Booting Up Modern Games “Naked”

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Things happening in my life have kept me from starting The Witcher 3 despite having acquired it last week, and I probably won’t be able to start it until around a week from now. The process of getting, installing, and booting up the game however has become somewhat nostalgic. I bought a GoodOldGames key, download it (and all the relevant supplementary material) through a browser, installed it, and just booted the game up. In today’s world of perpetually connected games it’s a novel experience to simply install a game and play it, by itself, straight from the Windows desktop without any service or community intruding on the experience.

I’m simultaneously playing the Dragon Age Inquisition trial and just like every BioWare game since Mass Effect 2, just booting it up requires me to wait to connect to the “Dragon Age Servers.” The game has multiplayer sure, but shouldn’t that kind of stuff be held back until you’ve actually selected “multiplayer” from the main menu? EA and Ubisoft imposing their services on games get’s even more annoying on consoles (or Steam) when you expect to already be enveloped in another service from which you originally booted the game.

I do like Steam and the features it adds to games. I like buying games on Steam and playing them while being plugged into a community. I like how Steam tracks my play time, let’s me post screenshots to a board, and in general let’s me interact with a community in a bunch of desirable ways, often from within the game itself. Those community features are all useful, even when playing a singleplayer game. I just also think it’s kind of cool for once to be able to play a new game that feels completely isolated like in the old days before around 2005.

Indie games have of course been operating like this for a while, primarily through the DRM-free Humble Bundle and GOG, and it felt pretty cool then. However, Witcher 3 is a $59.99 2015 game with more-or-less state-of-the-art graphics that you don’t have to play while connected to any kind of service. That’s what feels really unusual, and completes the nostalgia. It’s to 2015 what acquiring and starting a copy of Ultima IX must have felt like in 1994. The only other games that come close are Bethesda/Zenimax’s releases which are almost all singleplayer-only games with no online implementation whatsoever other than expansions, and even those require Steam. If I’d have bought Witcher 3 on a disc at a store the entire startup experience would have been no different from that of an early 90’s CRPG.

The only difference for my experience today is my vehicle was a web browser, the store was GOG.com, and the box was a bunch of executables. From the experience of this and some indie games, getting PC games DRM-fee really does impart a greater sense of ownership than even Steam, where everything is just a button you click while bound at the hip to a particular client and whatever servers it talks to.

Of course we need to remember the original reason we moved on to Steam and other DRM services — they’ve made getting and maintaining PC games easier. On Humble Bundle and GOG you have to go to those sites and download the executables for the games and their patches separately. In the old days you had to track down the patches at places like fileshack or gamershell. Now you just click a button in a client and you get the updated version, it patches automatically, and downloading expansions is just as easy. Of course if publishers allow it you can get the best of both worlds.

Enter GOG Galaxy, which I imagine a lot of people tried for the first time with Witcher 3. It pretty much does what it sets out to do — imitate Steam’s ease of downloading and updating games without chaining them to DRM. There’s just one more thing I’d like it to do though — actually let me boot up Witcher 3 outside the client. When I opened Galaxy it updated my install to connect it, but also hijacked the game’s shortcut to always open through the client. Right now you can just edit the shortcut to bypass Galaxy but I shouldn’t have to go through all that.

What’s ironic is Steam has DRM-free games you can boot up “naked” after you’ve installed and updated them through Steam. On the subject, since Valve let’s publishers and developers release games on Steam without hard-locking them to the DRM (most obviously don’t choose this route), why doesn’t CDProjekt do this? The company is staunchly anti-DRM, but doesn’t take the DRM-free option on Steam with any of the Witcher games. Even Ubisoft did this semi-recently with Rayman Origins and Grow Home.

Anyway, I wonder if this is how pirates experience all the games they acquire, just downloading the necessary materials through their browsers (or torrent clients) and booting them up completely isolated from any external clients and services. I guess I can understand that as a reason to pirate. The funny thing is you can’t even start a game like this on consoles anymore — EVERYTHING is bolted to PSN and Xbox Live, unless you buy a Nintendo game.

BULLETS:

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