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Monday, November 19 2018 @ 01:53 AM -08

StarForce is increasingly being recognized as malware

Check out these sites and mainstream news articles:

http://www.boingboing.net/2006/01/30/...ware_.html

http://www.glop.org/starforce/

I've reported StarForce as malware to the StopBadware site (http://www.stopbadware.org/) and suggested publicly on various forums that StarForce should be examined in the kind of detail as the SonyBMG rootkit. It remains to be seen whether someone like Mark Russinovich will take up that particular challenge, but I sure hope so.

Battlefield 2 co-op!

It works! It was a major ordeal, but I'm now running a co-op Battlefield 2 server.

The first hurdle was upgrading my #2 machine to the point where BF2 would even run. My #2 box (formerly with a 1.4 GHz P4) already ran all recent games reasonably well, and my friends and I used it regularly to play NHL 2006 with all settings maxed out, yet BF2 wanted more CPU power: 1.8 GHz minimum. Luckily the MoBo would accept up to a 2 GHz CPU, so I got on eBay and found a bunch of possibilities. The 2 GHz CPUs were expensive, but I found a 1.8 that was priced reasonably, so I bid on it and won.

The chip arrived and I immediately discovered that it was the wrong type - it didn't match the item description on eBay. I'd heard all the nightmare stories of shady eBay sellers, so I expected the worst, but the seller in this case offered to pay for an adapter. I bought an adapter and sure enough the CPU seller paid for it. Installing the new adapter and CPU turned out to be tricky as the clamp didn't fit properly, but I hammered it in there somehow.

The next hurdle was video. DICE/EA wanted to use Pixel Shading 1.4 in BF2 to enhance realism, but instead of allowing users to enable/disable that feature according to their taste, it was simply made a requirement. Even relatively powerful video cards without this feature would be unable to run BF2. Guess what? My GeForce4 Ti4200, a card that I had used with great success until now, didn't support Pixel Shading 1.4. Groan. Shelled out a few hundred bucks for a new, mid-performance card and BF2 started working.

I've mentioned elsewhere that BF2 was shipped without support for cooperative multiplayer versus bots. This was - and continues to be - a major disappointment. I've sent feedback to EA support and posted to the BF2 forums, along with many others who feel similarly cheated. EA was sympathetic in their replies, and said that a) their developers were looking at all suggestions in the forums, including co-op modes and b) they were not in a position to say for certain whether co-op would be supported in a future patch. Oh well.

User community to the rescue! Whenever a moddable game is released, the modding community goes into action. BF2 is no exception. There are already plenty of BF2 mods and more arrive every day. Several different groups immediately started work on adding co-op play to BF2. They discovered a surprising fact: BF2 actually includes code that allows co-op play, but it's a) hidden from the user and b) buggy as hell. Playing cooperatively involves PC #1 starting a single-player game and PC #2 joining it by manually entering PC #1's IP address. Further confusing users, the "Connect to IP" button does nothing at all when clicked - if you're logged in with an "Offline" account. The process of creating online accounts is awkward at best, and caused even more confusion among users, particularly those who already had GameSpy accounts. But that's another story. One final hurdle is that your Offline and Online accounts share no settings, so once you've created your Online account, you have to go into the options and make all the same changes you made when you created your Offline account. Ouch!

BF2 sites started posting instructions for playing cooperatively versus bots, along with lists of gotchas, like maps that don't work in co-op mode. In wading through this material, I noticed that a lot of people were having trouble getting co-op mode to work consistently. Most of the problems I read about involved the dreaded CTD (Crash To Desktop). Ugh! Interestingly, I found that hosting a vanilla BF2 co-op game on my #1 box and connecting to it from the #2 box worked reliably, except I had to avoid certain maps.

Modders eventually produced "co-op mods" for BF2. There was (and still is) a lot of confusion about these mods, because they don't actually add co-op play to BF2; they only make the existing, hidden co-op mode more stable. Anyway, perhaps the best of these is the one produced by WCC Coop. This mod does a lot of good stuff, including:

* Reduces map load time dramatically.
* Removes AI and other bugs from maps, reducing CTDs.
* Tweaks weapons, vehicles and soldiers in various ways to make the game more entertaining.
* Allows locked weapons to be played.
* Repositions a few vehicles on certain maps to avoid problems.
* Allows larger versions of maps to be played.
* Allows more total players, increasing the total possible from 16 to 32 (at least).
* And more.

The WCC folks also figured out how to run a dedicated BF2 co-op server that provides map rotation and allows map voting, and explained the server settings that control co-op play. Armed with this, I was able, finally, to set up and run a dedicated co-op BF2 server on my server box. I can join this server from my #1 and #2 boxes and play several maps in sequence without any problems. Hooray!

EA/DICE almost succeeded in turning me away from BF2. In the end, I'm glad they didn't, because BF2 is an awesome game. Even with relatively stupid bots (mine are set to 0.3 out of a possible 1.0) the firefights are amazing. Almost all of the annoying bot behaviour from BF 1942 is gone. I hardly ever scream at bots in frustration in BF2. The new command structure, with an overall commander and squad leaders, is terrific. Squad members can spawn at the squad leader, which means that my buddy and I spend a lot less time trying to find or catch up with each other. If I'm the squad leader and I'm driving a tank, my buddy can spawn to me and he pops right into the gunner position of my tank. Tank gunners can now DUCK, so they can actually survive more than three seconds up there. If there is already a bot gunner, I can tell him to bail out - and he will! The command/communication system is both easy to use and effective. Tell a bot to do something using this system, and they actual do it! Bot opponents take cover, use flanking positions, throw grenades and are deadly shots. And the eye candy in this game is truly spectacular!

Codemasters support staff say...

Codemasters is another development group using StarForce. As you might expect, there is a lot of traffic on the Codemasters support forums related to StarForce. Here's a typical response from a Codemasters support person:

The original poster said:
"thats like saying "spyware is ok, its part of the product you're installing""

And here's the response:
"No it's not. It's like saying that dll files or codecs are part of the product you are installing. No other software will inform you when they install dll files or media codecs (which affect other applications far more).StarForce installs 4 drivers, which can be listed under device manager "Non Plug and Play Drivers" (you'll have to click on show hidden devices first). Do you know what all of those other drivers are? Shouldn't you be concerned about those too?Genuine customers should rest easy. The only reason any fuss is being made about StarForce is that it's causing pirates problems. The more agro we get on this subject, the more it reinforces what a good job it is doing."

Hoo boy. Where do I start? Of course DLLs are installed along with applications. But a DLL file installed with an application is essentially inert as long as the associated application isn't running. Even the old (and no longer an issue) "DLL Hell" was less of a problem than StarForce drivers. A driver runs all the time. It also typically inserts itself between the hardware and the operating system. This is clearly the case with StarForce: the drivers are hooked into the removeable media process in such a way as to affect all operations related to removeable media. Sure, proponents will say that the drivers have no affect on any operations except those related to StarForce-protected games, but that is essentially impossible. Every CD/DVD operation passes through the StarForce drivers and is either ignored or acted upon, but the drivers are involved in every CD/DVD operation.

As for "all those other drivers" - Microsoft has a quality assurance program for hardware drivers. Have the StarForce drivers been certified by Microsoft? In general, I don't install a driver unless it's certified. And if I break that rule, I am very aware that it's at my own risk. But the StarForce drivers are installed totally without my knowledge!

The last two statements are unbelievably crass. Sure, StarForce is causing headaches for software crackers, but it's clear that StarForce is also causing problems for legitimate users - myself among them. And if aggrivating legitimate users is the goal of Codemasters, then indeed StarForce is doing a good job.

Starforce links

Here are few useful links to StarForce information:

WikiPedia entry:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StarForce

Removing StarForce drivers:
http://www.onlinesecurity-on.com/prot...phtml?c=55

CDMediaWorld information:
http://www.cdmediaworld.com/hardware/...orce.shtml

Interview with StarForce developers:
http://www.firingsquad.com/features/s...interview/
My favourite quote: "The fact that [the StarForce drivers] remain was something that no one predicted would be such a contentious issue." Yeah, right.

Why Starforce sucks and what to do about it

Starforce is a copy-protection technology used by Ubisoft and other game publishers. There are plenty of other protection schemes, but this one is especially nasty. Here's why:

1. Starforce-protected games surreptitiously install Starforce drivers. Any software that is installed on my system without my knowledge or approval is "spyware." (At least, that's the commonly-used term; it's not particularly accurate. Let's invent a new word for this type of software, shall we? How about cancerware? underware? pestware?)
2. These things are low-level Windows drivers that are normally hidden from the user's view in the Windows device manager. These drivers hook into and affect all CD/DVD drive operations, leading to many reported system problems. They reduce the amount of memory available for all operations because they are always running. They chew up clock cycles. When you uninstall a Starforce-protected game, the drivers remain.
3. Ubisoft uses Starforce exclusively now. Unfortunately, they are also using those extremely crappy disc cases that force you to bend the disc when you remove it from the case. It's unfortunate because the one thing you really don't want to do when you have to swap discs all the time is damage the disc.
4. Of course, there are all the other reasons why copy protection is bad in general. The main one is that it only hurts legitimate users - people who bought the game! Usually by the time a game hits the street, there is a crack available for it. Anyone who really wants to pirate a game will find a way to do it. Besides the problems noted above, playing copy protected games means that you have to constantly swap game discs, which damages them even if you're careful, and what's the point of having a hard drive if you have to do all that swapping? If I wanted a console, I would have bought one! To top it all off, we are legally entitled to make backup copies of software.

What can we do about this? This is what I'm doing:

1. Uninstall all Starforce protected games.
2. Obtain the Starforce removal utility and use it to (hopefully) remove all those drivers (and there are a lot of them).
3. Check my system throughly for any remaining evidence of Starforce. I've noticed a ton of registry entries for Starforce. If I can't get rid of it, I'll rebuild my system.
4. Sell all my Starforce-protected games. That means all my Ubisoft games. No problem there. Pacific Fighters was a massive disappointment and has just about the worst user interface I've ever seen. Silent Hunter 3 also has a horrible user interface and is buggy as hell (although I did have some fun with it). Brothers in Arms was interesting but also frustrating as hell (no save game? what's the deal with that?) Splinter Cell 3: yawn - it's the same gameplay as 1 and 2.
5. Boycott Starforce-protected games and publishers that use it. That means Ubisoft. Unfortunately there's no way you can tell that a game uses Starforce by looking at the box, so avoiding other publishers will take some research. But no more Ubi for me, that's for sure.

Please join me in boycotting Ubisoft and Starforce!

BF2 - oh noes!

I just purchased Battlefield 2 and I'm still dumbfounded at the lack of a co-op mode. What were they thinking? None of the arguments against co-op make any sense. So what if only 4% of the BF42 servers were running co-op games? Why throw away those customers? As I've said elsewhere, adding co-op to a game that already has bots and multiplayer modes should involve very little work, particularly if it's built in from the beginning of development.

Co-op hacks for BF2 are already starting to appear, but so far they are quite limited. Rumours abound that EA will add a co-op patch and that someone else will create a mod for it. I sure hope so.

I'm starting to think that co-op gamers need to be much more vocal. There's more to multiplayer gaming than killing your friends over and over and over. Is it really possible that the proportion of co-op gamers to non co-op gamers reflects the proportion of gamers who have any friends at all?

Coop games for the PC

The games listed here all support some sort of coop mode, except for most of the racing games. I've listed the racing games because, as with true coop, being able to race against humans and bots simultaneously is both fun and rare. I'll keep adding to this list as I discover/remember more coop games.

FPS

Serious Sam 1 & 2 - support Internet, LAN and up to four-way split-screen, cooperative multiplayer versus bots campaign mode. Allows coop game progress to be saved.

Quake 2 - LAN cooperative play versus bots (coop campaign). Progress can be saved. Watch out for friendly fire - it can't be disabled.

Unreal Tournament, UT 2003, UT2004 - a wide variety of LAN/Internet coop versus bot modes, allowing mix-and-match of humans and bots and adjustable bot skill levels and numbers. No campaign.

Battlefield 1942, Vietnam - LAN and Internet coop versus bot mode, allowing mix-and-match of humans and bots, adjustable bot still levels and numbers. No campaign.

RTS

Rise of Nations - highly flexible LAN/Internet coop versus bot modes. Bot players are individually adjustable in terms of skill, humans can team up with each other and/or with bots.

Dark Reign - highly flexible LAN/Internet coop versus bot modes. Bot players are individually adjustable in terms of skill, humans can team up with each other and/or with bots.

RPG

City of Heroes - server-based Internet gaming in which all human players are essentially on the same team, fighting computer-controlled bad guys. Fight them on your own or on teams or task forces. Team up with your friends or with total strangers on the net.

Diablo 1 and 2 - coop campaign vs. bots on LAN or Internet.

Racing

Whiplash - an old DOS racing game that supports two-way split-screen and LAN cooperative (team-based) gaming. I've never seen another racing game that does this.

Motocross Madness 2 - LAN and Internet competitive multiplayer with bots.

Need for Speed - LAN and Internet competitive multiplayer with bots.

TOCA Race Driver 2 - Split-screen, LAN and Internet competitive multiplayer with bots.

Sports

The entire EA sports NHL series - supports shared-screen, LAN and Internet coop gaming for up to five humans per team, with bots filling the roster on both teams. Game, season and dynasty progress can typically be saved.

Madden NFL - shared-screen coop versus bots.

What's co-op gaming?

A co-op game is one that allows two or more human players to play on the same side, cooperatively, versus the computer. I've seen alternate definitions, such as "working together with friends to solve the single player game," but to my mind that's pointless hair-splitting. When I'm looking for a co-op game, anything that will allow me to play on the same side as other humans versus the computer will fit the bill. So the definition I started with is the one that makes the most sense to me. The key word in "co-op gaming" is "co-op." Why dismiss a game that offers cooperative play just because it doesn't offer a co-op campaign? Especially when the sub-category "co-op campaign" works so well. Finally, using that other definition would mean excluding some of the best games I've ever played cooperatively, including EA Sports NHL and Battlefield 1942/Vietnam.

What's the point of co-op gaming? Surprisingly, there are gamers out there who have friends. I know, because I'm one of them. I find it much more rewarding to work with my friends to compete with bots than to compete against my friends. If I want to compete against humans, I can go on-line and find some juvenile nitwit to destroy. In particular, those of us with multiple PCs on a LAN are more likely to be in the same room as other human players, in which case working together can be a lot of fun.

Sounds reasonable, right? Prepare to be disappointed. I've been gaming on PCs for over ten years and can't think of more than a dozen or so games in which true co-op vs. bots gaming is possible. Game developers clearly don't think this type of gaming is in demand. Frankly, they're probably right. My own on-line gaming experiences tend to support that point of view. Most gamers out there seem to prefer killing each other to helping each other. A sad commentary on our society? Perhaps.

One reason gamers may not be interested in co-op gaming is that, at least in some game genres, the computer-controlled players are pretty dumb. They tend to be predictable. They get stuck in loops and against scenery. You can find locations from which to kill them off systematically, and they never figure it out and come after you. Human opponents can be a whole lot smarter than that. On the other hand, there's been a lot of progress in making bots smarter - particularly in first-person shooters. They now take cover, dodge, flank and work in teams.

With some exceptions, cooperative play in a game requires the following:
1. Multiplayer support. This can be done on one computer via split screen (the screen is divided into two or more frames) or shared screen (all players see the same view), or with multiple computers on a LAN or the Internet, or some combination.
2. Cooperative multiplayer mode. There must be at least one multiplayer mode in which human players can play on the same side or team, cooperatively.
3. Computer-controlled players (aka "bots"). This can be humans versus bots and/or humans allied with bots versus other bots.

The availability of co-op vs. bot gaming depends to some degree on genre. Some game types feature this type of play as a matter of course, while in others it's extremely rare. Here's what you can expect for some of the more common genres:

First-person shooters (FPS)
A typical FPS supports one or more multiplayer modes. Almost all FPS games have a single-player "campaign" - a series of missions, typically scripted, to be played by one human player versus a bunch of bad guys. Although their actions are scripted to some degree, the bots in these games are also able to react to the actions of the human player. Shoot at a bot who hasn't yet seen you, and they will typically start shooting back. In almost all cases, however, there's no way to get more than one human playing the single-player campaign, and the multiplayer modes that are offered are restricted to "deathmatches" - where humans are pitted against each other with no particular storyline involved. Sometimes, you can team up with other humans, but in most cases you can only fight other humans, with no bots. I've seen plenty of titles where you can set up a multiplayer co-op game, with all humans on the same team, but when the game starts, there are no bots - hence no players on the other team - and the human team immediately wins. How dumb is that?

Role-Playing Games (RPG)
Traditional RPGs are single-player experiences. Occasionally an RPG is released in which the campaign (which is basically all you get with an RPG) can be played by more than one human player, cooperatively. Online RPGs are the exception. There are also a few 3rd-party add-ons or patches that allow certain RPGs to be played cooperatively.

Racing Games
A typical racing game allows a single player to compete against bots, but in multiplayer mode the bots are missing, even where split-screen is supported. There are a few exceptions, but they are rare. Sadly, some of my favourite racing games are missing multiplayer bots, including Carmageddon and Insane.

Sports Games
Sports games have perhaps the best record when it comes to cooperative play. This makes sense, when you consider that you can't have a proper game in any sport without sufficient players. Without bots, multiplayer modes in a (team) sports game are basically useless. I suppose there are probably sports games out there that prevent two humans from playing on the same side, but I can't recall any.

Real Time Strategy
As with some FPS games, I've seen RTS titles where you can set up a multiplayer co-op game, with all humans on the same team, but when the game starts, there are no bots - hence no players on the other team - and the human team immediately wins. Most often, though, RTS games simply don't let human players team up at all. This is unfortunate, because an RTS can be a lot of fun with human allies.

A theory about the game development process
I've spent a lot of time wondering why co-op gaming isn't more prevalent. Why is it more common in some genres (e.g. sports) than others? Most importantly, if a game supports multiplayer modes and has a single-player campaign where a human player takes on bots, why the heck isn't there a co-op multiplayer mode? It seems to me that most of the code required is already there, so what's the deal? Based on my own experiences as both a software developer and as a computer gamer, it appears that the problem is lack of planning. If a game's developers plan from the start to include a co-op mode, it's fairly straightforward. But trying to retrofit co-op gaming into a complete or nearly complete game presents certain difficulties, such as:
a) Which computer will control the bots?
b) Where will progress be saved?
c) If the action of bots (including spawning) is scripted, how will having more than one human affect that scripting?
d) How will level transitions work with multiple human players?

I think that some developers look at these problems and decide that they're not worth dealing with because the audience for co-op gaming is so limited. Too bad.

Blog introduction

Usually when I'm prompted to write about a gaming experience, it's because that experience was a bad one. Sometimes it's when I'm excited about a great gaming experience, but that, sadly, is rare. Anyway, this blog is probably going to end up being me complaining about bad game design most of the time. At least I don't have some mysterious corporate agenda. Well, I guess if I do have an agenda, it's that I want games to be better. Or at least to stop demonstrating the same dumb design choices over and over and over again.

So, read on if you enjoy pain!