Category Archives: Gaming

Games or gaming industry-related

Exciting hardware in 2015

It’s been a long time since I have seen any new hardware truly excite me. The last time I can recall such an event was perhaps the release of largish affordable SSDs, or perhaps the release of high-resolution displays, which sadly are only now starting to become readily available to those of us outside of Apple’s ecosystem. Unfortunately most hardware improvements are so incremental that it’s hard to feel truly excited about something.

That all changed today, with the release of the MSI GS30 Shadow.

I’m currently the owner of an Asus G55VW Republic of Gamers i7 laptop. It’s a good mid-range “laptop”, however it’s actually a desktop replacement due to the sheer size and weight of it (and I did indeed use it to replace a mid-tower desktop – the first time I’ve ever used a laptop as my primary computer). I’ve maxed out the RAM to 32Gb, and added in a 1Tb m-SATA SSD and replaced the 1Tb mechanical SATA drive with another SSD. It also has a GTX660M which is powerful enough to run any game on the market, and thankfully doesn’t require me to deal with software to switch between the Intel integrated graphics and the Nvidia GPU – Intel graphics are not available. Unfortunately it is no longer powerful enough to run everything in the highest detail settings on recent titles as evidenced during a recent play-through of Far Cry 4. A graphics card upgrade may be in order in the near future, although that’s usually not possible on a laptop – a replacement is generally necessary. I usually use the laptop propped up on a stand with an external keyboard, HDMI-connected LCD, mouse and external Creative X-Fi 5.1 sound card.

In addition to this, I have an old Sony Vaio 11.3″ laptop with a measly AMD E-350 APU and 1366×768 resolution display. This is the laptop I use as an actual laptop – I take it everywhere with me since it’s quite light and is tough enough to take a few drops or knocks while in my bike pannier on my commute to work. Since it has some work files on it, it uses full disk encryption via LUKS. This is painfully slow on the E-350 (even with an SSD) as the APU lacks an Advanced Encryption Standard Instruction Set implementation and is a very underpowered processor in general. However it has proven tolerable for light workloads.

Interestingly the E-350 has a relatively high powered graphics processing capability. Many games such as Killing Floor actually run slower when game-play settings are set to the lowest graphics configuration due to the false assumption by the game developers that a GPU would be the bottleneck, as this option transfers more work from a GPU and onto a CPU (at the expense of graphical quality). Boosting the graphics quality up a bit shifts more work to the graphics component of the APU and results in a slight performance improvement! Ultimately, a game such as Killing Floor still runs too poorly to be playable as more enemies appear in later waves. The E-350 is best suited to simple games like the original Counter-Strike (yes, the one from 1999), and even then probably not at 1920×1080 if using an external monitor.

Since I don’t use the Sony Vaio for gaming (mostly just SSH and a basic instant messaging client), up until recently it’s worked out fine for me. It’s 100% compatible with free software drivers (although I think I may have replaced the wireless/bluetooth module at some point to avoid needing a blob), and has survived a lot of rough treatment over the years, largely due to a single fan being the only moving part. However now my workplace wishes to depend more and more on SaaS applications. I despise the direction things are heading in in this regard – where websites such as Slack, Trello and PassPack have become the norm – perhaps the subject of another post/rant. However this is the company data that is being dealt with – not my own. These proprietary SaaS applications are not being forced onto other people as is the case with traditional proprietary application vendors. It only hurts the companies which choose to use it (well, in addition to employees such as myself), so maybe I can live with it… however my computer certainly can’t. The E-350 just isn’t up to the challenge of these CPU-intensive websites.

Since I’m always on call to deal with any possible infrastructure emergencies which may arrive, I need to always have a computer with me. The E-350 was the perfect small cheap lightweight machine I could slip into my backpack or bike pannier and take with me anywhere. It is relatively fast at booting to an Xfce desktop and opening Terminator (the most time-consuming aspect is getting past the lengthy LUKS passphrase and LightDM login password). However the second I need to open Firefox to log into Slack, the browser loading times can be longer than the entire boot-up time! It’s ridiculous, especially given how PSI+ or Pidgin loads almost instantly on the same machine and provides the same functionality only with a different interface and open standards.

So now I’m in the market for a new computer. I can’t lug around my Asus G55VM as that’s too big to even fit in my bike pannier and would make my back sore if I had to carry it around in a backpack all the time. But if I’m going to get a new laptop, I’m going to want something fast, light, with a high resolution screen. It might be asking a bit much, but I was hoping to be able to use this as an opportunity to replace the G55VM as well if I could find something portable with a graphics card more powerful than an Nvidia GTX 660M (eg. perhaps a GTX 860M). This might be possible since I’d happily forego the Blu-Ray drive – I have external USB Blu-Ray drives which are faster and don’t have the firmware issues playing DVDs which the Matshita UJ160 drive (built into the Asus laptop) has.

You might be starting to get the impression I’m quite fussy with choosing a laptop, and you would be correct. In addition to the above, I also require a 1Gb ethernet port, upgradable RAM and SSD, EFI which allows manual upload of custom signing keys for Secure Boot (which I imagine means restricting my options to the three big-name Taiwanese computer manufacturers, since those are the companies that tend to market more towards people who know what they are doing and expose all possible options), a HDMI port for an external monitor (as I’m yet to see an LCD in person that uses DisplayPort), and a dedicated 3.5mm mic-in port for use with my Sennheiser PC 360 G4ME headset when I don’t have my external sound card with me.

Ideally I would also like I/O MMU virtualization (AMD-Vi or Intel VT-d) support, so I can use the laptop as a new home server when it is time to retire it from laptop use (I use Xen and would make use of PCIe pass-through to guest for the NIC in a dedicated firewall VM), a backlit keyboard, no USB 2.0 ports (everything should be USB 3.0 these days), support for a second SSD, and a matte screen. I also don’t want an Asus Transformer laptop, since I’m not interested in tablet or touch-screen functionality (which are usually glossy anyway), and I’m not confident the hinges (with the detachable keyboard) would be able to withstand much punishment.

Now, I’ve been looking for something that fits all of the above as best as I can, but everything I have found requires compromising somewhere. Maybe something comes close, but doesn’t have an Ethernet port, or is too heavy, or doesn’t have VT-d or AES CPU support. Maybe it only has a GT 840M GPU, which wouldn’t really be an upgrade over a GTX 660M. It’s almost impossible to find something in a small form factor with support for two SSD storage devices. Everything I have seen has failed to impress, so I’ve been procrastinating on making a decision about what to do.

Well, today I was browsing the PC Case Gear website, and noticed something strange in the gaming laptop section which I had not seen before. That laptop is the MSI GS30 Shadow, and it amazingly ticks all the boxes with ease due to an impressive feature. A feature so simple, I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. In addition to being a kick-ass Ultrabook, albeit one without a dedicated GPU, it supports and includes an external enclosure which can be used to connect a real PCIe 16x graphics card to it of your choice! This external enclosure doubles as speakers (which I probably won’t use since I already have a nice 5.1 surround sound setup), a 4-port USB 3.0 hub (so I can leave my keyboard, mouse, external sound card, external optical drives, etc. permanently connected) and includes a 3.5″ SATA expansion port for an SSD to store all those games on that require a powerful GPU. The enclosure is actually a docking station which the laptop sits on top of, so I could use this to replace my existing laptop stand as well.

I’m absolutely stoked. This is almost exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’ve wanted an Ultrabook-like machine which has upgradable RAM and storage (this provides two SSDs connected via two M.2 SATA connectors), and yet is lightweight and portable and has a high-end quad core processor with IO/MMU and AES CPU extensions. But the main feature is easily having the ability to finally upgrade the graphics card in a laptop. I don’t need portable GPU power since I mainly use my laptop away from home for work purposes, but I do want it at home for personal use. And as if all this wasn’t enough, the external GPU enclosure includes an additional 1Gb ethernet NIC – perfect for re-purposing this machine as my home server in the distant future. I also wonder if I might one day find alternate uses for that PCIe slot, such as a SAS controller. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities.

Although this laptop comes close, it isn’t perfect. It seems the laptop will only support up to 16Gb of RAM. I’m used to 32Gb (mostly for when I’m experimenting with various virtual machines or using it as cache for slower external mechanical/optical drives), but I’m confident 16Gb will still be enough to not make the decrease too noticeable. I would have liked to see a QHD display resolution option, although omitting it is probably reasonable given it would only be used with the integrated Iris Pro 5200 graphics. I also have the usual complaints about Windows being forcefully bundled (and a version of Windows that I especially hate), but given how fussy I am with hardware specifications (and my dabbles with Wine which sometimes uses licensed Microsoft components), I’m not as upset about it here as other people would be. It would also be nice if the dock supported more than just one 3.5″ SSD and PCIe slot. I also wonder if other future laptops will be released by MSI that will be compatible with this dock, although that seems doubtful given the dock size doesn’t look big enough to support larger laptops.

Upon reading reviews of the GS30 Shadow, I saw references to another recently-released device with similar functionality compatible with some Alienware series of laptops – Alienware’s Graphics Amplifier (which I’ll hereafter refer to as the AGA). This is something purchased separately to the Alienware laptops it is compatible with, and has the advantage of being able to pass the external GPU graphics onto the laptop display – a feature I can’t imagine myself using – but my gut feeling is that this might complicate GNU/Linux compatibility. The Alienware solution also has some significant drawbacks:

  • The AGA connects to the laptop through a cable instead of via a dock. Although the AGA includes a PCIe 16x slot, the cable limits the bus bandwidth to PCIe 4x speeds, which will surely hinder the ability to upgrade down the road as performance will be compromised on faster graphics cards. I also feel Dell is misleading people about this as the limitation is not mentioned anywhere I could find on the website, although I can’t say I’m surprised.
  • It doesn’t include a SATA controller or mounting brackets. This is a great feature of the MSI solution in my opinion, and something I’d like to make use of.
  • It doesn’t look like something I could sit my laptop on reliably. That means I’ll have to find more desk space, and I’m not sure I would be able to comfortably find the room. I also can’t imagine cable length would be great.
  • Alienware is nowadays owned by Dell. Dell and I have a bit of history, and I’d like to avoid that company wherever possible.
  • Perhaps most importantly, there is no comparable Dell laptop compatible with the AGA – no 4th Generation i7 CPU with VT-d support in a 13″ machine, and the 13″ laptops on offer are almost twice as heavy as the MSI.

So there we go, the MSI GS30 Shadow is a winner. It isn’t actually released in Australia for another two days, but I’m convinced that the GS30 will be my next laptop sometime soon. I’ve never owned a MSI laptop before, but now I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Gamers no longer need dual-boot

Tonight I completed Outlast, a first person survival horror (read my review here) under Wine on GNU/Linux, and have updated my Finished Games list to reflect this. Looking through that list, one thing has became clear; no matter if you’re a fan of indie games or AAA blockbuster titles, GNU/Linux now has it all on offer!

In 2011, I completed 20 games under Windows 7. That same year, I completed just 11 games under GNU/Linux, just one of which was played under Wine.

For comparison, this year (so far) I have completed 0 games under Windows (any version), and 26 games under GNU/Linux – 13 of which were played under Wine! One of those games played under Wine (Cargo, a free software release) also has a GNU/Linux version but is not quite stable yet (or wasn’t at the time I played it). Another game I completed under Wine – Doom 3 BFG – has also been released mostly as free software and has native ports to GNU/Linux (such as RBDOOM-3-BFG) but I ended up playing the official release via Wine due to Steam achievement support. It should be possible to play both of these titles natively under GNU/Linux also, to bring the native game count up to 15.

I purchased a new laptop (good enough for some gaming) earlier this year, and did away with Windows completely at that time. At first I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to play many titles that interest me, but I am happy to report that I simply haven’t missed Windows as I thought I would. There is an abundance of native GNU/Linux games now – and it’s the first year that we’ve been able to claim to have AAA blockbuster titles such as Metro: Last Light! Playing Metro natively is simply amazing.

For blockbuster titles that still don’t have GNU/Linux ports, Wine has been making amazing progress in terms of performance and compatibility (as the figures from my Finished Games list clearly demonstrate). Many big releases (eg. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Dead Island Riptide and StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm) are handled with ease upon release (Blood Dragon initially requiring a crack, but that no longer seems to be the case). The main thing still missing is DirectX 11 support (which means Bioshock Infinite doesn’t work), but performance is improving and with command stream patches to be merged mainline in the near future this will only get better.

My faith in Wine compatibility (with any title that advertises Windows XP and Steam support) is strong enough that I felt comfortable pre-ordering Dead Island Riptide, and as expected the game installed fine and ran just fine.

So if you’re a GNU/Linux user and a gamer in 2013 and you’re still dual-booting with Windows just for games, I must ask – why?

My letter to Humble Bundle


Honestly, I could not believe you guys did this when I read the news on Slashdot. I thought no way, get outta here, this is some kind of joke..

The Humble Bundle has always had the tag-line “Pay what you want, DRM free cross-platform and support charity” yet you’ve made the decision to abandon 3 of those 4 core values to your brand.

I don’t game any more under Windows, I do care a lot about DRM, and as if all this wasn’t already bad enough you have also dropped the ability to support the EFF – my preferred charity.

My wife and I have purchased many bundles in the past. I’ve always told my friends and colleagues to check out the awesome bundles you have put together, but this will happen no longer. I will make sure that all the people I have recommended the Humble Bundle to are aware of what has happened today.

Even if you appear to go back to your previous-style bundles, you have lost my trust. I can’t promote or support a brand that isn’t true to the ideals and values that attracted me in the first place.

fglrx on Debian Wheezy (testing)

Packages fglrx-driver and fglrx-glx have been removed from Debian for the last few weeks due to #639875, so I’ve been using the free software Radeon drivers in the meantime. While I appreciate having my virtual terminals display the console at my native screen resolution automatically, I don’t like that I’ve had to put playing Amnesia on hold for a while – these drivers cause the game to segfault.

Today I decided to roll back my xorg version to get the fglrx drivers working again, and as it turns out, it really wasn’t that hard. Here’s how I did it.

  1. Set up a preference control file (eg. /etc/apt/preferences.d/60xorg_rollback_for_fglrx.pref) as follows:
    Package: xserver-xorg
    Pin: version 1:7.6+8
    Pin-Priority: 1001
    Package: xserver-xorg-core xserver-xorg-dev
    Pin: version 2:1.10.4-1
    Pin-Priority: 1001
    Package: xserver-xorg-input-evdev
    Pin: version 1:2.6.0-2+b1
    Pin-Priority: 1001
    Package: xserver-xorg-input-kbd
    Pin: version 1:1.6.0-3
    Pin-Priority: 1001
    Package: xserver-xorg-input-mouse
    Pin: version 1:1.7.1-1
    Pin-Priority: 1001
  2. Now add the following repositories to your apt sources configuration (eg. /etc/apt/sources.list.d/60snapshot-20110911T211512Z.list):
    deb wheezy main contrib non-free
    deb-src wheezy main contrib non-free

    These include Xorg package versions that don’t have the ABI change which is incompatible with fglrx.

  3. Normally, Debian will spit out the following error:
    E: Release file for is expired (invalid since 33d 17h 12min 59s). Updates for this repository will not be applied. We fix this by adding an apt configuration file (eg. /etc/apt/apt.conf.d/60ignore_repo_date_check) like so:

    	Check-Valid-Until "false";
  4. We should now be able to resynchronize the package index successfully.
    apt-get update
  5. Log out of your X session (if you haven’t already), and (from a virtual terminal) stop gdm/gdm3/lightdm or anything else that might be responsible for an Xorg server process running. eg,
    /etc/init.d/gdm3 stop
  6. Revert xorg packages to older versions, as defined in our preferences policy.
    apt-get dist-upgrade
  7. Install the fglrx drivers from the snapshot repository.
    apt-get install fglrx-driver fglrx-glx fglrx-control
  8. Make sure Kernel Mode Setting is not enabled. This should (in theory) be handled automatically due to the /etc/modprobe.d/fglrx-driver.conf file created during the fglrx-driver package installation – or at least it seemed to be for me.
  9. Create a new xorg.conf file. Assuming Bash:
    mv /etc/X11/xorg.conf{,.$(date +'%Y%m%d%H%m')}
    aticonfig --initial
  10. Reboot, and you should be presented with some kind of X display manager login screen. If everything went well, you should be able to see the following:
    $ glxinfo | grep -E '(^direct\ |\ glx\ |^GLX\ |^OpenGL)' | grep -v '\ extensions:$'
    direct rendering: Yes
    server glx vendor string: ATI
    server glx version string: 1.4
    client glx vendor string: ATI
    client glx version string: 1.4
    GLX version: 1.4
    OpenGL vendor string: ATI Technologies Inc.
    OpenGL renderer string: AMD Radeon HD 6900 Series  
    OpenGL version string: 4.1.11005 Compatibility Profile Context
    OpenGL shading language version string: 4.10

Update (2011-10-23, 10:14pm): In case it wasn’t clear, these changes are temporary. However that brings up new questions like how will I know when I need to revert these changes? and how do I revert?. Well, the first question is easy to answer – simply run the following command:
$ [ "$(apt-cache policy fglrx-driver | grep -E '^(\ |\*){5}[0-9]+' | wc -l)" -ge 2 ] && echo "fglrx-driver is back - time to upgrade xorg" You can optionally put that in a daily cron job to have it e-mail you when it is time.

Reverting the above changes is also very easy:
$ rm -f /etc/apt/preferences.d/60xorg_rollback_for_fglrx.pref /etc/apt/sources.list.d/60snapshot-20110911T211512Z.list /etc/apt/apt.conf.d/60ignore_repo_date_check
$ apt-get update && apt-get dist-upgrade
followed by a reboot.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – buggiest game ever?

I’m declaring Bad Company 2 one of the worst games I’ve played to date.

I wanted to like this game. Hawkeye of Atomic fame loves it, as do many others given its following. The queue at the EB Expo that was specifically for playing a Battlefield 3 preview for 5 minutes was massive, with reports of people waiting in line for over 3h. I’ve had Bad Company 2 sitting in my Steam account for some time, and with no other games currently occupying my time I figured I’d finally give it a shot.

Now one thing you must know about me – I’m first and foremost a PC gamer. Yes, I have all the major consoles. I have more consoles than anyone I know, but they’re purely for compatibility. If a game is made available for a range of platforms, I’ll just about always pick the PC version. Consoles are primarily great for two things – fighting games, and casual players that just want to relax on a couch and do something because their favourite TV show isn’t on. However, dedicated fans to genres such as FPS and RTS know the PC is the only true option. As a consequence, I only have 7 Xbox 360 games for example – all platform exclusives (at the time of purchase anyway).

Before I start playing any PC game, I always take a couple of minutes to make sure all the key mapping, locking and mouse sensitivity settings are all to my liking. For the first few minutes, I often find myself fine-tuning these further. Playing at the EB Expo (where everything seemed to be demoed on a console), I felt like the setup was barely usable – there was absolutely no accuracy, and aiming often took over a second longer than it should. It should be no surprise to learn then that I failed to find a single RTS game on display anywhere at the event. Beyond the hardware manufacturer stands such as Alienware, Razer and Western Digital, the EB Expo unfortunately did not cater for the professional/serious gamer at all.

After spending a few hours playing Bad Company 2, I have come to the conclusion that EA and DICE are also failing to do so. Had I done my research (and not just bothered to trust Atomic and the general popularity of the game which both indicated the game would be terrific), I probably would have noticed subtle hints that the game might not even be worthy of an average rating. For example, when I wondered why I had never noticed a Bad Company 1 anywhere I turned to eBay and Wikipedia only to discovered that Bad Company 2 is the sequel to a console-only game. Serious PC gamers would never have seen the first instalment, so already I started to feel alienated.

Anyway, after playing the game for a few minutes there were a few issues that became immediately obvious. First and foremost, this game is tries to be a realistic shooter but does not support a prone position. You can crouch, but that’s all there is – and it doesn’t feel like crouching takes you anywhere near as low as one might normally crouch if bullets were really flying at them.

Secondly, there is no option to look around corners. I’m pretty sure I saw the computer doing that, so why isn’t there an option? I don’t normally care about such a thing in most cases, but if this game really wants me to believe that it’s at least set in a semi-realistic environment, it needs to be supported. Otherwise, I might as well be playing Doom. I suspect this is related to such options being difficult to implement on a console controller… <sigh>.

Alright… Doom’s still fun. But it should be better than Doom because you get to go outside and drive vehicles, right? Hey, that’s Halo! Oh… that’s the series of games I almost didn’t finish because I just became so bored out of my mind towards the end… but perhaps it’s best I try not to draw comparisons.

Bad Company 2 starts you off trying to rescue a Japanese scientist a few days before the bomb gets dropped. This feels to me like a potentially fun mission, but why did the frame rate have to drop to 1 frame per second every time I entered into close combat? I’m running a 2x Radeon HD 6990 CrossFire setup (overclocked) and an 1920×1080 res LCD, so one would think such a system could handle game thrown at it, right? Apparently the answer is no. Apparently, selecting the “High” graphics profile at 1920×1080 would require consumer graphics hardware that has not yet been released (or possibly even invented). Yes, my drivers are up to date, I’m trying to play on a standard Windows 7 Ultimate install (not WINE for a change), etc. The game must be unbelievably unoptimised for the PC.

Then there’s the issue of people getting stuck when you kill them. Sometimes they get stuck in walls. Sometimes they just stand there perfectly still – giving the illusion you haven’t killed them yet just to keep you wasting your time and ammo. This is both frustrating and lame. I mean, the game has been out for over 18 months as I write this, so you’d think they’d have gotten this shit sorted. With that in mind, go read this Atomic interview with DICE. Choice quote: “The way we look at making the game as good as possible is that the real work only starts once the game’s released.” Seriously, WTF?

But hell, I’m not only a serious gamer, I’m also dedicated. Surely I can look beyond the above flaws and finish the Bad Company 2 campaign? Heck, I finished Kayne and Lynch – and that’s saying something! My answer to that is that I might, but I really can’t say for sure… Bad Company 2 is seriously that bad.

The most recent level I was on (‘Crack the Sky’) involved driving a truck along a road while being shot at by other vehicles. Unfortunately in the fight, I ran slightly off the road onto a lake of ice which had a crack in it and caused the vehicle to be swallowed. Fortunately I was thrown to dry land and the rest of the team managed to escape uninjured. However it soon hit me that this was not a situation the developers had ever considered. I was forced to continue very slowly along the road by foot, but the entire time my allies kept repeating something like “quick, we need to beat them to the satellite control station” or some darn thing – over and over and over. There were other completely out of place comments made along the way as well, as if we were still driving. But there was no truck.

After walking for what seemed like forever (which actually reminded me a lot of Far Cry 2 – one of the other very few games I found too dull to ever finish), we ended up coming to another truck with a manned gun on top. The distance was too far without cover to be able to do it any real damage, and eventually I died.

A few seconds later, I had respawned to a position not far from where the truck had previously fallen into the frozen lake… but without the truck! What was I supposed to do? Spend 10 minutes walking the long road on foot again just so I could probably die in the same way again? No – the game had other plans for me. Instead, it had sent not one, but two armed trucks with manned guns on top to chase us right off the bat. This was in an area where there was absolutely no cover, in a game where there is no prone option. The trucks were too far away for grenades to hit, so it was darn near impossible to survive just a few seconds without getting killed again!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the game had spawned me right next to an out-of-battle area. In Bad Company 2, if you walk into an out-of-battle area, you get a countdown timer appear in the middle of the screen and you have just 10 seconds to return or you are automatically killed. The problem was, the trucks firing upon me were driving directly from the out-of-battle area. If I ran close enough to the trucks to make a grenade throw count (while using my squad mates as shields) I figured I might have a chance, but no… the game will make sure I’m killed for running into the out-of-battle area that the computer keeps killing me from. Unbelievable.

Eventually, I realized that if I used one of my automatic weapons to aim for the gunner on each truck, I can actually take them out – again, if I use a squad mate as a shield to stay alive. I managed to do this a couple of times, all the while being repeatedly told over the speakers to stay out of the open – despite there being absolutely no cover in the area. The trucks would continue rolling for some distance – seemingly they had no driver. Unfortunately, they would always stop just short of leaving the out-of-battle area, but I figured they were close enough that I could just sprint to the truck and drive out in 10 seconds… which brings me to yet another bug – you cannot enter a vehicle in an out-of-battle area. The screen says “Press E to enter vehicle” or some such, but it simply does not respond. Possibly the developers never intended for there to be a vehicle in an out-of-battle area… who the fuck knows. After wasting *way* too much time on this, I gave up and restarted the level.

I don’t think I’ve ever swore on my blog before, but that’s just how pissed of this game has made me.

Want to know something else funny? Check out this Atomic review of Dead Island. I finished this game without any problems, and claim it is one of the most stable games I have ever played. No crashes, no glitches (except for the occasional enemy hand sticking through a wall), it was basically bug-free from my perspective, so much so that I was impressed. And so what does Atomic do? Why they go and bag it for being buggy of course! I wonder if we live in parallel universes or something. However, given Atomic had been bagging Dead Island for so long prior to its release, and given how they treat Bad Company 2 as though its the best game to ever grace the PC, I’m a little skeptical.

I’ve got many issues of Atomic on my shelves. I’ve been to Atomic events, and regularly scan the website for news. For a while, I even used to be a subscriber. But as of late, Atomic has just been giving me *way* too many of these WTF moments. Here’s another example – Atomic says “you can now buy PDFs of each issue on Zinio”, but then scroll to the comments section. Hawkeye states “It is PDF format, but yes, as special Zinio version, so that we don’t have folks just passing around raw PDFs.” Looking at the Zinio FAQ page, it is clear that you do not get a PDF but a proprietary ZNO file which requires a Zinio Reader program to open (and is not compatible with most of my devices, but that’s another story). Even when this issue was pointed out, Hawkeye refused to correct the article so it continues to mislead readers to this day.

Since Atomic is knowingly and wilfully engaging in false reporting where they are the direct beneficiaries of said error, it is reasonable to assume that the same could be said of any article they have ever written. And if Atomic does this, we can be darn sure Game Informer does as well given their close ties with EB Games – which explains why I have almost never seen them rate a game EB Games sells badly. There is also strong evidence that GameSpot behaves in this manner.

It’s beginning to look more and more like I need to completely ignore what games the masses buy, and what game reviewers say if I want to maintain any level of interest in serious PC gaming. I do not like where things are heading.

What does everyone reading this think? I’m especially interested in what older gamers have to say, that are dedicated to the PC platform. Is this just me, or are the heavy weights of the industry such as EA and EB potentially pushing everyone else (outside of free software and indie game companies) to sacrifice professionalism and soul in an attempt make PC gamers a smaller segment and (eventually) possible to ignore completely?

Update 2011-11-21: By starting the level from the beginning, I was able to continue the single-player story mode. However, there were many more bugs that awaited. Everything from crashes, to boxes falling through characters *during cut-scenes*, to sub-titles being horribly out-of-sync with audio, to enemy characters appearing out of thin air, to enemy characters being impossible to kill only to eventually vanish, to cut-scenes suddenly deciding to start playing at 1 frame per second… OMG what a train-wreck. This is *by far* the most buggy game I have ever played on any platform ever – and I haven’t even started on multiplayer! To be honest, I’m not sure I want to bother.

Battlefield 3 looks like it’ll be the same deal – a good console game maybe, and a crap PC title. As early evidence of this, EB Games isn’t even bothering to sell a Limited Edition PC version.

The ethics of gaming with non-free software

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 Edition) I finished all of them.

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 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. :)

DRM possibly more damaging to gaming industry than anticipated

First and foremost, I used to always consider myself a PC gamer. PC gaming has so much going for it compared to its console-based competition; better graphics, higher resolutions, superior controls (I’ll take a keyboard and mouse over a game pad any day), bigger game selection, cheaper game prices, generally no need to insert game discs (after installation)… the list goes on.

As gaming became more mainstream, consoles gained more popularity. The purchase of an Xbox 360 or PS3 (while both being quite expensive) is still quite cheap when compared to the up-front cost of a modern gaming PC. For many, having a PC is an essential requirement for home so the real cost is actually only the difference between what they need for home and what they need for gaming. This would imply that for many, a reasonable gaming PC could be the cheapest solution for somebody already in the market to make a PC purchase. However for the masses that have no idea how to spec their own computer, let alone identify what would be a good graphics card for gaming, making such a purchasing decision is beyond their capabilities. For them, a gaming console may be the only safe choice.

I have always built my own PCs, so I am confident in my abilities to create powerful systems at an excellent price. As for the kinds of games I play, maybe 3 out of 20 PC game purchases I make will be for RTS games, and 1 of 20 will be an adventure game. The remaining 4 times out of 5, I’m purchasing a FPS. Anyone who is heavily into PC FPS and RTS games will know that it is a huge ask to make the jump over to console gaming, as using a mouse and keyboard is the only natural way to play. It doesn’t matter that a game might be playable with a game pad, because the PC gamer will still feel frustrated that he or she cannot maneuver as efficiently as is accustomed to. If a game isn’t enjoyable to play, it’s pointless. Despite all this, I find myself making the switch.

Around eight months ago, I discovered first hand that PC gaming had gained a significant disadvantage; DRM. It wasn’t the first time I had been exposed to this nasty technology; ever since the the introduction of Windows XP I have been strongly opposed to this technology. It raises a great many concerns, the largest being the question of what will happen when the game publisher’s activation server goes offline? The logical answer is that the software will no longer be usable. Thus, one can conclude that anyone who licenses and installs software containing DRM is exposing their computer to a hidden time bomb.

The DRM I discovered was with the purchase of Alone in the Dark Limited Edition from EzyGames (whose parent company EzyDVD has since entered into voluntary receivership). It was not mentioned in the online description that the game required an internet connection to activate the game, although it could be found on the box when it arrived in tiny writing under System Requirements. As my PC is quite powerful and was (correctly) asusumed to be considerably more powerful than necessary, this note escaped my attention. The presence of DRM was only noticed when I skimmed through the EULA displayed by the installation process. I was extremely disappointed, and this DRM later proved to cause me much frustration (as is typical from my experiences) despite my compliance with the relevant license agreements. The experience caused me to pay much closer attention to future game purchases to ensure I didn’t fall for the same trap.

Later, the DRM in the EA title Spore became headline news and was widely criticized. Despite the backlash, EA made the decision to slap DRM into every future title they released. This prompted me to boycott EA titles, which was extremely painful considering how much I really wanted to play Red Alert 3, Crysis Warhead and Dead Space. I have since reconsidered my stance after thinking to myself that EA titles cannot be considered more than a rental, as once the product in installed a limited number of times it can no loner be used. As such, I have allowed myself to purchase an EA title where the game is as cheap as I think it will ever get – and only then if it is a PC exclusive – otherwise it makes more sense to purchase the game console version that can be played forever or potentially resold when the game is no longer used. This thinking allowed me to purchase Crysis Warhead, but the purchase of Red Alert could not be justified as it is still quite expensive and console ports are available.

Recently, EB Games have had some very good sales such as the current 2 games for $50 offer. Most of the games available through this deal are second hand console games, but there are a few new PC games available too (which is how I obtained Crysis Warhead). Generally I don’t go anywhere near the second hand games market as I had previously not considered the titles to be sufficiently cheap, the discs sometimes give you trouble and the instruction booklets are occasionally missing. However at $25 a pop for second hand PS3 games that are generally up around the $70-$100 mark, I decided the price was worth the risk. I was right, as it turned out that almost all purchased games were in such good condition that they might even pass for new.

Something you cannot find as part of an EB Games deal, ever, is a second hand PC game. I am quite sure this comes down to having a different EULA for every title, and many do not allow the resale of the game license.  Nowadays, it would seem DRM is another obstacle preventing second hand PC games. When I purchased the new PC game Clive Barker’s Jericho in conjunction a second hand copy of Turok for PS3 (again, both part of the 2 for $50 deal at EB), the sales man informed me that Turok will have a 7 day money-back guarantee and a 12 month warranty. Jericho on the other hand would not have the same return policy, as the game may require online activation.

To further highlight what incredible value a second hand copy of the Turok PS3 game was, the brand new PC version of the game (also from the same EB Games store) could be purchased for $89.95. Of course I would much rather a keyboard and mouse to play Turok, but not at the price of reading a complicated EULA, possibly infecting my machine with SecuROM, possibly contending with DRM and limited activations, and paying $64.95 extra for the privilege! Sir, do I look insane?

It is interesting to note that many speculated that the idea of introducing DRM into PC gaming was to destroy the second hand gaming market. Certainly if you can only activate a game three times to play, second hand game consumers would need to concern themselves with the possibility that the game may not have any activations remaining and thus be a complete waste of money and time. The question is; what second hand gaming market? Due to licensing agreements potentially making the second hand PC gaming markets illegal, it is almost non-existent. What DRM has done is help push consumers such as myself over to console gaming where the second hand market is thriving! If consumers are prepared to wait until console games reach the second market at reasonable prices (which is generally not long and not hard when the market is flooded with titles – and nobody has time to play them all), the value is incredible. Add to this that the consumer can often then resell the game at half the price they paid, and it just gets better. To think I would have remained ignorant about the second hand console gaming market had DRM not pissed me off!

A few days ago, it was reported that EA might be trying to reverse their mistake. I personally think it’s too late – the damage has largely already been done. I doubt I’ll be paying anywhere near $100 for games any time soon. Well… not unless it’s a special limited edition… and they include a free T-shirt. :)