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The PC game industry’s war on sharing

On the day of Diablo III's release, I want to take a moment to reflect on what we've lost over the past fifteen years in PC gaming. In the name of combating piracy, DRM has slowly infected PC games to the point where games require constant Internet access to play single player, and, hearteningly, a whole anti-DRM movement has also sprung up. But in mainstream games, legitimate customers are being treated as criminals, and losing access to features we have always taken for granted. This post is intended to be a very specific anti-DRM rant, lamenting the loss of sharing.

Sharing is a fundamental human tendency. We share houses, cars, food, stories, jokes, movies, and lives with siblings, friends and spouses. We used to share computer games too, but over the past decade, game studios have not only attacked our ability to share, but somehow made it taboo as well. If I mention that I’m upset that I can’t share newer games with, say, my partner, I’ll often be made to feel like a software pirate.

I want to get one thing clear: when I say “sharing” I’m not talking about piracy. “File sharing,” copying a game to thousands of strangers, or even just a circle of close friends, is wrong and I don’t deny that it costs the industry in lost sales. But what I am talking about is something far more benign and natural for human society. Consider this perfectly normal scenario for any game in the 1990s or early 2000s:

I purchase a game (say, Diablo II). I take the box home and install it on the family PC. I create a character (“Matt”) and start playing. Then, while I’m out, my brother picks up the game and creates a second character (“Joe”, not his real name but whatever), and he plays the game for a bit. Over the course of the next few months, we share the game, in just the same way as we might share a car, computer or book. I don’t think of this being immoral (“cheating” or “piracy”) in any way. If you do, I’d like you to consider whether you would have ten years ago, or whether you’ve become conditioned to it by the behaviour of modern game studios. Do you consider it “piracy” if two people watch a single DVD? If two people play with a single deck of cards? If two people use the same toaster? Now we might push this morally a bit if we installed it on separate computers and played simultaneously — I still don’t think it’s immoral but it’s certainly a grey area. For this discussion, just consider the first usage scenario. One computer, two players, not playing simultaneously.

So how does the modern game industry treat us differently? Diablo III still allows us to create several characters (of course it does — otherwise you wouldn’t be able to play more than one class). But it is what I would call sharing-hostile. First, the game allows installation on multiple machines. But it requires that you connect to Blizzard’s Battle.net service at all times during play — even when playing single player. When you install the game, you have to create a new Battle.net account, or link the game to an existing one. Battle.net accounts are permanently associated with the game copy, and the name of the account (the BattleTag) can only be changed one time, and after that they are permanently frozen. In the game, you may choose a separate name for your character, but — and this part I consider to be deliberately designed to prevent sharing — your character name almost never appears in the game. The name above your character’s head; the name everybody associates with you when playing the game, is your immutable BattleTag.

This means that if I bought Diablo III and installed it, then my brother wanted to play it, the following limitations would apply:

  • The second player would be forced to go by the name of “Matt” for most purposes.
  • The second player would receive chat messages from my friends while playing. There would be no way for him to build a separate friends list.
  • The second player would be unable to earn any achievements that I had already earned. Worse, any achievements the second player earns while playing would be permanently unlocked in my account, and I wouldn’t be able to earn them myself.
  • The global statistics page for my account would show combined statistics for both of our characters.

At least StarCraft II also has guest accounts for secondary players to play offline (with achievements and other profile-specific data disabled). Diablo III has no such mode. StarCraft II is even more sharing-hostile for players who wish to play online (again, not simultaneously). Because you can’t use more than one Battle.net account per copy of the game, StarCraft II has all of the restrictions above, but also:

  • The second player’s player ranking would be combined with the primary player’s. This means that if the second player played poorly, it could drop the primary player out of his hard-earned league.

What ever happened to profiles? Remember those? Just about every game — even Blizzard’s games (StarCraft and Warcraft III) — would let you create as many as you wanted, specifically for the purpose of letting multiple players play the game without stomping all over each others’ game data.

I don’t want to just pick on Blizzard. Lots of companies are doing this. At least Valve games let you change your name, but other than that, they have all of the same restrictions as above: friends lists, achievements and statistics, for example, are permanently bound to the Steam account you used to purchase the game. Team Fortress 2 also has unlockable items, which would be shared across the primary and secondary players, while Portal 2 has some (minor) story elements which can only be completed once.

Of all of these things, it is the “you can never change your public user name” thing that bugs me the most. That one “feature” is going to make Blizzard millions upon millions of dollars, as thousands of families buy multiple copies of the game in order to give each family member the right to choose their own name. Worse, it reinforces the idea among average gamers that games “belong” to individuals (as opposed to families), and that it’s “wrong” to play another individual’s game. It subtly defines usage of someone else’s game without paying for your own copy as a taboo activity.

There is nothing “moral” about this feature. Assuming we were not planning to play the game simultaneously, I see no reason why Blizzard couldn’t let me log out of one Battle.net account and log into another (which was their policy in Warcraft III and their earlier games), allowing my family to have their own names, friends lists and achievements. As it is, each copy of the game is artificially made the property of one person, which is usually reserved for such personal physical objects as toothbrushes and clothes. Especially with increasingly social elements being added to games, it feels a bit like being forced to share a Facebook account.

I worry about the future of gaming, where we’re likely to see games build ever-increasing amounts of data into the single player profile you purchase with the game, until it becomes basically impossible for more than one person to enjoy the game unless individual family members purchase the game. It’s sad, given that the games industry began marketing consoles and games to families, as something to be enjoyed together (just watch any of the 70s or 80s Atari ads, like this one, showing four family members play the games one after another). Games had high-score tables letting different players record their names for comparison. Games had profiles allowing players to completely restart the game or allow family members to play separately. Modern games are designed to make sure that, as much as possible, the person who purchased the game is the only person who plays it. I for one lament the death of sharing games.

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American Censorship Day

This new bill, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) is set to pass the U.S. Congress soon. If it does, it could mean the end of the open Internet as we know it.

This law would make it possible to censor entire websites which might contain copyrighted material (think YouTube, or if “there’s no way they’ll shut down YouTube”, the next thing to come along), and jail people for 5 years for posting links to copyrighted material.

The senators and representatives have received $20 million in campaign contributions to support this bill, and just under $5 million to oppose it. A hearing has already taken place, heavily stacked with pro-copyright organisations, with just Google to speak out against it (and they were publicly mocked by the chairman of the committee in the opening statement).

AmericanCensorship.org has a good infographic showing the damage this bill might cause. If you like the Internet, please sign the Avaaz petition to stop this bill.

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I’m mostly on Google+ now

When Google+ launched, I tried to keep this blog going and link to posts here from G+. But I’ve found over the months that it’s just easier to write a full post there, and I get a much bigger discussion. So a question: is there anybody who follows this blog that does not also regularly see my Google+ stream?

If not, I might phase out cross-posting here.

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How does lobbying work?

It’s easy and common for people to say “corporate lobbyists write the legislation and control the government,” but in a recent argument, I found it much harder to actually back that up. Do companies just throw money at the government and legislators? Do companies influence the lawmaking process, or just political parties? Do companies actually write the wording in the law, or just influence issues? So I did a bit of research. I want to focus on the U.S. since they have a lot of influence on the rest of the world (particularly in my area of interest, IP law). Here is a good starter article.

There is lots of other stuff that goes on, such as campaign donations and so on, but this gives a pretty good summary of how a large company might get laws written. It suggests that it isn’t anywhere near as “obvious” as throwing money at Congress and telling them to write laws. Lobbyists are essentially full-time assistants to lawmakers, on the payroll of corporate interests. Basically, Congress staff have access to a wealth of assistants who have much more in-depth knowledge of the specific domain they are working in. Need to write a law about copyright enforcement? Don’t know the details? No worries: A friendly man from the MPAA knows a lot about copyright law, and he’s here to help.

The point of the article is that the lawmakers aren’t motivated by greed (“if I write this law, they will give me moneys”). They are motivated by laziness (“if I let them research and write this law, I won’t have to”).

But it doesn’t seem so bad to have people merely helping shape the laws. Why should we be worried if the MPAA sends a few guys to offer helpful suggestions to congress? Well a handy site, the OpenSecrets Lobbying Spending Database shows us the true magnitude of the problem, within the United States. In 2010, a total of $3.51 billion was spent on lobbying Congress and federal agencies (note that this does not include campaign contributions). That paid for 12,951 lobbyists that year. Imagine a country where nearly 13 thousand of the people whose sole job is to help write laws are on the payroll of non-government corporations! You begin to see what people mean when they say “corporations run the United States”.

The biggest spending comes from pharmaceutical companies. In technology, the two biggest spenders in 2010 were Microsoft ($6.9 million) and HP ($6.8 million), followed by Google. In 2011 so far, Google are the biggest tech lobbyist! Interestingly, we hear a lot about the lobbying by the RIAA and MPAA but they only spent $5.5 million and $1.6 million, respectively, in 2010. They must be getting a lot of value for their lobbying dollar!

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26 Plays

There was a discussion on Google+ about which song the ice cream van plays. The Internet seems to think that there are two main choices: Turkey in the Straw or Greensleeves. But I don’t recall ever hearing either of those two songs from a van (as I pointed out, perhaps coincidentally, those are the two classic songs featured in the original King’s Quest).

My ice cream vans have — unless my memory is sorely mistaken — always played this song. I have no idea what it’s called and I can’t find anything about it online, so I quickly whipped up (pun intended!) this MIDI recording of it. Does anybody recognise it? MIDI file available upon request.

Update: Identified, thanks to Mikel. It is Music Box Dancer by Frank Mills (1978).

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On garbage collection

I just re-found a humorous anecdote by John McCarthy on an early LISP demonstration, before anybody knew what a garbage collector was:

The first on-line demonstration of LISP was also the first of a precursor of time-sharing that we called “time-stealing”. The audience comprised the participants of one of M.I.T.’s Industrial Liaison Symposia on whom it was important to make a good impression. A Flexowriter had been connected to the IBM 704 and the operating system modified so that it collected characters from the Flexowriter in a buffer when their presence was signalled by an interrupt. Whenever a carriage return occurred, the line was given to LISP for processing. The demonstration depended on the fact that the memory of the computer had just been increased from 8192 words to 32768 words so that batches could be collected that presumed only a small memory.

The demonstration was also one of the first to use closed circuit TV in order to spare the spectators the museum feet consequent on crowding around a terminal waiting for something to happen. Thus they were on the fourth floor, and I was on the first floor computer room exercising LISP and speaking into a microphone. The problem chosen was to determine whether a first order differential equation of the form M dx + N dy was exact by testing whether δM/overδy = δM/overδy, which also involved some primitive algebraic simplification.

Everything was going well, if slowly, when suddenly the Flexowriter began to type (at ten characters per second)

"THE GARBAGE COLLECTOR HAS BEEN CALLED. SOME INTERESTING STATISTICS ARE AS FOLLOWS:"

and on and on and on. The garbage collector was quite new at the time, we were rather proud of it and curious about it, and our normal output was on a line printer, so it printed a full page every time it was called giving how many words were marked and how many were collected and the size of list space, etc. During a previous rehearsal, the garbage collector hadn’t been called, but we had not refreshed the LISP core image, so we ran out of free storage during the demonstration.

Nothing had ever been said about the garbage collector, and I could only imagine the reaction of the audience. We were already behind time on a tight schedule, it was clear that typing out the garbage collector message would take all the remaining time allocated to the demonstration, and both the lecturer and the audience were incapacitated with laughter. I think some of them thought we were victims of a practical joker.

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Saving Star Wars

A fascinating, detailed, and film-geeky look at the restoration of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Note: This is about the actual film stock restoration itself, and not (very much) about the new content. I remember watching this documentary (Star Wars: The Magic and Mystery) on the 1997 Special Edition VHS copy, about how when they got the negatives out of the Fox Studios vault, they were horrified at how deteriorated (mostly, blue and faded) the stock was. Sounds like an epic effort. The big pity: for a fleeting moment, there existed a perfect, restored original copy of Star Wars. Then they made the Special Edition changes, permanently altering the original negatives. (In 1997, digital technology wasn’t satisfactory, so the SE was mostly done by re-cutting the original stock.)

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WikiLeaks password leak FAQ

My full 7000+ word write-up on the cryptography behind the WikiLeaks password fiasco. This answers all of the common accusations I’ve seen floating around and demonstrates that WikiLeaks was not really at fault here (from a security standpoint).

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Bogan Ipsum

You little ripper troppo no worries he hasn’t got a hit the turps. You little ripper bludger with oldies. Grab us a dag how it’ll be veg out. Grab us a battler bloody as busy as a chuck a yewy. Built like a brizzie flamin grundies. Grab us a crack a fat flamin as dry as a chuck a yewy. Mad as a billabong heaps lets get some dunny. As busy as a cactus mate where he’s got a massive his blood’s worth bottling. He’s got a massive hooroo bloody lets get some gyno.

It’ll be booze bus when as cunning as a kelpie. Come a bushie no worries we’re going bonzer. We’re going top end piece of piss come a bunyip. As busy as a drongo heaps mad as a wobbly. Lets throw a plonk to stands out like a roadie. He hasn’t got a rack off also she’ll be right spit the dummy. As cross as a ridgy-didge heaps she’ll be right trackies. She’ll be right slabs mate mad as a no dramas.

Courtesy Jono.