Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Elemental, my dear Wardell

Stardock is often cited as making games without copy protection, having even drafted a gamer's bill of rights. But then of course not every game is equally likely to get pirated in the first place, and with their rather complex strategy games Stardock isn't exactly the most exposed. Nevertheless they are used to quite positive reporting about them, and when they announced Elemental: War of Magic, a "4X" turn-based fantasy strategy / rpg game in the tradition of Master of Magic, a lot of people were interested, including me.

Then PC Gamer published the first review of Elemental, and it was titled: Elemental's disastrous launch: Stay well away!. Definitely not the kind of review Stardock CEO Brad Wardell was hoping to get. Already before that he went all Derek Smart and said on a forum: "Also, to anyone, like you Ben, saying the game is like an "early beta" then well, please stay away from our games in the future. I consider it ready for release and if others disagree, don’t buy our games." Then of course he had to backpedal later and apologized.

I didn't rush out to buy Elemental on the first day, mainly because it isn't available on Steam, but uses Stardock's own online game distribution platform Impulse. Now with reviews calling the game an unfinished beta I'm of course even less likely to buy it, and will wait for the demo version announced for next month. But for all that row over the quality at release of Elemental: War of Magic, a rather funny detail went completely unnoticed: Elemental uses the Stardock Impulse platform for multiplayer games, which effectively creates some sort of DRM / copy protection. The few people still willing to pirate a complicated turn-based strategy niche game will be limited to the single-player part.

Stardock says that it is entirely coincidental that at the same time they took down the Gamer's Bill of Rights from the Stardock site (it is still available on its own website), and has nothing to do with that bill of rights guaranteeing games released in a finished state and without copy protection. And they call the version PC Gamer reviewed a "pre-release" version, and rushed out a first-day patch. The game can still improve a lot, but I think they lost a lot of goodwill over this Elemental release scuffle.
I've just spent a few hours last night playing Elemental. It definitely does not feel very polished: UI elements are confusing and not obvious eg a small number indicating moves left on a context sensitive bar that changes depending what is selected and what unit. For a game with "Magic" in its name you don't get any spells until you research the appropriate tech AND THEN research a spell, which was often about 7-8 turns (i think) from the start. The main resource element (Food) seems unnecessarily restricted (or it could just be the way it's intended)

What this game does have is potential. With a built in editor, and the ability to customize your "hero" (Channeller) with different skills etc(Oh and you can choose your own animation set. Want to swing like a warrior? Go ahead! Prefer to have animations like a wizard? That's in there too! Honestly, more rpg games ought to have this) It is very much like civilisation meets lords of magic.

It definitely needs some improvement though, it runs like molasses sometimes for no obvious reason.
Ironically, the SP game also has an effective copy protection mechanism in place because of the state it was released in. You can only get update patches from their Impulse server via a registered Elemental account.

There will be many patches in the next few months, both to fix problems and to add functionality. If you can't get these patches on a timely basis, then this is probably a game you are not going to want to have.
I got the game and played like 7-8 hours so far I think and I really haven't had any crashes or anything severely gamebraking so far.

Sure the game is a bit rough and could use some polish but I expected that when buying it. The worst bug so far is not being able to cross a barricade a bit into the campaign. Some people report that if you start over it should work, or that it breaks somehow on saving the game. It's not that bad though since I can still play a custom game just fine.

Otherwise there are some minor annoyances. Yeah the AI sometimes seem to be unwilling to expand. I've seen descriptive texts being wrong and stuff like that.

I read on the forums that some people have memory leaks which would explain the slowdowns that some people have. I haven't experienced that myself but that might be because I've got 6 Gb memory in my machine..?

It's a nice game although it is a bit rough and I think that the PC Gamer review was a bit over the top in it's bashing.
I'm glad I decided to skip this one for launch. Maybe at a sales price down the line I will get it. Great ideas, but it did seem like it breezed through the beta phases way too fast and made too many changes to appease the community (this can be good in moderation, but reading over their beta posts, the beta community had way too much sway over the game design and feels like it forced their hand on some things).
Wouldn't the majority of people only want the single-player part anyway?
I wonder if they realize how important the Steam thing is. I'd have purchased this day one, but no steam means no buy. They need to split their download service away from their game producing group. Ignoring whole distribution channels is just plain stupid.

But getting nasty on public forums isn’t real bright either. On today’s interwebs if a company man cannot be sure to keep is temper he’d best participate through somebody at the office that can say, “No, you may not post that.”
Tobold may have gotten the order wrong (as did PC Gamer), but that doesn't really diminish the fact that Brad Wardell came off as a complete A-hole.

I've been on the forums for the past few days since release and I have never in my life seen the sheer number of crazed fanboys, practically falling over themselves to defend Wardell and this game.

What makes this insane is that the game is a complete disaster. It is chock full of bugs, poorly optimized code, missing features (no random maps or multiplayer?! Come on!) even as they are touted on the back of the box.

If I were Brad Wardell, I wouldn't be so worried that people won't be playing his game, as much as I'd be worried that about being sued for blatant false advertising.
It turns out that on the internet attacking the writer always works better than attacking his arguments. If the writer responds he'll be dismissed as "defensive". If he deletes the attacks, he "censors".

As this has turned into a discussion of "Tobold and his flame war with Darren" instead of discussing "Stardock and their CEO", I deleted all off-topic comments, including mine. Feel free to think of me as censor, but if you try to get the discussion back off track, any comment that isn't about Elemental, Stardock, and Brad Wardell is going to be deleted.
Thanks for this post Tobold, it brought the game to my attention and I purchased it yesterday. Only got 4 hours of gameplay before crashing into bed at 2am, but quite enjoyed it. I like the complexity and gameplay style although I would agree with some other posters that it is lacking polish in some areas and occassionally I found the UI a little unresponsive.

I'm happy to say that I didn't have any crashes or other gameplay problems and the UI didn't seem confusing to me. 4 hours of gameplay isn't a lot to base an opinion on, but I'd cautiously recommend checking it out if the flamewars drama yesterday hasn't completely turned you off the game.
I have been following Elemental development the last month or so, but haven't purchased it yet. Maybe next week when time frees up (don't need the One.More.Turn. syndrome keeping me from other duties).

As far as the idea that Impulse distributing patches being 'copy protection' goes, it is a lot less hassle than the DRM in most games today to just get the patch and shutdown Impulse. As a legal purchaser of software, DRM frequently causes me a bit of frustration having to meet it's requirements just to boot up and play titles. Impulse doesn't serialize patches or anything, so if you are an evil pirate, get your patches from your usual sources.

Multiplayer is client/server based, not client to client. So checking an account authentication before using server resources is entirely appropriate, and not copy protection. But, they have also said they intend to release the server code down the road so people can run their own servers. Despicable, low-life thieves rejoice!
"Stardock says that it is entirely coincidental that at the same time they took down the Gamer's Bill of Rights from the Stardock site (it is still available on its own website), and has nothing to do with that bill of rights guaranteeing games released in a finished state and without copy protection"

Where does Stardock say that they took it down at the same time as releasing the game? They said that the press release about it was two years old and the link isn't active anymore. The original news release was in Aug '08, and they published a revision in Oct '08 and then still continued to revise it with community input. I don't know when it got it's own website, at least since Sep '09 based upon forum posts there.

So where did you get your conspiracy facts from?
Oh yeah, the Rock, Paper, Shotgun news title.. They changed the title from "Stardock Rescind Own Bill Of Rights?" to "Stardock In 'Unfinished' Game Drama" after being called out for not doing their research before jumping onto the flametrain.

Discussing copy protection, DRM, and protecting intellectual rights is an interesting topic. The heat is a little too hot right now though to be able to finely split those hairs without Braddockgate emotions coming into play.
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