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Patronised Patrons

February 9, 2012

That joke made sense, and I won't hear a word said otherwise.

This is wonderful. Double Fine, they of Psychonauts and Stacking loveliness, have started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a game marking a return to studio head Tim Schafer’s point-and-click adventure roots, and a documentary of the process. At time of writing , six hours after Schafer announced the campaign on his Twitter feed, they’ve raised over three quarters of their $400k goal. Which is remarkable and excellent. This comes after Schafer mentioned in passing that he’d like to do a Psychonauts sequel, Twitter screamed “YES IMMEDIATELY”, and Minecraft millionaire Notch offered to lend a fiscal hand. This is the kind of relationship the internet now offers devs with their public.

Which makes most publishers’ and devs’ casual distrust of their customers, especially those with access to a modem, all the more baffling.

Maybe they should make a sequel of their own volition.

Take, for example, the PC gamer’s pariah de jour UbiSoft, the massive, silly idiots. About two years ago, UbiSoft first introduced their always-online DRM, a which required anyone playing Assassin’s Creed 2 (and the vast majority of their games since) to connect continuously with Ubi’s servers, with even a momentarily dropped connection disrupting or booting you out of your game. An unpopular, but supposedly uncrackable, protection against The Pirates. About a month later, ACII was cracked, and UbiSoft’s folly was fully unveiled, as The Pirates had unfettered access to the game, while legitimate customers were subjected to the whims of not only their own internet connection, but also Ubi’s servers, which had already collapsed in on themselves shortly after ACII’s release.

Since that release, they’ve activated and deactivated and lessened and strengthened their DRM measures on certain games at seemingly random intervals, making it even harder to decide or predict whether your copy will suddenly stop working. They even flat-out lied about what kind of DRM would afflict From Dust upon release, leading to a furore and a heap of Steam refunds. (Meanwhile, guess which brand of cyber-ne’er-do-well never has to worry about such things?) This week, UbiSoft spent Wednesday “migrating” their servers, rendering any game released with this thumpingly overcooked DRM scheme unplayable on account of they didn’t bother setting up any temporary measures to allow the paying customers to play the games that they’d paid for. Not only that, but games that they’d promised would be fully playable during the “migration” suddenly stopped working too. Because, hey, why not, that couldn’t have been avoided. Sure. Absolutely.

This kind of random and pointless DRM nonsense isn’t just inconvenient, it’s plain hostile. It’s declaring any PC gamer with the temerity to have a working internet connection a pirate if they dare play an UbiSoft game without being in constant contact with their servers. (Not that the DRM is the full extent of their contempt for PC gamers – their games are almost unfailingly released weeks or months after their console equivalent, even when they had explicitly promised otherwise, as in the case of Driver: San Francisco. They may as well insist we get “PC SCUM” tattooed on all of our foreheads.)

Of course, none of this would be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that UbiSoft develops and publishes some really excellent games. They made Sands of Time! Nor would it be that worrying if other companies looked on in disgust and confusion as UbiSoft dug themselves a massive grave. But instead, Blizzard decided that it was probably a good idea to make Diablo 3 an always-online game (albeit probably one that will benefit from Blizzard’s hot and powerful WOW servers), and id Software’s Tim Willits has come out in favour of always-on DRM, calling it “the future”. So that’s a bit crap.

By way of contrast, CD Projekt RED (those Witcher devs I love so much) released The Witcher 2 on their own GOG.com, completely free of any DRM, and with a whole bunch of extra goodies for anyone who pre-ordered. The retail edition of the game had DRM, but that was patched out in the first of many updates (of not insignifcant magnitude – everything from a reversible y axis to a tutorial and a complete new gameplay mode have been added) the devs released. There was a little hiccup when they started trying to track down and persecute people who had pirated the game, but once a stink was raised, they manfully admitted it was the wrong way to go, and claimed to value the trust and support of their existing customers over whatever “lost revenue” they had been chasing down.

AND: in April, when the game comes out on Xbox360, with a whole array of new features, those same features will be patched into the PC version for free. This is how you earn and keep fans.

The leather is CRACKED. Do you know how immersive that is? Very.

But it’s not just PC gamers who are suffering from a crazy lack of trust and respect from the companies they’re funding with their pre-orders and their ridiculous collector’s editions. Console gamers are recently coming under fire for being so rude as to trade in their used games, and buy pre-owned games, as if this were some crazy idea unique to the games industry. Publishers, you see, are entitled to your money. Don’t question it – just accept that when you buy pre-owned, you are stealing bread from the mouths of their families. Or, y’know. Don’t accept that, ever, like a sane, pretty person.

All of which has added up to speculation that the next Xbox console, whenever it should arrive, will have a hardware solution to all of this. Which is to not allow you to play pre-owned games. Which is madness, clearly. So no wonder it’s got support from the games industry. I’ll quote this from a Eurogamer newspost on Volition.

The next Xbox possibly disallowing pre-owned games from being played? That would be a “fantastic change for our business”, according to Volition (Saints Row) design director Jameson Durall.

In an article on #AltDevBlogADay, Durall offered ideas on how Microsoft might implement such technology.

“The system is already there for Microsoft,” wrote Durall, “all they’d have to do is use the DLC and codes model they have to tie a game to your Xbox live account. Each retail disc would likely need that unique key somewhere in the code so the account would be able to link it properly. Ideally it would tie a full version to the console it is registered on so family members can play even if the main account isn’t signed in, but this is exactly how their model works now anyway.”

Hnnnngggghhhhhh. Volition, I love you for your Freespaces and your Saints Rows and that one Red Faction that was rather decent even though it never really ran very smoothly, but this is not how you entice fans to buy your games. What you’re basically saying is that sharing is wrong and should be strictly regulated so as not to harm your precious pocketbooks, and you don’t trust your games or your customers with keeping your studio alive.

Also, because Hulk Hogan's in it.

Step forward, once more, CD Projekt RED. And also, once more, Eurogamer.

Added CD Projekt Red head of marketing Michał Platkow-Gilewski: “Our players – gamers – they make their choices. they want to keep with us because they believe our product is worth it, is worth keeping on their shelves, even if they ended the game two or three times already. And they are doing this because they have free will, and if we cancel that, maybe that will be good for business, but if someone forced me to keep the game even if I didn’t want it, it’s against my will.

“We want to do as much as possible for our players, our gamers. We don’t want to force anyone. It’s like we did with DRM-free: we give them freedom and we believe they will stay with us.”

Watch how I kiss you all over your face.

Look: we all know piracy is a Bad Thing, and that you all need salaries, and that the $400k Double Fine are asking for isn’t going to get the next Elder Scrolls made. But look what happens when you reach out to your followers as equals – as excited, enthusiastic fans – rather than as criminals you’re trying to contain and reform. Just like SOPA and PIPA and ACTA and whatever else, all this action against the customer is nothing but out-of-touch moneymen scrounging for poop to fling against the walls because they haven’t figured out how to get a proper foothold in the online markets, and using the internet not to communicate or build a relationship, but to monitor and punish their fans. Except the poop is actually grenades, and they’ll only blow up in their faces. Double Fine spent Wednesday setting up a Kickstarter, and their fans have all but funded an entire game inside six hours. UbiSoft spent much of Wednesday making their games unplayable for the people who have already bought them. How is this not costing so many people so many high-paying jobs.

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