Category: Games

Obfuscation

Continuing from Friday's post about a Microsoft employee's total disdain for Microsoft customers' concern about the next Xbox's rumored always-on requirement:

I want my game console to only be playable online, said no one ever.
Image via Quickmeme.
My Internet connection went down while I was trying to find it. I'm not kidding.

That's the crux of it, isn't it?

From a consumer standpoint, there is no benefit to an always-on requirement.

Now, people may try to obfuscate this point. They may list off all the benefits of an always-on option. And there are some! Cloud saves are pretty cool! So's online multiplayer! Having those things as options is great!

Making them mandatory, for all games, is not. And therein lies the disingenuousness of the argument.

EA COO Peter Moore recently shared this gem:

Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme. It's not. People still want to argue about it. We can't be any clearer -- it's not. Period.

As difficult as it is to argue with the unassailable logic that is "It's not. Period.", there are two problems here:

  1. It's clearly DRM.
  2. Even if it weren't DRM, it would still be legitimately terrible game design.

This is one more case where a company representative is deliberately obfuscating the difference between a nice option and a good requirement.

The idea of an entire world of SimCities interacting with one another? That does sound pretty great! It's really a neat idea!

Is it integral to the gameplay?

Well, Peter Moore will tell you it is. Because Peter Moore is paid to tell you it is.

But it's turned out to be trivial to modify the game for offline play, and quite a lot of people have noted that the game plays just fine that way. The interaction with other players and cities is a nice option -- but it's not required to enjoy the game.

Indeed, it proved a pretty fucking considerable detriment to customers enjoying the game.

So beware this argument tactic -- "[X] is a good requirement to have, because of [features that could be implemented without making it a requirement]."

And its close cousin, "DRM is a benefit to the end user, because of [features that could be implemented without using DRM]."

DRM is never a benefit to the end user. No end user has ever said, "You know, this game is great, but it would be better if it had DRM."

Similarly, as the image above so succinctly notes, nobody has ever said "You know, offline games are great, but I sure wish they were as unreliable as online games."

Microsoft Doesn't Want My Business. That Can Be Arranged.

So in case you haven't been keeping score, apparently the next version of the Xbox will require an always-on Internet connection, even for single-player games.

As you might expect, some people are unhappy about this.

Microsoft's Adam Orth knows just how to treat concerned customers: by insulting and mocking them with disingenuous analogies.

Image: Adam Orth's Twitter feed, insulting his customers' intelligence and his own

Now, one of three things is true:

  1. Adam Orth is stupid.
  2. Adam Orth thinks you're stupid.
  3. Both.

I shouldn't even have to fucking explain this, but here goes anyway:

A video game console that doesn't work without an Internet connection is not analogous to a vacuum cleaner that doesn't work without electricity or a cellular telephone that doesn't work without cellular service.

Because, you see, a vacuum cleaner, by its nature, requires electricity to function. (Technically some vacuum cleaners get that electricity from batteries, but keep in mind, Orth's analogy is very very stupid.)

A cellular telephone requires cellular service to function.

You see where I'm going with this?

A video game console does not require an Internet connection to function.

Now, some games might. Complaining that, say, World of Warcraft requires an Internet connection would indeed be comparable to complaining that a vacuum requires a current and a cellular telephone requires cellular telephone service.

But -- fun fact! -- many video games are single-player.

Refusing to buy a video game console that requires an always-on Internet connection is not analogous to refusing to buy a vacuum cleaner that requires an electrical current.

Refusing to buy a video game console that requires an always-on Internet connection is analogous to refusing to buy a vacuum cleaner that requires an always-on Internet connection.

Nightline 1985, Part 3

Finale. Nice point on how Al Gore wasn't lobbying to regulate country music -- in much the same way that, more recently, California's Leland Yee wanted legal regulations of video game violence but not Hollywood film violence, despite FTC research showing that video game ratings are enforced more consistently than film ratings.

And seriously -- Marvin Gaye? That's the sexually explicit musician you want to protect your children from?

Pity about that last cutoff, but good that someone got a tape at all. Thanks again to uploader koolstrike.

Messiah Controllers

So what am I playing Zelda 2 with?

I'm using a Messiah wireless NES controller.

Remember Messiah? They put out the Generation NEX NES clone a few years back. It was a much-hyped, slick-looking system back in 2005, and promised built-in wireless, dual-mono audio output, and full compatibility with both NES and Famicom games and accessories.

And then it came out and turned out to be running the same damn crummy third-rate NES-on-a-chip as every other Chinese clone.

And so Messiah faded into obscurity.

Which is a pity, because despite the disappointing guts of the NEX, Messiah made some damn solid controllers. And while the NEX had a built-in wireless receiver, you can also use them on a legit NES with a dongle. (The gamepads, anyway; from what I understand the joystick doesn't work with a real NES. Don't know, never got one.)

The controller works well. It's solid and has a good weight to it; the buttons have a good response even if they're a little clicky.

The disc-shaped D-pad is a little weird but I haven't had any real trouble using it to play Zelda 2 -- I have a bitch of a time fighting Ironknuckles, but I don't think that's the controller's fault. I can see it being a problem on something that requires more four-direction precision, though.

It really is a pretty neat device and well worth the $50 Amazon's charging for a pair. (I got the Limited Edition set, which I see is now going for $175 used. I'm tempted to snatch up that $50 set and sell my limited set, but I do like the metal lunchbox.)

I'm kinda disappointed I never got the SNES set, because you can't get those anymore, but I'm seeing good reviews on the SuperRetro wireless SNES controllers. And they have good old-fashioned plus-sign D-pads, too, not discs.

Kind of a moot point, really; the state of SNES emulation and the now-standard design of its controller have meant I haven't hooked mine up in years.

Zelda 2: The One That Fucks Up Alphabetized Lists

Yep, got the bug from Jeremy Parish's excellent Anatomy of Zelda 2 series. I've started replaying Zelda 2.

Jeremy commented on the general unfairness of the game and said that he's using savestates. I'm using authentic NES hardware, but I do have a Game Genie.

When I played through the game as a kid, I only used one Game Genie cheat code: infinite lives. It's amazing how much it does for the game's balance to eliminate the outmoded concept of a limited number of lives (a holdover from the arcade age, of course). Frankly it's odd, in hindsight, that Zelda 2 played the old "3 lives and then Game Over" meme, given that the original game didn't. I mean, sure, 2's a side-scrolling platformer, but Metroid was too, and it didn't bother with giving you a limited number of lives either.

So I resolved to take a crack at Zelda 2 on my NES, once again cheating a bit against its unfair difficulty with the use of the infinite lives code.

And when I went to look it up, I found, via Game Winners, two more codes that weren't in the official Game Genie book and which serve to mitigate the game's lopsided leveling system. So here are the three codes I'm using:

Link has unlimited lives SZKGKXVK
Do not lose all experience when leveling SZVOUNSE
Do not lose experience when hit by enemies SXESIKSE

I think that, on the whole, those three codes go a long way to balancing out the difficulty of Zelda 2 and allowing its strengths to shine. It is a solid game.

Sick and Tired

So I made it through the past couple weeks of being both sick and crazy busy with a wedding, without missing a blog post. So I guess I'd feel pretty silly to miss one now that I'm merely sick, and no longer crazy busy with a wedding.

Damn thing's still hanging on. Indeed, it's still in "too sick to go buy comics on Wednesday" territory. I'm improving, but not nearly damn fast enough.

Finally went to the doctor today and got some antibiotics. So, one more pill to take a couple of times a day; we'll see how it goes.

Mostly just trying to take it easy, heal up. Which is kind of a bummer because my dad and brother are still in town and I'd rather be out with them. Ah well -- plan on grabbing lunch with them tomorrow.


Reading: Just finished A Study in Scarlet. It spent rather a lot more time talking about the Mormon settlement of Utah than I expected.

Playing: Cthulhu Saves the World, and the original Half-Life in its new native-Linux version.

More Stupid Ideas in Digital Distribution

Stop me if you've heard this one: a media company does a promotion, is totally unprepared for the traffic it generates, the servers are obliterated so that legitimate customers can't access their stuff, and all the while pirates are still able to trivially obtain the media in question.

I'm talking about Comixology and Marvel, but I could just as easily be talking about EA ('cept that last part I guess; to my knowledge there's no crack to run SimCity without a network connection as yet).

Marvel started a big promotion the other day: 700 free issue #1's through Comixology.

The demand took down the Comixology site for two days. And it's still running slowly.

To blame for all this? Two things:

  1. a client-server distribution model with only a single website available to download from, and
  2. DRM on the files to make sure nobody else can set up a mirror.

Well, I should say "to make sure nobody else can set up a legal mirror", because, well, if you've been on the Internet for five minutes and are not a complete dumbshit, you're probably aware that anyone who wants those comics can trivially find pirated copies.

Go the legal route, with Comixology? You get a proprietary file that you can only read in their program. Provided you can access their fucking website at all.

Go the illegal route, through some dodgy website? You get a CBR, or a CBZ, or a PDF, which you can read in any program that supports that format. And you don't have to worry about whether a single specific website is actually working in order to acquire that file.

It doesn't take a fucking genius to see which is the superior, more customer-friendly option.

Let's talk about what customers want. Hey, I like comics. Let's start with me. Here, maybe this will help you get a feel for just how much money you could potentially squeeze out of me:

27 shortboxes, a long box, and a stack of bags a couple of feet high of books I haven't boxed yet

Not pictured: 14 more shortboxes, plus about 2/3 of a bookcase taken up by hardcovers and trades.

My point is, I have spent a fuck of a lot of money on comics over the course of my life.

You know how much I've spent on Comixology? Zero. The Dark Horse digital store? Zero.

And make no mistake: that's not just because I prefer physical comics. I do, but I've downloaded any number of free comics from both those stores. I've read them and I've enjoyed them. I'd be adding those 700 Marvel #1's to my collection right the fuck now if the website were functional.

But free is the amount I am willing to pay for a DRM-infected book, comic or otherwise. If you won't let me read the file on whatever computer I want, in whatever program I want, then you're not getting a damn dime from me.

I realize I'm not the guy Comixology's trying to appeal to here -- they're trying to draw in new readers, not people who know what happens on Wednesdays. I get that. I'm not the target audience here.

But the target audience is getting timeouts too. Not just new readers coming for the Marvel promo, but existing customers who can't access their accounts.

So, here are a couple of points to start with that I think should be blisteringly obvious:

The very idea of restricting access to a free digital giveaway is completely fucking insane.

Why put DRM on something you're giving away for free? What conceivable reason is there for this? Why would you want to restrict copying of a free promotion that you are doing?

And why only make it available from a single distributor?

I mean, I get the reasoning behind that one, at least: they want to turn people into Comixology customers. They don't want people to just grab the free comics and never bother coming the the Comixology site. I get the theory.

But in practice, well, how's that working out for you guys? You getting any customers out of this thing?

Here's the right way to do it: just post all 700 files in a big torrent file. Make them CBR/CBZ format. And stick an ad for Comixology in every file.

Ever see a popular torrent collapse under the weight of high demand? Of course you haven't. Because that is the opposite of how BitTorrent works. BitTorrent is at its absolute best on files that are in high demand.

Now, I know why media companies don't take advantage of BitTorrent: because that would legitimize BitTorrent. As far as the publishers are concerned, BitTorrent is synonymous with piracy. They want the protocol banned entirely -- so of course they're not willing to acknowledge that it can be used as a tool for legal distribution, and a very very good one at that.

So instead, they opt for DRM-encumbered files distributed through a traditional client-server model -- and create this gigantic fucking debacle. And you know what their takeaway from this is going to be? "Well, obviously we need to make sure we've got more bandwidth next time." They're going to think that the problem is that their stupid distribution model wasn't implemented correctly, not that their stupid distribution model is stupid.

"Let's just make sure we've got more bandwidth next time" was EA's solution to the authentication problems that Spore users faced in 2008. 5 years later, did it work?

As long as you're thinking that the fix is a better delivery mechanism for DRM-infected content, you're doing it wrong. The problem will persist.


But you know, there are lots of great digital comics out there that aren't from Comixology and aren't DRM-infected. I've gushed about Mark Waid's Thrillbent before; those are all DRM-free and free to download. I also enjoyed the first issue of Dracula the Unconquered by Chris Sims, Steve Downer and Josh Krach; it's DRM-free and only costs a buck.

The point here isn't merely to castigate companies who do it wrong -- please reward the ones who do it right.

Lessons Learned in Wii Repair

Console Zombie's Wii Repair Guides are really quite good. However, after having rooted around in them a bit, I can make a few additions and corrections:

  • In addition to the listed tools, I found that I needed the following:
    • Razor blade -- many of the screws are covered by little stickers. I couldn't remove them with my fingers; I needed a razor blade to peel them off.
    • Tweezers -- and in some cases, I couldn't get them all the way off with the razor blade and needed to grab the corner with a pair of tweezers to pull it the rest of the way off.
    • Chip extractor -- I used this to remove the plug that connects the faceplate to the board. It was too tight to do with my fingers.
  • And speaking of the faceplate, the instructions on the Wii Case Opening Tutorial are slightly out of order. You can't remove the faceplate before removing the screws on the lefthand side; the front screw on the left side holds the faceplate on.
  • The Wii Optical Drive Troubleshooting Guide says that if you don't see a red light when you power on your Wii, it likely means the laser is bad. That may be true, but in my case it wasn't -- test the spindle motor before you go ordering a replacement laser.

Yes, I needlessly ordered a replacement laser only to find, after taking apart and reassembling my Wii, that it worked once and then went back to exactly the same behavior as before.

Now, I'll give this 50/50 on blaming the guide and myself. Because I was blaming the spin motor in the first place and didn't think it was the laser until I read that guide and it said that if you can't see a red light, you've got a bad laser.

But, there was some real foolishness on my part in not thinking to test the motor myself, something I should have thought of even though it's not in the guide: disconnect the power to the spin motor and see if you get the same result.

After I found that my new laser didn't work any better than the old one, I did that, and yes, I get exactly the same symptom with the motor disconnected as I do with it connected. Even if it isn't mentioned in the guide, I should have checked that before I spent $10 for a replacement laser I didn't need. Oh well -- you live and learn. Or sometimes you live and forget the shit you already know and are only reminded after you make a stupid mistake.

A couple more quick notes:

  • I ordered an eForcity screwdriver set with a tri-wing and a small phillips, both magnetic. It worked reasonably well for five bucks, but the reviewers are right: these things are flimsy, and in particular the two tri-wing screws on the bottom of the Wii are in there tight. I stripped the head of the tri-wing a bit and I wouldn't expect it to make it through a second round of repairs; it's worth getting if you only plan to use it once, but if you want to buy a tool you can keep and reuse, you're not going to get it for five bucks. Also, the magnet on the phillips is not strong enough to hang onto the larger screws that connect the optical drive to the chassis, which are the hardest screws to put back in.
  • Speaking of which: I'm both experienced and careful at repairing electronics, but I broke off lots of little black bits of plastic in working on my Wii. In particular, all four of the pieces that hold the screws where you attach the optical drive just cracked to hell when I screwed it back in. The parts inside the Wii are flimsy as hell and if you're the kind of person who'll be upset if you break something, you really shouldn't be opening up your Wii. Me, I'm a little disappointed -- but if I can get the sucker working again it'll all be worth it. (And if I can't, then fuck it, I'll just attach an external hard drive and rip all my games to that.)

And a final thought: man, moving parts suck.

I look through my collection of old consoles, and the top-loading cartridge ones all still work. SNES, Genesis, N64 -- you're just plugging a board into another board. I have never had an issue with any of those machines.

The NES, well, as you might expect I've had to replace the 72-pin connector. But aside from that single moving part, it's always worked like a champ.

You start getting into optical drives, though?

Well, in fairness, I've never had any trouble with my Dreamcast, GameCube, or the Sega CD I bought on eBay. Or my Xbox 360, though I've only had it for a few months.

But my PS1, PS2, and Wii all quit reading discs after a few years for one reason or another. (Also the second controller slot on my PS2 quit working. I don't know why, and it's not a moving part so it kinda undermines my case that moving parts are the problem. But not my case that They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To.) And while I haven't personally had any trouble with my new Xbox 360, that console may have the worst reputation for durability of any yet devised.

Hard drives aren't a perfect solution -- after all, hard drives can sure as hell die on you too -- but they're a superior option, especially since console manufacturers have had the good sense to make them easy to insert and remove.

As we move toward SSD's, that's going to make for an interesting set of challenges in and of itself -- I've only been using one in my desktop for a few months and it hasn't failed me yet, but my understanding is that, while they fail less frequently than spinning-platter drives, they fail all at once -- while you can usually recover most of your data from a failing hard drive, if an SSD goes it's gone.

Guess that's an argument for cloud saves. Which, at the rate Nintendo is progressing with its Internet support, should be available sometime around 2048 (but will not allow me to load my own save on my grandchildren's console).

And of course there's a downside to digital delivery as currently implemented: you don't own your game. It's DRM'ed and you can't resell it. For that reason, despite all the bullshit involved in using an optical drive, I still prefer to buy my games on digital media when I can.

Slow Day

Fiancée stayed home sick today, so I didn't get a chance to record anything.

Dizziness not as bad today; cough/breathing a little worse than when I was taking the full dose of the inhaler, but I'm much more functional so I think I'll probably keep it at a half-dose for now.

Puttered around today. Applied for a few jobs, took care of my lady, worked out, read a bit of Little Brother since Doctorow's signing Homeland at Changing Hands on Sunday and I'm thinking about going. Worked on my Wii homebrew configuration a bit; I haven't gotten my replacement lens in yet but now I've set it up so I can play backups from an external hard drive or SDHC card. (Speaking of, it looks like Sony's trying to get rid of a bunch of inventory; the local Fry's has 16GB cards for $9 and I've seen similar deals online, too.) Seemed like an appropriately Little Brother-y thing to do, though I'm still hoping I can get my Wii fixed up to just play my discs.

Backing Up Wii Data -- All of It

So I've been having problems with my Wii. It's stopped running discs entirely -- I put one in, it spits it right back out. I suspect the spindle motor, and I'm going to try fixing it myself with a little help from the guides and parts at Console Zombie -- but before I go taking my Wii apart and poking around in its innards, I figure I should probably back all my shit up.

Course, as you may know, the Wii doesn't allow you to back up everything onto an SD card. Certain downloads and save files are copy-protected. This is what is known, amongst technical people such as myself, as a bunch of stupid fucking bullshit.

See, the way I see it, I should be able to back up my saves in case my console gives up the ghost. Or, say, go over to my brother-in-law's house and have access to every course on Mario Kart without having to unlock them all again in fucking single-player mode.

So I did a bit of reading up and found a utility called Savegame Extractor. It requires installation of the Homebrew Channel.

I have an old Wii and the latest version of the Wii System Menu (4.3U). After some reading, I found that the appropriate utility for my system was LetterBomb, and there are installation instructions at wiibrew.org.

It was about as simple and painless as root tools come. Select your firmware version and input your MAC address, then download the LetterBomb zipfile. Rename the private folder on your SD card, copy the boot.elf file and private directory from the zip to the root. Put it in the Wii, power it up, open up the messageboard, and click on the LetterBomb icon. From there I installed the Homebrew Channel, and installed BootMii as boot2 (apparently on recent Wii revisions you can only install as IOS, ie overwriting the Wii firmware).

Once you boot up again, you'll need to use either a GameCube controller or the buttons on the Wii face (Power to move the cursor, Reset to select an option) on the bootscreen. You should back up your NAND memory (provided you've got 512MB free on the card; it's under the gears icon, then the icon with the arrow pointing from the chip to the SD card).

Next thing: install the Homebrew Browser.

Create an apps directory on the root of your SD card. Download the Homebrew Browser, extract it, and copy the homebrew_browser subdirectory to apps. Once it's on the SD card, you can load it from the Homebrew Channel; from there -- well, from there I got a stack dump and had to reload it. But I reloaded it, and from there you can download all sorts of useful apps -- including Savegame Extractor.

In fact, there are a few variations on it -- there's Savegame Manager, which combines Savegame Extractor with Savegame Installer, and which also just flat-out stack-dumped every time I tried to use it -- but there's a fork called SaveGame Manager EX, which works great, comes with a GUI that mimics the Wii's, and has a nice batch option to extract everything from the Wii at one go, eliminating all that tedious clicking on each individual file and then selecting Copy. (And, okay, also copying over some other shit that you don't really need to expend the space on backing up, like the Netflix Channel. But hey, still.)

Soapbox time: I'm not doing this to play pirated games. I'm not doing this to cheat at online games. (I'm not doing it to cheat at offline games, either, but if I were, that would be none of anybody's goddamn business but my own.)

I'm doing this to access my data, the games I bought and paid for (and, all right, one that Brent got me for my birthday), the saves I slogged through hours of stupid bullshit single-player Mario Kart to get.

And I shouldn't fucking have to install a bunch of hacks to do this.

I like my Wii. Rather a lot. I mean, Jesus Christ, look at how much effort I've gone to to keep all the stuff I've got on it, and that's before I've even started taking it apart.

But Nintendo is completely fucking ass-backwards in its approach to modern technology in general and network play in particular. Its "safeguards" are asinine and poorly-thought-out. They won't stop some guy with an Action Replay from unlocking all the karts on Mario Kart or all the fighters on Smash Bros and then going online (and hey, Nintendo? Maybe if you didn't make it impossible to unlock anything on multiplayer in Mario Kart, and a pain in the ass to unlock everything on multiplayer in Smash Bros, people wouldn't be tempted to cheat to do it?). They just put up barriers to prevent people with broken consoles from getting their data off. Which, again, includes games they paid for.

...and frankly they're not very good barriers. This was really a breeze. I'd like to thank the developers of all the various tools I've mentioned, and the writers of the walkthroughs on how to set them up. Because this was pretty damn painless, and to be frank I enjoyed doing it.

Tune in next time to see how I do at taking my Wii apart and seeing if I can fix it.

If I even get that far. I don't have a tri-wing screwdriver onhand, so I'm going to see if I can get the screws out with a small flathead. If not, well, tri-wings are like $5 on Amazon.