Thursday, December 31, 2009

Rambling Thoughts on Pirates, Relatives and Stephen Foster

Today is the last day of a decade and I find myself thinking once again about one of the thorny issues of our age: copyright, piracy and the ongoing impact of the digital revolution.

Visiting relatives last week I picked their child's Nintendo DS. Turning it on I was surprised to see a menu of games appear including a dozen or more of the best selling titles. A quick look at the back of the console revealed an adapter cartridge carrying a removable flash memory card. I was surprised. The child's parents are find upstanding moral people, they are not particularly technically competent. Yet they had acquired and given their six year old some €500 worth of stolen technology.

Leaving aside the morality of piracy it is not hard to see that there is considerable economic value in this type of adapter. Not only is it a convenient way of carrying your game collection but it solves the issue of kids losing their individual game cartridges. My relatives paid money for the device and its contents. The very fact that these non-tech savvy folks had acquired such a device suggests a ubiquity I had not previously suspected and makes me think that these devices are a significant factor in boosting Nintendo's console sales. Of course none of this economic value returns to the developers of games.

Coincidentally I was reading about the nineteenth century American songwriter Stephen Foster. It is no exaggeration to say that if Stephen was alive today he would be a wealthy man just on revenues from  classics such as "Hard Times", "Beautiful Dreamer" and  "My old Kentucky Home".  He lived however in a time before the establishment of strong copyright and royalty laws. Despite being the pre-eminent songwriter of his age he died in penury at the age of 37 with a grand fortune (coincidentally) of only 37 cents.

Copyright is not itself a God given right - it is an invention of man intended to  stimulate the creation of original works by providing a reward to their creators. In giving rights to creators copyright atificially restricts the rights of consumers. It is not a new thing that otherwise law abiding consumers have balked at these restrictions and have sough to bypass them perhaps making handwritten copies of sheet music or cassette tape recordings of their favourite songs. Is this morally wrong?  If a consumer makes a copy of a work that they wouldn't otherwise have paid for then there is no actual loss involved. On the other hand as poor Stephen Foster discovered the widespread availability of pirated copies of works definitely reduces the earnings potential of creators.

In the past poor quality analog copies were generally inferior to officially produced copies. This provided a natural barrier to piracy but also gave tremenduous power to the distributors of official copies of copyrighted works. The digital revolution has made it easy for just about anyone to produce perfect copies and this has greatly reduced the power of distributors. There has even been suggestions it will eventually mean the demise of content distribution as consumers can acess material directly from creators without the need for a middle man. No wonder then that it is the distributors of music, of games and of films have been at the forefront of he fight against digital piracy. Can they put off the inevitable though? Will distribution as we know it still exist in another decade. Does distribution still have a role in the dew digital age ? Could Google become the only distribution channel we need?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

For the record: Christmas gaming 2009

Actively  playing:

Dragon Age Origins: got this as a Christmas present. Very enjoyable so far this game reminds me of Never Winter Nights. I am surprised at the difficulty level on "normal" setting but then again I still haven't figured out how to set party tactics correctly and the party AI is not great. 

Red Faction Guerrilla: My one concession to Steam's Christmas sale, a steal at €12.99. I have only played the intro but any game that starts off by handing you a sledgehammer and telling you to go demolish a couple of buildings has got my attention.

Less actively playing:
EVE Online: I played five free welcome back days and am seriously thinking of resubbing for a month. The only thing is that I seriously don't have time for an mmo.

Torchlight:  I can play this for about an hour before I get totally bored but it is a useful time-water if there is nothing else happening.

Borderlands: I stopped playing this about half way through the campaign partly because a patch screwed up my graphics, partly because I could never really get the multiplayer to work properly and partly because the game gets very repetitive. Perhaps I will finish it one day.

Current Ultra-violence fix: No real shooter on the go at present. In the last month I have played a bit of Frontlines, a bit of COD4  a bit of TF2 and a bit of COD2 multiplayer (surprisingly much fun even now). I guess I am waiting for either MW2 or L4D2 to come down to a more sensible price before I get seriously stuck into another shooter.

We live in an era of game pricing madness.

There used to be a fairly established pattern of game pricing. New releases were sold at top prices. If you shopped around you might get a special offer or pre-order discount but otherwise you could wait about a  month and get the game for perhaps 75% of its new price.  Six months or so after release most games could be picked up for half their new price and after a year those titles migrated to the bargain shelves at a quarter of their original price or even less. This was a very reliable pattern - only a tiny number of titles had sufficient staying power to buck the trend of price decay. Age of Empires and Medal of Honour Allied Assault being two that I can remember but they were  the exceptions that proved the rule.

The last year has seen a revolution in pc game pricing spear headed by Steam and their fellow digital download distributors.  They have finally broken free from the artifical restrictions which held digital download prices higher than the high street (a restriction apparently imposed in order not to annoy traditional distributors). Their only variable cost is internet bandwidth so they can sell the game for almost any price and they do. A game that is priced at €49.99 today may well be on sale for €9.99 tomorrow but don't delay because the day after the price may return to €49.99 or why not €59.99.  While bargains are great for the consumer the total unpredictability of the current pricing situation makes for some very confusing game purchasing decisions. Should I buy this game I really want to play today or will I wait in the hope that it features in next weekends sale?  Unfortunately there is no real precedent to help you decide. The old rules are gone and a new pattern has yet to emerge. We live in an era of game pricing madness. The current Steam Christmas sale is perhaps the most obvious statement of this. A game that was on sale yesterday for a 50% discount may today feature at 75% discount. If I bought yesterday should I be pleased with my bargain or disappointed?  It all makes for confusing but interesting times for a game purchaser.

I suspect that this current unpredictability is just a reflection of what happens when any old regime falls and new rules have yet to be established. Once the initial heady excitement has passed new patterns will probably emerge. My expectation is that these new patterns will mean generally lower prices all round reflecting the underlying economics of digital distribution,. I strongly hope that Activision's €60 price tag for Modern Warfare 2 remains no more than an anomaly - a spirited last sortie by a soon to be extinct pricing model.  

Sunday, December 20, 2009

EVE again, if only briefly

I am very much not in an mmo mood at the moment but when EVE sent me an invitation for a free welcome back week plus offered me the free gift of a very special ship it was hard to say no.

Kudos to CCP on their installation process. No marathon patching session was involved. Just download a 2Gb client, install it and you are in the game. The graphics (especially planets) are now prettier than I remembered but I experienced quite a deal of lag. Some of this happened in relatively unpopulated systems so I wonder if my four  year old gaming computer is struggling with the new finery. Lag during a space battle  can mean death unfortunately so I will experiment with options to try and make it go away.

Ah ... the agony and the ecstasy that is EVE. How quickly it all comes back. This game really is a nerd nirvana. Although I have forgotten what I was up to before I quit I logged in to Marb Pelico find that he has stuff stored all over the place. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of stuff much of which he can't use so I can only assume he bought it in the hope of making a profit. I have no idea whether prices have risen or fallen but I set about trying to collect it all and sell it. Marb has zero trading skill so every transaction requires that he physically travel to the location of the goods many of which are in rather dodgy parts of low security space.  Fun times. I have another character parked in Jita, a trading alt as I recall and then I have my wild child, an un-trained alt in a cheap frigate who is wandering around lawless 0.0 space. I will try and fix the lag issue before resuming her adventure though because lag + gate camp is a quick route to a resurrection couch.

Do I really want to go back to an mmo again, even if it is the magnificence of EVE? Probably not, I am in a single player place at the moment, very content with my own company. Still it is nice to get a free gift although I am in agreement with Tipa on this: mine is staying in a hangar for a year or so until I can sell it for a small fortune.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How hard is it to install a new graphics card?

There is a little computer shop close to where I live. It can't compete with internet pricing for major pieces of hardware but it is a useful source of consumables. He does a pretty good deal on printer ink and on several occasions the ability to nip round the corner and buy a patch cable has gotten me out of a hole.

I was in there this morning buying ink. A customer in front of me was inquiring about a video card  upgrade.

"Can that be done on the spot if I drop the computer in" he asked

Unfortunately the young lady behind the counter was not a technician and "the engineer" as she called him would not be back for a while.

"It has to be booked in It could take a few days" was her reply.

The customer asked

"How hard is it to upgrade a video card? Do you think I could do it myself?"

The assistant was honest enough to admit she didn't know and recommended that he leave the computer with them.

Recognising a potential fellow gamer I ached to interject.

"Its easy" I could have shouted "I have changed dozens of video cards"

I could have given him a five minute crash course in swapping video cards. If he lived nearby I could even do it for him.

But then I thought what if ...

What if he card he has bought in ignorance isn't compatible with his machine? What if it has the wrong interface or is too long for the case? What if his power supply doesn't have the six pin adapter needed? What if there isn't a driver available for his obscure operating system?  And will I really be able to prevent myself from blurting out that the Geforce4mx he just paid €150  is not exactly the bee's knees of graphics cards despite the fancy box and that he really should have gotten a BFG9000 for the same money. An what happens the first time he installs a game that doesn't work properly because it is incompatible with Nvidia or ATI cards and the guy assumes its my fault because I installed it wrong.

Regretfully I admitted to myself that I didn't want the hassle. Thats what computer shops charge installation fees for. Plus I didn't really want to do my local shop out of the few euro they would charge him for the install.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

How can I keep a detailed record of my gaming?

I would love to have a detailed record of my gaming habits - so that for example I could look back and see what games I was playing a year ago. I installed Xfire a few months back in order to avail of its gaming history feature but I am very disappointed by the statistics it keeps. It tells you what games you have played in the last week and it also keeps a record of total time spent in any one game but that is it. There is no way that I can find to analyse my past gaming on a monthly or weekly basis.

Now that I have discovered that X-Fire can cause conflicts with some games I am wondering if I really want to keep using it but I don't know of any other tool that comes close to keeping the gaming history I want. Does anyone know of a better way to keep a record of my gaming history?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Frontlines fuel of war thoughts + 2 important hints

I have played a fair bit of Frontlines Fuel of War over the last week both single player and multi-player. Apparently the game owes a lot to a Battlefield 1942 mod called Desert Combat but as I have never played either BF1942 nor Desert combat I cannot comment on any similarities although this might explain why one of the NPCs keeps complaining about being in a desert even when you are no where near one.

Single player is fun enough but does get repetitive. The tutorial and seven missions deliver about 7 hours total gameplay and even in such a short stretch you come to recognise a few basic structures that keep cropping up over and over again. There are some furious fire fights though and even on normal I found the missions challenging enough to complete.

Multi-player shows a lot more potential. You select one of four classes (assault rife, sniper, RPG or submachinegun) and one of four specialisations that will allow you to unlock things like a portable mortar cannon or an EMP beacon which disable vehicles. Vehicles play a big role in the game and there are many including a wide range of wheeled, tracked and flying vehicles. Throw in the fact that one of the specialisations allows you to control drones mini-tanks or mini-helicopters and you can see that there are many many ways to play.

Personally I think the aircraft are overpowered being both hard to hit and packing a heavy punch but that could be just sour grapes seeing as I cant fly one for nuts. Land vehicles on the other hand are if anything underpowered with tanks even being easy pickings for any aircraft or a footsoldier with an rpg.

On a typical night there are about 50 servers on line with about 500 people playing so it is usually easy enough to get into a game. Sadly the most popular maps are the ones with a heavy emphasis on aircraft which sucks a bit if like me you can't fly.  Foot soldiers are still needed however because the real objective of the game is to capture control points and that is hard to do in a jet.

All in all I would heartily recommend the game at its current bargain basement price from Steam but be aware that a number of people have experienced difficulties getting the game to run. While the game runs well for me I did have an issue that prevented me from joining Punkbuster enabled servers.

Two things to note if you do get the game: Firstly this game hates X-Fire. Disabling X-fire gave me a noticeable increase in smoothness and frame-rate.

Secondly once you have finished the main campaign be sure to check out two bonus missions that can be accessed from the options menu via the bonus codes "sp-village" and "sp-street" respectively. In my opinion these are the two toughest but also the most enjoyable missions in the game.