“I’m Batman”, so you, DRM, can scram!

2010 May 11
by Joonas Mäkinen

Although I missed the date and my chance to greatly honour it, somewhere in space-time it is still the 4th of May or the international Day Against DRM. (Also, don’t forget Star Wars Day.) This means I’m going to rant about some recent gaming experiences I’ve had. Being a mediocre DC comics fanboy and having watched quite a lot of Batman and Batman-related TV series and films during my life, I finally (in the winter) felt compelled to purchase Rocksteady Studios’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, the first Batman franchise video game I’ve really played – or thought worth playing – since Batman on the NES. It turns out the game’s quite awesome and all my gratitude goes to the developers. You have my trust, even for making a sequel.

I’m Batman

For a short subjective review (just to get it out of the way and to get to the actual topic) I’ll briefly discuss a few elements of the game. Playing the game was delightful for me mostly because of two things, and one of them is purely nostalgic. What initially got me excited about the game was how much it appreciated the canon. Not that this is how things absolutely should be with every video game or film but it helps the player get more out of the story when he or she already knows something about the characters. What definitely delivered a couple of geek orgasms was that the game employed a familiar crew of voice actors known from Batman: The Animated Series, which is one of my favourite cartoons of all time. (Plugging in another Star Wars reference, do remember that Joker is voiced by Mark ‘Skywalker’ Hamill.) Having all those familiar characters with their familiar voices coming alive in a new format felt really special and rewarding, and being able to interact with them in 3D made them so much more tangible and enjoyable.

Another thing I want to point about the game was its visual smoothness of action. Character animations were top notch and fighting scenes seemed to flow so well that taking down Joker’s minions was definitely not like playing Mortal Kombat and striking a high punch or a low punch after another. Whereas I congratulate the animations, it is even a bit silly that it they worked so well that I forgot that I’m watching character animations in a video game. And me being an old game modder and all-analysing technology geek, that sure takes a lot. This was also the first game I played that incorporated PhysX technology, but who gives a damn? Another technological feature that all players enjoy is that task switching actually works swiftly, and taking a little break to check emails on the desktop doesn’t crash the game.

But despite the great execution of specific scenes and the amazing Batman writer Paul Dini being onboard, the storyline left me a bit disappointed. You see, Joker is a criminal mastermind and such vast plans as taking over the whole Arkham Asylum is definitely not a small deal. Thus, knowing Joker’s character I was constantly expecting him to outsmart me, the player. During the game I kept myself in an excited state, waiting for the next twist in the storyline. Whenever Batman found out something about Joker’s plans, my default thought response was: “Naw it’s can’t be this simple. We’re talking about the Joker, and he always has an ace in his sleeve.” Unfortunately, after playing the game halfway through, Batman’s speculations about Joker’s plans were indeed pretty accurate, and I was disappointed to find out that there was, in fact, nothing new and surprising to find out. The developers’ depiction of Joker’s beautiful insanity was brilliant, but even they couldn’t match his level of scheming. It is time to see what they come up with in the sequel.

Why so serious?

Pardon the overused movie quote, but it seemed really appropriate here: Whereas the devs did a great job and the game itself is entertaining, it is now time to damn the publisher and all the consumer-hindering extras to the deepest pits of Hell. With the joy of having a 100/10 internet connection, it took me a mere 15 minutes to download and install the 8 gigabyte game. Setting it up to be playable took an extra hour. From a consumer’s point of view, this is frickin’ serious.

I’ll progress through various layers of DRM. First we have Steam, where I bought and download the game from. It is a digital marketplace for video games (with occasio-regular awesome sales!) and I would be able to get Arkham Asylum by other means so that it doesn’t incorporate Steam if I wanted to do so. While Steam can work as a launch pad for games and I use Steam’s services even inside the game via an overlay, it does not make itself a mandatory component of the game. I simply found it convenient to buy and download the game through Steam and it was what I wanted to do. What I by no means wanted to experience was Windows LIVE.

I’m not sure if I was even told anywhere that when buying Arkham Asylum I’d also be getting obligatory bundled software with it, so I was also a quite shocked when, as I launched the game and got to the title menu, I was interrupted by Windows LIVE user interface coming visible from the top of the screen. (The name’s apparently officially written with an em-dash before LIVE but I’ll skip that for now.) Well, I knew Microsoft had these kind of gaming services for players, especially when it comes to Xbox gaming, so I sort of accepted them offering their gaming platform for me. But they didn’t stop here: logging on to their system was mandatory. In other words, I was forced to register myself and sign in to their online system to play a single-player offline video game that I had bought! I was dedicated to play the game, so I went through all the hassle, almost just to see how far they’d be willing to go.

By default, when I started this and did some clicking in the UI inside the game, it opened me an Internet Explorer window. IE is not my default browser. I don’t like this, being forced to use a browser I do not trust just because I want to play a game I paid 25 euros for! (Would’ve been 50 without the sales.) The number of unnecessary applications I’ve been forced to use so far to get to play my game was now already three.

Sort of fortunately I could use my ancient login details from the times when MSN Messenger was still cool. Nevertheless, for this procedure I had to retrieve old passwords via email for my existing LIVE ID account and then connect it my newly created Windows LIVE gaming account, which I also had to set up right there. A lot of profiling and many emails later, I finally had a working Windows LIVE account, ready for playing. (Oh, and Microsoft: I don’t want an Xbox newsletter, I’m installing a PC game!)

After all this, I was told that in order to continue, Windows LIVE would have to update itself. With no knowledge of what they were going to install on my computer and being desperate about getting to play my game, I allowed it. This required me to close the game and actually reboot my computer. After going through all this, I supposed that all was clear. Well, I forgot the most obvious things that were still to come. I had to register the game with its cd key that I got from Steam. After writing it down on a piece of paper I launched the game and gave my cd key to Microsoft, hoping they’d be happy now. Fortunately they were, except I had to give the cd key twice and there was also a separate online activation program for the game. Phew.

So, let me recap: Setting up the game took around four times longer than downloading and installing it. In order to play a game I had legally bought, I had to use four unnecessary pieces of software (three of which I didn’t want to), give a cd key twice, register myself and my games to Microsoft, make a gaming profile, close and reopen the game many times, browse the internet using an unwanted browser, check my email, install forced updates to external software, reboot my computer and then log in to their system. Microsoft, this is not smart. Your system does not make playing easy or enjoyable. In fact, it hinders the experience and for playing the game it is completely unnecessary.

I suppose I’m just fine with cd keys, but ever since separately activated software like Windows XP came to be, things have gone worse. There should be no need for internet connection for offline single player games.

So, publishers, please tell me: Why do you use DRM and make playing your games so difficult? It won’t stop any pirates, it doesn’t work and it costs a lot of money which is then eventually payed by your own customers who directly suffer from your ignorant scheming. I simply cannot see any reasonable financial benefits for alienating potential buyers away from your products.

Inspired by the idea of forcing warning labels about DRM, I created a Facebook group dedicated for the ideal. Feel free to join.

  • http://www.nybergh.net Thomas Nybergh

    I don’t play a lot of games on the PC or elsewhere these days, but I do know that Rockstar pulled the same kind of ridiculous MS Live gaming shit in GTA IV. I had an experience similar to what you described when I did a few GTA allnighters after last Christmas.

    Oh, and I bought GTA from Steam. So there was the hilarity of having the Stem overlay as well.

  • http://joonasmakinen.com Joonas Mäkinen

    I was supposed to write about GTA IV as well, but that would’ve doubled the length of the post and decided not to. :P

  • Jani Lipponen

    Good post, not much to add, though…

    There are also us who see no difference whatsoever between Steam and GfWL. Unless you need or want the handhelding Steam gives you, it’s every bit as useless. I don’t even find Steam sales the least bit attractive because of the need to run Steam client to play any Steam games.