Thanks to a combination of DRM idiocy and technical and communications failures on the part of EA and Bioware, I (along with thousands of fellow EA/Bioware customers) spent my free time this past weekend needlessly trapped in troubleshooting hell, in a vain attempt to get my single-player game to load. The problem, it turns out, was the Bioware’s DRM authorization servers, and as of Tuesday afternoon, the situation still is not resolved. For four days now, those of us who made the mistake of shelling out for Dragon Age:Origins(especially the Ultimate Edition) have been unable to play the single-player game that we paid for. And the unlucky souls who bought the game on Friday haven’t yet seen it work properly.
Note: we’ve contacted Bioware and EA PR for comments, and as of press time have received no reply.
Update: The game started working again late last night. I had been planning to wait about five days before updating this post, but thought the better of it. Also, today EA finally responded to my email inquiries with the following: “We are aware there was a server issue that did not allow DLC for Dragon Age: Origins to be accessed this past weekend. We originally thought this was a known issue and instructed users having problems to conduct a fix we knew had solved a similar issue in the past. As soon as it became apparent that this was a new issue, we began working on a fix which was deployed yesterday. “
Nothing like editing the registry on a sunny Saturday
By all accounts, I’m fairly representative of today’s console or PC gamer—mid-thirties, a day job, a family, and a dearth of free time. In any given week of my life, I have about five hours or so that I can spend playing games. So when I get a free moment to play a game, I don’t want to participate in some wannabe “social network for gamers”; I don’t care so much about achievements or points; and above all, I definitely do not want to spend my precious free time patching and troubleshooting a broken game. I just want to play the game that I paid my hard-earned money for, and I want to play it right then and there while I have a spare moment to spend.
As Ben Kuchera pointed out in a recent article, just sitting down and playing a game is getting harder and harder to do. Game publishers of all stripes are getting greedy, and putting out games that are rushed, buggy, deliberately incomplete, and addled by bone-headed DRM schemes that serve mainly to frustrate legit players. EA and Bioware are a recent case in point.
Sometime on Friday morning, Dragon Age:Origins players who booted up the game for a session of single-player dungeon crawling were greeted with a nasty surprise: all of the downloadable content (DLC) that they had purchased for the game had been flagged as “unauthorized,” so their saved games wouldn’t load. Again, these were vanilla, single-player saved games, representing untold hours of gameplay and investment, that users were suddenly unable to load.
Judging by the accounts that later showed up in Bioware’s forums over the weekends, many of these users had the same, fatal response to the “DLC not authorized” error they were getting from the game: they Googled the error message. Googling the error message, instead of going straight to EA’s online tech support chat and asking a rep for help, was the first, critical mistake that ruined everyone’s weekend (mine included).
The problem with the Google approach is that these DLC authorization issues have plagued DA:O users from the game’s launch, so Google will point you to plenty of threads in various forums that describe in painstaking,mind-numbing, encyclopedic detail the many different hacks and tweaks that users have invented for solving this peculiar family of closely related DLC problems. These hacks involve digging into the guts of the Windows version of the game, monkeying with XML and other game files, changing versions of Microsoft’s .NET framework, and even editing the registry. Different hacks have worked for different people, and there are very, very many of them. Unfortunately, none of these arcane, client-side hacks can fix a server problem.
If only we had known up-front that the server was the issue.
The overwhelming impression that a user gets from a Google search for this error message is that this is a known, solved problem, and that one needs only to apply the right mix of hacks and tweaks (plus maybe a complete reinstall or two) in order to set things right and get back to playing. So hacking and tweaking is exactly what many of us set about doing. And doing. And doing. And doing. None of it worked. Or, when it did work, it had nasty side-effects like naked party members with no access to their gear. Again, we were vainly trying to fix a new server problem that had the symptoms of an old client problem.
I’ll describe below how I initially discovered that this was most likely a server problem, but I was only able to confirm that this was a new, server-side issue by randomly deciding to click all the way to the end (page 100 or so) of one of the many lengthy, venerable troubleshooting threads in the DA:O forums (did I mention that, server issues aside, the game has been a bug-riddled fiasco from launch day?). At the end of the thread, users had begun posting about this issue, and pasting in transcripts of their chats with EA tech support to the effect that this was a server problem. (Apparently, the EA tech support folks were having to reinstall the game and then do some of the known work-arounds, before finally revealing that the servers were broken.)
I have to admit, I was pretty livid to find out that I had spent so many hours troubleshooting the game, only to find out that it was a server problem and that this server problem had gone completely unannounced. I mean, it’s common practice when you’re having server issues to post an announcement somewhere, so that people don’t waste their time troubleshooting. In Bioware/EA’s case, that announcement didn’t come until yesterday afternoon—over three days after the start of the incident—when an official company rep finally graced the forum and acknowledged that this was a server-side problem.
Mac users take triple damage vs. Windows dev incompetence
I first noticed the issue at lunch on Friday, when I decided to celebrate the impending weekend by finishing off the DA:O DLC Return to Ostagar. I was only about six hours into the game, and I wanted to give myself an edge in playing through the rest of the game by picking up some of the high-value loot in this DLC module. I was at the final set-piece before the boss battle (yes, I use walkthroughs so as not to waste time), and I figured I could knock it out at lunch and do the boss battle in the evening if I had some time. When I loaded the game, however, it told me that none of the downloadable modules that come with DA:O Ultimate were authorized. Because I was in the middle of one of these modules and had some of the module-exclusive gear equipped in my party, I couldn’t load my save.
I had had this problem a few times before, but restarting the game fixed it. After a few restarts, however, it was clear that something had really gone wrong.
Now, at this point I should interrupt my narrative to point out that I was playing the Mac port of DA:O,downloaded from Gametree.com. I had already experienced a crash bug once, and a reboot fixed it. Still, I had been playing the game with the iSword of Damocles hanging over my head—I knew that Mac ports can be fragile, and that tech support for a Mac version of a years-old Windows game was likely to be nonexistent. So I was sort of waiting for the game to go down in flames and take my progress with it.
When the game began telling me that all my DLC was unauthorized, I had an inkling of what the Madoff victims must’ve felt like when they got that phone call—I had secretly known all along that it was just too good to be true, and that it would blow up in my face, eventually.
I had a copy of VMware Fusion 3 installed on my iMac, but ever since editing our review of Parallels Desktop 6I’d been itching to try it out with a Windows game. So I downloaded Parallels, migrated my VMware image to it, and used the Gametree code that I got for the Mac download to download the PC version of the Ultimate Edition (the same code is good for both Mac and PC).
After installing the game under Windows XP and getting it up and running, I ran into the exact same problem. At that point, I realized that I was surely dealing with a server-side issue, but I soldiered on anyway. With the Windows version, I was now free to try many of the hacks and fixes that weren’t possible on the Mac port, so try them I did. All of them—to no avail.
Using one of the hacks, I was able to load and play a much earlier saved game that didn’t use any content from the DLC, and it was from doing this that I learned something wonderful and important: DA:O looks and runs way better under Parallels 6 than it does in its Mac port incarnation. Performance on my iMac was buttery smooth, even with all the settings maxed out. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that I have a ridiculous beast of an iMac: a Core i7 model with 16GB RAM. Still, the Parallels experience was flawless, and in every way superior to VMware Fusion. I can’t recommend it enough.
In fact, it was so good that I busted out a Windows copy of Neverwinter Nights: Diamond Edition that I had bought but never played, installed it, and, after patching it to fix a DRM issue(!), was on my way to building the greatsword-wielding barbarian/rogue/weaponmaster multiclass character of my dreams. (Note thatNWN:Diamond is also available in DRM-free format from Good Old Games. I’m thinking that, absent a successful Will saving throw, the GoG.com + Parallels 6 combo is going to decimate my free time.)
It’s the neglect, stupid
It’s not really upsetting me that much that I can’t play DA:O on a weekday—that’s probably for the better. And I’m not by any means opposed to DRM for games; indeed, there’s an argument to be made that it’s a legitimate response to ongoing piracy problems. No, my beef is with buggy, poorly-thought-out DRM schemes that have legit users sniffing around torrent sites to see if they can get their hands on a working copy of the game they paid for. The fact that DA:O has to reauthorize my DLC every time I log into the Bioware server is just nuts, and it sets users up for all sorts of problems. (On the client side, the authorization service that runs under Windows doesn’t always start, so even if Bioware’s servers are up, users can still face this problem.)
Then there’s the fact that, again, EA/Bioware didn’t address this issue for three whole days. For three days, users were locked out of a game that they paid for due to these server problems, and there was no notice posted. Not only that, but they either don’t monitor the Bioware forums, or they don’t care enough to participate in them, because no one from Bioware showed up during this period to even acknowledge the issue informally. This mix of incompetence and malicious neglect is startling to me, but it’s apparently par for the course for these two companies.