on Sep 10, 2008
I’m sorry I can’t find the comment now, but it’s been asked of me more than once. The question is roughly: Is there some price point at which you might buy Mass Effect and BioShock, simply treating them like an extended rental?
A really interesting question. Someone even offered to buy me a copy of BioShock. Hey, if the game is free then running out of installs is no big deal. It’s a disposable game, right? If it’s just $5, then you can play it until you run out of installs and still get your money’s worth. Even an 8 hour game is a bargain (assuming it’s not terrible) at a mere $5. Of course, my objections to DRM have never really been about money, but it’s an interesting proposal: Would you accept a gift game (paid for by someone else) with limited installed / online activation? If not, why not?
I really do find the idea of disposable software to be distasteful. The main reason I avoid this stuff is that the idea of software being aware of how much its been used and refusing to run at some point is just preposterous to me. It’s data. It’s bits. Its information, and imposing an artificial self-destruct into information is just demented.
Part of it is that I don’t want to worry about “using it up”. Back in the 90’s companies like AOL realized that people would rather pay a flat monthly fee for unlimited use than pay a per-hour charge, even if they ended up paying a good bit more in the end. Unlimited was worth it because it’s less stress and hassle. You could surf the net without feeling like a clock is running. On a pay-as-you-go scheme, every problem becomes twofold: Dangit, I can’t find the information I want and this fruitless search is costing me money. It doesn’t matter if the fee is lower for pay-per-use. You’re paying extra for peace of mind.
It’s also a lot like the spectacular failure of DIVX in the 90’s. I think it’s so distasteful because it feels wasteful. With a true rental, you take a disc, use it, and return it. With DIVX and with limited-activation games, you buy it, use it, and throw it away. The box, the manual, the disc, everything. Pitch it, because it’s useless now. I consider myself a game collector to some degree, and this defeats the purpose of that.
I don’t want to have to worry about using up my games. If upgrading my graphics card is going to trigger a re-activation, then I have to factor that cost in when upgrading. Hmmh. This graphics card is on sale, it will cost me $150 and use up 1/3 of all my currently installed videogames. Even if the game was dirt cheap, when its installs are used up, it’s gone. I can’t imagine just taking the disc and the box and… throwing them away? I have to replace it (if it’s still available) or go without. And I don’t want to have to weigh variables like that when shopping for hardware.
But the most practical reason I don’t want to mess with limited-activation games (or games with any activation) is that I don’t want any money to fall into the hands of the people that are doing this. Not even five bucks. Not even if it was someone else’s five bucks. In fact, if I could somehow spend money and hurt them (without breaking the law or doing anything immoral!) I would do that. Sometimes when the rage-o-meter on this site seems a little high (like say, every single time BioShock comes up) it’s partly because I’m trying to verbally avenge this sort of stupid, petty injustice.
I certainly don’t fault people who give in, or who just don’t care. There’s a lot to be said for just shrugging your shoulders and enjoying your hobby. This is supposed to be fun. But if I had one of these self-destruct games, I’d always have the nagging realization that it wasn’t really mine.
I’ve relented a lot over the years when it comes to DRM. (Once in a while I see people looking at DRM and insisting that “both sides need to give in a little, this isn’t getting us anywhere.” This ignores all of the considerable concessions that gamers have already made over the last 20 years.) For me, online activation is where I’ve finally chosen to draw the line. It might not be the best place. You could make the case that it would be better to have done it sooner. Or never. It’s the best I can make of a rotten situation.
Someone else suggested taking the money I would spend on a game and giving it to something like the EFF every time I skip one of these games, which is a really good idea. Although it would be more symbolic than anything else. Since I write and make comics as a second job now, I actually do need games to play. What really happens is that I take the $50 and give it to another game to fuel the commentary / parody mill. I’m not sure I’d be able to afford a gesture like that, since I’d be “spending” the money twice. Still, it would be a great way to demonstrate that at the heart of it, this isn’t about money.
At least, not for gamers it isn’t.
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.