Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Diablo III and "Always On" DRM

[Article first published as Diablo III and "Always On" DRM on Blogcritics.]

Over time, publishers have resorted to multiple methods of enforcing digital rights management (DRM) on many forms of media, but it started with games.  Of course this had its humble beginnings in software keys, but some games had some fun with it.  The very old Monty Python’s Flying Circus game for example (yeah, it existed) was DRM equipped way back in 1990, where to begin my quest I had to correctly identify a brick of cheese based on a list provided with the game.  LucasArts had a similar system with the Monkey Island series of games in the 1990’s, having the user match up three sections of the included “dial-a-pirate” and enter the corresponding code  (earlier titles also featured DRM).  But of course soon a bunch of companies dropped the gamification of DRM methods (for lack of a better term) and started going the more straightforward route.  More recently Ubisoft led the charge with their hated “always on” DRM system – meaning that even if you wanted to play one of their single player games, the game still had to check in with Ubisoft servers to make sure your copy was legit.  Internet not working?  Well that sucks for you, Chuckles, because neither is your game.

The reason I bring this up is due to the number of users having always on issues with the still-fresh-out-of-the-oven release of Diablo III – including myself.  Last night I joined a game with a few friends and we started chugging along the first questline for the Skeleton King.  As we were just getting to the final dungeon for that quest, my friends started dropping out of the game one by one, until, while exploring the dungeons, enemies stopped chasing me and I realized something was wrong before I got the boot.  Trying to log in several times after this I was greeted with multiple errors that all pointed to the Diablo servers being down, from authentication issues to being unable to connect to the servers to a message that flat out told me the server was unavailable.  So now what?  With the servers being down, logic would dictate that I could no longer play a group game with my friends.  Sure, makes sense.  But the real issue to me was that I couldn’t even play alone.  Without being able to connect to Blizzard servers, I couldn’t even see my character list.  This happens in Blizzard’s MMO World of Warcraft as well when I can’t connect, but I have no problem with that.  The point of an MMO is that the game is based online.  So what the hell is this MMO feature doing in my single-player game?

 This was never an issue with Diablo II.  My copy was registered to me and if anyone else that wasn’t me tried to get onto they simply wouldn’t be allowed.  I had the freedom to play the single player campaign which gave me randomly generated maps every time through, let me pause the game if I had to step away from the computer, and most importantly, play it whenever the hell I wanted.  And if I had the desire to play with friends, which I did frequently, we would simply start a LAN game or get on open and go to town.  Or play my separate characters.  So why on earth would they change stuff up now?

Last August, Blizzard’s VP of Online Technologies Robert Bridenbecker sat down with MTV to discuss the always on issue and said the following: "Internally I don't think [DRM] ever actually came up when we talked about how we want connections to operate. Things that came up were always around the feature-set, the sanctity of the actual game systems like your characters. You're guaranteeing that there are no hacks, no dupes. All of these things were points of discussion, but the whole copy protection, piracy thing, that's not really entering into why we want to do it. I'm a huge purveyor of online sites and from my standpoint, I don't look at DRM solutions and go, 'Wow, those are awesome.' I look at those and say, 'Wow, those kind of suck.' But if there's a compelling reason for you to have that online connectivity that enhances the gameplay, that doesn't suck. That's awesome."

Diablo III Senior Producer Alex Mayberry also cited World of Warcraft as evidence of this being the direction gaming is going, but as I mentioned I don’t see how comparing a game with single player component to an MMO that has no single player components is valid.  I still think the shortcomings outweigh the benefits.  Sure, I understand that in Diablo II, since the characters were stored on my computer, I could lose my character in a computer crash or alter and create characters and equipment out of game.  But I could still play whenever the hell I wanted.  And Diablo III now has a battletag system for communication and stores characters safe and sound on their servers.  But I still can’t play whenever the hell I want.  Worthless account-wide achievements so players can show off?  Sweet!  But I still can’t play whenever the hell I want.

You sensing a theme yet?

In addition to that glaring shortcoming, what happens to “hardcore” mode characters?  When a disconnect happens or you log off or even if you join someone else’s game, you still take 10 seconds worth of damage from anything you happen to be around.  In regular mode that may not be too big of an issue but if your internet drops in hardcore mode, you could in theory be waving bye bye to that character forever.

Even if, as Mr. Bridenbecker says, that the always connected systems were built around features and not with DRM in mind, I’m sure other publishers who are watching this topic will be taking it the other direction.  They’ll look at Diablo III, which is still going to be wildly successful and sell nothing less than a ridiculous amount of copies, and more importantly how they did it all with an always on DRM methodology.  It’s what makes publishers drool dollar signs and lawyers thankful that they’re on retainer.  It may inspire other publishers to make this the standard, locking out single player modes and ultimately turn gaming into a type of enterprise-grade software as a service that my colleagues and I have to deal with in IT.  This in turn would act as a deterrent to piracy, sure, but could also end up actively working against consumers.  Some people travel a lot.  Some people don't have access to super high speed internet connections.  And with rumored methods of blocking used games in next-gen consoles, I shudder to think what the combination of both would be, as well as the eventual spread to other forms of media like movies and television.  It could set a horrifying anti-consumer precedent.

Bottom line – with the exception of MMOs, players shouldn’t be locked out of single-player content.  Period.  Ever.  It is sad because Diablo III is otherwise a very well put-together game with far more polished mechanics than its predecessors.  But unfortunately, its “always on” methodology strikes me something ill, and it’s still a single player game I can’t play whenever the hell I want.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Microsoft's New Mobile Phone-Style Xbox Live Contracts no Longer a Rumor

[Article first published as Microsoft's New Mobile Phone-Style Xbox Live Contracts no Longer a Rumor on Blogcritics.]

Over the years, especially in electronics, we’ve all seen changes in how companies charge users.  Fading are the days when a customer would by hard and tangible “things” and what’s showing up to take that's place is the sale of services, either in replacement of or addition to these things we think we own.  Sure you paid for your smartphone, but how much convenience does it add to your life if you’re not paying per month for voice and data?  How many people do you know who don’t buy DVDs or Blu-rays anymore because of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu?  Do you still see high numbers of physical servers and hardware in your IT department’s closets or are they starting to move towards cloud-based SaaS subscriptions?  And after work you’re not taking your Xbox 360 out for a spin to play with your friends until you pony up for a LIVE subscription.  You see kids?  Subscriptions and contracts.  That’s how things roll these days.

In some ways it makes sense.  There are certain situations where there’s a lot of cost savings involved for both the supplier and the consumer with subscriptions for services.  For those in the gaming world I’m sure you’re extremely familiar with this system – Xbox LIVE memberships, subscription payments for World of Warcraft and a couple of other MMO games.  The upside is that there’s no contract that locks you in – so if someone wanted to cancel their World of Warcraft account for example, they could do it tomorrow and not pay a single red cent after their last payment went through.  Cell phones carriers are the other end of the spectrum – selling phones at a huge discount but locking you in for a two year contract, with an early termination fee ranging from $200 to $350 for a cancellation.  So why is this relevant?

There have been rumors floating around that Microsoft was going to adopt a similar model to the cell phone one for Xbox 360 units and LIVE gold subscriptions – selling a subsidized 4GB model then locking the customer in for two years on contract.  And those rumors have been solidified, complete with early termination fees.  Sure the fee isn’t as harsh as mobile carriers, but they are in the same spirit of a mobile contract.  The difference is, there’s pretty much a guarantee that I’ll be using cellular service for 2 years.  Xbox LIVE?  Maybe.

The contract is laid out like this – Microsoft will sell you an Xbox 360 4GB with a Kinect sensor unit for $99.  OK, so far so good.  The $99 price is contingent on the aforementioned two year contract of $14.99 per month.  Sounds reasonable on its face until you do the math.  Let’s have a look see.  Suppose I go out and buy a retail Xbox 360 4GB unit with a Kinect sensor.  That would cost me $299.  Then I buy a retail Xbox LIVE gold membership for two years.  12-month cards are $59.99 each, putting my 2 years of membership at retail cost at about $120.  My final price, after two years, is about $420.  Now let’s look at the subsidized bundle.  I pay $99 for the Xbox 360 unit.  I then pay $14.99 for 24 months.  My final price for my two year contract is $458.76, which is over $30 on top of retail. After crunching these numbers, there’s really no incentive.  And I’m not even counting sales on sites like Amazon and NewEgg, where I’ve seen 12-month gold cards go as low as $40.  I’ve done a little additional math of my own factoring in early termination fees and the users’ total cost for cancelling every month for each of the 24 months.  Simply put, there isn’t any short game play that would benefit the user financially to bring their total cost below the straight retail route.

I understand that this plan is structured for the “gotta have it now but don’t have the scratch” crowd.  It’s the exact same thing with smartphone users who wouldn’t be able to afford buying a smartphone flat out, or extending the number of years on a car loan to make smaller payments.  You’ll have the product now, but you’ll pay more in the long run.  If you watch the sales and scour the interwebs, you can find cheap subscription cards and like-new used or refurbished units and spend less than $400 now, saving yourself more than 50 bucks in the long run.

Plus, two years?  What happens if the Xbox 720 comes out and you’re still in year two of your contract?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

More Patent Wars - Motorola's Unenforceable Injunction against Microsoft

Every day I peruse the tech news on the interwebs to keep up with what’s going on.  There are usually a few interesting stories on some sort of technology development or new games coming out, but what I’ve found over the last year is that those types of stories have been dwarfed in number by news on the business side of technology.  Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – I’m both a nerd and a business guy so that intersection of topics definitely interests me.  But it’s the stories that accompany the ones about tech business dealings that make my head hurt.  And all of those stories are on tech patents and lawsuits.

There’s a certain extent to which a defense of patents and intellectual property is reasonable.  That’s the point of the patent system as it was designed – to defend inventors from someone else taking the idea and running with it for profit, protecting them from being victims of corporate theft and economies of scale.  And that works for the most part when it comes to tangible goods or the processes to manufacture said goods.  But trying to apply that same system to technology, namely software, unfortunately can become nothing short of a series of legal quagmires.  Patents can be awarded to very broad solutions and nebulous ideas that there’s no present method to develop, or that could possibly have multiple methods of execution.  Put those patents in the hands of patent trolls and watch them kick back, send their legal attack dogs, and either kill a dream for kicks or pick up royalties.  And in my personal, non-lawyer opinion, I can see how that could stifle and suppress innovation in startups and small firms, who simply can’t afford a potential patent lawsuit from a larger company with deeper pockets.  Something has to change.

It’s nothing new.  I know, as you all do, that this type of thing has been going on more and more as the mobile space has grown.  But that doesn’t preclude me from reading the news and cringing a little bit when i see some of the fallout.  Today was such a day with such stories that irked my nerdy ire.  Motorola Mobility, the broken-off mobile piece of the once whole Motorola, and who i will be referring to as “MoMo” for the rest of this, won an injunction against Microsoft in Germany.  The injunction is in the form of a sales ban covering Xbox 360 game consoles, the Windows 7 line of operating systems, Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player in Germany.  That means every Xbox 360 and every copy of Windows 7 would have to be taken off the shelves.  The reason? H.264 video.  For those not in the know, H.264 is a video codec that covers many aspects of HD video.  One of its claims to fame comes thanks to Blu-Ray players, which all have to be able to decode H.264 video streams.  Online video content delivery through Flash and sites like YouTube use H.264 to get it done too.

What MoMo sued for wasn’t actually for H.264 itself, but two patents that they hold for the delivery of H.264 video.  Their claim is that Microsoft never properly licensed said technologies, and have convinced a Mannheim Court in Germany of that as well.  But it’s not that simple. A United States court has banned MoMo from enforcing that injunction until they review the matter next week.  And in the meantime, Microsoft has gone ahead and moved their European software distribution center from Germany to the Netherlands to mitigate the action.  You see, earlier on Microsoft previously accused MoMo of abusing its FRAND obligations – providing licensing under fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms to licensors as a standard setting entity.  According to Microsoft, those licensing fees from MoMo would come with a price tag in the neighborhood of $4 billion.  So in addition to the German court and US court, the European Commission could also look into this, as they’re already carrying out a probe on MoMo’s supposed “abuse of a dominant market position.”  This is the first step in what is sure to be a long and hugely drawn out process.

On another level, trying to ban Windows 7?  You're telling me MoMo is 100% Mac and Linux in their enterprise setup?

But that wasn’t all for today.  Another report featured Nokia’s new patent assault against HTC, RIM and Viewsonic for infringement on 45 patents in their portfolio.  They’ve already been successful once in suing Apple into a licensing deal for the iPhone, but details on which 45 patents have yet to be released at the time of my writing this.  Now this one I can sort of understand.  It looks like they’re trying to mitigate some financial hits with some additional revenue streams until the Lumia becomes more widely popular.  So while this one didn’t strike a nerve as badly, it still made me shake my head a little.

It just seems to me that the undeniable amount of effort (not to mention cash money) funneled into patent assaults could be redirected into more product development.  There’s a lot of really basic things the mobile world has yet to figure out, like coming up with technologies for things like more efficient batteries.  Put more effort into putting quality products into the hands of the consumers, not quality money into the hands of your lawyers.  Think about the good of the game.