on May 27, 2008
Last night I posted the following to the Hothead Games forums in regard to the recently-released Penny Arcade game. I apologize for some of the colorful language it contains. (Warning: The following contains colorful language.) Earlier in that same thread one of the Hothead guys assured fans that they “were not trying to be dicks” with their DRM scheme, and I used the same language in my reply. At any rate, the requirement for online activation is still a sore spot with me, and I was hoping to tease some information out of them about their intentions. My post:
1. They were awesome.
2. They are gone.
3. I can still play their games.
I want to own a copy of RSPOD for my very own, ideally by exchanging money for it according to the long-established customs. (i.e. buying stuff.) I know Hothead has, in this very thread, set down informal assurances that if they ever join the Choir Invisible they will be sure to remove the online check before doing so. A noble sentiment, although it would mean I would have to await the demise of the company before I truly took full possession that which I ostensibly already owned.
In the interest of allaying the fears of those of us who don tinfoil haberdashery, can you comment on any of the following:
1) I know there will be a retail version at some point. Will that version be unfettered by the need for online activation? If so, I will be happy to buy that when the time comes. I would even be willing to pay extra, particularly if (and I realize this is woefully old-fashioned) I will get a box in which to keep my acquisition.
2) Would you perhaps be willing to remove the check at some fixed point in time which does not require the unfortunate quietus of your entire enterprise as a catalyst? Maybe when Episode 2 comes out, or next year, or even on Yom Kippur? You know, something I could write on a calendar, even if it isn’t this year’s calender.
3) Will you be selling the entire “season” once the episodes are complete? Perhaps at that point I could buy a version which will still be operable even if you are not?
Basically, anything that allows me to play the game without regard to the health and vigor of the company which produced it would be super-special great. The only thing I am NOT willing to do is to resort to the very measures this system is intended to combat. (The torrentz and haxorz and whatnot.)
I applaud the non-dicks policy which your company has adopted. I am not asserting that you have failed to achieve this laudable goal. I’m just trying to engage in a little due diligence on the investment I’d like to make in your product. To wit: I’m not being a dick either. Can we do business?
My full argument was too long to put into the forums, but I actually think the assertion that “we’ll disable the check if we go out of business” is absurd and vigorously naive.
The conversation usually starts with the prospective customer asking if the company will even be around in ten years. The response is something like this:
1. That’s pretty far-fetched. We’re solvent. We’re not going anywhere.
Yes, I’m sure you’re every bit as healthy and solvent as Trilobyte, MicroProse, Interplay, Black Isle, Brøderbund, and Looking Glass were back in their heyday. Sadly, being nice people and making good games is not enough to stay in business.
The idea of your company being gone in ten years is not far fetched. The way this business works – and in fact the way most businesses work – is that the far-fetched scenario is the one where your company still exists in its current form a decade from now. It is very likely that in the next ten years you will change ownership, go under, or get absorbed by something much larger. To think otherwise is hubris.
2. If we go out of business or take down the servers, we’ll release a patch to disable the check.
The sentiment is not unappreciated, and I’m sure the offer is made in earnest, but the truth is that the deed is not nearly as trivial as you imagine. Sure, right now it’s simple to recompile the thing without the DRM and put it up on your server. But in ten years?
Assuming you’re old enough, think back to the projects you were working on ten years ago. Do you know where the source is? What development tools were used to compile it? Do you still have those tools? Do you still have all the old versions of the libraries you were using?
Odds are that even if someone remembers how to make the change and how the development environment was set up, they are probably employed elsewhere. So you have a big heap of unfamiliar source code. Someone is going to have to figure out how to compile it, get the software required to do so, find the related bit of code to change, and then make a new version of the software.
Oh, and they have to do this for every platform, for every game the company ever released that uses this DRM scheme. In the case of Hothead, they are planning on putting out four episodes a year, for Mac, PC, and Linux. (XBox as well, but it doesn’t have this problem so we don’t need to worry about that version.)
In just five years they’ll have twenty games on three platforms. That’s sixty executables to un-archive, alter, re-compile, and (one hopes) test to make sure it works.
It’s trivial now, but in ten years it will be a major undertaking.
3. We’ll document all of that so it won’t be a problem. Really. We’ll put up a patch.
Put it up? Where? You’ve been bought up or are going out of business. You’ve come in on Friday morning to find you’ve been pink-slipped and the servers are going down.
Maybe you’re lucky and you got to keep your job and you’re now employed by the company that just bought your former employer. Do you have FTP access to their servers? Can you even imagine having the audacity to call them up and ask for some server space so you can put up a patch for a game that nobody remembers and which stopped making money nine years ago? Hey, you’re one of the lucky ones who got to keep his job. Don’t push it.
4. Really, I’ll do it. If I don’t have a server, I’ll put the thing on a Torrent and the community can handle it.
Legal is going to want to talk to you first. This is intellectual property owned by your employer, and you are not authorized to go around putting out new versions of it. Your new boss is going to want to know if this is going to generate a bunch of support traffic. (That is, cost them money.) How are you going to perform QA on this thing? Maybe they want to re-bundle the game into some sort of “classics collection”, and don’t want you releasing “new versions” in the meantime.
This is assuming you were bought out. If you went out of business, then the games belong to your creditors, and there is no force in the universe that could make them care about a promise you made in the forums a decade ago. They are trying to recover the large sums of money owed to them, and will be more than happy to drag you (personally) into court if it looks like you’re doing something that interferes with that process.
You most certainly will not be releasing a patch if you get bought out or put under. At least, I wouldn’t put money on it. Which is what you’re asking me to do when you try to sell me your game.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.