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Why you shouldn't play Beyond: Two Souls more than once

Oct 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]263299:50845:0[/embed] I only replayed one section of Beyond: Two Souls, and it wasn’t voluntary. I don’t know if it’s actually possible to “fail” in the game (I never did, despite being pretty terrible at some of lengthier fight scenes), but for whatever reason my copy decided to freeze at the end of the chapter called “Homeless” (seen above). During that section’s big action setpiece at the end, my fingers had slipped off the analog sticks during a vital moment and I lost control, causing unfortunate consequences for Jodie. In the ensuing cutscene, everyone was being sad and as the camera started to lift up and survey the scene, it just froze. I wasn’t really sure what was going on -- the dialogue continued, making it seem like this was supposed to happen, but maybe I had hit a game over, “Snake, SNAKE, SNAAAAAKE” style (a connection I make because I was constantly reminded of the Metal Gear Solid series, especially in the latter half of the game).  But I chalked it up to my accidentally putting some paper in front of my PS3’s vents, because the system was crazy hot. I let it cool overnight, and in the morning I was ready to play it again. So I did, and something interesting happened: I didn’t mess up. It turns out there was another few minutes of gameplay and an entirely different end to the scene, but then it froze again. Curious if my copy was defective, I had actually written up an email to the lovely Jim Sterling asking if he had been having that issue (not that he would have answered me, but whatever), when I thought, “What if I just need to clean the disc?” And turns out, despite there being exactly zero visible marks on the disc, that rubbing it along my shirt made it work the third time. And in that third time, I forced myself into the same position I had been the first time around, because that was the narrative I had set for myself the first time around. It turned out that the game was supposed to continue, with the same end result being caused by a radically different event. I thought that was cool, and it showed me that small things can have big changes on a moment-to-moment basis, even though I doubt many of them are meaningful in a broader context. But I also never wanted to experience it again. Earlier in the game, I had done things, chose responses, that I felt were proper (for example, I “shrugged” every single time I was given the option), and I was planning on going through some of these chapters again to see what I was missing. But seeing the way “Homeless” changed, I realized that doing so would break what I remember Beyond to be. What I think Beyond is. The game has a 2,000-page script, and I saw at most two-thirds of it and probably quite a bit less, but aside from the likelihood that the rest of the script isn’t particularly well written, it’s that I wanted to keep my story the way I had seen it unfold. And it’s not just Beyond. In Mass Effect 2, I never went to the Citadel. I skipped a massive chunk of content. I have no idea what happens in that section of the game, and I think that’s amazing. Hundreds of hours of work went into content that I gleefully skipped. The fact that the vast majority of players did go to the Citadel (I told a friend that I had done that and he didn’t even believe it was possible) means they had a very different experience with that game than I did. In my Mass Effect 2 universe, nobody actually knows that Commander Shepard is still alive, and that’s the way I wanted it. I’ll never get the achievements for going both Renegade and Paragon (Renegade all the way, baby), but I have my consistent character that I kept across both games (never played ME3, for various reasons). It’s my little version of the games that nobody else saw in quite the same way.  The rise of emergent systems in games like the numbered Far Cry sequels means that people are having truly unique experiences. They tell stories of games that play out only as they saw them. That kind of unique storytelling is what traditional narrative games can’t really reach, but these choice-driven games give people the ability to have these one-of-a-kind experiences. Over the course of Beyond’s ten hours, I made tons of choices, some of them blatant and others hidden. Sometimes it wasn’t even a choice but a mistake. Because I never quite got the hang of the weird controls, there were more than a couple of instances where I very clearly screwed up, and I knew that if I had just moved the stick properly, things would have turned out differently, though how differently I couldn't say. On a second, third, fourth playthrough I could see many of those slight changes and get a different experience. Heck, there are at least five different endings, but I went with the only one that made sense to me. It’s entirely possible that if I had played through the game differently, those other options would have been more attractive to me.  But the “What if’s are all-but-certainly more tantalizing than the reality, and the reality is that my story was just that: my story. Sure, I was forced to follow the rules predetermined by David Cage and his crew, but just because he knew every possible dialogue choice doesn’t mean he knows how any one experience will affect the player. To claim that the game really draws “emotions” in the way Cage does would be disingenuous, but there’s something about owning a narrative that is attractive. It’s almost like developer-sanctioned fanfiction, except without the sex (maybe other choices could have led to sex, I don’t know). [embed]263299:50846:0[/embed] What I really like is the conversation that can come from these different experiences. If I go back through the game and see it another way, I would lessen my own experience with the game, but not if I talk to someone else about what they saw. In Skyrim, the person who saw a dragon fight a troll and a giant saw something unique (or at least something I never saw). In Beyond: Two Souls, I decided not to get serious revenge on the teens who locked me in the closet, but I did mess with their heads just a little bit. One is the result of interesting game systems and the other a series of player choices, but both represent one person’s experience. Some may have sent Aiden in full force against them, and others may have just walked away. It’s entirely possible some people were never locked in the closet in the first place. I don’t actually know, but if I want to find out, I want to find out from others.  Just talking can keep the illusion generally intact. If someone says to me, “I did that thing!” that I didn’t do, I’m fascinated. There’s no grander context for the moment, unless they decide to give me a verbal “Let’s Play,” so it stays exciting. Were I to see it myself, replaying that choice-driven game would expose the seams in its narrative. Three lines of dialogue will be the same, and then there will be several more that are unique. But what happens when the dialogue becomes familiar again? Games like that can never be completely open, so eventually the branches will converge, followed by the realization that maybe the choices really didn’t matter. And then the magic is lost.
Don't replay Beyond photo
Or any game like it
Before Heavy Rain’s release, Quantic Dream founder David Cage said that he didn’t want players to go through the story more than once. “It’s going to be unique to you. It’s really the story you d...

Can Battlefield 4's narrative be relevant after Spec Ops?

Mar 28 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]249762:47806:0[/embed] Let me say that I appreciate that DICE is trying to do something with Battlefield 4. Battlefield 3 was a multiplayer game with a useless single player portion tacked on, but this new campaign seems like it has some real effort behind it. But I don't actually like what they're doing. If the team wants people to believe it is going for something emotional and believable, showcasing the protagonist sliding around a building as it collapses and then falling several stories (with a rock immediately overhead) and landing without serious injury probably isn't the right way to do that. The completely unbelievable amputation (one knife motion cuts through a hardened soldier's leg? seriously?) doesn't inspire me either, nor does the irritatingly manipulative death of that same character just a few minutes later.  As with any criticism of pre-release footage (especially in this day and age), there is a problem of context. These 17 minutes are all shown without any greater narrative significance, so I can't rightly pass judgment on the emotional impact of the scene. It's totally possible that there are all kinds of amazing character moments that give some sort of weight to what is on display beforehand. I doubt it, but it's possible. Still, this is what EA and DICE decided was a representative slice of gameplay and narrative, and they decided to show off the single player before the multiplayer. It's a pretty gutsy move, so it's unlikely that they're showing anything less than their A-game. For that reason alone, I wouldn't feel bad making judgments, but what is on display here is also symptomatic of some larger issues that are very unlikely to change with context. Let's talk about cognitive dissonance. One of the more unique (and oppressive) features of Spec Ops: The Line was its use of loading screen tips. At the beginning of the game, they just say general things about the gameplay like any other game, but as things begin to unravel, the game starts talking to the player in a rather unpleasant way. Some of them are more direct ("Do you feel like a hero yet?") and some are more general ("Cognitive Dissonance is the unsettling feeling caused by holding two conflicting beliefs simultaneously."), but they all make a point about the role of the player and of the player character. What makes them so significant, though, is that they don't just apply to Spec Ops. It is very likely that Battlefield 4 will make the player feel like a hero in the long run (although the gameplay demo does end on a sour note), but at any individual moment there is a question of what actual good is being done. This is especially true in a world ruled by DICE's Frostbite engine. Destructible environments are amazing things. Yes, I prefer Red Faction: Guerilla's real-time deformation to the model-swap that DICE prefers (especially since it doesn't lead to those awkward moments where blowing up a wall reveals an unharmed enemy immediately behind it who is firing on you while you reload your grenade launcher), but the gameplay possibilities afforded by either are really compelling. In Red Faction: Guerilla, it didn't really matter what you were destroying because you were playing a revolutionary/terrorist. You weren't a hero in the traditional sense. Now, what I'm saying applies to the last few Frostbite-run games DICE has released (and any other game with destructible environments), but it's not something I ever considered in a pre-Spec Ops world. Watch the gameplay video over again, and think about what happens at 4:49, when a grenade blows up a large section of a building. Yes, at this moment there were enemies in that building, ones who can now be more easily killed, but that is also a person's house. Then 10 seconds later the player blows up some cars, presumably owned by civilians. Why? Because it's an easier kill.  Would that make you feel like a hero? It shouldn't. It should make you feel terrible and feel like your character is terrible. The apparent lack of civilians on the street means that it's easier to forget that the satellite dishes on top of each roof represent some virtual person who just wants to watch the news at night, but believing that you are doing good while wantonly destroying civilian property is the epitome of cognitive dissonance. One of the other features that makes Spec Ops: The Line unique, and something that will likely find its way into other games as time goes on, is a progression of in-combat dialogue. At the beginning, characters shout "Tango down" after killing an enemy; by the end, it's "Got the fucker." At 7:46 in the Battlefield demo, somebody shouts, "Kill confirmed." It's a small thing, but it's significant. Rather than attempt to downplay the violence with their language, they are openly acknowledging what they are doing, and nobody has a problem with it. It brings to mind this particularly poignant Spec Ops loading screen: "To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless." We go back to the idea of a hero. This confirmed kill is heroic, because it is done for the higher purpose of winning the war. For the player, though, it's harmless, because nobody is actually dying. It's very likely at least a few people were shouting that at me a couple of paragraphs ago. It doesn't matter if digital civilians are having their homes destroyed because they aren't real. There's no reason to feel any sort of dissonance. While some of that is true, it's also irrelevant. Another loading screen: "The US Military doesn't condone attacking unarmed combatants. But this isn't real so why should you care?" In Spec Ops: The Line and in Battlefield 4, the player should care because the game wants the player to care. They don't want the player to care about the same things, but both of them want to elicit some kind of emotional reaction. Selectively reacting to parts of the game is also a brilliant example of this kind of dissonance: "Oh, I feel bad about having caused the death of this virtual man I tried to save earlier, but I don't feel bad about killing all of these other virtual people or destroying the homes of these virtual civilians because they're not real or whatever." As soon as one death or event matters, then everything else matters as well. The fact that they didn't matter at the time says something about the way people connect with the medium, but it's also not the point. The character is an extension of the player, and the player must assume all responsibility for what that character does, good and bad. That is the lesson that Spec Ops taught. It is a lesson Battlefield 4 does not seem eager to expand upon. At the end of the Battlefield 4 clip, before it goes to the montage of action sequences, it turns out that the death of the person whose death doesn't seem all that meaningful was unnecessary. In fact, the entire scene was unnecessary. I'm conflicted about the exchange that follows— "So, Staff Sergent Dunn was KIA for... something we already knew?""You have your orders, Captain." —because it could either prove or refute the point I just made. The issue is that second line and the role in plays in the greater narrative. The death of Staff Sergeant Dunn is not Captain Recker's fault (that scene could have just as easily played out with Dunn shooting the window himself); it's the fault of the people who gave those orders. So the player is absolved of blame, and now their anger (if they have any) is potentially shifted towards the people on the other end of the radio. That's interesting, but it also rings false. If the game plays with the idea of "orders" and their significance, then perhaps some of that responsibility will be shifted to the character, and then these ideas can be expanded further. That isn't to say I want every military shooter from here on out to be Spec Ops: The Line. I really don't. But a game now exists that has made generic military shooters narratively irrelevant. In 2011, Battlefield 3's narrative was useless because of a clear lack of effort. But this time effort might not be enough. This won't affect sales, and it probably won't even affect review scores, but it will affect the game's lasting significance. If Battlefield 4's campaign follows the same tropes that so many other military shooters have followed, the ones that it appears to be following despite the way they were so brilliantly deconstructed last year, then it will just be yet another campaign, distinguishable only by the number of birds that it has flying over a given map.
Battlefield 4 Relevance photo
Probably not.
In lieu of partying or whatever it is college kids are supposed to be doing, I decided that my number one priority this spring break would be to to replay Spec Ops: The Line. I joined the Spec Ops party a bit late, but t...

How $250 could still be too much for a Wii U

Jun 13 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you understand the Wii U. You know that it is the next console from Nintendo, a full-fledged follow-up to the Wii. But there are a lot of people who do not know, and this is mostly Nintendo's fault. With the Wii Balance board and WiiMotion+, Nintendo set a precedent that may very well come back to bite them. But it's not just Nintendo this time. The entire industry has moved towards a potentially confusing sense of iteration. Both Sony and Microsoft have put out new peripherals which completely change the way players interact with them and are continuing to do so (which I will delve into more in a bit). Then there is the name. Logically, "Wii U" should denote something entirely different, but that is no longer the way the market works. Peripherals like Kinect and PlayStation Move have pushed basic naming conventions out of the way, replacing them with vague names that are related to but not indicative of any specific console. It's not "PlayStation 3 Move," for example, even though it's only compatible with the PS3. Microsoft did the same thing -- there's no such thing as an "Xbox 360 Kinect." A couple of months ago, I got together with a friend I hadn't seen in a while, and of course we talked about videogames. I told him that I was excited for the Wii U, and he said he was too, though he wondered when Nintendo was going to announce another console. I had essentially the same conversation with another person not too long after. And these are people who play videogames. They aren't parents who are just trying to make their children happy. They actively want a Wii U, but they have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is. I expect that when shoppers see Wii U GamePads in Target and Walmart this Christmas season, they will wonder why it doesn't work with the Wii that they already have.  [Preface: I don't think that either SmartGlass or the Vita/PS3 connections will be utilized properly in the long run (despite what Ubisoft may think). Of the two companies, I expect more out of Microsoft, because its insistence of forcing Kinect into everything it can shows a level of commitment to its products that Sony simply does not have. I will also not be discussing the price implications of SmartGlass or the Vita either. This is simply about their feature sets, how they could affect public perception, and subsequently, how they could affect the success or failure of the Wii U.] The most compelling PS Vita commercial I have ever seen is the one in which some guy is playing MLB 2K12 on his PS3 when he realizes he has to leave for work. So what does he do? He grabs his Vita and picks up right where he left off. It's a cool ad (even though the narrator is obnoxious), and it highlights a pretty awesome feature. The Wii U has something similar but not quite as good. No one actually knows how far away a GamePad can be from the Wii U base, because no one has played with a wireless GamePad. Nintendo usually does a pretty good job with its range of wireless functionality, so there's a good chance you'll get to the bathroom, but it's not likely you'll make it to your car. Then there's the multi-touch issue. Although Nintendo hasn't come out and said it, it's likely that the GamePad uses a resistive touchscreen versus a capacitive one, and that is a bold move in this day and age. Although resistive touchscreens are inferior (and have been largely removed from the market thanks to smartphones and tablets using capacitive technology), Nintendo has been using the technology for years now (both the DS and 3DS have them), but this is different. People already complain about the forced use of a stylus on a DS or 3DS, but the touch screens are so small that finger use verges on impractical. That is not the case here. The GamePad has a 6.2" screen, which is, in a word, huge. The PS Vita screen is more than a diagonal inch smaller than the GamePad screen, but it is far more functional. There's also SmartGlass, which can be potentially utilized by the majority of smartphones and tablets available on the market today. For example, I have a Droid Razr MAXX. It has a 4.3" screen. It's significantly smaller than the screen on the GamePad, but it still has multi-touch. What of the larger scale? I don't currently have a tablet, but that's mostly because I'm waiting for Google to announce the sub-$200 Nexus tablet at Google I/O later this month. When that happens, I am likely to pick one of those up, and then I will also have a 7" screen which is far more capable than the GamePad's. When compared to the Vita or to smartphones, the GamePad only has the size of its screen to keep it worthwhile. Compared to a tablet, it loses on all counts. Where SmartGlass also wins is with battery life. Nintendo has rated the GamePad's playtime at somewhere between three and five hours of battery life per charge, which is in line with the Vita's, but it pales in comparison to many phones or tablets. SmartGlass is very different from the GamePad because it is purely accessory. It can't be used to control games in the same way that the GamePad can, but it turns out that the GamePad isn't always necessary either. In Chad's preview of Pikmin 3, he used the GamePad solely as a map, controlling the game with a Wiimote/Nunchuck combo. In that scenario, a tablet or smartphone would have been just as effective at conveying the information. Perhaps even more so, because it would have had better touchscreen functionality and would have been purely screen, foregoing the in-this-case-unnecessary buttons and sticks. I want to point out those last two sentences. Not because they're brilliantly written or anything, but because they highlight how the Wii U could easily benefit from multi-touch, despite what Reggie says. In a world where there is a single Wii U controller, I understand and could probably accept arguments in favor of single-touch systems. With your hands on all of the buttons all the time, multi-touch functionality on the the screen in the center isn't quite as necessary. I would still argue that it would be beneficial, but I wouldn't fight so hard. As it stands, though, it's not just the GamePad, so the GamePad is officially an accessory. There is one particular gesture that has always solidified the usefulness of multi-touch to me, and that is the pinch-to-zoom. The ability to resize things on the fly is helpful in pretty much any situation, but it's especially useful when navigating maps. Now imagine you're playing Pikmin 3. With the ability to easily scroll around and pinch-to-zoom, you now have significantly improved control over what you can see offscreen. It wouldn't be the most convenient thing ever, because your hands are taken up by the Wiimote and Nunchuck, but if there were a game that was Wiimote only, then even that problem would disappear, and a multi-touch screen would become the completely usable and a superior option for people who wanted it. On the most basic level, that is what multi-touch could allow that would make it a worthwhile feature and why the GamePad should support it. Does it need it? Not necessarily, but the competition has it, so the GamePad will seem dated by comparison It will be years before we know how capable the Wii U truly is. As of right now, we can assume that it is at least on par with the current generation of consoles, maybe a little worse in some areas and a little better in others. But let's say it is absolutely more powerful than either the Xbox 360 or PS3 (and by the end of its cycle, I have no doubt that it will put visual powerhouses like Uncharted 3 to shame). Whatever it is, it may or may not run the Unreal Engine 4, and although some form of Square Enix's Luminous Studio engine will run on the system, it probably won't be the one that showcased that incredible tech demo. What's more important, though, is that neither of those things, whether the system can take advantage of them or not, will be available at launch. This holiday season will be incredibly important for the Wii U. It is likely to be Nintendo's one shot at being the only "next-gen" console in town. It needs to wow people, and it probably won't. Some of the demos showed off at this year's E3 on high-end PCs were really mind-blowing stuff, and most of that is stuff that the Wii U will never be able to reach. It's possible (though unlikely) that not even the Xbox 720 or the Orbis (or whatever they are called) will reach quite that level of fidelity, given the costs that likely went into building those machines. But the Wii U definitely won't. Even if the Wii U versions of Arkham Asylum, Darksiders II, Assassin's Creed III, etc. look better, it won't be by leaps and bounds. Seeing the games side by side on the demo kiosks in GameStop won't convince anybody who already has an Xbox 360 or PS3 that they need to buy another console, and when the time comes that the difference would be truly noticeable, the Wii U will be up against much more powerful competition. When the Wii came out, $250 was an amazingly low price. The PS3 had come out only two days earlier at twice that or more, and the Xbox 360 was still selling for $400. Visually, it didn't quite compare, but it offered something different and cheap. The Xbox was already dead at the time, and the PlayStation 2, although very cheap, had left the limelight. But Sony and Microsoft are sticking to their guns right now. Microsoft announced SmartGlass and Sony announced that book thing it will have forgotten about by Tokyo Game Show. The companies are going to continue to push their consoles for at least another year, and Nintendo will have to fight against that. When the Xbox 360 released, it ushered in the HD era. Its cost was justified by its promise of visuals beyond anything console gamers had ever dreamed. Nintendo will not have that advantage. Depending on how intensely marketed SmartGlass and the PS3/Vita crossplay are, consumers won't see Nintendo's built-in advantage either. So it comes down to price. And again, the assumption is the Wii U is out at $250! All of that new technology for a low, low price. It sounds perfect, but it doesn't have the momentum, thanks to Microsoft. The $99 Xbox is not a good deal, but it looks like it is. Thanks to cell phone plans, consumers are used to paying more in the long run for something deeply discounted on the front end. They see a $99 Xbox 360 with Kinect and they don't necessarily realize that they will need a larger hard drive or that they could get Xbox Live for much cheaper if they do a little digging. All they see is a $99 Xbox 360. It will be interesting to see if the cellphone-esque payment method works out for Microsoft and whether or not we could be seeing the same thing with its follow-up console. But what's important is that next to $99, everything looks expensive. Even $250. The PlayStation 3, on the other hand, starts at $250 for the 160GB model. But as happens every single holiday season, you can be sure that it will be $250 for the 160GB model and two games, probably both winners of some notable awards. As it stands, Amazon has two 320GB PS3 bundles, one with Uncharted 3 and the other with Modern Warfare 3, each retailing for $300. It's not hard to imagine both games being put in the same box with a smaller hard drive, cementing $250 as a price for a console with multiple games. Nintendo Land has the potential to be a good pack-in (if it is one), but it's not Call of Duty. And since we're finally on the topic of videogames... I don't go to brick-and-mortar game stores very often. I buy most of my console games from Amazon because it's cheaper and I'm lazy. But the other day, I went into one and saw something amazing: a used copy of Crackdown was $2.99. Seriously. Three dollars. For an absolutely awesome experience. Dead Rising and Devil May Cry 4 are now $5. Splinter Cell: Conviction, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Halo 3, and Halo 3: ODST are $10 each. All of those games? $53. Cheaper than the price of basically any new Xbox 360/PS3 game, and likely cheaper than Wii U games, which will probably hit the $60 mark. Even if they stay at $50, though, cut out Devil May Cry 4 and you still get six great games for $48. Yeah, they're old. All of them have sequels out or on the way, but so what? When you get into the $20 category, your options expand dramatically. The same is true for the PS3. People looking to buy a console this holiday season will see a wall of $50-$60 games, and right next to it will be a wall of games as low as $3. There is a grey area, however, thanks to the Wii U's backwards compatibility. Nintendo has the best track record for backwards compatibility of any company out there, and it seems to be continuing the trend. Although the Wii U won't play GameCube games, it will have complete compatibility with all Wii games. That is a really cool feature, but it's not a system-selling feature. A Wii can be had for $150 nowadays, and that's with a game packed in. Plopping down the extra $100 to take advantage of cheap legacy games makes no sense, especially since the Wii U will not upscale Wii games. But even that has some caveats, because Nintendo games practically never drop in price. There is the Nintendo Selects series, which has some amazing games, but then there's New Super Mario Bros. Wii. I bought that game back in November of 2009, but it's still $40 on Amazon and $50 new at GameStop, so that grey area I was talking about becomes a little bit darker. The Wii had some excellent third-party games which can be purchased very cheaply, but they tend not to be the ones that appeal to large audiences. And they certainly aren't games people will buy a Wii U to play. Nintendo has a tough road ahead. What they showed at E3 this year is pretty cool, and I think it has a lot of potential. But so did the Wii, and only a handful of companies ever figured out how to take advantage of it. I, as a member of the Nintendo-relatively-faithful, want nothing more than to see the Wii U succeed and allow Nintendo to continue as both a hardware and software manufacturer. And I think it probably will, at least to some degree. Even though the gaming industry in 2012 is much different than it was in 2006, Nintendo's old-fashioned way of doing things with the 3DS seem to have worked out well enough for them, at least in the wake of the price drop. As far as the market was concerned, $250 was too much for a 3DS but perfect for a Wii. Would it be perfect for a Wii U? Maybe not.

We learned a lot about the Wii U at E3 this year, but we didn't learn what is likely to be the defining factor in its success or failure: the price. Recent rumors from reliable sources price it in the $400 range, which could ...


Safe House director thinks games need immersive sound

Feb 10
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
Videogame developers and filmmakers have always had sort of an odd relationship, with some developers like David Cage pretending they're actually filmmakers and some filmmakers like Stephen Spielberg trying their hands at gam...

Why I would rather have Steam DRM than no DRM

Dec 29 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
I'm not going to pretend that I like DRM. I'm also not going to pretend that I "like" Steam's DRM. I am against DRM as an entity, but I am more than willing to live with it in certain cases. More than that, Steam is a case where I will embrace that DRM with open arms and deal with the occasional beatings it might give me. I know that Good Old Games will give me a service that is all give and no take, but why should I? Steam loves me, and so does its DRM. It's just more convenient, you know? Let me explain. My Steam account tells me that I have 89 games, of which I have only 47 installed and even fewer actually played. I have fallen prey to the same wonderful deals that everybody else has. It's a strange feeling, seeing that number. That's a lot of games. I may not have pressed "Purchase" 89 times (several of them are franchise packs and many more came from various bundles), but it's far more than I have for any other system (and probably approaches the combined total of the physical games I have for my other consoles). As the number rises (and during sales season, it rises dramatically), the harder it becomes to even think of a world without Steam. You see, over the past year, I had some particularly unpleasant experiences with my laptop (and ASUS's terrible customer support). On five different occasions over the span of eight months, I was either sent a new hard drive or required to format my current one. In that time, I realized that Steam was truly a dream come true. Let's imagine that I had purchased 89 PC games in a brick-and-mortar store. Even if I'm only installing 47 of them, the amount of time involved in installing that number of games (whether they're 12 MB or 12 GB) is ridiculous. Let's further imagine that I am using dial-up Internet or something equally painful. Even if it would technically take less time to physically install all 47 games than it would for Steam to download and install them, the former requires at least 47 disc changes (probably far more) and a half dozen clicks at least per installation. To install a game on Steam requires four clicks: After you've done that, you can leave it be or even set up another install. If you leave it running overnight, you can wake up to find (depending on your connection speed) most/all of your games installed and ready for playing. The amount of time Steam requires to download and install your games may be less than, about the same as, or longer than you might take doing it manually, but Steam shifts the workload. Those initial 188 clicks may be a lot, but that's the end of my involvement. Rather than taking up a full day (or more) of my time, I take 20 minutes (or less) and then go about my business. When I return, I can start playing Metro 2033 or The Maw almost* immediately. *The "almost" caveat comes from the fact that each game will need to spend a short period of time (usually a minute or less) doing some one-time initial installations (mostly different versions of DirectX). That is, however, not Valve's fault, and it's always over and done with before it would get to be an actual issue. But it's more than that. It's the fact that I have a single repository for all of my games. Valve may control it and thus, to an extent, control my access to my games, but I can deal with that. I trust Valve, certainly more than I trust companies like EA. Over the course of my numerous reinstalls of my OS, I have completely forgotten about at least half a dozen games that I didn't buy on Steam. It was only when I sat down to think about this that I realized that several years ago I had bought Sins of a Solar Empire on Impulse (double meaning there) but never played it. I also own the Penumbra series, which I purchased directly from Frictional Games. There are a couple of other games that I have on disc somewhere, and I expect there's more that I truly have forgotten. Even the ones I remember, though, I'm not so sure I want to deal with re-downloading and restarting, only to forget about them the next time I need to format my hard drive (especially in the case of Sins of a Solar Empire, which is now available on Steam, funnily enough). There are two layers of convenience to Steam: the one that allows me to know where all of my games are and the one that lets me download them whenever and wherever (relatively) hassle-free. Chances are you haven't had to deal with that to the extent that I have, so perhaps you remain unconvinced. Well, there's more. I think that, for the majority of people at least, this is the reason to purchase something using Steam's DRM over something DRM-free. And what is that reason? That's right. Community. There are only two games across the various consoles I have that I play online with any kind of frequency: Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead 2. I have thought about picking up others (Killing Floor, Payday: The Heist), but I've never gotten around to them. I'm not a hugely social gamer. I have 26 friends on Steam, and I have actually played a game with five, maybe six of them. But that doesn't matter. It's the fact that, if I want to jump into a game with any of them at any time for any reason, I can do it. It's the fact that I can see what they're doing and send them messages while they're playing games (and maybe get them killed in the process) if I feel so inclined. But even that's not quite it, because Xfire allows you to do all of that and more (which is overkill for people like me). In reality, it's simply a matter of aesthetics. If I decide to play Jamestown because I need some colonial-era bullet hell action, I am greeted with this: It's gorgeous. It's great. Aside from having an awesome background image, it shows me friends and achievements (what I have and haven't completed), as well as news all right there, along with easy access to things like forums and groups. It's such a simple system and it just looks nice. Let's take a look at the one non-Steam game I have on my computer. Any guess what it is? Goddamn right. It's Minecraft. I wanted to wait for it to come out on Steam, but there was a two-for-one sale and Notch doesn't seem too optimistic about the game's chances of reaching Steam. Anyways, back to my point. Look at this: Boring. Unhelpful. Useless. Why even bother? Well ... it does allow me to send messages to people (and browse the web, something I can see the use of but have never done myself), but the rest of the features that make Steam so worth using are simply missing. I know a lot of my friends play Minecraft. I know I've earned a couple of achievements. I know there's news, forums, groups, etc., etc. I want to see them. I also want to see how many hours I've put into the game at a glance. Then again, maybe I don't. Regardless, the opening screen of the game even features news and links. Also, setting up a multiplayer game requires thought and cooperation, and that's dumb. It's the same reason that I only played Sleep Is Death (another game I totally forgot I owned until writing this) once. Thought is hard. The whole thing just begs for Steam integration. Now, it's time to admit that not everything is roses and rainbows. Not everything works the way it should all the time. About a week ago, I was trying to play BIT.TRIP BEAT, but Steam simply didn't let me do it. It just told me the game was unavailable. Given that I have nearly 90 other games to play, it was only mildly more frustrating than the game itself, but the fact that I can find my games arbitrarily unplayable (even for a short period of time) is disturbing. In those times, there's a fleeting moment where I think, "Maybe they're right. Maybe completely DRM-free is the right way to go." And then I look at AaAaAA!!!'s kickass background and I'm in love again. Despite its place as the reigning champion, Steam is not the only game on the block. There's EA's Origin, which has been written about extensively enough and which I feel no need to cover here. There's Direct2Drive, which... exists, I guess. There's Desura, which is not really a competitor since it focuses pretty exclusively on indie games and mods, but it's cool in its own right. There's Impulse, which I had way back when I bought Sins of a Solar Empire ($4! How could I say no?) but subsequently forgot about until GameStop bought it, which made it far less compelling. There are also the newer services from immensely popular companies such as Apple's App Store and Amazon's game download service, which will no doubt be accompanied by Microsoft's app store when Windows 8 officially launches (or at least development for it does). There are many others, but the only other one that's worth mentioning is, obviously, CD Projekt RED's Good Old Games. Conceptually, I think GOG is an amazing idea. I was an early adopter of the service, and I hope it continues to flourish. Having a DRM-free system is a wonderfully worthwhile objective. Problem is, it's not Steam. It may lack all of the headaches and worries that can come from Steam, but it doesn't have the extras that Steam does. It lacks the cohesiveness of its biggest competitor, and that keeps me from purchasing a number of games that I really do want to buy. If this is a problem with games that aren't in Steam's catalog, I think GOG will be facing something of a vertical wall when they start distributing newer titles. Nonetheless, I think competition is a wonderful thing. Impulse did weekly sales, then Steam did too, then everyone else did, so Valve upped it to daily deals, and now many of the other services feature those as well. Competition drives quality up and prices down (unless you're EA), which can only be good for the consumer. But Steam is the champion for a reason. It's got the best service, the best games, and the best community. Its most legitimate direct competition is GOG, but the biggest draw for that service is a complete lack of DRM. Well... Valve doesn't need to be DRM-free. They just need to continue to release a superior product. If I had a choice between a DRM-free experience and an experience under the watchful eye of Valve, there's really no question which choice is the right one. Hint: it's Steam. [This last image comes from /r/gaming]

A little over four years ago, I purchased The Orange Box at a local Wal-Mart. I believed in physical media.  I would rather deal with the five discs required to play the original Far Cry (one for playing, four for instal...

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