Archive for February, 2010

The Chronicles of GameGuard

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

The Chronicles of Spellborn is a little-known European MMORPG that never quite got off the ground. Created by Dutch developers Spellborn Interactive, it features a fps-style targeting system using the Unreal Engine. Unfortunately, Spellborn Interactive went bankrupt last year, just 2 months after the game’s release here in the US. It is currently available for free while the game is being converted by Frogster Asia into a free-to-play system supported by micro-transactions.

But this post isn’t about the merits or shortcomings of the game. If you can ignore the painfully ugly 1998-era avatars, the unique fps-style combat can be fun. Rather, this is about an anti-cheat program called GameGuard.

One of nProtect’s products (they also make anti-virus software), GameGuard is used by several Asian MMOs including Lineage II, Flyff, Huxley, and others. It claims to block cheating by hiding the game’s application process, monitoring your computer’s entire memory range, terminating applications defined by the game vendor as “suspicious”, and blocking certain calls to DirectX functions and Windows APIs. It even auto-updates itself as necessary.

Sounds as harmless as a teddy bear, doesn’t it?

Sure, if your teddy bear happens to be named Rootkit.

For the uninitiated, rootkits are never a good thing regardless of their intended use. Imagine buying a new couch that contains a hidden gremlin who rearranges, breaks or removes the other furniture in your house. The only way you can use your new couch is if you agree to allow the gremlin to continue his mischievous behavior. Now imagine that even if you get rid of your couch, you still have to go through a complicated exorcism involving a pogo stick, a light bulb, and Martha Stewart in order to get rid of the couch’s gremlin. That, my friends, is a rootkit.

I initially downloaded and installed TCOS when the game was released. I saw nothing in the documentation about the automatic installation of an anti-cheat program until the GameGuard logo flashed briefly across my screen during the login process. Although it proved to be fairly benign on my computer, it did disable the programmable keys on my G15 keyboard and made my antivirus program (AVG) very unhappy. GameGuard is known to conflict with an entire list of applications, including Razer mouse drivers, Google Chrome, Steam, and NeoPaint.

After removing the game I attempted to post warnings on TCOS’s forums about GameGuard’s potential problems. My posts were consistently removed by the moderator. Eventually the developers relented and posted an FAQ page, listing all of the applications that conflict with GameGuard, along with instructions on how to remove it. The company filed bankruptcy a month after the page was posted, so I guess by then they didn’t care about their public relations.

What I don’t understand is why companies like Spellborn Interactive feel the need to use a third-party program like GameGuard. Granted, I don’t engage in PvP, so I don’t know how prevalent cheating may be. But other PvP-centric games like Guild Wars don’t resort to rootkits, so they’re obviously not necessary to run a successful MMO. I can’t imagine that cheating is so problematic that it’s worth alienating your players in an effort to prevent it.

That makes about as much sense as DRM.

Baby Seal Clubbing

Friday, February 19th, 2010

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m no fan of player-versus-player (PvP) combat in MMOs. According to the Bartle Test, I fall squarely into the “Explorer” category. I’m more interested in surveying the virtual world around me than in being pwned by a 12 year old.

Although some MMOs are PvP-centric, most keep it cordoned off from the PVE sections of the game, and provide players with the choice to opt in or out at their discretion. Often, if PvP combat is the central theme of an MMO, the game designers still provide a protected “beginner” area where players can learn the game’s mechanics before being thrown to the level 50 Wolves of Ganking.

Player versus player combat has always been a part of Pirates of the Burning Sea, and for this game’s genre, it makes sense. Epic sea battles are its mainstay. But what doesn’t make sense, is the developer’s decision to allow high level players to attack low level players in the beginner areas.

PotBS has a map conquest system that I profess to not completely understand. It involves seizing your enemy’s ports by attacking their ships as they sail in or out. Players often exploit this by camping outside the ports of the beginner areas, because they know that low level players will be attempting to move between the ports to complete PVE missions. It makes sense strategically, but it creates a miserable experience for new players. I recently got stuck in a British port at level 10, unable to complete any more quests because high level pirates would attack anyone who tried to leave. I asked in chat if there was any solutions to this problem. Someone suggested – without a hint of irony – that I should log out of the game until the pirate players had left the area.

PotBS’s player population has been declining since the game launched 2 years ago. Slow, repetitive combat and a steep learning curve were some of its biggest drawbacks. Currently, Flying Lab Studios is in the process of closing 3 of their servers, leaving only two – a US and a European server – remaining. In light of this waning player base, it strikes me as odd that FLS would allow a game mechanic that is so detrimental to the retention of new players. One veteran player cynically referred to it as “baby seal clubbing”. I call it “going bankrupt”.

The Uncanny Silicone Valley

Friday, February 5th, 2010

I’ve always appreciated the amount of character customization that Cryptic provides in their games. There are so many options and choices available that creating a hero in their City is almost a mini game in itself.

Because of this precedent, I eagerly looked forward to the character creation portion of their new MMO, Star Trek Online. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed. If I want to create an 8′ tall blue hermaphrodite alien named Tapioca, with antennae and fake boobs, I can do it.

What? Wait a minute… Why does Tapioca have fake boobs?

Or, a better question might be: Why do developers feel the need to provide an option for breast size in their games?

Ok, let’s for a moment try to pretend that we’re all adults, shall we? Breasts are certainly part of the human female anatomy. And I suppose the argument could be made that allowing for changes in breast size provides a greater degree of individuality for your avatar. But what I don’t understand is why the inevitable video game breast-slider ranges in sizes from ‘above average’ to ‘pontOOns’.

In every MMO that I’ve played, I attempt to create an avatar that looks as much like me as possible. I’m 5’9″ tall, weigh 150 lbs., and according to the friendly staff at Victoria’s Secret, I wear a size 36B bra. (Yes, I know – way more information that you could possible ever want about me, but there’s a point to this.) Rarely am I able to create an avatar that comes even close to resembling my real-life measurements. Surprisingly, Aion provided the widest range of sizes, with a slider that actually allowed for – gasp – small breasts!

The crotch slider.

At its core, I believe that the existence of the breast slider speaks more to the inherent sexism that still exists in gaming today, than to any desire to provide more customization options. You never see a ‘crotch slider’ to change the size of the male avatar’s bulge, do you? And if you really wanted to offer players a wider range of choices, why not provide the breast slider for avatars of either gender? After all, most of these games are about fantasy and fiction, aren’t they? Why should this fantasy potential only cater to adolescent boys?

Maybe someday in the future video games will be an equal opportunity playground, where the female form is not objectified to any greater degree than the male form.

And maybe someday the word ‘noob’ will be considered quaint and old-fashioned.