In my recent review of Ubisoft Montreal’s latest game, Watch_Dogs, I gave the developers the benefit of the doubt when it came to the graphics issues that many people had raised. Demos are often scripted and sculpted in such a way as to show a game in the best light possible and so the delivered product most often doesn’t line up with people’s expectations. So since Watch_Dogs wasn’t an unplayable monstrosity I chalked it up to the hype leading us all astray and Ubisoft pulling the typical demo shenanigans. As it turns out though there’s a way to make Watch_Dogs look as good as it did in the demos and all that’s required is adding 2 files to a directory.
This mod came to everyone’s attention yesterday with dozens of screenshots plastering all the major games news outlets. A modder called TheWorse on Guru3D became obsessed with diving into the Watch_Dog code and eventually managed to unpack many of the game’s core files. After that he managed to enable many of the effects that had been present in the original E3 demo of Watch_Dogs, along with tweaking a number of other settings to great effect. The result speaks for itself (as my before and after screenshots above can attest to) with the game looking quite a lot better than it did on my first play through. The thing with this mod is that unlike other graphical enhancements like ENB, which gives us all those pretty Skyrim screenshots, this mod isn’t adding anything to the rendering pipeline, it’s just enabling functionality that’s already there. Indeed this is most strongly indicated by the mod’s size, a paltry 45KB in size.
So first things first: I was wrong. Whilst the demo at E3 was likely running on a machine far better than many PC gamers have access to this mod shows that Watch_Dogs is capable of looking a lot better than it currently is. My current PC is approaching some 3 years old now, almost ancient in gaming PC years, and it was able to run the mod with ultra graphics settings, something I wasn’t able to do previously. It could probably use a little tweaking to get the framerate a bit higher but honestly that’s just my preference for higher frame rates more than anything. So with this in mind the question then turns to why Watch_Dogs shipped on PC in the state it did and who was ultimately responsible for removing the features that had so many in love with the E3 demo.
The conspiracy theorist in me wants to join the chorus of people saying that Watch_Dogs was intentionally crippled on PC in order to make it look more comparable to its console brethren. Whilst I can’t deny that it’s a possibility I simply have no evidence apart from the features being in the game files themselves. This is where Ubisoft’s response to the controversy would shed some light on the issue as whilst they’re not likely to say “Yep, we did it because Watch_Dogs looks horrendous on consoles when compared to PC” they might at least give us some insight into why these particular features were disabled. Unfortunately they’re still keeping their lips sealed on this one so unfortunately all we have to go on now is rampant speculation, something I’m not entirely comfortable with engaging in.
Regardless of the reasons though it does feel a bit disingenuous to be shown one product and then be sold another. Most of the traditional reasons for disabled features, like performance or stability issues, just don’t seem to be present with this mod, which lends credence to the idea that they were disabled on purpose after they were fully developed. Until Ubisoft starts talking about this though we don’t have much more to go on and since this can be enabled so easily I don’t think many gamers are going to care too much what they have to say anyway. Still I’d very much like to know the story behind it as looks a lot more like a political/financial issue rather than a purely technical one.
I readily admit that I’m a bit of a tinkerer. There’s something really enjoyable about taking something you bought and squeezing extra functionality out of it, especially if it unlocks something that no product currently fits. I remember after having my PlayStation Portable for a while that I heard of the many great things that could be done with it, so I set out to mod it. A couple days later I had it streaming live video from my PC over our wireless network which was quite an impressive feat back in those days. Today the device hacker scene is alive and well on almost any platform that can be exploited leading to a game of cat and mouse between the creators of said devices and those who would seek to exploit them.
Now I’m not going to be naive and pretend like there aren’t nefarious motives behind parts of the hacking scene. Indeed the main motivator for quite a lot of hacks that enable people to unlock certain bits of functionality is usually done in aid of pirating legitimate software. In fact for the Xbox 360 the only hack available is arguably only for pirating software, as Microsoft’s hard line on banning users who do it shows. Still the never ending game of cat and mouse that companies play with the recreational hacking crowd doesn’t appear to make much fiscal sense on the surface as the man hours required to try and protect such systems always appear to fail with little more than a couple weeks from a few skilled individuals.
Probably one of the platforms where this kind of behaviour is almost encouraged would be Android. For starters the entire system is open source so if you were so inclined you could write custom packages for it to unlock almost any functionality you wanted. It also seems that the vast majority of Android handset manufacturers only put mild roadblocks in the way of those seeking to gain root level privileges on the devices, akin to the CD in the drive checks of games of yesteryear. Still it seems that the trend may be shifting somewhat with the recent Droid X, touted as the best Android phone to date, employing some rather drastic moves to prevent end users from tampering with it:
Motorola has apparently locked down the phone to the point where any modification attempts — including “rooting” the phone to install unauthorized apps, or changing its firmware — could render it completely inoperable (or “bricked”). The only way to fix it is to return the phone to Motorola, reports the Android fansite MyDroidWorld.
The company is using a technology called eFuseto secure the device. It runs when the phone boots up, and it checks to make sure that the phone’s firmware, kernel information, and bootloader are legit before it actually lets you use the device. Here’s MyDroidWorld’s explanation:
If the eFuse failes to verify this information then the eFuse receives a command to “blow the fuse” or “trip the fuse”. This results in the booting process becoming corrupted and resulting in a permanent bricking of the Phone. This FailSafe is activated anytime the bootloader is tampered with or any of the above three parts of the phone has been tampered with.
Us device hackers know the risks when we go into them, it’s part of the fun! I remember when I was hacking my PSP for the first time I had to find files from a not-so-trustworthy source, a random I met on an IRC channel. Knowing fully well I could end up with a $400 paperweight I went ahead anyway and, luckily enough for me, it worked. However the trend towards vendors actively seeking to brick the phones should the user try to tamper with them feels like a kick in the teeth to me. Realistically it’s my hardware and what I do with it is my business and putting barriers in place just seems like a waste of both our time.
The argument can be made that they don’t want the average user attempting to do these kinds of things with their devices. There’s some logic to that as stopping the casual hacking crowd means that a good majority of the other nefarious activities will be thwarted as well. Additionally in this day and age the originators of the hack usually make it exceptionally easy to use like the Twilight Hackfor the Nintendo Wii which merely requires loading a save game, something everyone is capable of. Still most users are bright enough to know that what they’re doing is akin to taking a chainsaw to their device, something which the manufacturer will likely not appreciate nor cover under warranty.
Coming back to the piracy issue I still feel that this comes down to the perceived¹ value that customers are placing in the products being offered. The customers who are pirating your product aren’t the kind who are just going to up and pay for it if they can’t get it for free. Really you should be looking back on yourself to see why they’re pirating it as if it’s wildly successful with the pirates but not with legit customers it’s quite possible your product is priced too high or the channels you’re offering it through are too restrictive. I’ve been researching these markets for months now and it seems no matter how hard you try to ensure no one pirates your product you only end up hurting your paying customers, driving even more of them to those dastardly corners of the Internet where they pilfer your product for free.
In my mind there’s no question that the steps taken to thwart these would be hackers is not worth the time that’s put into them. For a platform like Android I actually believe these kinds of people actually help a great deal with the whole ecosystem of the platform, ensuring that power users get what they want whilst everyday users get dedicated experts to call upon at no cost to the original company. Who knows maybe I’ll change my tune when I start trying to extract money from the markets based on these platforms but if I do feel free to point at this post and lambast me for being an idiot, as I’ll be far too detached from reality at that point 😉
¹I have a habit of re-reading my old posts when I link to them and just noticed that I praised Ubisoft for taking the right direction when trying to combat pirates. After their last DRM farce I can’t really support them anymore, but the ideas in that post remain solid (I.E. increasing value with things that can’t be pirated).