Activation Bomb


It’s the old action scene trope: The bad guy is holding an unpinned grenade or a bomb connected to a dead man’s switch, so that if he dies he’ll automatically take everyone else with him. Suddenly everyone becomes very interested in the health and well-being of the bad guy.

This is the situation we find when publishers add online activation to the retail version of their single player games. If they go out of business, their servers will go down. No servers means no activation. No activation means you can’t ever install their games again. So if the company dies, their games die with them. This can be Steam-based games, but it can also be games from publishers like 2kGames and Ubisoft. If you’re one of those gamers who eats games like potato chips – consuming them and then moving on without giving them a second thought – then this discussion shouldn’t worry you. Maybe read this really good article Jordan Deam put up earlier this week instead. But if you’re like me and you play games three, four, or even sixteen years after release, then you should probably be thinking about how long a game will “live” before the servers go down.

Developers, publishers, and fellow fans are always quick to defend activation. Let’s assume you’re thinking of buying Shoot Guy 2: The Shootening from the developer Incomprehensible Games. The conversation will go like this:

Why are you worried about this? The servers will be there when you want to play the game 15 years from now.

The cost of running a server forever and ever is actually infinity dollars. Do you think anyone would want to still be running servers for the original Populous? Companies go out of business. Especially companies who go on running servers for games that stopped making money years earlier.

Why are you worried about Incomprehensible Games going away? They’re HUGE. They’re going to be in business for years!

You mean they’re a big, successful name? Big like Looking Glass Studios, Interplay, and Black Isle Studios, all of which made stellar games and went out of business anyway? Even the enormously successful Blizzard was gobbled up by Activision.

Companies are bought, sold, gutted, and closed constantly in this business. And when companies change hands, they change management. Maybe your CEO right now believes that the company should keep the activation servers up forever and ever, but the truth is that the CEO you’ll have eighteen months from now might not care.

Okay, if Incomprehensible Games ever goes out of business or takes down the servers, we’ll release a patch to disable the check.

This sounds reasonable now when Shoot Guy 2 is fresh in your mind. But think back to the games you were working on ten years ago. How long would it take you to track down the source, find the thing that needs to be changed, and get the sucker to recompile? You still have all those ancient Direct X libraries? The old development environment? All the SDK packages needed for making games for Window 98 and Windows 95? As a programmer with a couple of decades under his belt, I can tell you that compiling legacy code is way more time consuming than you imagine.

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So it will take us a few hours to sort out and release a patch. Big deal. We’re good for it.

Yeah. Except, you don’t need to release one patch. You’ll need a bunch. If you go out of business you’ll need patches for every activation-based game you’ve ever released. Shoot Guy 2 through Shoot Guy 6, plus the expansion packs and the RTS.

That’s not that many…

Plus the Mac versions for all of the above. And the international (European) versions. And the special Australian versions that replace the aliens with kittens and the blood with lowfat strawberry yogurt. We’re talking about releasing dozens of patches that could represent hundreds of hours of labor.

We could get the patches ready ahead of time and put them out when the time comes.

A nice thought, although nobody has done this yet. Prey had online activation. It came out four years ago. When was the last time anyone saw that game on the shelf? What sales are being protected by the activation system? Nobody has ever made an official policy of, “We’ll release a patch and take down a server three years after a game comes out.” Everyone seems intent on running the activation servers “forever”. If 2kGames hasn’t released a patch for a game which is no longer for sale, why should your game be any different? And if you are serious about putting out the patch, why don’t you give us a date?

They removed the activation check for BioShock!

No. In fact, that’s specifically what they didn’t do. They set the server to always say “yes” when someone does an install, but they never released a patch to stop the game from asking in the first place. If that server were to go down, it would no longer be possible to install the legitimate retail version of the game.

Really. We’ll put up the patches. Seriously.

Put it up? Where? You’ve been bought up or are going out of business. You’ve come in on Friday morning to find all your stuff in a cardboard box with a terse note thanking you for all of your hard work. The servers are going down tonight. Where exactly will you be putting these patches?

We could put it on a torrent. Stop being so paranoid.

Keep in mind you don’t actually own the game. You’re either going out of business and your company now belongs to all the people who loaned you money, or you’ve been bought up by MegaCorp Publishing, and they now own all that stuff. And you’re suggesting that you’ll swipe their source code and invest hundreds of hours to release unauthorized versions of their software? On the torrents? You’re either lying, you haven’t thought this through, or you’re crazy.

When you ask a gamer to pay for a game with online activation, you are asking for a great deal of trust. Which is outrageous, since the entire reason the game has activation is because you refuse to trust them.

To my fellow gamers: Buy, or do not buy, but always be aware of what you’re getting into. Because sooner or later the publisher is going to die, and when they go they will take your collection with them.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Reset Button, Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels.

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