Thursday, December 10, 2009

Don't Buy Dragon Age

... or, if you do, at least promise me you won't buy Warden's Keep.

I don't say this because the game isn't fun.  It is!  It's one of the most entertaining and addictive games I've played in a long time.  It even manages to meet my high expectations for storytelling.

And yet, the game is broken in subtle and frustrating ways that will leave you feeling robbed if you part with your hard-earned cash for it.

First of all, the game is deliberately broken in inventory management.  You have a limited inventory within the game; initially you can carry (I think) around 60 items or so, which you can upgrade somewhat by spending in-game money to purchase eventual backpacks.  I can now carry up to 100 items, which seems to be the limit.  However, there is an unlimited amount of stuff that you can get in the game.  Most annoying, there's no way of telling what will be important later on and what will not; many items that initially seem to be good only for selling later prove to be very important.  And, worst of all, there's no place for you to store items that do not fit in your active inventory: therefore, you must destroy or sell your excess items.  And, as I complained in my previous post, selling is completely impractical for anything you might want/need to re-purchase later.

I say that the game was deliberately broken, because Bioware had a solution available on launch day, in the form of downloadable content.  By spending real-world money, you could purchase Warden's Keep, which had a quest, but more importantly fixed the main game by adding a party chest where you could store your excess equipment.  Yes, they took something that should have been in the original game, and decided to charge you for it.

I was enjoying the game, except for the constant popups about server connections and the fact that I couldn't store my equipment, so I went ahead and purchased it.  At first, all looked good.  I visited the Keep, played a fun little quest (albeit one that felt surprisingly similar to both the Circle Tower and Stone Prisoner quests), and got my reward.  Elated, I finally dropped off all the precious stones, the excess gifts, private documents - everything that seemed important but that I currently couldn't use.  I merrily continued on with my main quest, whistling as I went.  It wasn't a perfect solution - I was a tad annoyed that I would need to journey someplace to retrieve my stuff, and face the random encounters that would come with the journey - but was far better than the status quo.

That is, until it turned far worse.  Warden's Keep disappeared.  It vanished from my map.  I can no longer return.  By implication, all those valuable items that I had stored in my chest, SPECIFICALLY FOR SAFEKEEPING, are gone as well.  Not only that, but some of my party's equipment, stuff that I had won during my hours of play in Warden's Keep, disappeared as well.  I discovered this unpleasant fact when I almost lost what should have been an easy fight, only belatedly realizing that Morrigan and Sten were attacking Hurlocks with their bare hands.

So, to recap: I paid real, hard money to Bioware, and in return, they ruined my game.  I'm now much worse off than I would have been if I hadn't bought the add-on: the game would still be broken due to an insufficient inventory system, but at least it would not have stolen the results of many, many hours of gameplay from me.  I'm now in a weaker position, and I'm poorer, and apparently dumb for having bought it in the first place.  Only after the fact, when I was desperately looking for help online, did I discover that this problem is affecting many people, and Bioware has no solution.

Bioware made the game, but they refuse to support it, instead directing all customers to Electronic Arts.  I submitted my problem to EA through an online form several days before, and haven't heard a word back from them after the initial automated response.  I would love to keep playing what feels like a wonderful game, but feel betrayed, hurt, and furious.

I'm reminded of a passage by Neal Stephenson from "In the Beginning Was the Command Line" in which he talks about metaphor shear.  When we interact with computers, we are engaging in a mediated experience, defined by metaphor.  All of our interactions are ultimately reduced to a series of 0's and 1's that don't intrinsically mean anything.  To help our minds cope with this, companies come up with analogies with the real world that describe and define our interactions.  We "write" "documents", then "save" them to "folders".  As long as everything works, the metaphor stays intact, and we're happy.  We fool ourselves into thinking that what we are doing is something as physical, as real, as actually writing a document with pen and paper.  But problems occur.  One day, we discover that our file - excuse me, our "file" - has been overwritten.  Yesterday, it was several pages long, filled with our own words, something we could feel proud of.  Today, it has simply vanished, leaving no trace behind.  We are suddenly forced to deal with the fact that it wasn't real, that it was all temporal and transient, and that Microsoft or Apple had essentially lied to us; no, we had lied to ourselves, using the tools they had given us.  This metaphor shear is profoundly disquieting, and makes one feel quite disturbed by all computing activities.

Well, Bioware can now join the club.  Their DLC (Downloadable Content) has entered the metaphor lexicon.  It's a "store"!  You can "buy" things there, and then "have" them.  Only, the metaphor isn't perfect.  When we buy something, we expect to keep it.  We expect to be able to use it.  Instead, I feel as though I had driven to Fry's Electronics, purchased an LCD TV, brought it home, plugged it in, and watched several movies on it.  Then I woke up one day to find that the TV is gone.  The people from Fry's evidently broke into my house to steal it back, or rigged it to self-destruct.  I've lost the TV.  I've lost the money I paid for the TV.  And because I got rid of my old TV when I bought this one, I'm way worse off than I would have been if I hadn't bought it in the first place.

Save yourself some frustration.  Save yourself some money.  Don't patronize Bioware until they have fixed their buggy, broken, larcenous game.

UPDATE 12/17:  I finally got an email response back from Electronic Arts, more than a week after I initially submitted it.  You'd think that would be enough time for them to pull together an answer, right?  NOPE!  The email apologized for my problem, said that it wasn't a "permanent" issue, and said that they can't provide support for this product.  They encouraged me to visit the Bioware forums for support.

And, when you go to the Bioware forums for PC tech support, what's the very first post that you see, stickied at the top by a Bioware employee?  A post telling everyone that Bioware does not provide any support for Dragon Age, and directing everyone to contact the Electronic Arts page for support.


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