Archive for April, 2010

The ethics of gaming with non-free software

Posted in Gaming on April 17th, 2010 by abolte – Be the first to comment

You’ve probably already read my rant about how PC gaming is looking doomed due to overpriced games, no second hand market, and most importantly; DRM. I haven’t really brought that many games since then for any platform; I’ve been cutting back since I was previously purchasing games quicker than I could play them. As such, I’ve been left with an overwhelming number of nice looking titles on my shelves; many of which had never even been loaded! Time to do something about that…

You might be wondering why, as a free software advocate, I allow myself to run non-free gaming software? The problem is that the FOSS development methodology doesn’t lend itself well to creating surprises. Take any FOSS FPS for example; these have been gradually developed in public, and project updates have been reported across various websites throughout development. There is little surprise.

Games are more than just being about software, hardware and reflexes. Generally, the type of single-player game that interests me will have great story telling, artwork, suspense, puzzles, music, and essentially provide a great overall experience. Hypothetically, if a FOSS game was under public development until completion, by the time the game was finished many aspects of it would feel old. Puzzles would have been solved in the betas, any surprises would be expected, and suspense would be eliminated because one would know what was coming from all the pre-releases.

There are exceptions. If a game looked sufficiently boring that I didn’t bother to look at it during development, I might look at it for the first time as a finished product. More likely though, it’s probably not my type of game and wouldn’t be played at all.

Another exception would be if the game was developed behind closed doors, and released once completed as a FOSS product. I would imagine this would be more likely to happen from a commercial game company that used an existing FOSS game engine and wanted to make money by licensing copyrights (such as artwork and in-game text) and possibly whatever trademarks they have registered. Although I haven’t researched it, I don’t recall this ever happening. It seems these days, companies are more interested in paying for an engine that gives developers and publishers the ability to redistribute the game in a non-free form, and then slapping DRM on top of that.

Looking at games from the angle of a user mainly interested in multi-player, FOSS has a real chance as many of the limitations I’ve mentioned don’t exist, or exist to a lesser extent. Unfortunately, I’m more of a single-player gamer; I often enjoy the feel of a totally new experience, and I don’t know a lot of other gamers. I also don’t like being restricted to gaming when my fellow comrades are interested or available, and don’t find it so fun to always play against strangers. Further, LAN parties aren’t easily accessible with events seemingly becoming more rare and PC equipment becoming increasingly heavy (and I rely on public transportation). Online gameplay also isn’t so fun when your wife is always downloading via bittorrent and the router doesn’t support prioritization.

Due to the above, I’ve come to depend on proprietary software for much of my gaming. Traditionally, this has meant dual-booting my gaming rig with a Windows OS. Great… more proprietary software. As of around mid last year, I’ve been actively looking for ways to minimize my reliance on it.

By late August, I had completely removed my dual-boot configuration in favor of a single GNU/Linux installation, with WINE.

I’ve completely installed all my games into their own individual wine WINEPREFIXes (jails, if you will). When it came around to testing the games, to my surprise most of the games in my collection actually worked. My success rate was around 55%, and that was with barely trying! With such a large collection already working, and WINE steadily improving to increase compatibility further, there was simply no need to reboot into Windows anymore.

Now I know a lot of people will be skeptical about such a claim. I expect some readers would point out that having a game run and be playable are two completely different things, and I agree. As such, to prove the maturity of the WINE platform and GNU/Linux in general, I’ve recently been saving to a log the games I’ve actually finished as I complete them! For games that have multiple campaigns (eg. 4 campaigns for WarCraft II Battle.net Edition) I finished all of them.

PC:
2009-08-29: BlackSite (WINE + mousepatch)
2009-08-30: F.E.A.R. 2 Project Origin (WINE)
2009-09-11: Quake 4 (native GNU/Linux)
2009-09-13: Unreal (WINE)
2009-09-14: Frontlines: Fuel of War (WINE + mousepatch)
2009-12-12: Unreal II: The Awakening (WINE)
2009-12-13: Wolfenstein (WINE)
2009-12-20: Crysis (WINE + regression patch)
2009-12-25: Crysis Warhead (WINE + regression patch)
2009-12-28: Red Faction (WINE 1.1.33)
2010-01-03: Red Alert 3 (WINE)
2010-01-08: Red Faction II (WINE 1.1.35)
2010-01-30: Half-Life (WINE 1.1.37)
2010-02-02: Half-Life 2 (WINE 1.1.37)
2010-02-02: Half-Life 2: Lost Coast (WINE 1.1.37)
2010-02-05: Half-Life 2: Episode 1 (WINE 1.1.37)
2010-02-06: Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (WINE 1.1.37)
2010-03-14: Portal (WINE 1.1.40)
2010-04-04: WarCraft II Battle.net Edition (WINE 1.1.41)

Playstation 3:
2010-01-10: Turok
2010-01-13: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
2010-01-26: Army of Two
2010-02-28: inFamous

Xbox 360:
2010-01-18: BioShock
2010-01-26: Halo 3

By comparing against the games I finished on the PS3 and 360, it is clear that I did most of my gaming under WINE.

The excitement doesn’t stop there. Most of these games contained some form of copy protection, and in almost every case WINE was able to satisfy the copy protection software’s requirements – even those that used DRM. Some of you will remember that I had previously mentioned on my blog that I wouldn’t be able to purchase Red Alert 3 for the PC because what could be done with it was restricted by DRM. In the case of this game, I believe it allows you to install it a limited number of times, and each time it connects to EA’s servers to reduce your remaining available install count. The great thing about WINE is that WINE mimics an entire Windows system, but with very little disk usage overhead (currently 39Mb for WINE 1.1.42 on my x86-64 system). This means that I can install the game, have it reduce my available install count by one, and then back up the entire wine prefix. When I restore it, the game will still be activated so won’t need to reconnect to the servers. It’s the best solution to this kind of DRM system I’ve seen (aside from simply not using it at all).

Unfortunately, just when I thought I had the DRM problem figured out, Ubisoft and EA go and release even worse DRM still! The latest versions require a constant connection to the Internet to both verify that you’re not running multiple instances of the game simultaneously, and to store all of your save games on – effectively making it Software as a Service. I fear there really is no nice solution for using these kinds of games, but they have some of the properties of multi-player gaming that will keep me away from them anyway, eg. if my wife’s running bittorrent I won’t be able to play my single-player game effectively.

Once again, I am reverting back to being very cautious about buying PC games, and may find myself returning to get a another look through those second hand bargain bins. 🙂