Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Curse Of DRM Returns

Oh dear.  Less than 24 hours after I publish an upbeat story about a potentially cool new BioWare project, today there is the other kind of news, the type that game companies typically do not want you to talk about.

On Friday it seems that the Dragon Age: Origins DRM servers which authorise the DLC for the game failed, leaving a lot of people unable to play a game they had legitimately bought.  There are some (customer-devised) workarounds on BioWare's forums, but for the most part you are just SOL if a) you have bought DA:O but not yet activated the DLC, or b) have a saved game which contains any DLC elements.

BioWare (now owned by EA) immediately responded though, right?  Not so much.

There was no response from BioWare on Friday (when the hardware failure first occurred), Saturday or Sunday.  Instead, BioWare chose to wait until Monday to release this brief statement on their forums:

"Over the April 9, 2011 weekend, some of our Dragon Age: Origins content servers experienced an as yet unidentified failure. As a result, users began to experience error messages when attempting to access their downloadable content, indicating that the DLC was unauthorized.

We apologize for the inconvenience and are currently investigating and working to resolve the issue on our end. We will update this thread once we know more."

So after three days nobody at EA / BioWare knew what happened, nobody at EA / BioWare knew when it would be fixed and nobody at EA / BioWare could say whether or not it might happen again.

That's definitely a solid way to kick your paying customers in the pants, especially since many had bought the more expensive "Ultimate Edition" of DA:O containing all of the DLC and now could play none of it.

Meanwhile, everyone who has pirated the game can happily play without any hindrance or interruption, while paying customers get to twiddle their thumbs since there is no ETA from BioWare as to when it will be fixed (and given that it took three days for them to hold their hands up and admit there was a problem, I wouldn't be holding my breath).

DRM screwing over legitimate customers strikes once more.  While I can - possibly - envisage scenarios where unobtrusive DRM can be used to counter piracy (Steam is a good example of this), when it gets in the way of paying customers being able to play games that they have legitimately purchased, then it becomes an issue.  I also have no problem calling out publishers whose DRM goes too far in the first place, although this is a different situation.

It certainly seems that EA are fast regaining the poor reputation they enjoyed just a few years ago (before Activision muscled in on that territory).  Just recently there was the whole brouhaha about a BioWare forum ban also locking you out of their games; the mixed reception for Dragon Age II; EA's "Project Ten Dollar" attempting to kill the used-game-sales business and finally, starting to charge $60 for new triple-A PC titles instead of the usual $50 just because Activision started the trend and EA wanted to get in on that as well (even though an EA employee publicly stated that charging $60 for games was "exploitative").

I feel like I've got two black eyes and a cracked rib and EA are telling me "don't worry baby, it won't happen again".

Monday, April 11, 2011

Another Potential Time Vampire Coming From BioWare - Mass Effect Online

It's no secret that I am a big fan of BioWare's Mass Effect series. The first was a solid game and the second was my clear choice for Game of the Year for 2010, an opinion which many other gaming sites seemed to share.

One thing I have always felt that Mass Effect lacked was some form of multi-player. BioWare built this tremendous extended universe populated with more races and backstory than you can shake a stick at, but it's all confined to a single-player experience.

Prior to the release of Mass Effect 2 there were whisperings that multi-player was going to feature in the game somewhere, possibly as a piece of DLC later on. That turned out to be inaccurate (as the final piece of ME2's DLC - Arrival - just appeared, with nary a sign of any multi-player anywhere) but the rumour mill persisted again, saying that perhaps Mass Effect 3 would be the game to expand from the single-player model.  After the game's reveal in the most recent Game Informer it would appear that, once more, any multi-player gameplay is off-the-table, and that ME3 will remain single-player as both of the first games were.

Casey Hudson, executive producer for the Mass Effect series at BioWare, recently stated that making some form of a Mass Effect MMO "makes sense".  I have long thought that the Mass Effect universe would lend itself to an MMO quite nicely.  BioWare have developed an extraordinary universe that I would like to see more of, beyond the confines of a single-player experience.  They've even got iconic characters from both of the first two games who could serve as notable NPCs, in the same way that it's likely you will see some characters from Knights of the Old Republic show up in The Old Republic MMO due for release very soon now.

While an ME MMO could be very received, I wouldn't expect to hear any announcements regarding such a proposal anytime soon.  First off, BioWare (and EA) would likely want to hold off to see how well The Old Republic does when it comes out later this year, and they would also want to see how well Mass Effect 3 does, since it is slated to be released around the end of this year.  If TOR did well and if ME3 did well then I would not put it beyond the realm of possibility to see work begin on an MMO set in the Mass Effect universe.  Given how long TOR has taken to develop though, I would not bet on seeing it before 2016 at the absolute earliest.  And by then we'll probably all be eating meals in pill form whilst zipping around in our flying cars, as well.

It does seem as if sci-fi-themed shooters are experiencing a pleasant upturn in their popularity.  PlanetSide Next is still being baked at Sony; Black Prophecy was just released in Europe and is in beta in North America; Blizzard's rumoured MMOFPS Titan is believed to be a sci-fi shooter; Deus Ex: Human Revolution is due out in August; Crysis 2 was just released; our own ME3 is due at the end of this year and those rumours about World of Starcraft have never really gone away, despite Blizzard's insistence that Titan is based upon a completely new IP.

I also continue to maintain my vendetta against Microsoft for their near-criminal (mis)treatment of Freelancer.

So there you have it.  A kickass Mass Effect Online is certainly possible and has no doubt already been discussed at the highest levels of BioWare HQ (as they keep tripping over their enormous piles of money lining all the corridors).  Provided Mass Effect 3 turns out to be the commercial (and critical) success that the first two games were then an MMO might well be in the offing to drain both your time and money.

I, for one, would welcome our new Geth overlords.