Let’s Consider: Activation Limits

You get home, you look at your pretty thin SPORE case, tucked neatly beside your newly purchased case holding your purchased copy of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky. You eagerly open it up, start the installation process, clicking next at each prompt until the question about where to install it pops up. You change it to D:\Games, since that is where you put all your games, then continue on to wait for the 10.5 GB worth of stuff to be dumped to your hardrive. Only you don’t know that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky is installing a driver for its copy protection, and neither do you realize that SPORE is installing a new version of SecuROM as well.

After whichever you chose first is finished installing, you go about to see if there are any patches, especially since you have noticed that a lot of PC titles these days have patches even before they were released, and install the one that you expected to be about.  You then start the title and watch it load, but something odd hits you. The cursor for your mouse changed to something you haven’t seen before. A disc with rotating blue bars circling it. You shrug and continue on only to crash with a very un-helpful Microsoft ‘this-program-has-crashed-and-I-can’t-tell-you-why’ message.

You waste a good hour trying to look up problems that other people have, and find just a few here and there with the same problem. You sigh and go to sleep for the night as it looked like a re-install would be needed. The patch you installed failed.

Wake up the next morning, and you feel relatively better. You uninstall the game, re-install it to the same place, and this time skip the patch. You plug in your USB headphones that are also their own sound-card, and start it up again.  It sounds really good as the intro videos flash by, and without too long you are start playing whichever game you chose.

Too bad it’s a little choppy. You consider that you haven’t upgraded your video card in awhile, so after a good thirty to fourty-five minutes you take off for work, with the intention of buying newer video card within your budget on your way home. After a good eight hours of work, and a quick stop at a friendly small hardware shop you get home, and install the card, updating the drivers.

You start it again, your headphones at the ready and find that the performance is so much better, despite being imperfect. You spend the entire night playing your game until you nearly pass out on the keyboard. The next morning you get up, go to work, come back, and decide to play it again. The only difference is this time you opted for your speakers instead of your headphones. You start your game up again, the alien mouse cursor shows up and suddenly your speakers blare the unmistakable sound of a Windows error.


“You have exceeeded your activation limitation for this license. Please purchase a new liscense.”

Surprised? Yeah, it’s a neat little trick that publishers have been pulling as of late. Having you pay for the software, only to have it unusable (for some) less than a month after. It is akin to buying a car, having to authorize it with the dealer when you first drive it, and then having to re-authorize it each time you replace a part. Of course the only difference (which is the kicker): It costs almost nothing to make a copy of a piece of software.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the games that you pay for these days are in general secured with what is labeled as “Digital Rights Management” (commonly referred to as DRM by officials, and “Digital Restrictions Management” by critics such as myself). These pieces of software are intended to prevent someone from copying and using a title that have not been paid for, or so they claim.

DRM has been in the news mainly about EA/Maxis Title: SPORE. Being labelled as the number one most pirated title in recent history as a result of the copy protection schemes implimented by EA. The lesser known S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky, while not pirated as much, is taking a huge credibility hit just the same.

SPORE uses a new version of SecuROM, a copy protection method developed by Sony in an attempt to prevent people from copying and reverse-engineering the game. This new version of SecuROM was the first that was to allow people to play without the disc after installing, with the requirement that they authorize their game first online. On top of that, there were limitations easily pushed into it. Originally only five installations total, SPORE would require an activation any time the ‘hardware thumbprint’ would change as well as potentially disabling hardware in the name of protecting their title.

With the combination of activation limits, online activation, thumbprint changes, and even re-installations, you would assume that by uninstalling the title, you would be able to have one of those “credits” back for you to use. Unfortunately this isn’t true. After uninstalling the game, you end up leaving behind every trace of SecuROM, and the processes it leaves behind. This causes conflict with hardware and other drivers, as well as a negative impact of system performance.

The sad thing is: these schemes do not deter piracy. SPORE was cracked and distributed roughly seven days before the release of the game on retail shelves. Even more dissapointing is that the End User License Agreement (EULA) did not mention anything of activation limits, type of copy protection, or whether there was any at all.

After you buy and open the box of the PC title, you can kiss the money you paid for it goodbye. No retail stores in their right mind take PC titles back after they are opened because of this percieved threat of piracy. So, in the end the perception of a good deal of consumers returns to a “Consumers get a crippled version, while the pirates, the ones that these crippling schemes are meant to stop, get an unfettered free-riegn copy to enjoy all they want.”

This isn’t just about retail titles either. The Steam versions of Crysis, Crysis Warhead, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky all come with activation limits resulting in a possibility of a lost license. Considering that with Steam’s ease of use, and the habit of picking and choosing what you want to play at the time, it can render not being able to use your purchased (excuse me, rented) title out of use within a week. What’s worse about this scenario is that you cannot buy a new license through Steam anyway, as a license is already attached to your account.

Point being: DRM is bad, it makes copy protection look good these days. Activation Limits result in games not being sold, but being rented.

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One Response to “Let’s Consider: Activation Limits”

  1. Technically, they never have been sold but licensed – although you have been buying a license to that copy of the work. The assumption is that you’d have access to that work from then on. It isn’t like you thought it was a subscription or something like that.

    My concern with these online activations will be that some day, even after just a minor network outage at some place (which happens all the time) is going to prevent activation of a title. What do we do in 5 years when the activation servers go offline? Ever try to play some of the older 2K sports games that used matching servers? Well, they’ve been turned off. Not a lot of fun on that Playstation2 now…

    Vote with your money. Just say “No” to activations. Either don’t buy the title (recommended) and let them know it – or if you can’t live without it – Buy it and then acquire a cracked copy. Why should you, a PAYING CUSTOMER get an inferior copy?

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