Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Online Activation Is a Ripoff

Shamus Young | 28 Aug 2009 17:00
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"This game is from a huge company. The activation servers aren't going anywhere."

Really? Are they as big as Microsoft? Because Microsoft sold music that required online activation. Then they changed their minds and took the service down. Everyone who had purchased music found that the stuff they "owned" went poof overnight. No refund. All that money and data. Gone. Someday, this will happen to online-activated games as well.

It costs money to run a server. The cost of running a server forever can't be anything less than infinity. Sooner or later, they will get tired of paying that money to authenticate a game that is no longer on the shelves. At that point, turning the server off will make good business sense.

Sure, they could release a patch to remove the need for authentication, but doing so would cost money. Why would they go through that hassle? Microsoft has proven you can yank the rug out from under your customers without consequences. If you read the EULA, I'm sure you'll discover they have left themselves room to do exactly this.

"I trust this company. I'm sure they'll release a patch if they ever take the servers down."

It's nice that you trust them, although it's worth noting that this entire system exists because they don't trust you. In any case, companies are not people and a company can change ownership - and thus personality - overnight. Blizzard is a rather striking example.

"No, seriously, if these guys go under I totally trust them to release a patch to remove the need for activation."

That seems reasonable at the beginning, but the truth is that this is extremely unlikely. If this company goes out of business, it's because they're out of money. Which means they can't afford to pay a couple of programmers to sit around for a few weeks sifting through decades-old source code to remove all the activation gremlins from all of the dozen or so games they've released over the years. (Keeping in mind that the original programmers have probably moved on, and also keeping in mind that activation systems are imposed by publishers but source code is written by developers. It gets messy very quickly.)

Moreover, they won't have the right to do so. When you go under, your company is now owned by all the people who have loaned you money. They own the games now. Do you really think they care about the stupid-ass activation system you put in ten years ago? They loaned you money and that money is gone. They are trying to get out of this without losing more. What could possibly make them care about your useless and short-sighted activation system?

BioShock is no longer on the shelves. You can't usually find it in the store. Now would be the perfect time to release a patch to remove the need for activation. Yet, they haven't. Honest customers installing the game on their new computer for a replay are still hassled by the system. If they won't patch the game now when doing so would be easy, then they certainly aren't going to do it later when they're going out of business or just sick of running the server.

"Well, they have to do SOMETHING about piracy!"

I'm open to suggestions, but a system which turns a purchase into a rental while doing nothing to stop pirates doesn't seem to be a winning strategy. Not for us, anyway. I'm not against activation because of how easy or hard it might be, I'm against it because it's a ripoff that dooms the game to become unplayable at some unknown point in the future. To own something is to control it. If I sold you a car and kept the keys but promised you could "borrow" the keys any time you liked, you would immediately recognize that I wasn't selling you anything at all - I'm just charging you full price and then letting you park my car in your driveway. But people are fooled when confronted with the same deal in software form.

Don't be fooled by how easy activation is. If you're activating a game, you don't own it or have the freedom to play it at will. You are at the mercy of the publisher, and they are not on your side.

Shamus Young is the guy behind this movie, this website, this book, these two webcomics, and this program. He just bought Riddick without noticing it requires activation. Whoops.

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