I’m currently installing Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2. I apparently still have several hours to go, and more hoops to jump through.
I bought the game at Target for $40. Brought it home, pulled off the (taped on) outer sleeve, tore the plastic wrap off the DVD case, opened it, and removed the disk, manual, and tech tree poster. The disk went into the drive.
Autorun brought up a dialog, which asked me…if I wanted to install (yes). Then it warned me explicitly that;
1) I’d need to install and join Steam,
2) I’d need to type in a unique code (25 letters and numbers)
3) I’d need to wait for patches,
4) I’d need to sign up with Games For Windows.
I’m on step 3, with 2 hours and 41 minutes left to go. I’m certain that they’ll make good on their threat to make me use Games For Windows, so I go to the microsoft website and find out that
1) I might be able to use my existing XBox Live account, and
2) I’ll still need to install the Games For Windows client.
So I download that and get it started, and a messagebox sez "You need a Hotfix for Windows XP for this. Install now?". I say okay, and apparently an error occurs. I say apparently, ’cause I didn’t see any error dialog. Instead, the Games For Windows client install dialog disappears, and a new tab shows up in my browser. When I examine the page the tab contains, it talks about an installer error, and that (if I were to see such an error) the fix is to manually download and install another installer from the provided link.
So I do, and when the Hotfix for Windows XP installer runs, it sez "back up your system, close all open programs, and prepare to reboot after install." Kinda misses the point of a "Hotfix", right? I cancel it and wait for the updates to finish.
Now that the update’s finally done, I get to play the game. Well, I think. Anyway I press the "Play Now" button on the installer dialog, and the whole dialog disappears.
And nothing happens. For 20 seconds (I counted). Then BOOM, I get to watch the opening cinema. Then it warns me that a Windows Live account would enhance my play experience, but I don’t need it. I whisper, "Good", and click through to start the campaign. At which point the game expressly tells me I MUST log in to Windows Live to continue.
So I do, but I struggle with remembering the exact email and password I used for my XBox account. That finally done, the dialog shows a loading bar for 30 more seconds. NOW, I can start a campaign game. I do so, but I can’t do more than check that the game seems to work. With all this, my free time is up and I have errands to run for the rest of the day. Sure would have been nice to get some actual PLAYING in. Grrr.
I press the "Quit Game" button. As a final insult, the game shows me a pretty full-screen image of spaceships, and locks up for another 20 seconds before giving me back control of my computer. I’m well past angry. I have to laugh, shrug, and finish this blog post.
There are reasons Flash is so popular, despite being a VERY sub-optimal experience. Those reasons are enumerated above. Most of us know now that many things (a confusing dialog, an apparent error, a demand for information, or even a button) are Exit Opportunities. Every barrier you place between the player and the game, no matter how small, is a reason for people to question whether they really want to play your game. Not only are these barriers additive, but each one is devastating to your potential player base.
I often answer questions from students about the state of the industry, and once or twice they ask about this crap. They even talk about 10 year old games that they still play and enjoy because they have the original media. They wonder if games they buy today will be playable 10 years from now, with all the server-centric patch and validation schemes the PC is awash in.
My answer is a defense of the developer, and her attempts to move beyond the dying brick-and-mortar scheme that chokes the life from her, while beginning to embrace 21st century business models like "Less Than Free". Players rarely understand how broken the Developer-Publisher-Retailer model is (and has always been).
I’m a big fan of online download, patch, validation, and community systems in general, and of Steam in particular. I’ve had excellent, easy experiences buying and downloading games from Steam. Steam and systems like it are very much the solution, not the problem.
It’s possible that I could have avoided much of the Exit Opportunities I’ve experienced installing this game, if I bought it straight from Steam. But this is part of my point. The people who buy a game from the rack at Target are exactly the kind of people most ill-equipped to persevere in the face of the storm of Exit Opportunities I just went through. It’s not just kids who face restrictions on what they can install on the family computer. MANY adults who want to play Warhammer would quail at the issues I’m having. Nobody wants to explain how they broke the single family computer everyone must do banking, taxes, and schoolwork on.
And in a certain way, this experience gives me joy. I’m capable of avoiding every problem and Exit Opportunity that Dawn of War 2 couldn’t. I can make and sell my indie games, free of all the market and corporate pressures that pushed Dawn of War 2 into the sorry shape it is.