Rant about EA's BF3
Battlefield 3 is here, and it’s amazing. The graphics are top notch, the game play is fairly solid, and the whole experience is stellar. Well that last part is a lie. The lie is in how we the consumer have been duped into thinking that by spending our hard earned (and in many cases recession limited) cash for triple A titles means a smooth experience from start to finish. In Battlefield 3’s case, however, that was the furthest thing from the truth. EA’s history of draconian DRM systems and their failures comes to a whole new level with BF3 with the complete failure of the first major test of their Origin activation and distribution system.Origin of suffering
When you buy a game, you’d expect it to simply be a matter of putting the disk into your drive and pressing install. Unfortunately with the case of BF3 that isn’t exactly true. First off, it requires you to install EA’s new Origin client, EA’s answer to Valve’s Steam online store and game launching system.
While that in itself isn’t a completely big deal (moral aversions to having third party launcher systems aside), one would imagine that the installer would simply install Origin and be done continue on. Unfortunately, Origin’s servers were not up to the task of millions of users activating the game at the same time, even when I actually bought my copy of the game three days past launch.
To begin with, the version of the Origin client included with the BF3 disk was actually too old and required me to download an update. While inconvenient, it was not exactly unexpected. The issue lies in the fact that the version of Origin on the disk couldn’t update itself online. Instead it asks you to go to Origin’s website to download the latest version of the client.
I’m sorry EA, but to require your paying customer to go out and download the latest version of a application and install it manually is inexcusable in today’s age of auto-updates and self repairing systems. In today’s age of less than knowledgable users, the task of going to a website and downloading an application is not always an easy task.
Even once I was finished with the download and install, the Origin client had many issues with its own login functionality where it would often time out and not respond as it attempted to contact the Origin servers. I’d hate to see what people whom didn’t already have Origin accounts had to go though to register, but it was annoyingly slow enough to log in with my account which I had fortunately created some time ago.
From the time I put the disk inside the dvd drive, it took me about 30 minutes to get Origin going, which is just ridiculous in itself as I haven’t even gotten to the point of installing the actual game.You have been activated…maybe
Once I finally got though the mess that was Origin, I was ready to install the game in earnest. Launching the BF3 installer once again prompted the launch of the Origin client, only this time it asks me to activate my copy of the game under my Origin account. It was a reasonable request, and I thought it would have been simple enough to do.
I would have hoped that three days after launch, I would have been able to simply punch in my registration key and be on my way, but the fact of the matter was EA’s servers were still in flux at the time. While my registration code was accepted, it was never quite able to move past the actual registration point. Instead, it would just blankly stare at me waiting on whatever response Origin was supped to give the installer to make it go, effectively locking up the Origin client.
I’m more or less held hostage at this point, probably 45 minutes after I started the whole process. After a few forum searches, I found that many others were having the same issue. Origin itself was unable to handle the influx of registrations and was completely collapsing. Some had suggested I log into the Origin site via a webpage instead and attempt to add the game to my account that way. It was a bold idea, except for the fact that the Origin site rejected my serial key as “already in use”. Apparently the Origin client did intact register my copy, but the response code was lost in the ether somewhere.
It’s now been an hour and I haven’t even started the actual process of copying over my game. There was no sign of an activated copy of BF3 in my Origin account, and I’m once again held hostage by Origin and EA.
Compare this to companies like Blizzard. While they too have taken their lumps in terms of activations and product launch stability, for the most part Blizzard’s launch issues lie more in game server stability, not activation. Even with the incredibly popular Starcraft 2, Blizzard was able to easily handle the influx of registration and activations on launch day without a single peep of instability. Even if they had issues, you could simply have installed the game minus the serial key and waited until it went though at a later time.
Valve likewise, relies on their robust Steam system for activations. For the most part, they haven’t had any issues, except for last May’s heavily discounted sale of EA’s Crysis in which the activation servers failed to respond to the onslaught of paying customers. Yes, I just noted that one of Valve’s biggest issues with activations was another EA title in which Valve noted that it was EA that failed to handle the activations as Valve simply acted as a distributor.Downloading from the DVD
At some point between my furious relaunching of Origin over and over again, BF3 appeared under my account, which means I was able to start downloading the game to install.
When I mean download, I mean just that Origin began the process of initiating a large download of the game I just bought. I just spent a lot of effort to get physical media of BF3 so I wouldn’t have to spend 6 hours to download 12GB of data. I closed down Origin and attempted to launch the installer from the DVD, which promptly reopened Origin and asked if I was ready to begin downloading the game.
Reluctantly, I clicked OK and it started its “download.” Noticing it was pulling down at speeds well above my internet capabilities, and I concluded that Origin employed a BSD type install by using the same installer interface for both digital and physical distributions.
Now while I’m a big fan of code reuse and simplifying interfaces, there was zero indication that downloading via DVD was happening. In FreeBSD, the installer asks if the source is DVD or the Internet, and then continues on its install with your selection. In Origin, the client merely tells you that it will start downloading and continues on without indicating where it is downloading from. A less knowledgable user might think that it was downloading from the internet itself. This leads to two issues.
First, a user might think the DVD’s are not needed and eject them, which would either break the install outright or force it to actually download the game.
Second, a user might become increasingly agitated that they brought home two dvd’s worth of data on physical media and still have to download the same via the internet.There are no available updates…game requires an update.
A couple hours later, I finally finished installing the game…or so I thought. Fortunately, the installer and game recognized that there was an update and automatically upgraded. Too bad Origin didn’t know this, or rather the Origin web browser plugin didn’t.
BF3 relies on the new Battlelog system which ties into the Origin network. This Battlelog system is a web based launcher system for the game, serving as both a server browser and a profile manager. Instead of using the actual Origin client to launch the game, the Origin client launches the web browser and launches the game via a browser plugin.
Attempting to launch the game would result in a friendly message stating that the game needed an update. Clicking the update button resulted in..well nothing. It turns out the plugin had some issues detecting the game client correctly. I didn’t quite get why it wouldn’t launch and auto update again, but I figured it had something to do with an incompatible version of the game and plugin.
I know I saw Origin do some type of update beforehand, but I postulated that it might not have correctly finished the update, resulting in some type of in between state of installed but not installed. Fearing I’d have to reinstall it from scratch again, I clicked around the Origin interface until I noticed I could do a repair and update from a drop down on the game.
This ended up being the key, as the repair and update forced the update to go though (after downloading it again), and now the game versions matched appropriately across the board, and I was finally able to launch the game 5 hours after I started.DRM stands for “Destroying the Retail Market”
Overall, the whole process of installing the game has been the furthest thing from intuitive. Several steps required manual intervention, and I had to make several guesses as to what the installer needed to continue on. If I were a normal user and not an experienced debugger, I’m not sure I’d be able to figure out though these issues.
The whole issue stems from the false idea that these triple A software titles require extensive digital rights management in order to provide the false sense of security and protection of the game from piracy.
It took me 5 hours to install a game, of which I likely could have downloaded from various places in about the same time and not have had to deal with these issues or end up completely frustrated in the whole process.
EA’s Origin system and the implementation of BF3s activation and protection scheme is just that, a scheme that not only fails to work well, but also hinders the paying customer from enjoying the title they actually bought. Pirates never seem to have any issues with installations and DRM is more of a slight speed bump to them, where as to a normal paying customer that makes up the vast majority of the user base, it’s nothing more than a source of pure frustration.
Everyday users are not interested in how well the game can protect itself from piracy, nor are they interested in some of the schemes available to “help” them manage their digital libraries. Rather, oftentimes users will see these DRM failures as a failure of the game itself, causing them pause to reconsider another title from the same publisher, company, or series.
Piracy is no doubt a big issue in the software community, but using these types of draconian DRM schemes do nothing to stem the tide. While studios may cite that without DRM, piracy rates are shown to reach 90%. While this is on the surface true, we have to look deeper into these statistics and contemplate how it affects revenue.Would a pirate buy a game?
A few years ago Reflexive Games released a study where they discussed the effects of improving their DRM system to combat piracy. They noted the revealing statistic that for every 1000 pirated copies they disabled, they gained 1 paying customer. Spending countless hours on improving their DRM system to remove 50,000 pirated copies resulted in 50 additional sales.
That’s a telling statistic on the true cost of piracy on the market. Pirates generally don’t buy games unless the game is actually worth buying. Improving your DRM to a point where it protects your property only results in 1 additional sale per 1000 pirated copies removed from the system.
While I’m not saying that companies should remove all incentive to buy the game, such as the multiplayer component, companies like EA shouldn’t spend millions in developing protection schemes that hinder the paying customer to recover .1% of their lost revenue.What have I learned?
So far, my initial impressions of Origin are severely soured. It reminds me exactly why I don’t buy games anymore. I’d rather just log into my WoW account and play my subscription based game than deal with the issues I’ve dealt with this week to install a game I actually paid full price for.
It does make me worry about how EA will handle their next triple A title, the upcoming Star Wars The Old Republic. While BF3’s hardcore player base is substantial, it pales in comparison to the onslaught of the Star Wars fanboy that is going to want to jump into this new world. Will Origin completely implode once again leaving another black mark for EA and Bioware or will EA actually learn something from these hard BF3 lessons?
Note that SWTOR is an MMO-RPG, requiring a monthly subscription. By definition, it already has a built in revenue stream. If EA feels the need to add draconian activation schemes to protect a game that can’t even function on anything but their own online servers, I fear that BF3’s installation woes will be a party compared to the disaster that SWTOR failure will bring.
Signs of life
I’m still alive, and still hoping to release a GotM this month. So far I’ve just played around with blender a bit, but that was last week! Real Life™ is not very accommodating when it comes to post-work research and development, these days.
Oh well. In other news, I’m trying to decide whether to use FastSpring or BMTMicro for online sales. I’m also considering TryMedia for DRM (hopefully it’s light) in case the sales service I choose doesn’t do DRM. I’m hoping to just have a serial protection (I’m not concerned about piracy).
Any suggestions or advice?
Hopefully I’ll be able to do a two-week dev of Zappers 2. It might not be fully polished though, but it’s a start.