Experienced Points: The Day One DLC Trap

By Shamus
on Jan 29, 2010
Filed under:
Column

It’s about time I brought Stardock into the discussion. They really are the dark horse among publishers. They really do things their own way.

I haven’t tried Impulse (their content delivery platform) since launch. At the time it was a little short on features and titles. I set it aside and forgot about it. I think I’m going to get Mass Effect 2 through them and compare the system to Steam. (Plus, the game is FOUR WHOLE CENTS cheaper! Score!)

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20201Feeling chatty? There are 41 comments.

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  1. Sheer_Falacy says:

    If they actually listened to this article, the net effect would be to delay the day 1 DLC until day 30. Not exactly ideal.

    And it’s not like it’s a huge amount right now. In ME2 it’s one character and two short missions. Sure, it could get worse, but right now it’s so minor that it’s not really worth complaining about. May as well mention the preorder bonus armors while you’re at it.

    • Shamus says:

      Sheer_Falacy: I am, as always, working to shed light on trends. People used to say DRM was “no big deal”, simply because crucial compromises on ownership hadn’t yet translated into hassle.

      This might be a “small” issue for some now, but the tech and the intent are already in place to make something completely confusing. It’s “free” stuff now, but if you’re in the camp that opposes online activation, then you should view this as a very hostile move.

  2. Jabor says:

    To be fair to Bioware, Shale wasn’t going to be making it onto the disk anyway. They actually cut her completely from the planned original PC launch due to pathfinding issues, and the decision to push it back to coincide with the console launch gave them time to work that stuff out.

    It wasn’t finished in time for the content freeze, so the only way it was getting out was as a downloadable.

    • Shamus says:

      I am EXTREMELY skeptical of the idea that they modeled, animated, and voice-acted a character and then left her out due to”pathfinding” issues.

      There is no reason her pathfinding wouldn’t work if everyone else’s did.

      • Garden Ninja says:

        @Shamus and Jabor, (below)

        Even if Shale is larger than the other party members, surely the pathfinding works for the ogres? Even if party pathfinding were handled differently from enemy pathfinding, it does seem unlikely that they would leave that to the end.

  3. Jabor says:

    I suspect it was more to do with “Shale is so much wider than everybody else and didn’t fit through doorways”.

  4. Lupis42 says:

    Shamus,

    You just have to look at it differently: the pathfinding issue they had was ensuring that the money you paid for the game found a path to their bank accounts.

  5. Jabor says:

    How is what Stardock is doing any different, really?

    Especially as Wardell has stated that the reason Stardock is “playing nice” with the consumer right now is because he sees it as more profitable?

    • Shamus says:

      Jabor: As far as I can tell (and keep in mind I haven’t tried Impulse since launch):

      * You don’t need to activate online to play.
      * Impulse doesn’t insist on running all the time, or hang around when you’re done playing your game.
      * They don’t go after the big sexy game genres, but have instead focused on strategy.
      * The regular updates to games. The updates to GalCiv 2 could easily pass for an expansion pack with some publishers.
      * The whole desktop customization side of their business.
      * They’re a little smaller than most publishers. (Although they’ve been growing a lot lately.) Their CEO has a blog, and on the whole they seem a little closer to the community.

      I’m not saying they’re perfect. They’re just… different.

      • Mindstar says:

        Definetly not perfect :-D

        They don’t sell (at least some) games to europe, and there’s not a single FAQ about their store that is not exclusive to the stardock desktop products that I could find.

        I would like to know for example, if I get an account that my games stay linked to and can then re-download easily from there, but nowhere on the site does is say that…

        D2D has the same problem with european sales: Some games are US-only.

        Steam and EA Store are the two that have the game I want available for Europe, so Steam it is :-) (even if it is 5€ more expensive than EA Store)

        Steam has several good points in its favor, but I admit I never bought digital games from anywhere else. The only problem I had with steam was when I first tried to buy a game from work and for some reason my work proxy was registered in another country than stated on my account… but their support sorted it fairly quick (by next day, since the support ticket was opened late sunday night).

        Overall I’m pretty satisfied with Steam’s store: downloads seem to be reasonably fast, they ran some very nice discounts this year, it launches pretty fast and has no impact on performance that I can see on my 3 year old machine.

        My major gripe is why oh why do I have to pay the same as the box price for a game…

        PS: The game I’m looking for is Mass Effect 2, btw… which I’ve already played for a couple hours and is really sucking me in… I’ll have no life for the next couple weeks :-)

  6. HC says:

    It was over more than just pathfinding, but the idea that Shale was cancelled from the main game and resurrected for DLC use after they’d locked down the code on the PC version does seem to be correct.

    “I can speak to this a little. Shale was originally designed to be part of the main game that the player would stumble across in Redcliffe. A lot of the banter and interjection lines were written with that in mind and a number of NPCs went as far as having those lines recorded.

    Shale posed some serious issues, however, and the project was on a very tight timeline. The existing golem models were too large to fit through doorways, for instance, and posed some problems when party-controlled in combat. The large size was also extremely difficult for our cutscene designers to work around and pretty much every cutscene in the game would be affected. Meanwhile, the golem models also didn’t have the full range of animations that a party member requires and their facial structure was poorly-suited to lip-synching. Between that and a variety of other issues (a complex custom inventory proposal, no clear design for custom abilities, etc), the team made the correct decision to cut Shale from the core game.

    I was brought onto the Dragon Age PRC team after that decision was made (previously, I had been heading up the NWN PRC team and working on another unannounced project that had recently been canceled). Shale was recommended as a piece of content that could potentially be salvaged for use as PRC. Looking at the scope of the problems surrounding Shale, I actually made the recommendation that we not proceed. In the end, Shale’s humor and story and inherent value won the day and we decided to gamble everything and go ahead.

    Emergency meetings were held and the artists and animators burned a ridiculous amount of midnight oil (after just coming off crunch time to finish their work on the main game) to shrink Shale down to Qunari size, sink the head so that its eye level matched that of a human, apply the Dwarven overlay animations to account for a slightly stockier body, and merge the Qunari and golem animation rigs. Programming went the extra mile to provide the animators with a means of excluding some of the more emotive or “human” animations that just didn’t look right for Shale (no on likes a bum-scratching golem). The cutscene designers still had to make a pass through every cutscene in the game but these changes brought the required fixes down to a manageable level.

    Meanwhile, Design simplified the inventory GUI plans down to leverage the existing interface already being used by Dog. Shale’s talent tree was designed and redesigned multiple times to minimize the impact on core scripts, which were already under a tight lockdown. The VFX for Shale’s crystals piggybacked on an unexpected node inheritance bug that we decided to approach as a feature (if you want to see the bug/feature in action, try casting Flame Weapon on Dog ). Shale’s dialog (which fortunately hadn’t been recorded yet) was rewritten to account for her removal from Redcliffe and the changes to her character art and inventory systems. The level artists went to town creating Honnleath, the Cellars, and Cadash Thaig.

    The vast majority of this took place after the PC version had entered a tight lockdown and the core DA:O team had moved onto the console versions or over to Mass Effect 2. It wouldn’t have been possible without the additional manpower made available as a result of our very difficult decision to cancel the project I had formerly been on. Even with that additional manpower, there’s no way that content would have made it fully onto the disc rather than via download (some aspects did make it onto the disc but most of those were the elements that had already been created as part of Shale’s initial design). In the end, it was an extremely high risk gamble and, right until the very end, emerging problems and unexpected issues threatened to derail the Shale project entirely. Fortunately, it all worked out (by the skin of our teeth!) and we were able to have Shale available for download at the time of launch.

    Knowing that Shale had previously been announced as being a part of the main game and knowing that there was the potential for a community backlash if we asked all of you to pay cold hard cash for it at launch, the decision was made to include the redemption code in all new copies of the game. In essence, we’re choosing to provide Shale as a “lost leader” and a demonstration in good faith of what’s to come with future PRC. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into making Shale happen – the fact that the content blends so seamlessly with the rest of the game and looks so effortless is a sign that we did our job right.

    Enjoy the game,
    Rob”

    source:
    http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/9/index/226103/3

    • Shamus says:

      HC: Thanks. It makes a lot more sense now!

      • tech_priest says:

        I don’t want to sound unsympathetic, but that doesn’t really address the original point — “Developers and publishers have been working on various techniques for getting people to pony up for their single-player game instead of borrowing or buying used. Ideally, they want everyone who plays the game to pay full price for it.”

        Whether that was the original intent for the character or not then end result is exactly the same. If the company was ACTUALLY concerned with making sure that your hard work was appreciated by everyone, it would have been a whole lot simpler to just make the content available to everyone. Instead they chose to rush to implement a system designed to restrict access to your hard work.

        My criticism is NOT directed at you (Rob) or the team who did the work, but at the decision makers. Regardless of the circumstances, the DLC is still being used exactly as Shamus originally complained about, and the company still went to extra effort to inconvenience gamers

  7. Carra says:

    I can only see it as a way to prevent second hand sales. And those are close to non existing here in Belgium, Europe. The only place where you might find some is the flee market or a small bin in a specialized game shop.

    Finding items (Shale, Dragon armor and the extra level) in my Dragon Age box felt wrong. I didn’t feel happy to get free content. I felt ripped off as it’s clearly just a measure to stop second hand sales and it only makes things harder for the end user. Where is the install, click play time?

    Compare it to e.g. TF2. There I got a ton of free DLC. Months after the release you get new maps and items. There I was happy with the content and it was a good reason to get out the game again.

    Piracy? Just google “DLC Dragon Age torrent” and you’ve got it all, it just takes one more step.

  8. Luvian says:

    You know; I can buy that they didn’t have the time to finish Shale. But to also add a downloadable character from launch in Mass Effect 2? This is setting a trend, and don’t tell me it’s about path finding issues this time since it’s a human character.

    I think it’s safe to assume that they liked the reception Shale got as a DLC and decided to use that scheme again.

    These things started with horse armor and now it’s storage chests and whole characters. Can these really be considered bonus content or are they core parts of a game?

  9. LintMan says:

    Jabor – Do you have a link to that Wardell quote about “playing nice”? I’d like to see the whole context.

    To add to what Shamus mentioned: Stardock puts no DRM on the games they publish (ie: Gal Civ 2, Demigod), though I think some of the developers they distribute for require them to implement additional measures for those games (serial checks, TAGES, GOO, etc). They are upfront about it, though and say right up at the top of each game’s store page what type of protection it uses, if any.

    Stardock (Brad Wardell specifically) also is the originator of the Gamer’s Bill of Rights, which somehow seems to get credited to Chris Taylor/GPG sometimes. The Gamer’s Bill of Rights is not perfect, but it was a whole heck of a lot better than what we were getting out of EA at the same time (and still is today, even with EA’s somewhat improved stance).

    If Wardell says he’s nice to customers because he can make more money that way, I won’t blame him. He owns a business and profit is the goal. He’s got to convince investors that he’s not crazy, and beyond that, if we want the industry as a whole to adopt something like the GBoR, they’d have to believe it was in their best interest as well, because they certainly won’t do it out of charity. So if he chooses to emphasize the business case for playing nice, it makes perfect sense to me.

  10. Knight-Templar says:

    I’m surprised that you didn’t allready know the story behind the Dragon Age shale DLC. Its allways brought up whenever somebody get upset over day one DLC.

  11. Sheer_Falacy says:

    Luvian: To be fair, it’s the least interesting character. So at least there’s that.

  12. Ingvar M says:

    Looks as if there’s an errant redirect to static pages after the database faffery I was redirected to information about when I tried a while ago.

    In short, when I try this link or the link off the Escapist main page, I am told:

    Everything should be up and running, you may now return to our Internets!

    Ah well, things will hopefully soon regularise and I can appreciate the wit and truth dripping from Shamus’ keyboard like water down the Niagara.

  13. PowerofGeorge says:

    @Lintman

    Well of course playing nice to the customers will make better profit, especially in the long run. A successful business is one that can boast its number of customers, not one that boasts its revenue. Revenue is easy; just rip off your loyal customers as much as possible. With things like, you know, special editions of games that cost over a hundred bucks.

    As for whether we should call it “Online Activation” or “Day One DLC”, I don’t care anymore. Ever since I learned the hard way of online activation back in 2006, when I attempted to install Half-Life 2, I started becoming an extreme skeptic (paranoid) about the direction of gaming. That the benefits and rights that as gamers we used to have were going to be screwed up just for giggles. Slowly, but surely, Activision, Take-Two, and Ubisoft seem to be proving me right.

  14. Bob says:

    Shamus: You might not need to activate to install and play the game initially but you do need to activate to be able to download and install the Impulse only patches!

    Impulse as far as I can tell is a slightly more lienient (sp?) version of Steam.

  15. WWWebb says:

    Hmm…what about people who are never going to buy the game on day one? If I buy an impulse game six months after release, not only will I pay less than the suckers who couldn’t wait, I’ll get a better game. If I buy a “day one DLC” game 6 months later, I’ll pay less, but won’t get as much content. The situation is magnified over time from the customers’ perspective.

    For the publisher of a “day one dlc” game, they’re getting less money, but they haven’t spent any additional money on the game. For Stardock, they’re getting less money after spending more money.

  16. pkt-zer0 says:

    @Shamus: So, how would the “Day One Patch Trap” be any different from the “Day One DLC Trap”? Is cut functionality any less of a potential issue than cut content?

    • Shamus says:

      pkt-zer0: That was the entire point of my article. :)

      It’s all in how you view the post-release stuff. Gamers loved one, hated the other, and the difference between the two is all in how you think of that content.

  17. Don J says:

    I recently watched “Reset Button: The Biggest Game Ever” again. Halfway through reading the list of questions in this Experienced Points column (starting with “But where do you draw the line?”) I realized that it was your voice that I was hearing in my head as I read the words. It actually added quite a bit to the experience, because my brain applied the pacing you used in narrating Reset Button, and the whole thing just worked better somehow.

    I think the conclusion is that you need to do more Reset Button!

    And before posting this I decided to go watch “Most Innovative Videogame of 2008” again. This was also made of awesome! And my brain now has enough voice samples to get me through a few more Experience Points columns with appropriate narration.

    A question for you: have you played BIT.TRIP BEAT? There’s a free demo available in the WiiWare section of the Nintendo Store right now. I downloaded the demo last night and quickly decided to spend the 600 points to buy the full version. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it some time — oldschool concepts, with a really simple intuitive control scheme, an interesting (sometimes fiendishly hard) learning curve, and a built-in difficulty adjustment system that rewards skilled players with score multipliers but gives novices several chances to get back on their feet after failures.

    Even if you never review it or comment on it here, I hope you get a chance to take a look. Just talking about it has made me want to go play some more (maybe with some Wii Fit Plus or Lego Star Wars breaks somewhere along the way)!

  18. WCG says:

    Stardock has always worked great for me. They’re not GOG.com, but they’re not Steam, either.

    They don’t have as many games that appeal to me, but some are lots of fun (I’m currently playing Space Rangers 2).

  19. Mari says:

    Jabor, by your logic I should never use the business that offers great customer service because it’s just a ploy to get my money. I should use only businesses that treat me with contempt and indifference because they don’t care about the revenue. Obviously the logic in my statement is broken (as evidenced by the numerous businesses which offer poor customer service yet worship the almighty consumer dollar).

    Frankly my theory of being a customer is that I spend my money with companies that A) offer me the best customer experience and B) give me the best value for my dollars (remember that value does not necessarily equal cheap). Stardock gives me a better customer experience by treating me as a customer instead of a criminal. They also give me value for my money by offering a solid product (ie not critically bugged at launch) and continuing to enhance that product later.

  20. Ingvar M says:

    Oh! I see! The original redirect said “permanently moved” and my browser (foolishly) believed it! Eurgh.

  21. @WWWebb As far as I can tell, if you buy Mass Effect 2 first hand six months from now you will still be able to download all the “Day one DLC” for free. The downloads will only be unavailable if you buy a second-hand copy (unless you get lucky and the original owner didn’t use his code), and even then you can still pay to unlock them.

    • Miral says:

      @Andrew: that is true; if you buy ME2 first-hand in six months time then you will still get everything.

      BUT if you buy it first-hand in twelve months time, you will not. That’s because all of the DLC codes (including the in-box DLC) come with an expiry date.

  22. RichVR says:

    “…no on likes a bum-scratching golem…”

    I beg to differ.

  23. Axle says:

    I think CD Project (“The witcher”) should be mentioned here.

    A year after the release of the witcher, CD project released the “Enhanced version” of the game that included bug fixes, some major gamplay improvements, extra dialogs and two extra short campaigns. So far so goos, right? Well, the best thing about it was that, if you bought the original game, you can download the enhnced version for free (a 3.5 GB file. Give and take), an act that made people who pirated the game buy it for full price (At least thats what my local gmae provider told me) , just to support CD project for their act of kindness.

    I realy hope more companies will take that approach and support the players instead of squeezing more cash out of them.

  24. poohshoes says:

    I bought a package of games from Stardock in early December. Due to many errors on their end with accounts and bad product keys I was not able to play the game until early January ONE WHOLE MONTH LATER. I was not impressed at all, and the game actually ended coming out on steam before January. And I had to go through many emails back and forth to get it working, including having to start a new issue when they closed one I had already opened which hadn’t been solved. I then had to answer the same questions which I had already answered in the other issue. They also made me run a program that changed my registry (sketchy and not part of the problem at all). The app was telling me that the key was bad, and I kept telling the support guy this but he didn’t care, and it ended up being the actual problem, RAGE. Very frustrating, I’m going to stick with Steam!

  25. Evilnut says:

    Not related to Stardock, but I have a warning about Mass Effect 2’s DLCs.

    I bought the Collector’s Edition, and downloaded the DLCs for 1 character, 3 armors (one from Dragon Age) and 2 missions. I remained online while I start my first game. Then I saved.

    When I try to load the save later, I wasn’t online. The game told me that I must logon my EA account to authorize the DLCs. Without the DLCs authorized, it couldn’t load my save game.

    I checked the official forum and there were already a few such reports. In this thread (http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/106/index/939997/1) dan107 said that you don’t actually need to login your EA account; but the game will make a connection when loading the title screen. If this connection is successful, you can use the DLCs.

    I think I’ll check what this connection is to, and what is being sent/received.

    For now I’ve started a new game without being online. That seems to be sufficient to prevent my save games to be *contaminated* by the DLCs.

    • Axle says:

      I suffered from the same issue in Dragon age.
      I reloaded a game in the middle of the deep roads and, all of a sudden, Sten was fighting the darkspawn in his undies…. I think one of his worst nightmares just came true…. mine, at least….

      It’s a real shame that Bioware don’t do anything about the numerous DLC related bugs (I encountered a major one with the stone prisoner) or at least find a way to play them offline.

      • Evilnut says:

        I made a post on the official forum (http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/106/index/939997/3#1181391).

        I’ll quote my post here:
        I’m analyzing the data transferred when Mass Effect 2 launches. There are a lot going on.

        Before the test I set ME2 to not connect to Cerberus and not auto login my EA account. Then I went online, and double-clicked ME2 shortcut.

        The launcher made a connection to http://accounts.bioware.com/launcher_news/getnews/me2/?newsID=1&lang=en, to obtain news. Funny thing is it replied with HTTP error code 404, which means “Page not found”, as well as sending back a literal “404” in the content.

        Then the game connected to gosredirector.ea.com [159.153.235.22], likely to obtain a list of Cerberus servers to use. Then a lot of UDP and TCP traffic started. The UDP traffic is pretty static – game sent a bunch of data, servers replied with the same data with a fixed response appended to the end.

        The TCP traffics were more interesting. The game and the servers started doing SSL.

        The thing is, I’m not logging on to Cerberus. The game doesn’t have my EA account password and need to prompt me to enter it (or at least I hope it doesn’t cache account password).

        With that I assume in the SSL traffic the game is verifying with the EA servers that it is an authentic, unhacked copy of Mass Effect 2.

        So while not as restrictive as the DRM used in Spore, it is a DRM nonetheless. It is online activation; EA’s servers are required for you to play/load a save with DLCs.

        That would explain why EA/Bioware’s reluctance to answer us. They lied — actually, they weaseled out of it.

        Chris said here (http://meforums.bioware.com/viewtopic.html?topic=710074&forum=144) that the boxed PC retail will not have DRM. What he forgot to mention is DRM is present in the DLCs.

        While I have a much less problem with this kind of arragement, I’d hope next time they will at least be honest and upfront about it, so that I can save the money and trouble by buying the normal version instead of the collector’s edition, thinking once I downloaded the DLCs I can play them without calling up EA’s server for approval every time I want to play my single player game.
        [/cite]

  26. RubicantX says:

    I have “Sins of a Solar Empire”. Not once was I prompted to make an Impulse account, and in fact the first one or two patches were manual download links requiring no registration.
    – If there’s one thing blaringly, obviously, missing from this game it’s BUGS. I could have never downloaded impulse or received the latest patches and been just fine.
    – Impulse sells games from many developers including 2K and EA. On the game info page it has lines of who the devs are, who the publisher is, year released, link to the EULA, and most importantly a line that says “Protection:” and names names if it has SecuRom or Targes (saw that on there but never heard of it before.) or w/e it’s using.
    – This is kind of sad they aren’t sticking to their “Gamers Rights” when it comes to games published by other companies. They could try and enforce some standards. Or are they already? Some titles may be missing because of just that.

    @Poohshoes: I am saddened and surprised about this. I would be much quicker to blame the company releasing the game pack for the keys than Stardock from the get-go. (Was it the mega pack THQ one with Company of Heroes games? I was thinking of getting it)

    @Mindstar: Yes on Impulse you CAN re-download and install a game no matter where you are or how many times you’ve installed it before (For first party titles – this might exclude EA titles.) You have to understand this is just what I’ve heard both users and mods say I’ve never uninstalled SoaSE to try.

    @Axle: AFAIK you shouldn’t have to be online to use Shale or the Blood Dragon Armor, but the BDA is bugged with no real patch in sight and only a manual d/l file they say to dump over the current one and hope everything doesn;t go all f’d up and remove it from ALL your games including future ones. But you can re-download the regular one through the in game downloader free anytime if you are logged into your account.

    I disliked DA:O’s 1st day DLC and it also raised my DRM senses. More and more games are being released with huge bugs. Because patches aren’t “mandatory” they can leave “online activation” or “registration” off the “requirements” on the back of the PC game box. Then they start intentionally removing stuff from games and trying to make me feel glad they did so and thank them. I’m extremely torn between buying DLC to support Bioware or boycotting the sales practice. But I inherently dislike the DRM-y nature of DLC’s in how you cannot back them up and re-intall manually from an offline disk.

    As for me: I truly feel I’ve lost a big chunk of what little innocence, in area I thought had no “stat” for innocence or lack-thereof, this disgusting world hasn’t already stolen me and I won’t be buying any PC game for 3 months after release to see the true DRM / Bug issue.

  27. Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The wors in your article seem to
    be running off tthe screen in Chrome. I’m not sure if
    this is a formatting issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let
    you know. The design and style look great though! Hope you get the problem
    solved soon. Thanks

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