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Thread: Venting my frustrations with PC game-dev

  1. #1
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    Venting my frustrations with PC game-dev

    Greetings:
    So, ILE shut down. This is tangentially related to that, not why they shut down, but part of why it was such a difficult freaking slog trying not to. It's a rough, rough world out there for independent studios who want to make big games, even worse if you're single-team and don't have a successful franchise to ride or a wealthy benefactor. Trying to make it on PC product is even tougher, and here's why.

    Piracy. Yeah, that's right, I said it. No, I don't want to re-hash the endless "piracy spreads awareness", "I only pirate because there's no demo", "people who pirate wouldn't buy the game anyway" round-robin. Been there, done that. I do want to point to a couple of things, though.

    One, there are other costs to piracy than just lost sales. For example, with TQ, the game was pirated and released on the nets before it hit stores. It was a fairly quick-and-dirty crack job, and in fact, it missed a lot of the copy-protection that was in the game. One of the copy-protection routines was keyed off the quest system, for example. You could start the game just fine, but when the quest triggered, it would do a security check, and dump you out if you had a pirated copy. There was another one in the streaming routine. So, it's a couple of days before release, and I start seeing people on the forums complaining about how buggy the game is, how it crashes all the time. A lot of people are talking about how it crashes right when you come out of the first cave. Yeah, that's right. There was a security check there.

    So, before the game even comes out, we've got people bad-mouthing it because their pirated copies crash, even though a legitimate copy won't. We took a lot of shit on this, completely undeserved mind you. How many people decided to pick up the pirated version because it had this reputation and they didn't want to risk buying something that didn't work? Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecy.

    One guy went so far as to say he'd bought the retail game and it was having the exact same crashes, so it must be the game itself. This was one of the most vocal detractors, and we got into it a little bit. He swore up and down that he'd done everything above-board, installed it on a clean machine, updated everything, still getting the same crashes. It was our fault, we were stupid, our programmers didn't know how to make games - some other guy asked "do they code with their feet?". About a week later, he realized that he'd forgotten to re-install his BIOS update after he wiped the machine. He fixed that, all his crashes went away. At least he was man enough to admit it.

    So, for a game that doesn't have a Madden-sized advertising budget, word of mouth is your biggest hope, and here we are, before the game even releases, getting bashed to hell and gone by people who can't even be bothered to actually pay for the game. What was the ultimate impact of that? Hard to measure, but it did get mentioned in several reviews. Think about that the next time you read "we didn't have any problems running the game, but there are reports on the internet that people are having crashes."

    Two, the numbers on piracy are really astonishing. The research I've seen pegs the piracy rate at between 70-85% on PC in the US, 90%+ in Europe, off the charts in Asia. I didn't believe it at first. It seemed way too high. Then I saw that Bioshock was selling 5 to 1 on console vs. PC. And Call of Duty 4 was selling 10 to 1. These are hardcore games, shooters, classic PC audience stuff. Given the difference in install base, I can't believe that there's that big of a difference in who played these games, but I guess there can be in who actually payed for them.

    Let's dig a little deeper there. So, if 90% of your audience is stealing your game, even if you got a little bit more, say 10% of that audience to change their ways and pony up, what's the difference in income? Just about double. That's right, double. That's easily the difference between commercial failure and success. That's definitely the difference between doing okay and founding a lasting franchise. Even if you cut that down to 1% - 1 out of every hundred people who are pirating the game - who would actually buy the game, that's still a 10% increase in revenue. Again, that's big enough to make the difference between breaking even and making a profit.

    Titan Quest did okay. We didn't lose money on it. But if even a tiny fraction of the people who pirated the game had actually spent some god-damn money for their 40+ hours of entertainment, things could have been very different today. You can bitch all you want about how piracy is your god-given right, and none of it matters anyway because you can't change how people behave... whatever. Some really good people made a seriously good game, and they might still be in business if piracy weren't so rampant on the PC. That's a fact.


    Enough about piracy. Let's talk about hardware vendors. Trying to make a game for PC is a freaking nightmare, and these guys make it harder all the time. Integrated video chips; integrated audio. These were two of our biggest headaches. Not only does this crap make people think - and wrongly - that they have a gaming-capable PC when they don't, the drive to get the cheapest components inevitably means you've got hardware out there with little or no driver support, marginal adherence to standards, and sometimes bizarre conflicts with other hardware.

    And it just keeps getting worse. CD/DVD drives with bad firmware, video cards that look like they should be a step-up from a previous generation, but actually aren't, drivers that need to be constantly updated, separate rendering paths for optimizing on different chips, oh my god. Put together consumers who want the cheapest equipment possible with the best performance, manufacturers who don't give a shit what happens to their equipment once they ship it, and assemblers who need to work their margins everywhere possible, and you get a lot of shitty hardware out there, in innumerable configurations that you can't possibly test against. But, it's always the game's fault when something doesn't work.

    Even if you get over the hump on hardware compatibility - and god knows, the hardware vendors are constantly making it worse - if you can, you still need to deal with software conflicts. There are a lot of apps running on people's machines that they're not even aware of, or have become such a part of the computer they don't even think of them as being apps anymore. IM that's always on; peer-to-peer clients running in the background; not to mention the various adware and malware crap that people pick up doing things they really shouldn't. Trying to run a CPU and memory heavy app in that environment is a nightmare. But, again, it's always the game's fault if it doesn't work.


    Which brings me to the audience. There's a lot of stupid people out there. Now, don't get me wrong, there's a lot of very savvy people out there, too, and there were some great folks in the TQ community who helped us out a lot. But, there's a lot of stupid people. Basic, basic stuff, like updating your drivers, or de-fragging your hard drive, or having antivirus so your machine isn't a teetering pile of rogue programs. PC folks want to have the freedom to do whatever the hell they want with their machines, and god help them they will do it; more power to them, really. But god forbid something that they've done - or failed to do - creates a problem with your game. There are few better examples of the "it can't possibly be my fault" culture in the west than gaming forums.

    And while I'm at it, I don't want to spare the reviewers either. We had one reviewer - I won't name names, you can find it if you look hard enough - who missed the fact that you can teleport from wherever you are in TQ back to any of the major towns you've visited. So, this guy was hand-carting all of his stuff back to town every time his inventory was full. Through the entire game. Now, not only was this in the manual, and in the roll-over tooltips for the UI, but it was also in the tutorial, the very first time you walk past one of these giant pads that lights up like a beacon to the heavens. Nonetheless, he missed it, and he commented in his review how tedious this was and how much he missed being able to portal back to town. When we - and lots of our fans - pointed out that this was the reviewer's fault, not the game's, they amended the review. But, they didn't change the score. Do you honestly think that not having to run back to town all the time to sell your stuff wouldn't have made the game a better experience?

    We had another reviewer who got crashes on both the original and the expansion pack. We worked with him to figure out what was going on; the first time, it was an obscure peripheral that was causing the crash, a classic hardware conflict for a type of hardware that very, very few people have. The second time, it was in a pre-release build that we had told him was pre-release. After identifying the problem, getting him around it, and verifying that the bug was a known issue and had been fixed in the interim, he still ran the story with a prominent mention of this bug. With friends like that...


    Alright, I'm done. Making PC products is not all fun and games. It's an uphill slog, definitely. I'm a lifelong PC gamer, and hope to continue to work on PC games in the future, but man, they sure don't make it easy.

    Best,
    Michael.

  2. #2
    Spinning Toe
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    Suggestion: Never make your program exit directly to desktop with no warning or message due to a failed security check. Instead, display a helpful and politely-worded message box that explains that the security check failed, informs the user that the program cannot continue, and provides a suggestion for how the user can correct the problem.

    That said, I agree with you that it is an uphill battle trying to succeed as a small PC game development studio. Making my one game has pretty much cured me of the desire to ever even play a computer game again, much less attempt to make another one.

  3. #3
    New Romantic
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    What was the reasoning behind making the copy protection look like a game crash? Is it harder to crack if you can't tell a normal crash from one instigated by the copy protection?

  4. #4
    Traded Gears for Mario game Social Worker
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    Nice post, Michael. I'm sorry for your troubles. Good luck!

  5. #5
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    I thought I bought my last PC years ago, but that didn't stop me. Too much good old stuff, and plenty of good new stuff that you can obtain cheaply WITHOUT piracy. As long as I have games like Dominions, Civilization, and Dwarf Fortress, I'll maintain a working PC. I wish you luck continuing what you do best.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Michael Fitch View Post
    So, before the game even comes out, we've got people bad-mouthing it because their pirated copies crash, even though a legitimate copy won't. We took a lot of shit on this, completely undeserved mind you. How many people decided to pick up the pirated version because it had this reputation and they didn't want to risk buying something that didn't work? Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecy.
    Just an aside.

    I have the original copies of both the base game and expansion and everything installed. But I just can't be bothered by copy protection and running the game with the no-cd crack.

    So there's also that minority in there. Legitimate customers who crack the game to avoid hassles.

  7. #7
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    If you own the game but are using a crack and have instability problems, removing the crack should always be your first troubleshooting step.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Morkilus View Post
    As long as I have games like Dominions, Civilization, and Dwarf Fortress, I'll maintain a working PC. I wish you luck continuing what you do best.
    All three of those games you mention are available for the Mac. Without even using Bootcamp and flipping in to Windows :o\

  9. #9
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    One of the copy-protection routines was keyed off the quest system, for example. You could start the game just fine, but when the quest triggered, it would do a security check, and dump you out if you had a pirated copy. There was another one in the streaming routine. So, it's a couple of days before release, and I start seeing people on the forums complaining about how buggy the game is, how it crashes all the time. A lot of people are talking about how it crashes right when you come out of the first cave. Yeah, that's right. There was a security check there.

    So, before the game even comes out, we've got people bad-mouthing it because their pirated copies crash, even though a legitimate copy won't. We took a lot of shit on this, completely undeserved mind you. How many people decided to pick up the pirated version because it had this reputation and they didn't want to risk buying something that didn't work? Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecy.
    Am I understanding this part correctly? You implemented a copy-control system that caused the game to crash without notifying the user that this was a deliberate termination of the game caused by failing an anti-piracy check, not a random crash? Consequently, people who pirated your game described it as being buggy which then caused you to lose sales from legitimate customers.

    So not only did your DRM fail to prevent people from pirating the game, it also cost you sales. You might have been better off if you hadn't used any copy-protection at all (like Stardock); pirates are still going to copy the game, but at least it wouldn't have received a reputation (undeserved, granted, but it happened nonetheless) for being buggy. Is this yet another data point showing that DRM does more harm than good?

    I wonder which of these is greater:

    a) People who would have normally pirated the game but were deterred by the copy-protection, so they bought it instead

    or

    b) People who would have normally bought the game but were deterred by reports from pirates that it was buggy and crashed a lot, so they pirated it instead (or avoided it completely)

    There's probably no way to know for sure, but I suspect there were more people in the second category than the first.

  10. #10
    World's End Supernova
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    I think part of the piracy issue is that most people don't realize how widespread it is because the industry is so unwilling to tell us what their sales actually are. If I hear a corporation telling me "trust us, piracy is bad" I'm likely not going to take them very seriously. On the other hand, if Activision posted or allowed NPD to post the details of actual COD4 sales that showed a massive discrepancy between console and PC sales, then it's going get my attention.

    Finally, there have been some other ways of dealing with copy protection that seem to work, notably how Stardock does it (i.e. they don't have any). It seems to work for them.

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sarkus View Post
    On the other hand, if Activision posted or allowed NPD to post the details of actual COD4 sales that showed a massive discrepancy between console and PC sales, then it's going get my attention.
    That's been pretty commonly quoted as 400,000-ish thousand PC sales versus a bajillion console sales. And the Infinity Ward guys were talking about getting hit with bogus keys for multiplayer on the PC. But I'm sure people will dismiss their data for various reasons.

    Finally, there have been some other ways of dealing with copy protection that seem to work, notably how Stardock does it (i.e. they don't have any). It seems to work for them.
    Stardock should produce a first-person shooter, C&C-style RTS, and/or a Diablo-style RPG to make it a more meaningful comparison, because I'm guessing the audience for turn-based strategy games and epic space RTS games are very different from more action-y RPGs and RTS games.

  12. #12
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    I don't think you can look at console sales vs PC sales and automatically assume the disparity is due to piracy.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Michael Fitch View Post
    ...There are few better examples of the "it can't possibly be my fault"...
    If you stare into the Abyss long enough the Abyss stares back at you.

    I really feel sorry for you guys, and you did good work. But why blame everyone else for your failure?

  14. #14
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    Yeah, I didnt steal TQ, but I WOULD buy it if it was on a 360. My laptop cant run it, and my giant lian li noisy fucking thing is sitting in a closet.

  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by malkav11 View Post
    I don't think you can look at console sales vs PC sales and automatically assume the disparity is due to piracy.
    Of course not. But I'm sure Infinity Ward knows how many hits they get on their servers for invalid multiplayer codes. And when they look at their overall sales, they have to think that these are people who apparently could run the game and wanted to player multiplayer, but they chose not to buy it.

    And that's pretty frustrating.

    On another PC related note, we pulled some disturbing numbers this past week about the amount of PC players currently playing Multiplayer (which was fantastic). What wasn't fantastic was the percentage of those numbers who were playing on stolen copies of the game on stolen / cracked CD keys of pirated copies (and that was only people playing online).

  16. #16
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    TQ was quite buggy at first, with intermittent freezes and annoying slowdowns even on ubercomputers. It was not a polished release and reviewers serviced their readers by mentioning these bugs.

    As for the piracy discussion, I don't really think anything new remains to be said.

  17. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by malkav11 View Post
    I don't think you can look at console sales vs PC sales and automatically assume the disparity is due to piracy.
    Indeed.

    I'm an avid PC gamer and have pretty decent hardware (Geforce 8800GTS, 2GB RAM, etc.), but I bought Bioshock for my 360 so I can play it on my couch using my 40" HDTV and Dolby surround sound setup (and because I'm an achievenment whore). For almost any game that has both a 360 and PC release, I'll choose the console version. I don't think console sales being greater than PC sales for the same game can be solely attributed to piracy, but it probably does play a part.

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by milo View Post
    Suggestion: Never make your program exit directly to desktop with no warning or message due to a failed security check. Instead, display a helpful and politely-worded message box that explains that the security check failed, informs the user that the program cannot continue, and provides a suggestion for how the user can correct the problem.
    I couldn't agree more. It strikes me as phenomenally stupid to not put a dialog box up. I know they might not want to, to make it harder for the hackers to properly crack the game, but what do they think is going to happen? Do you honestly think the little thieves are going to go 'man I shouldn't pirate games, then they would never crash'? No, they are going to instead go online and post all over what a buggy POS your game is.

    Other security systems that introduce random bugs or an inability to complete quests with no message are just fucking dumb. It has ZERO effect on piracy, and all kinds of negative publicity.

    I like online activation myself. Well actually I hate it, but if it means a reduction in piracy then I am all for it. Doubt it helps either come to think of it.

  19. #19
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    Quote Originally Posted by stusser View Post
    TQ was quite buggy at first, with intermittent freezes and annoying slowdowns even on ubercomputers.
    It wasn't buggy. I played it for dozens of hours when it first came out and I never once crashed till I tried a no cd hack to fix another problem. A performance glitch would develop in certain areas that would drag my ubercomputer to it's knees but it didn't impact gameplay too terribly much. The spots were isolated and far between.

  20. #20
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    One, there are other costs to piracy than just lost sales. For example, with TQ, the game was pirated and released on the nets before it hit stores. It was a fairly quick-and-dirty crack job, and in fact, it missed a lot of the copy-protection that was in the game. One of the copy-protection routines was keyed off the quest system, for example. You could start the game just fine, but when the quest triggered, it would do a security check, and dump you out if you had a pirated copy. There was another one in the streaming routine. So, it's a couple of days before release, and I start seeing people on the forums complaining about how buggy the game is, how it crashes all the time. A lot of people are talking about how it crashes right when you come out of the first cave. Yeah, that's right. There was a security check there.

    This whole situation is at least partially the developers fault. As mentioned in another post, the game shouldn't have just appeared to crash to desktop if that isn't what happened. I know the reasoning behind this is to confuse the pirates and make them wonder if the game is properly cracked or not, but I don't think that is a useful thing to do and it certainly isn't worth it if the end result is that your game gets a reputation as being a buggy mess due to the pirate crowd. Keep in mind that I am not condoning piracy in any way, shape or form here, I've just always thought that making your game crash on purpose due to piracy or making your application save wrong data or making your CD burning program burn a coaster every 3 burns or the various other destructive-in-ways-that-aren't-clearly-due-to-copy-protection are fucking stupid. What could they possibly ever accomplish? Do you think a pirate is going to run a game, get crashes to desktop every 10 minutes and decide to buy the game because maybe the retail runs better? In an ideal world where retail games weren't such buggy messes on a regular basis, maybe, but we've never lived in that world.


    And not all "pirates" are pirates. I mean, how often do you see on this very forum people suggesting that the 1st thing you do after installing some game is to install the NoCD crack? Those people are going to just add to the chorus of the real pirates and your game is going to really seem like a buggy piece of shit. Crashing the game with no warning due to "piracy" is just so fucking dumb, dumb, dumb.


    Having said that -- PC gaming is d0med, and piracy is one of the biggest reasons. You can't look at the soaring fortunes of Nvidia vs the waning fortunes on anyone still in the PC game market exclusively and come to any other conclusion.
    Last edited by Coca Cola Zero; 02-28-2008 at 02:25 PM.

  21. #21
    Account closed World's End Supernova
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    When I was learning to make games, I was dead set against working on console games. Nowadays, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

    Michael, your experiences mimics many of my own, and many of my friends who've developed PC games.

    I think I speak for most developers when I say fuck the PC. Even if they keep making PC games, fuck the PC. It's a tar pit of shit, and it's not going to get any better.

    Slap a mouse and keyboard on consoles and be done with it.

    Also, re: Copy protection crash, for those attacking Michael for it. A lot of the time, these systems are black boxes, with magic functions you just call. There often isn't even an interface to handle a failed check, as the copy protection does it all internally.

    Partially this is to make devs' lives easier, as if they had to handle a return code for every place they slapped the check, it would drastically increase the work they'd have to do to implement the copy protection.

    Damned if you do. Damned if you don't.

    PC Gaming has claimed another life. Fuck the PC.

  22. #22
    Traded Gears for Mario game Social Worker
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    Dominions 3 used a 'crash to desktop' exit for pirated versions. There was a post about it by one of the devs. I dunno if it hurt them terribly, but they are still in business :o

    [This is directed at the folks pointing out what a bad idea that is, it's not directed at Michael. I have no sense of the value of handling it that way, I just thought it interesting that TQ isn't the only game that uses it.]
    Last edited by metta; 02-28-2008 at 02:22 PM.

  23. #23
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    Quote Originally Posted by Charles View Post
    Also, re: Copy protection crash, for those attacking Michael for it. A lot of the time, these systems are black boxes, with magic functions you just call. There often isn't even an interface to handle a failed check, as the copy protection does it all internally.
    We are not attacking Michael, I doubt he had anything to do with the situation. It doesn't matter who is at fault, it's still royally fucking stupid. It's guaranteed bad publicity with no upside. It sucks that's it's even a factor, but that doesn't change the sheer inanity of it.

    We are not even arguing that copy protection is bad here, just this specific type of implementation. It helps nobody.

  24. #24
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    Right, but telling a guy who just lost his job about how stupid it is when there is, in all likelihood, nothing him or his coworkers could've done about it is just insensitive and makes you look like a giant retarded prick.

    Probably wasn't even Iron Lore's choice -- THQ probably picked the poison that killed them.

  25. #25
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    Who says there's nothing they could have done about it? It's just code, man; you can do anything.

    Bruce

  26. #26
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    Quote Originally Posted by SirBruce View Post
    Who says there's nothing they could have done about it? It's just code, man; you can do anything.

    Bruce
    Not when you are using precompiled obfuscated libraries given to you by a third party.

    Not a programmer, huh?

  27. #27
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    Unless you're blaming Microsoft, and you haven't demonstrated yet that they were the culprit, then you use another third party. But even then, so what? You can put a wrapper around that. You can do your pirate check earlier in the game so it doesn't look like a bug. You can announce the pirate check before doing it. There's a lot you can do.

    Bruce

  28. #28
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    The established amount of consoles in homes is very nice and dandy, but everyone and the cat has a computer. So why does COD4 sell 10 to 1 on consoles vs pc?

    For the same reason The Orange Box sells a lot more on the PC than it sells on consoles, STEAM is a secure environment, that fixes the problem with piracy.

    Giving the fact that COD4 plays itself much better with a mouse, if some practical way of combating piracy through a secure environment was in place than the sales would be much higher. That's why MMORPGs can get to be a success as they are.

    More casual friendly games will do fine, like the Sims or Bejeweled, because their prime target audience isn't tech savy enough to download the games, or ends downloading some horse and sheep pRon since they can't figure it out how it's done.

    More hardcore games for hardcore gamers are simply pirated to death. Either the PC goes to the digital download path or the STEAM path or things will just get worse.

    Good luck for the people at the studio, your games were fine.

  29. #29
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    We can point out, quite legitimately, that TQ's particular implementation of copy protection was less than ideal. But we should also remember that it ONLY mattered because piracy was rampant.

    Sticking our heads in the sand and constructing hypothetical reasons why piracy isn't as bad as it's made out to be is getting PC gaming nowhere. It's bad. It's really bad. The publishers all know it, most of the developers know it.

    The fact of the matter is that anti-piracy solutions on the PC are crap. They don't stop pirates, and they cause problems for legit customers. They're usually middleware solutions, and it looks to me more like snake-oil than anything else.

    Someone needs to really step up to the plate, here. Someone named Microsoft. They have low-level access to the OS. They need to build MUCH harder-to-crack hooks into the OS to allow legit software to run and provide graceful error messages when it won't. They need to build access to this into an easy-to-implement API that is flexible enough for developers to do piracy checks in different ways (disc check, online check/activation, checks during gameplay, or any combination). DirectSecurity or something. Give it away for free, but of course shipping a game with it would require a license (so the pirates couldn't just fake API calls and returns). Make the license fee nominal - a real no-brainer.

    Charles - yes, it's a tar pit of shit in many ways. :( It's also great in many ways. A mouse and keyboard isn't going to fly in the majority of living rooms in the world, though. Nobody wants that crap on the their coffee table. I'm not sure I'd say it's never going to get better... but it certainly won't if the developers and publishers don't demand it.

    Publishers and developers meet with Microsoft on a regular basis to discuss all kinds of business shit, but I somehow doubt they're saying, with one loud unified voice, "look, I don't give a shit about the next DirectX or the GFW tag on my box. Do something about my piracy and QA problems."

    There's a lot than CAN be done about this, but it all takes time and money that the publishers and developers don't want to spend. Hell, even the anti-piracy middleware guys don't want to spend the time and money. Microsoft has a platform to protect, and deeper access into it's low-level systems than anyone. They can fix this. They SHOULD fix this. They AREN'T fixing this, and that's what needs to change.

  30. #30
    New Romantic
    Join Date
    Jul 2003
    Posts
    5,202
    Quote Originally Posted by Charles View Post
    Right, but telling a guy who just lost his job about how stupid it is when there is, in all likelihood, nothing him or his coworkers could've done about it is just insensitive and makes you look like a giant retarded prick.
    I didn't think Michael lost his job. I thought he worked for the publisher and just heavily worked with Iron Lore. Wrong?

    As an end user this time all I can say is how stupid it looks. I guess that is pretty insulting, for which I apologize. My heart absolutely sunk when I saw the announcement this morning. I don't care about RTS games but I had high hopes ILE would return to another genre I did like.

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