Archive for the ‘ Issues ’ Category

Issues: On Valve and Origin

Eh. No pictures for this one. I’m reviewing Rage at the moment.

So, RPS posts some neat links every Sunday. Most of the time, they are awesome. This last weekend, I was pretty disappointed. I just wrote about Eskil Steenberg’s open letter to John Carmack which, I think, is completely wrong. Now I’m going to talk about Futurelook’s Origin vs Steam article. In this case, the I’m going to be talking about a point brought up in the “Final Thoughts” section on page two, and my frustration with the whole Origin/Steam nonsense that gamers have been dealing with for the past several months.

Basically, the article’s authors do a decent (though it appears somewhat biased towards Steam) job comparing the two platforms until the end of the article, where they proceed to go full-on fanboy and ignore the facts of the “Steam vs Origin” controversy. Like most people, the authors seem willing to believe that Big Bad Electronic Arts engineered a situation in which they could steal away Steam’s market share. Never mind for a moment that this is in no way an evil thing; choosing to release, say, Battlefield 3 on a platform that isn’t Steam is not a sinister act. The idea that all games Must Be On Steam is foolish and monopoly-friendly, and, hey, right now, Valve are the big boys, while EA are the underdogs.

I don’t really care about where people want to buy their games.

What I do care about is the “hah! We are so clever! Here’s proof that EA is being evil!” that people want to offer while putting forward ludicrious scenarios that make Valve out to be the good guys. Unlike Futurelook, I’m going to try to give you all the facts before getting into any major editorializing.

Here are the facts: On June 3, 2011, EA announced Origin. On June 14th, 2011, Valve announced that they would be allowing Free to Play (F2P) games on Steam. The day after, on June 15th, Crysis 2 “mysteriously” disappeared from Steam.

If you look at the url of that last link, you’ll notice that even then, fanboyism was rearing its ugly head. The article’s original title appears to be “Crysis 2 removed from Steam to make EA’s Origin look good.” Comment threads were filled with similar claims and an overwhelming willingness to believe that EA is run by complete morons who don’t care about making money. Those sentiments persist to this day. When Gabe Newell finally said something, two months and two games later, he was hailed with a bunch of “wow, he’s so classy!” remarks. EA, in contrast, was portrayed by many gamers as a dirty snitch for having to say anything about it.

Look, I love Steam. I have, like, two hundred games on Steam. But… I don’t think it could ever be said that I’m a fanboy about these sort of things. Steam’s got lots of problems, like memory leaks, random crashes, shitty browser implementation, no phone support, and so on and so forth. There’s really no reason to make EA out to be The Big Bad and to pretend that Steam is somehow totally innocent, and that’s what Futurelook, along with nearly everyone else, seem to be doing.

EA’s initial claim that the problem was due to a recent change to Valve’s TOS doesn’t hold water. A change to Valve’s TOS should affect every game license they have or will have, yet only EA’s triple A titles of Crysis 2 and Battlefield 3 are being affected. Shank and Alice were both returned to Steam. In addition, not one other company has removed a current or upcoming titles from the service.

Let’s look at the timeline once again and come to a reasonable conclusion, where everyone is playing fair (but with their own interest in mind):

1. EA announces Origin.
2. Valve annouces F2P games on Steam.
3. The next day, Valve removes Crysis 2 from Steam.

According to EA, the new terms of Valve’s TOS made it a Very Bad Thing to release games with DLC outside of Steam. Looking at the evidence, this appears to be true: no game released post-June-14 has DLC that you can’t obtain from Steam.  While not entirely facutal, another argument would be this: if you’ve ever raised kids, and one kid claims that the other kid was doing something wrong, more often than not, the kid, if they know they’re guilty of wrongdoing, will say nothing or try to avoid (as Newell did in his August statement) admitting it. EA gains nothing by lying about Valve, while Valve, on the other hand, maintains their goodwill by avoiding the admission that they changed their TOS in a way that effectively forces EA to pay the middleman.

Think about it: how many people liked it when Impulse and others refused to stock Modern Warfare 2 because it required players to install Steam? How many people were pleased with UK retailers that forced publishers to make digitally distributed games sell for full price by refusing to stock PC games otherwise? How many people would be pleased to hear that someone refuses to carry a game just because you don’t have to use their service to obtain additional content?

Before I theorize about Valve’s motives, however, let’s get back to the observations: EA has changed absolutely nothing. They were releasing DLC through EA Download Manager (EADM) at least as far back as Mass Effect 1. With Dragon Age Origins, they started selling DLC through Bioware’s store. Now that an updated version of EADM exists, EA is releasing content through the platform… just like they were previously.

Let’s go back to the earlier quotation:

A change to Valve’s TOS should affect every game license they have or will have, yet only EA’s triple A titles of Crysis 2 and Battlefield 3 are being affected.

This statement makes a huge assumption: that a change to Valve’s TOS didn’t grandfather anything. As far as I can tell, the only games that have been removed are games with DLC released after June 14th, 2011. It would be reasonable for us to infer from this that, since the only games with new DLC that has been released outside of Steam are Crysis 2 and Dragon Age 2, the only games currently pulled from Steam for this behavior are ones that have violated the TOS after they were changed, and that all older titles have been grandfathered in.

Here’s another statement made by the authors at Futurelooks: “Once again the evidence doesn’t support EA’s claim. It is true Steam does like to handle patches and updates to all titles available from their service, but I am sure this is a convenience not a requirement. I own at least 7 titles (5 of which are owned by EA) that have patches, DLC, and required updates either solely distributed or available outside of Steam.”

It’s fairly reasonable to assume that of those seven titles (if the first picture in the article is indeed part of the library belonging to the author who made this statement, then Arkham Asylum is one of them), some are run by Games for Windows Live. Batman: Arkham Asylum, Bulletstorm, and Bioshock 2 are titles I have that offer DLC through Games for Windows Live. Beyond that, almost all DLC is served up either through Steam or Bioware’s store. The interesting thing about GFWL is that Microsoft recently began offering their DLC through Steam. Essentially, you can buy a DLC code on Steam, register it on Xbox.com, and then download it through the GFWL client.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’ll offer a plausible reason for this (and why EA hasn’t done so) This infrastructure appears to have been implemented by Microsoft some time ago, when Gamestop wanted to start offering DLC at their stores. Since it was in place for Xbox, it shouldn’t have been too hard to implement it for GFWL, especially after GFWL became a part of Xbox Live. It’s quite likely that EA hasn’t changed because it wouldn’t be cost-effective to go back and set up this infrastructure (especially for games that have already been completed or, like Battlefield 3, are nearing completion) to accomodate Valve’s TOS on such a short notice.

Now that I’ve speculated as to why EA refuses to accomodate Valve, allow me to speculate on why Valve refuses to accomodate EA. There are three reasons, and the first is quite simple: Valve wanted to make sure that they profited from F2P games released on Steam. The TOS was altered to prevent F2P game developers/publishers from exploiting a loophole and selling game content outside of Steam while forcing Steam to host games for free. The second reason is also simple: Valve has been listening to their audience, and are trying to use their considerable clout to force publishers to make DLC available on Steam. Of course, I have no idea if Steam’s users are actively demanding that DLC be released on Steam (I have, in my head, but that doesn’t count for much), so this may be completely false. Finally, for the complex paranoid option: Valve are a bunch of greedy people who are trying to get a piece of the lucrative DLC market and are trying to force publishers to release DLC through Steam because, as I said, they’re greedy and they want more money.

Actually, looking at it, the most likely option and the craziest option are both about making sure Valve has lots of money.

Sounds like a typical big business to me.

Ultimately, I don’t care what service you use. I don’t care if you have objection’s to Origin’s TOS (though I would ask if you’ve ever bothered to look at Steam’s). Your reasons might be perfectly legitimate, but in this case… there’s really no call to blast EA for being evil when you haven’t got a single shred of evidence which suggests that they have done anything remotely evil. Congratulations, they’ve chosen not to cooperate with Valve when it comes to the distribution of DLC, most likely because it would be more expensive in the short term (and, unfortunately, businesses rarely think long term because they’re required to maximize profits for their investors, which is a huge topic we could write thousands of words on). Both parties are refusing to do what the other says, and this is hardly an evil thing. A world where Microsoft rolled over and did whatever Apple said would be silly, wouldn’t it?

Competition is good! If you really want to whine that you can’t have all your games in one place, well, do something about it! Make your own game-launcher client! Use Raptr! Launch stuff as non-steam games! Geez!

BONUS: “Several online only sites like Newegg.com that sell Battlefield 3 were also left off the list of digital retailers, yet Amazon was included.

To the bright fellows at Futurelooks: Newegg is not a digital retailer in the sense that EA/DICE means. Yes, they’re a store online, but they only ship games to you. Amazon sells downloadable copies. If you had any brains in your heads, you would have gone to Newegg to see if Battlefield 3 was available. It is. Pardon my sarcasm, but writers owe it to their readers not to suck.

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Issues: Eskil Steenberg’s Open Letter to John Carmack

I rather like Rock Paper Shotgun; after all, they were the ones who got me into writing about games in the first place. On Sundays, they post something called The Sunday Papers, which is basically a collection of links to neat articles about gaming. Often, I find them engaging and enlightening… but not today. No, today I find myself frustrated by two specific links, and I’ve decided to write a response to both, because, hey, I’ve got three hours to spare.

The first post comes from Eskil Steenberg, who, unless I’m mistaken, is the developer of indie MMO LOVE. It’s about Rage, and how Steenberg feels that iD needs to get back to the drawing board and rethink the way they’ve done things.

It’s an interesting read, and I think it’s got some valid points, but I take issue with this statement: “Many games designers think its their job to tell stories, but games isn’t a story medium, they should go write books or make films. Many artists think that games are about attention to graphical details and in extension to proving how ambitious they are. They should go make art. No, games are about mechanics, they are about feedback, and that is something that programmers provide.

He goes on to say defend his position, saying: “The story most of you are talking about is story telling being told in text, cut scenes, voiceover, and machinima. None of that is a game, its other media squeezed in between what is a game. Games have emergent stories, or what I prefer to call drama. That’s the thing that happens when you are the last counter terrorist trying to defuse the bomb in counterstrike. Quake, and Doom had drama, modern AAA games have Story telling.

Games are about a lot of things. Sure, you can make games without art assets–Zork’s a great example of that. If you want, you can make games without stories, such as Pac-Man. Admittedly, all you need to have to make a game is gameplay, but to suggest that programmers are important, and no one else is required is downright silly. If applied to film, Steenberg’s argument would read something like this: “Movies are simply a series of pictures in sequence that simulate motion! That is something that cameramen or directors provide! Actors, scriptwriters, and prop artists are unnecessary!”

While films such as Baraka prove that movies don’t require storytelling, it would be foolish–perhaps even stupid–to claim that films are not a storytelling medium. Likewise, just because “gameplay” (as far as I can tell, nobody’s really bothered to define this, so here goes: it’s a specific level of interactivity that all games must have in order to be considered games) might be the base from which all games must derive, to argue that games are not a storytelling medium is still wrong in every conceivable way.

While it is indeed possible to develop a game without telling a story, it’s equally possible to make a film or write a book without doing so.

Surely no one could argue that Fallout is not a game, much less argue that it’s a game despite its story and art. The story and art is what makes Fallout the game it is. It is inextricable from Fallout’s identity. The Fallout series is defined not by its gameplay mechanics, which don’t matter (the fact that the game could not only survive a genre shift, but receive even greater acclaim post-shift is proof of this), but by its aesthetics. Fallout, at its very core, is not an isometric RPG, nor is it an open-world immersive sim. It is, instead, a darkly humorous evisceration of American pop culture in the 1950s. It’s all about the things that were popular at the time: westerns, science fiction, and thoughts of nuclear war, seen through the lens of Hollywood’s pleasant denial of reality. Those aesthetics, strictly the result of the game’s storytelling sensibilities, are what make Fallout unique. If we look merely at the gameplay (which, by the way, is defined as much by game designers who define stat tables as it is defined by programmers), then Fallout is no different from, say, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, or any other isometric cRPG.

Fallout would be nothing without its writing and art. That identity is what makes Fallout the game it is. To argue that games are not a storytelling medium (both writing and art are aspects of storytelling) is ignorant, if not wholly dishonest. As with film, games are a storytelling medium, but… that’s a part of what they can be. To say that they are a storytelling medium is not to say that they can’t be something else as well.

There’s a part of me that wants to call Steenberg arrogant, since he appears to believe that his role as a programmer is the most important role in game creation. However, I don’t feel that this is the case, because on the most literal terms, he’s right: you can create a game with nothing but programmers. Really, that’s what I think it boils down to: Steenberg’s an incredibly literal individual, perhaps to the point of a close-mindedness that’s unwilling to accept that games can be a bit more than their most basic parts.

I believe that Steenberg is an extremely left-brained individual. I have no proof of this beyond his own words, which seem extremely rigid and analytical, as well as the fact that he’s responsible for the creation of LOVE (and all the programming and left-brainedness that LOVE’s creation would entail), so there’s no way I can be certain, but it does seem to be the most obvious conclusion. Having a left-dominant brain isn’t a fault in any way–the world needs left-brained people–but it can have its drawbacks. In this case, there’s a rigidity and literalness to Steenberg’s thinking that fosters a great and terrible ignorance.

Steenberg also tries to define emergent story as drama, which strikes me as odd, seeing as a great way to define emergent story would be to use the term… emergent story (and/or emergent narrative). Drama is basically defined as “fiction created with the intent to be seriously considered.” It would make no sense to use “drama” to mean something there is a perfectly good phrase for; if you just don’t want to type out “emergent story” all the time, then why not write “emergent story (ES, for short)” and say “ES” for the rest of the paper?

I rather like Emergent Stories, by the way. STALKER is a game that’s partiularly conducive to their creation. One time, in Call of Pripyat, I was overburdened, having just murdered a rather large mercenary camp to get myself some working capital. I was heading home when the call came: a blowout was coming! I started to run, hoping against hope that I would reach shelter in time. Unfortunately, due to the weight of my precious loot, I found myself pausing to catch my breath every few seconds, chugging energy drinks to give myself superhuman stamina, and repeating the cycle ad nauseam (well, as ad nauseam as one can get within the course of a minute or so).

Suddenly, I fell in a very deep hole.

“Shelter!” I thought.

Then that portion of my brain that controls threat detection turned back on. I could hear a snork making snorky noises somewhere in the darkness. Lights flickered on and off, accompanied by the soft thundercrack that indicated the presence of several electrical anomalies. I’m fairly certain there was at least one gas anomaly, as well as a few fire and gravitational anomalies as well. Thank goodness I had my semi-automatic shotgun ready, because there wasn’t just one snork, but half a dozen. I must have killed one or two before panicking, switching to my pistol and anomaly detector, and bolting. I might have screamed as I ran; I’m not really sure. I was in panic mode, either preferring the certain death offered by the blowout to death-by-snork or forgetting it entirely, but just before I finally found my way out of the labyrinthine caves, I got a message that the blowout was over.

When all was said and done, I believe I had killed eight snorks outside the cave, in addition to whatever I’d managed to kill inside. I dropped several kilos of supplies and bolted home, where I sold my wares and swore to myself never to overburden myself again. After that, I learned to create an effective, light loadout that would help me survive any mission I undertook. I might have put a hundred hours into STALKER and a further hundred into Clear Sky, but it was Call of Pripyat that taught me what it meant to be a true STALKER. I’ll never forget it.

If that doesn’t prove games can be a wonderful storytelling medium, I don’t know what can.