Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Online Activation Is a Ripoff

Shamus Young | 28 Aug 2009 17:00
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Lost in the tumult over whether or not StarCraft 2 will provide LAN support is the fact that the game will provide DRM in the form of online activation. I keep seeing these comments from well-meaning fans to the effect of: "Oh good! It's a reasonable system! Nothing to worry about."

Online activation is not reasonable at all. Of all the forms of copy protection, it is the most anti-consumer, because it's the one form of DRM that can take the game away from you, forever.

"What's wrong with activation? It's way easier than other modes of copy protection!"

This is what some people say to me. Specifically, young people with always-on internet who don't own games purchased during the Clinton administration.

Yeah, it's better for you. But it's not actually "better," it's just screwing a different group of people. If you're on the road a lot and hate dragging all of your discs around, then a one-time activation might sound like a lot less hassle. But if your gaming PC isn't hooked up to the internet, or if you're behind a firewall administered by someone else, then you can't get into the game at all. Ever. If you switch back and forth between a gaming PC and a laptop or if you upgrade your hardware often then online activation might mean a lot of extra hassle.

You're basically saying, "To hell with those other gamers." You're in this false mindset where it's you or them. The publisher has us arguing over which group of us should get the shaft, but keep in mind that we're all paying customers. The pirates never deal with any of this.

(And this is assuming online activated games don't require the disc to be in the drive. Sometimes they do, and we end up with the worst of both worlds.)

"This is a multiplayer game, so activation isn't a big deal."

A lot of people play these games for the single player. You might not hear from those people very often, but that's because they're not online where you can meet them. If this is just a "multiplayer game," then why is Blizzard wasting all of this money making a single-player story?

"Steam requires online activation and Steam is awesome, so online activation is therefore awesome."

Hopefully, you can spot the gaping chest wound in this fallacy. Steam is a download service that will let you put any game onto any computer you own at any time and will never again require the disk once it's registered. Steam isn't just an activation server, it's a universal backup for all your Steam games, it offers "free weekends" for popular titles, seamless matchmaking, friend lists, social networking, in-game chat, achievements, high-speed access to demos, and automated headache-free patching. It's got more features than Xbox live, and it's free. Yes, Steam does require you to register your game, but they give you a whole lot of features and freebies in return.

This is not what you get when you pop in your BioShock DVD. The online activation in BioShock has nothing to offer you. It provides no value to you, and no value to the publisher. It's a stupid drain on resources and a waste of everyone's time.

It used to be that when you bought a game, you got a game. As in: Now you own it and can play it at will. Sure, once in a while someone would come along and - in the voice of the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons - tell you that:

"Uh, actually, you're not buying a game, you're buying a license to play the game."

But with online activation, you aren't even getting that. You're getting a license to ask to play the game, and hoping the publisher says yes. If they say no, or if you can't ask them because the servers go down, then your purchase is worthless. I don't care if you call it a license or ownership or what, but a minute ago you had something of value, and now it's gone through no fault of your own and there's nothing you can do about it. This is not true of the dozens of games on my shelf that are fifteen years old and still work even though their developer went under, their publisher was bought out, and the building where the game was made has been bulldozed and turned into a Starbucks.

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