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Intermission: General rant against retail PC games

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Trapper Zoid


This week I'm busy writing another conference paper (well, maybe I've been more busy procrastinating over writing this conference paper, which is why I'm writing this), so there won't be much more done on Project Nova until next week.

However, as an intermission from Project Nova and the "Spring's Quest" series of entries, I'll write about my experience with the demos of two recent games, "Age of Empires III" and "F.E.A.R". Sub-titled "Why I hardly ever buy any full-priced PC games anymore". So let the rant begin!

As a break from paper writing, I decided to try out the two game demos that came with the copy of apc magazine that I bought on the weekend. First off was "Age of Empires III", a game demo that I've been wanting to try out. I thought "Age of Empires II" was reasonably good, although maybe a little bland.

The installation seems to take forever, and finally the installer spits back an error "Out of drive space on C:". C is my Windows XP system partition, and I wasn't installing there, but I guess that the installer ran out of swap space while installing to my applications partition. I fix up the swap space and try again; same problem. It seems I filled up too much space temporarily copying the F.E.A.R. demo to the desktop. I'm not sure I can blame this on Age of Empires III, but it was certainly annoying.

After fixing the disk space problem, I try again to install the game. It still seems to take forever (guess it wasn't just a memory thrashing problem after all). Once installed, I try to fire up the demo. The game immediately asks me to agree to its EULA. Skimming through the document I notice it has all the usual clauses like being licensed to only one user and being locked to one machine. Very good, I'll make sure I won't share your game demo with any other potential customers.

Now I finally get the game running. For the demo version, it seems Microsoft Game Studios has given me the option of a campaign mission, a single player skirmish against the computer, and multiplayer. However, the "Learn How To Play" button is greyed out. Obviously learning how to play isn't important for a demo.

Since I haven't a clue how to play the game, I decide to try out a skirmish against the computer set to "Sandbox" difficulty. The game starts; I've got a small town hall, a bunch of farm workers, and an explorer. Not sure what to do, I send the explorer out the edge of the "fog of war", pause the game to study the U.I, and the game completely locks up. I decide I've had enough of "Age of Empires III" for now.

Next up is "F.E.A.R."; I've heard good things about this game, and I loved Monolith's "Blood", "Claw" and "No One Lives Forever" series. I click on the installer; and the computer seems to freeze up again. Thinking this might be a residue from "Age of Empires III", I reset and try again; the same thing happens. It seems the installer was just unpacking the data files, but it gave no visual clue as to what it was doing. I go off and read some background material for my paper for five minutes as the installer seems to do nothing.

Finally, the installer gets things rolling. However, first up not only am I expected to click on another EULA stating that I won't share this demo with any other prospective customers, I also have to do an "birthday test" to ensure that this violent demo doesn't fall into the hands of a minor. I guess those of you who are under 18 are all too honest to lie about your birthday to an install program. Since I am over 18 and tend to lie on these type of things as a matter of principle (in case they really are covertly storing the data for their nefarious ends), I tell "F.E.A.R." that I was born on April the first, 1755. It doesn't seem to have a problem with that (I guess "F.E.A.R." doesn't discriminate against the undead).

Once running, "F.E.A.R." seemed to work fairly well; no freezing problem like with "Age of Empires III". It's a bit sluggish on my three year old machine, but I didn't fiddle too much with the settings. My main gripe is that the game doesn't seem to have that quality that I like to call "soul"; that sort of mystical property that makes a game seem so compelling that I can't quite define properly. I guess it's because "F.E.A.R." just seems so bland; as far as I could tell, I'm some kind of psi-ops guy with the power use "bullet time" (wow, how original), who has to shoot up a "clone army" (wow again). The graphics are all very nice, and the A.I. seemed pretty good, but the enemies just didn't have the charm of the cultists from "Blood" or the henchmen in "No One Lives Forever". The game seemed just all around "meh", so I quit when I eventually got gunned down.

I decided to use the rest of my break time playing F-Zero GX on my Gamecube instead.

Now what was the point of this combination of mini-review and whining rant, other than filling space in my journal? (and as an excuse to not work on my paper; well, maybe that's the real reason) It's just that I find that this experience is representative of what the retail PC game market is like for me these days. I am increasingly getting sick and tired of all the rigmarole that I have to go through in order to get most PC games to work. After deciphering whether or not that latest game will work on your computer or not, you have to spend up a significant amount of time installing the thing, dealing with pointless and legally questionable EULAs, and copy protection which is more of a pain for legit. customers than the pirates (I've had my share of games that I've bought that won't even run in my CD drive without having to crack them, and that makes me really uncomfortable). And then the game more often than it should turns out to be a bug-riddled derivative mess. As far as bugs go, I thought I was getting better at avoiding these by waiting for reviews or only buying from trusted companies, but the only full-priced retail PC game I've bought all year was "Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II", so you can see how well that strategy has worked for me (oh Lucasarts, how far you have fallen!). However the derivativeness is really starting to get to me; the shelves are full of cookie-cutter boxes that no longer have any appeal to me. Do we really need more WWII games? Or more FPS games with almost exactly the same gameplay as every other FPS game for the last decade?

Don't get me wrong; I still like games. Playing through the old collection of PC games I've gathered over the years is still fun. Console games (in general) are still awesome. Budget PC games are also good value too; while they sometimes suck at least I haven't wasted ninety bucks on a single stinker. Indie games are also appealing. And there's an occasional retail PC game that I've really enjoyed, like "Sid Meier's Pirates!". But I've finding that these days most of the shiny new titles that the huge PC gaming machine are trying to sell to me no longer interest me. Is it just that I'm too old these days, my gaming appreciation still lodged back in the nineties? Or maybe I've just played all those genres to death? Or maybe I'm just jaded from all the broken promises, so when a new game such as "The Movies" is announced which should (for the description) be utterly groundbreaking, all I can remember is how rotten "Black and White" was. I suppose I should try to find out, since I'm planning on eventually selling my own games; I'll have to take stock of why I'm sick of the present market and plan my own strategy accordingly. And for all of you making your own games there's a market segment here for you to aim for, even if it turns out that that market segment consists of just me [wink].

All I can add to this is that I had more fun playing "Ninja Loves Pirate" and "Against the Dead" than I did with the demos of "Age of Empires III" and "F.E.A.R.". And I didn't have any trouble installing them, either.

End rant.
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True, but I think PC game have always been like this. I had a collection of various different boot disks to get games working on my old 286. I still have nightmares about getting Lemmings 2 working (choosing between having sound or mouse control because there isn't enough base memory for both).

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Heh, I remember having to do the same thing with Lemmings 2 as well. I think I had to use a special mouse driver with a tiny memory footprint just to get it to work. I also had half a dozen boot settings each for different games for different combinations of mouse, sound, high memory managers and later on CD-ROM drivers.

That being said, I would have hoped that the PC game market would have moved away from that by now. It's also a bit weird that I've having so much trouble with the demos; I'd have thought that a demo should be precision engineered in order to sell the product to me, not drive me away.

Maybe I'm just miffed that my "Age of Empires III" demo keeps hanging on me [smile]. That game looks like it might be fun, if I could just get the thing to run. But I don't really have time to spend hours trying to tweak the thing to get it working.

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We've got the technology now that I personally feel it's reasonable to expect we shouldn't have to fiddle around to get a game to work anymore.

Where's my smooth, easy, fast installation?
Why are new games still filling the registry with crap that isn't removed properly, and leaving a mess on my harddisk when I uninstall them?
Where's the long promised gameplay without loading times (ok, so there are some, but it's still a lot rarer than it should be)?
Why am I still being subjected to a barage of multiple splash-screens before even getting to a (often poorly designed) menu, and why the hell are they still occasionally unskippable???

Installation should be simple and intuitive. It should allow you to choose the install path, and should make placement of shortcuts on my system optional. It shouldn't make me click through any screen that serves no purpose, and it should overall make me click through as few screens as can neatly present the required options. Installation progress should be displayed.

Games shouldn't use the registry to store some random data that really belongs in an .ini or config file of some sort. If a game has a good reason to store data in the registry it should clean it up properly and completely on uninstallation. All installed files, folders, shortcuts should be removed on uninstallation (with an option to leave profiles/scores/savegames please). I shouldn't have to go to extreme efforts to remove a game; I want an uninstaller shortcut on the start menu with the game itself, and I want it to appear in the add/remove programs list.

Don't make me sit through cutscenes or intro movies if I don't want to, and definately don't make me sit through a damned splash-screen. Fancy animated menus may look cool, but unless they're also functional and intuitive they're an annoyance. I definately don't want to sit at a loading screen before I can see a menu (potentially excusable if it'll save on loading before gameplay).

Loading should be non-obvious to the player if possible (i.e. no loading screens), but if it must be done display the progress somehow, and give me a way to get out of the game if I need to.

Err, I mean... yeah. Well said.

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Bah, since everybody here is ranting, here is my turn: installers. I'm tired of demos (or sometimes even full games) that require that you download a zip, in which you find the setup files, which themselves install into a temporary directory in which you'll find the installer (Plus when you uninstall the demo, it'll only remove the final package, not all these "temporary" files). With demos commonly exceeding the hundreds of megabytes.. it's getting really annoying.

I couldn't agree more on the splash screens by the way. I'll never buy an Electronic Arts game again for that reason. It might be okay in a demo, but after i bought the game, why am i still presented with unskippable screens filled of logos and marketing bullshit ?

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