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Archive for June, 2010

Patchouli Stink

June 23rd, 2010 No comments

Patches. They’ve been a part of PC gaming for so long, a growing number of gamers weren’t around when publishers only had narrower customer-interaction channels in the forms of letter mail, telephone, and eventually pioneering online services such as CompuServe.

Broadband certainly played its role in turning post-release patching from a “version 1.0b” exception into across-the-board convention. The reality of it truly hit me the day I waited for a fat Battlefield 1942 patch to download, only to find out its size owed much to the new, swirling, animated EA logo that was crammed in, courtesy of corporate rebranding. (“Challenge Everything,” including my patience.) I reluctantly accepted this, and have since plodded along with a pretty set pattern: install a game, check the version number in the release notes (hoping it’s actually stated), go to the publisher’s site (hoping they still exist), find the latest cumulative patch (hoping I don’t hit a broken link), download it, and run the installer.

I was surprised then, after recently installing my v1.0 retail copy of Relic’s Company of Heroes, to find a patch page full of links to torrents. I may be making something about of nothing, but, torrents? I had two off-the-cuff thoughts: aren’t torrents synonymous with piracy, and, are all of Relic’s CoH players using a torrent client?

Now, I know a BitTorrent file is not guaranteed to point to illegally distributed content. Kind of like how an unmarried man who spends a lot of time loitering near playgrounds and owns a van with an ample supply of lollipops in the glove compartment isn’t guaranteed to be a child molester. In Relic’s defence, there may be a cost-savings benefit by offloading all that traffic from their servers by using the peer-to-peer method (one of the CoH patches was 1.8 GB); nevertheless, I just find it ironic that the protocol used to distribute the patches is also what’s enabling piracy to be more pervasive than ever in PC gaming. (Case in point: coming up with a game name off the top of my head, I googled “silent storm” and “patch”, and got a torrent link on the first results page.)

The second issue, the format of the patches, assumes the person downloading them knows what a torrent is, and if so, even has a client installed. Consider two safe assumptions: BitTorrents may be the norm for a younger and/or more tech-savvy demographic, but they’re by no means universally used; people playing CoH are mainly in their 20s and 30s instead of, say, their 40s and 50s — the key word here being “mainly,” not “exclusively.” So while there might be significant overlap between the demographics of the BitTorrent sharer and the RTSing PC gamer, it’s not comprehensive. What you end up with is a subset of paying customers that a) likes to game it up, and b) doesn’t know how to torrent it up. Not only do they have to jump through a series of hoops to patch their game, but in doing so, become equipped with the means and knowledge to hop on board the casual piracy train. More irony.

(I can’t ignore the game’s auto-update feature, but this route can be awfully slow, and there are people who, having spent the time waiting for updates to download, would rather have the actual files on their own hard drives for future reinstallations.)

Given this seemingly “odd” distribution choice, I looked for examples of BitTorrents being used for “good” instead of “evil.” One application was by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which a couple of years back offered episodes of its TV show, Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister as BitTorrents. The first North American television network to do so, they drew inspiration from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (also state-owned), which distributed one of its more popular shows, Nordkalotten 365, via peer-to-peer networks as well. Aside from respectively reminding me of a couple of things — namely, young politician wannabes can be pretty annoying, and I don’t understand Norwegian — these served as uncommon examples of the potential of digital distribution, and a possible sign of good things to come.

So then why does game patching via BitTorrents seem so strange to me? The key differences are the broadcasters offered a self-contained product (i.e., a TV show episode), and consciously targetted a younger, social-networking demographic that watches more video streamed off the web than caught off the air. In other words, the broadcasters supplemented their traditional (TV) and newer (web-casting) distribution channels with BitTorrents, creating three types of audience, who can be defined by their age and technological inclinations. Now, if a AAA developer were to seed a complete game as a BitTorrent, relying on some kind of central management to ensure legitimate use, that would be quite adventurous; however, initially distributing a game through conventional channels (brick-and-mortar stores), then offering patches only through peer-to-peer networks seems almost lazy and presuming of their customer base.

Then again, I’m the one who didn’t feel like installing a torrent client and manually running 12 incremental patches, and in all honesty, I don’t really know why the patches-as-torrents method was chosen. So maybe I am the one who’s lazy and presuming.

What I do know is if, for superficial reasons, I get a hankering to watch some Band of Brothers after playing some Company of Heroes, the easiest route will be to use that little torrent client that wasn’t on my hard drive until I had to patch my game.

The Shelf of Shame

June 3rd, 2010 No comments

One of the perks of not being married to a particular game genre is having the opportunity to juggle a few titles without feeling overloaded. Textbook definitions aside, different genres tend to have their own feel, push different buttons, tickle different parts of the brain. Some put greater demands on your reflexes and instincts, while others encourage you to deliberate. Some allow you to close yourself off from the outside world, while others throw you into one occupied by others. Some entrance you with aural and visual delights, allowing you to find a rhythm amidst the chaos, while others show up in plain street clothes, eventually revealing an underlying sophistication.

The tactics RPG — my umbrella term that includes what’s more commonly known as strategy RPGs, as well as RPGs that incorporate a more ‘tactical’ battle system — has always been an important part of this gamer’s diet. And while I consider X-COM one of the greatest games ever made, I have a special place in my heart for Japanese tactics games that are crafted for consoles. Unlike many of their Western-made counterparts, these games emphasize story equally with the underlying design, and no matter how juvenile the backstory, there’s almost always a charming cast of characters and character designs woven in. They’re meaty, typically offering at least 30 hours of enjoyment, yet their mission-based structure makes them more manageable to play compared to sprawling dungeon crawlers or open-ended strategy sims. When played on a handheld, they make themselves bite-sized diversions, or miniature mental workouts that can and need to be kept close by at all times. For these reasons, my tactics games and tactics RPGs have their own place on my shelf, where they can proudly sit with distinction.

It seems strange, then — discouraging, actually — that my appetite for them seems to have waned as of late. I have repeatedly popped in a new game card into my DS, thinking each time I powered it on that it was the beginning of a long and meaningful relationship, complete with walks on the beach, Sunday two-seater bike rides, colourful flower bouquets, and wrists tied to the bedposts.

For whatever reason, the same pattern slowly takes form: I trudge through the tutorial, shut things down for the night, then a week later, realize I have not returned. The calibre of embarassment derived from this inactivity lies somewhere between that which is found from looking at your stack of half-read books, and the realization that you just unintentionally ate a large bag of chips for dinner. (It’s closer to the book end of the spectrum, though.) The number of “strikes” is growing, and I cannot come up with any good explanation.

In an attempt to make amends, the last few that haven’t made the cut deserve a little praise.

Knights in the Nightmare
There are a handful of development shops whose output will always interest me, to the point where I’m scrutinizing their latest project for any reason not to purchase it. One of these shops is Sting, particularly the team led by designer Shinichi Ito. It’s not like I know the guy or anything; I just got to know his work, first through the adorable and marvelous Riviera, then the brilliant Yggdra Union, both on GBA. Although very different from each other, each game introduced refreshing fundamental changes to turn-based battle systems, and in doing so set a precedent for subsequent titles. It’s pretty much a case now where if Shinichi Ito thought of it, Sting developed it, and Atlus localized it, on release day, I am skipping to the game store like a little girl.

Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
I’ve never played anything from the Valkyrie Profile series. My loss, I suppose. Because I had always associated the VP franchise to straight-up console RPGs (ditto for CotP’s developer, Tri-Ace), I didn’t give it much consideration until a couple of friends recommended it, pointing out its turn-based strategy elements. It would be nice to say there was more of a lure than that, but sometimes, it’s just nice to play something that your friends have, if only for the discussions on decisions about party members and character stat building.

Infinite Space
Once upon a time, there was a Capcom studio named Clover. Clover was formed to create original games, and brought us Viewtiful Joe, God Hand, and Okami. One dark day, Capcom closed down Clover. But then key members left to form Platinum Games. They stood as an independent, answering to their creative urges instead of big fat crybaby shareholders or number-crunching suits. They announced projects for various platforms (Wii, DS, and 360/PS3), saying each had its own strengths to offer. One of those projects was called Infinite Space. I saw screenshots. I saw spaceships. Then, I saw nothing. For there were tears in my eyes. The Japanese love their sci-fi as much as their fantasy; you just wouldn’t know it based on their videogames. This title was as unquestionably noteworthy as the company itself.