kinds of game designer is the failed writer.

That said, I have to draw the line somewhere. In case of Assassin's Creed, I drew it here:
Rafiq: He must be stopped!
Altaïr: That's why I'm here.
I don't mind a certain amount of cliché in games. I don't require voice actors to be perfect. But some of Altaïr's lines are way too cheesy to tolerate. It doesn't help that Philip Shahbaz, the voice of Altaïr, seems to have exactly one tone of voice. I guess it's supposed to sound arrogant and menacing, which suits Altaïr's personality admirably, but even so, you cannot apply it to everything you say. Sooner or later, your players start perceiving you as sulky instead of menacing.

To be fair, I should state that not all of the dialogue is cheesy. Al Mualim has some excellent lines and his voice, Peter Renaday, did a very good job.

In-yer-face Interface

Just as I started with the most gushing praise of the best features, so I kept the worst for the last. Many reviews complain about the repetitive nature of the gameplay, but I don't find that to be such a big problem. Solving it would have been quite costly and the developers did their best to mitigate it by offering the player a variety of investigation missions and giving him the liberty to choose which to play and which to skip.

The worst problem, however, comes from some monumentally bad decisions that were perfectly avoidable. All of them have to do with the interface, but the crown jewel among them is the decision to give the player the freedom to move during the cut scenes.

Picture the following situation: After doing lots of investigative work that helped you decided where, when and how you'll assassinate your victim, you finally have him in sight. He's talking to someone else and nobody is paying any attention to you at all. You're free to move, so you start creeping towards his back. You're in position, the moment is perfect and you press the button. And nothing happens. You press the button repeatedly, muttering "stab him, dammit!" It's useless. You're in a cut scene and nothing you do will have any effect. The developers gave you a completely useless freedom and the only thing they achieved is to confuse you.

And they took away a number of very useful freedoms from you, such as the freedom to skip a cut scene or a tutorial. It's an old lesson, but people at Ubisoft haven't learned it. They didn't let you skip the cutscenes in Prince of Persia and they don't let you do it in Assassin's Creed either. Come on, people, it's a Twinkie Denial Condition!

They also took away your freedom to load and save as you wish, which is another Twinkie Denial Condition. While I appreciate that the game saves automatically whenever I finish a task or get to a checkpoint, I still hate it that I have to let the guards kill me if my assassination attempt didn't go the way I wanted, so that the game will reload the last save.

Then there's also the matter of quitting the game or switching the profile. To exit the game, I first have to exit to the Animus, then exit from the Animus, then "quit" the game, then select a profile (which one? doesn't matter, I want to quit) and then finally exit the game. Oh, and I have to confirm that I wish to exit, just in case I went through all that work by accident. Yes, I know this is probably only a PC issue and that the PC version suffers a lot more from not being properly adapted to keyboard and mouse, but it's still incredibly annoying. The keyboard and mouse problem can at least be solved, by plugging in a gamepad.


Don't get me wrong. I loved Assassin's Creed and I can't wait for the sequel, even though Philip Shahbaz will again be Altaïr's voice. I mean, let's give the guy a second chance, right? Seriously, though, I loved the game. Despite the obvious and perfectly avoidable problems, I recommend it warmly.

And if Ubisoft learns from their mistakes, the sequel should be even better.

Back in Blog

Well, I think I finally got the hang of this being-a-dad thing; at least enough to get back to blogging. Suuuure, blame it all on the baby, that's convenient. Heh.

Anyway, things have been hectic in my life, but I'm back and I have stuff to rant about again. That said, I'm probably going to blog less code and include more variety. Oh and the posts are probably going to be shorter. Like this one. Not everything has to be a great story or an essay, right?