When setting up a new PC, it's fun to go back and play older games and see how much better they run on your new hardware. Just install them and fire them up. Easy, right? If only.
Over the past week, I've spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get some of my Steam games to run at all. It hasn't been as easy as it should be. Several of the older games that I've re-installed have required some sort of outside software, DRM, or online activation, and enough of those outside programs are running weirdly that I'm once again reminded of how precarious PC gaming can feel. Do I even own these games? Will I be able to play them in five years' time? How about ten?
It started when I fired up Max Payne 3. I really like that game, and love how sharp it looks on a high-res monitor running at a high frame-rate. I re-downloaded it from Steam and set about playing it, only to find myself stymied.
To play Max Payne 3, you must first create and log in to a free "social club" account through the game's developer, Rockstar. I had forgotten that this was necessary, but it is -- if you try to skip logging in you'll never get past the game's first menu screen.
I went ahead and looked up the login to my Rockstar Social Club account (I never use it and had of course forgotten which email address I used, what my password was, etc.), then logged in. I got this dialogue box:
Permanent? OK, I guess I better make sure I've got all the account information correct, or this is going to be even more of a headache. I went to the Social Club website, logged into my account and checked it. Looked right to me. I hit "OK" and got an error message: Could not link to social club account, please try later. Of course, I couldn't play the game until I linked my Social Club account with Steam, so I kept trying, to no avail.
I restarted the game and tried again, and this time the link went through. Sweet! I played some Max Payne 3. Then I quit to play something else. I came back to Max Payne 3 a couple of hours later, only to find the same pop-up:
Only this time, I wasn't able to click "OK" and get the game to re-link my accounts. No matter what I did, it wouldn't go through. I kept loading, quitting, loading, quitting… nothing worked. I went to my Social Club page on Rockstar's site and didn't see my Steam account among the linked accounts, nor did I see an option to link the accounts from that end.
I looked at the game's Steam community page, where numerous players were having the same problem.
I tried a number of suggested fixes, from deleting files from the game's directory and rebuilding it to amending my PC's firewall to block the game from accessing the internet. Nothing worked, until I finally just deleted the Social Club folder from my PC and started again. For a while I thought I'd have to do that every time I wanted to play, though eventually I figured out that if I told the Social Club popup not to remember me, I could log in fresh each time, link the account each time, and play the game each time.
So, I'm now able to play Max Payne 3 on my PC. (It's still a pretty sweet game, too. Hooray!) But man alive, it was far too difficult to make that happen, and each time I have to re-login to the Social Club to play a new game, I'm a little bit more annoyed. I spent about an hour trawling the Steam forums, trying various fixes, deleting and re-downloading files, and generally staring at my screen in disbelief as I tried to make a game that I've owned for more than two years simply run.
Required external authenticators like the Rockstar Social Club are nothing new to PC gamers. We've been dealing with this stuff for ages now -- Steam may offer its own digital rights management (DRM) software, but that's not enough for plenty of larger video game publishers. Ubisoft games bought on Steam still need to be activated through the external Uplay service, while some EA games go through EA's Origin service while others are no longer available on Steam at all. And of course there's Microsoft's increasingly woebegone Games for Windows Live service, which often includes SecuROM DRM and requires both logging into a GFWL account and entering a second code outside of Steam in order to start the game at all.
The Max Payne 3 situation I ran into the other day highlights a particular problem with PC DRM: Steam probably isn't going anywhere anytime soon, but what happens when these external protocols stop working? Max Payne 3 came out in 2012, qualifying it as "old" in the now-now-now world of video games. It sells for a huge discount online, and its multiplayer servers are largely barren. Rockstar has moved on to greener, much more profitable pastures, and it doesn't seem as though anyone is at the helm any longer.
But jeez, Max Payne 3 is still a fun game! Must we acquiesce to the fact that eventually, it may just stop working on PC entirely?
I had a similar problem installing Games for Windows Live-enabled games like Batman: Arkham City and Bulletstorm. Starting Bulletstorm on Steam was a hassle that involved logging into a GFWL account, trying to remember my login information, waiting as it downloaded an update to my PC, and finally getting through to the main menu.
Arkham City has it both better and worse -- publisher Warner Bros. removed the GFWL requirement from the Game of the Year version of Arkham City, but not from the regular vanilla edition. They gave everyone with the vanilla version a free upgrade to the GOTY edition, but that didn't stop me from finding the regular version in my Steam library, installing it, and then finding myself unable to authenticate it without searching the Steam forums, finding the solution, and re-downloading the GOTY version before I could play.
Meanwhile, the fate of Games for Windows Live remains uncertain. Several outlets had previously reported that Microsoft would likely be shutting the service down next Tuesday, July 1st, but according to a statement Microsoft sent to Game Informer a couple days ago, those reports may have been premature:
We are continuing to support the Games for Windows Live service. As previously announced, as part of the retirement of Microsoft Points the Xbox.com PC marketplace was closed. Although customers are unable to purchase new games from the marketplace or receive title updates, they can continue to enjoy previously purchased content by downloading them through the Games for Windows Live client as usual. We remain committed to investing in PC gaming in the years ahead, and look forward to sharing more in the future.
I dislike Games for Windows Live as much as the next person, but in a way, it's almost a relief to read that. (How perverse!) At least that means games tethered to GFWL will still work, and I'll be able to play Bulletstorm in July.
All the same, this nonsense is inexcusable: If companies are going to insist that we jump through their code-copying, account-creating, social networking hoops in order to play their games, they need to make sure everything works properly. It's the least we should expect.
If there's one thing I've learned about PC gamers, it's that where there's a will, there's a way. If a game's publisher goes under and leaves a game floating, attached to ruinous and non-functional DRM, someone somewhere will figure out a workaround. All the same, it's hard not to wish that the people who make these games would take responsibility for keeping them running properly, to treat their creations as just that: Creations, designed to stand the test of time. It should not be this difficult to get modern video games running on a modern PC. Work with us here, publishers. Get your shit together.