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.

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