The internet is Marmite. It is a coin. It is buttered toast. Basically, it is a dichotomy, and any fence the indecisive may wish to laboriously ponder upon has had its posts cut to a razor point and glazed with cobra venom.
If you have spent any significant time online (especially on forums, opinion pages or social networking sites), you may well have noticed the love or hate attitude millions of cyber-denizens have towards pretty much everything that is ever created. It would be unfair to only criticise online communities for this attitude though; anybody who has been to a football match or voted in an election knows the phenomenon just as well. The point of the matter is this: we need more reason. I know trying to find middle ground or claiming that there is a ‘balanced’ solution to every problem under the sun is a hideous cliché, but then again shouting two equally wrong points of view at each other ad nauseam doesn’t get us anywhere either. Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet; “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”; well I suggest that in this modern high-speed age, it’s the lack of thinking that makes it so as well.
‘Dark Souls’ (2011) is an action RPG published by Namco Bandai and developed by Japanese developer From Software. It is the sequel to the critically acclaimed Demon’s Souls, and is as hard as nails. Chuck Norris’s nails, to be more precise. Dark Souls was released last year on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, and it was critically acclaimed by pretty much everyone who maintained the willpower not to throw it out after the window by the first boss. Players find themselves in a dark medieval fantasy environment with plenty of undead, dragons, possessed suits of armour and any other horrible thing you could really imagine trying to kill you, and doing a damn good job most of the time as well. The basic combat mechanics involve careful movement, blocking enemy attacks, looking for openings in their defences, and mixing sword and spear play with magic spells and the very fine art of ‘running the hell away’. Also on offer is an in-depth RPG system, allowing players to level up stats and spend ‘souls’ they have collected from fallen enemies on upgraded and ever more interesting gear. For fans of the genre this was about as good as it got, and considering the extreme difficulty From Software had also provided one of the last havens of the hardcore gamer; people who grew up with Megaman and Battletoads, Tomb Raider and Deus Ex.
This man will spend the majority of the game dead, by the way. And it'll still kill you when you're a ghost.
A few months ago a thread was posted on the Namco Bandai forums from a PC gamer casually asking for a PC port of the game. This wasn’t something the publisher had ever planned for, but the community manager of the forum said ‘Tell you what. If PC gamers want this, show me, and I’ll pass it on to the higher ups.’ Word of this spread like wildfire and the response was astronomical. Thousands and thousands of PC gamers signed their names and pleaded for Namco Bandai to heed their calls and bring this most excellent of games to that most excellent of platforms. This was all just prior to the incredible Kickstarter revolution that was kickstarted into action by Tim Schafer (co-creator of Monkey Island) and the team over at Double Fine productions, which really put the power of the consumer in the spotlight like never before. Suddenly, not only could fans buy games and talk about them on the internet, but they could fund them as well. After this came the release of Mass Effect 3, an excellent game that was heavily criticised for the final 5 minutes of play. Petitions were signed, threads were made, and Bioware and EA agreed to extend the endings with some free content. In the time frame of a few short weeks, the entire perception of the consumer’s relationship with game developers was turned on its head; and it happened on the PC.
And lo! There came to be a German magazine that leaked an announcement before it’s intended time. And it did proclaimeth: ‘Hark! Heed my words fellow citizens,’ (obviously imagine this in German) ‘for Dark Souls is being ported to the PC!’ And there was much rejoicing. Unfortunately, a couple of days later it was revealed that the PC port would be using the Games for Windows Live service. Trouble. You see, Games for Windows Live is to the PC gaming community what Michael Bay is to the Transformers movies. On its day it can be reasonably slick and unobtrusive, and Xbox fans will love the achievements integration… but the rest of the time everything just blows up.
This is a sadly common sight...
Here’s the cliff notes version about why the PC gaming community hates Games for Windows Live. The biggest issue, by a mile, is the regional restrictions. GFWL is supported in 35 countries, which you may have noticed is one or two short of the 200 or so that exist on the little blue-green rock we lounge about on. So there are thousands of willing consumers who are not able to legally purchase the game. Some of these players will simply be saddened, others will turn to piracy. This then adds to the piracy numbers gathered easily through torrent tracking software, which the shareholder will look at in scorn after release. The second biggest issue is that, thanks to the need to protect the ‘purity’ of Xbox achievements and gamer points, save files on GFWL games are encrypted. This is a problem when somebody tries to change their hardware, for example getting a new hard drive, as the save file will not decrypt and the player loses all of their progress. This is before we even get to constant connection problems, update difficulties, a difficult to use interface and all the other minor niggles that make the service a frustrating one to use. I personally had a fun time with GFWL when I purchased Section 8: Prejudice and tried to log on. ‘You have parental controls enabled and cannot play this game’ it said. Only I did not have any parental controls enabled, and the web page it linked me to in order to rectify these supposed restrictions no longer existed. Eventually I just kept hammering the ‘Sign In’ button until it got bored with arguing with me and gave up.
As a result of the announcement that Dark Souls will be using this service, there has been somewhat of an outcry, and after reading that last paragraph you may feel it entirely justified! There is certainly the case for that. Half the internet cries out that GFWL is ridiculous and Namco have doomed the prospects for good PC sales with this terrible decision and they must be urged to rectify it. The other half of the Marmitenet declares all who complain ‘self-entitled whiners’ who ‘should be grateful’. This is where the discussion tends to end.
But let us not fall into this trap. Let’s have a look into why Namco Bandai has decided to use this service. After all, they are not so stupid as to think it a popular one among the audience they are targeting with a PC port. So what’s the deal? Simply put it all comes down to money. The big advantage that Games for Windows Live has over its rivals (such as the oft-celebrated Steamworks, which provides much the same service but…um.. better), is that the netcode is almost identical to that used on the Xbox 360, for which Dark Souls has already been released. It is far easier for them to port the online elements of the game directly from the Xbox within this existing framework, than it would be to rewrite the whole lot from scratch for a better service. It is important to note that the decision to port Dark Souls at all is a huge risk, so naturally the publisher is doing everything it can to mitigate its costs. From Software only have until August to get the new version finished; they will have had limited man power and limited budget provided to them to get it done, so GFWL is a necessity from that perspective in order to make the most of the limited time and resources available to them.
Dark Souls PC is a toe-in-the-water affair from a cautious publisher. They have answered the calls of the community, they are even throwing in extra content. And at the end of it all they will come to a decision regarding the viability of the PC market for future games. But how will the use of GFWL affect sales? How much will they lose through boycotts and piracy that would not have occurred with a better system? How many will be too dubious to buy at full price and will wait for the sales? And if they don’t release anything through Steam at all, that will be disastrous. But this is what PC gamers who want this game must understand: we must persevere. Yes, Games for Windows Live is a big turn off. But can you live with it? If you put your name down asking for a PC version and have a computer that is physically capable of putting up with GFWL, it is vital that you buy the game full price. Regardless of the reasons for it, if this is a flop then Namco Bandai will never release on PC again. They certainly won’t listen to forum threads filled with thousands of consumers who then don’t buy their game. And other publishers will take note of that as well and think twice before showing some love for the PC community.
Equally, the publisher has to be shown that GFWL is not acceptable to vast numbers of PC gamers. There is a petition at the moment that numbers thousands of signatures asking for GFWL to be removed; and it is important that these things are presented in a calm and rational manner, and that they tot up the signatures. This game must sell well despite the inclusion of Games for Windows Live. Remember that this was a decision made by necessity, and if we can show that the PC market is a profitable one, they will be more inclined to design their games to work with a better online service in future. Let’s not miss out on “Very Dark Souls: Black as Coal Edition” because we refused to buy this game out of spite. Just because they include a service you don’t like, doesn’t mean the publisher hates you for the sake of it. Similarly, petitioning and presenting arguments against their decisions in a reasonable way is not ‘whining self-entitlement’, it’s legitimate consumer criticism. But for all the arguing and the disappointment and the anger, there is something players who want Dark Souls on their PC must bear in mind.
The simple fact of the matter is that for whatever the issues with the details, Namco Bandai are taking a one-time gamble on us. And it is up to us to step up to the plate.