Stockholm Syndrome

I had been wavering on whether to buy Fallout 3 for the Xbox 360 or for Windows.

Normally, this would have been a no-brainer for me. I like playing games from the couch. But recently I reorganized my house a bit, and the feng shui of the room with the iMac is just about perfect for games. And, truth to tell, I’m a little irritated by the amount of noise the 360’s fan makes. So I was thinking it over.

The first blow came when I heard that Fallout 3 had a CD check. I’m a member of the laptop generation. I launch applications through a hyper-advanced alien technology known as “double-clicking”. The strange ritual you Earthlings have of digging through shelves looking for magical shiny tokens to insert in your machines repulses me. It is primitive, and I have made the conscious decision simply not to buy games that require me to keep a disc in the drive anymore.

Fortunately, Fallout 3 is also being delivered on Steam, a network-based service, and the Steam version would not require the CD check. So this seemed like the right solution to the problem. But in an uncharacteristic bout of responsibility, I decided to do some due diligence before clicking “Buy.”

Specifically, I decided to drop by Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 3 tech support forum to see what sorts of issues people were reporting. As of the time of this writing, here are the number of threads (and replies) for each platform:

Platform Threads Replies
Xbox 48 162
PS3 61 408
Windows 601 3,856

The Windows launch of Fallout 3 is beyond bad. It is a complete disaster. Buying this game, particularly buying the disc-based version, is like buying a ticket for the Hindenburg. And midway through the trip across the Atlantic, it crashes into the Titanic. Which is being devoured by giant squid.

Much of the angst among Windows users centers around SecuROM, the third-party DRM solution Bethsoft licensed for their game. SecuROM is a fascinating product, and I would love to see the marketing pitch for it: a product whose only purpose in life is to screw up the out-of-the-box experience for customers. I’ve ranted about it before, and will try to keep my bile in check here. But I have two things to say about it.

Firstly, the most offensive part of SecuROM is that it tries to dictate what other programs I am running on my computer. This is one of the reasons the (non-casual) PC gaming market is getting smaller each year: it hypothesizes the existence of machines that dedicated to gaming and only to gaming. Game publishers, I use my computer for everything. I use it for writing, for reading, for watching movies, for making movies, and for my livelihood. You do not get to tell me what other programs I can run on my computer. In the world of software that I need to run, I promise you that no matter how good your game is, your game is my absolute last priority.

Secondly, as a software developer, I’m mortified by the process issues. You develop an application, you spend time and money putting it through QA, and then you license software from a third party that is going to affect the out of the box experience? I mean, how many kinds of retarded do you have to be to make that decision?

Listen, software developers: you get one box opening. That’s it. The five minutes the customer spends with your product after opening that box are the most important five minutes of your product’s life. If those five minutes are good, your customer is going to recommend the product to other people even if he never touches it again. If those five minutes are bad, your customer is going to tell other people that your product is shit, even if she eventually gets past the problems.

If you must put DRM on your product, roll your own. Don’t put too much effort into it – just an ineffective disk check or two. Just like SecuROM, it won’t actually stop piracy, but at least you can QA it yourself, and at least you have a prayer that it won’t make your customers hate you.

When you get past the SecuROM issues, though, Fallout 3 for Windows is still a disaster. Failures to launch, crashes, hangs, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, babies being born without brains, it’s a grim tale. It’s an endless Halloween parade of unhappy customers.

But this, of course, is the Windows platform, and the software in question is a game. Now, those of you who aren’t gamers might not understand how this works, so I’m going to take you through it step by step. In order to do that, I need to talk about World War II and Japanese fighter pilots.

There’s a Japanese war broadcast that Ruth Benedict retells in her classic anthropological work The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. It’s about the Japanese belief, often evident during the waning years of World War II, that what would carry them to victory was not strategy, or ordinance, or adequately trained soldiers, but fighting spirit:

After the air battles were over, the Japanese planes returned to their base in small formations of three or four. A Captain was in one of the first planes to return. After alighting from his plane, he stood on the ground and gazed into the sky through binoculars. As his men returned, he counted. He looked rather pale, but he was quite steady. After the last plane returned he made out a report and proceeded to Headquarters. At Headquarters he made his report to the Commanding Officer. As soon as he had finished his report, however, he suddenly dropped to the ground. The officers on the spot rushed to give assistance but alas! he was dead. On examining his body it was found that it was already cold, and he had a bullet wound in his chest, which had proved fatal. It is impossible for the body of a newly-dead person to be cold. Nevertheless the body of the dead captain was as cold as ice. The Captain must have been dead long before, and it was his spirit that made the report. Such a miraculous fact must have been achieved by the strict sense of responsibility that the dead Captain possessed.

Now, what does this have to do with bad software? Well, being unsophisticated types, when you or I install software that crashes, or hangs, or otherwise fails to work correctly, we naively blame the software, or the developers. “Perhaps their test matrix wasn’t robust enough,” we might say, “and they didn’t test hardware like the things I have. Or maybe they forgot to test the more exotic use cases, like pressing the ‘New Game’ button.” We all understand that bugs happen, we hope we don’t encounter them, but fundamentally, because we are crude and childish, we still think the bugs are somehow the fault of the people who created the product.

The PC gamer, however, has a deeper understanding. The gamer, like the Japanese during World War II, understand that all problems can be overcome through the proper amount and application of fighting spirit. My “gaming rig” can “handle” Fallout 3. I “built” my “gaming rig” by carefully reading internet forums and choosing bespoke parts. The game runs well because of my efforts. Conversely, if the game crashes on your machine, it is your fault. You have not built a correctly tuned machine. You have run incompatible software. You have chosen bad drivers. Because of your lack of fighting spirit, you are suffering the natural consequence. You don’t deserve to play the game.

This is the sort of existential nausea you encounter when you look too closely at certain classes of PC gaming. There are entire swaths of the industry that are capable of creating fine games that run on a wide variety of platforms without, subjectively, too many problems. And then there is the cutting edge, where a horde of zombie customers surround buggy games, soullessly intoning the Zombie War Chant, “Woooooorrrrkkkks foorrrrrrrrrr meeeeeeeeee.”

I’ll put this as simply as I can. If you buy Fallout for Windows, knowing the sorts of problems that other people are encountering, you are completely mad. You have Stockholm syndrome, a temporary mental disorder that causes you to sympathize with the people who are abusing you. If you’re one of the poor benighted suckers who shelled out $50 for Fallout 3 and is experiencing these problems, be a man. Take the box back to where you bought it, look the clerk in the eyes, and tell them you’re not leaving until they give you your money back, because the game doesn’t work.

The Punchline

I gave up and bought Fallout 3 for the Xbox 360. I put the disc in the drive, and it worked.

I’ve created a forum thread for those of you who would like to discuss this topic in more detail or don’t want to post a comment.