On the first day of QuakeCon this year, I booted up my PC and was greeted with a nice message saying that I had made too many changes to my system and that I would have to reactivate Windows XP.

Now, other than being a little bit annoying, this didn’t concern me, both because I knew that this is a perfectly legitimately licensed copy of Windows XP, one that I paid full retail for back in 2001, but also because I’ve had to do this before and never had an issue. It was still annoying though, given that I had actually just installed and activated this system less than a week prior. My hard drives started giving me issues, plus they were now-ancient IDE technology, so I upgraded to a nice 500GB SATA2 drive.

The problem was that my mouse and keyboard wouldn’t work. I couldn’t click “OK” to start with the procedure. It was due to them being a USB keyboard and mouse and being now plugged into different ports. I couldn’t put them back in the original port though since originally they were in a hub that I did not bring with me. I started cursing Microsoft and envisioning not being able to play anything during QuakeCon. I realized those poor bastards who have to reload their operating systems at QuakeCon (never fails that at least one is using a 46″ HDTV for a Monitor, too) aren’t so pathetic after all. I started asking random strangers if they had a PS/2 keyboard or mouse and found out that the concept is mostly extinct.

But fortunately XP had kept pressing on and eventually figured out I had a USB keyboard and mouse and let me have them back. So, now on to the activation.

Which failed. Because I had just done it a week prior. Now I had to call a phone number, type in numbers, answer questions, and get a new number to type in. All while on the BYOC floor at QuakeCon with no reasonable way to hear anything on a cell phone of any importance.

I had three days to do it though so I skipped it and did it the following morning when there were fewer people there. I’m just glad I knew you could type in the numbers – the phone call tells you to say them aloud, which is fine when it works but when it doesn’t you’re speaking to someone in Bangalore and with loud gaming and yelling going on, the odds of that working are pretty slim.

But whatever, circumstances aside I haven’t had too many issues with activation. It’s available 24/7 and I’m not worried about Microsoft going out of business tomorrow and leaving me and XP high and dry.

Sometimes though you don’t have that luxury. At the same event, it was noticed that for some reason, despite having Internet access, gamers couldn’t get into Steam. Some people had luck at certian ungodly hours but most people couldn’t ever get in, myself included. It was almost as if QuakeCon was being specifically blocked. All the more ironic given the fact that id and Valve announced a Steam partnership and handed out keys to activate the original Quake game, and that Valve themselves were there showing off Left 4 Dead.

But at least Steam is around and kicking. Valve is signing up big publishers and developers to put games on the service, and it’s becoming a viable alternative to retail. Compare that to Triton, a competing service which not only went out of business, but gave absolutely no notice to its customers or publishers/developers who signed on board. Triton’s only real high profile game was Prey and 3D Realms/2K responded swiftly by mailing out physical copies of the game to all Triton purchasers, as well as putting the game on Steam.

A game was recently released for the PC called BioShock. It’s a single player FPS from Ken Levine, reminiscent of the Half-Life series (it’s a “spiritual successor” to System Shock 2) and powered by Unreal Engine 3. It seemed to have it all for a single player experience, an interesting premise (the Objectivist dystopia ala Ayn Rand), top of the line graphics (the first really significant UE3-powered game on the PC) a community evangelist that was already well known within the scene, and an underdog, underappreciated designer in Ken Levine.

But then the copy protection issues started to surface. DRM company SecuROM’s newest copy protection was applied to the retail versions of the game. I ignored this initially since I was already familiar with SecuROM as a CD/DVD-ROM protection technology and also because I was planning to buy the game on Steam. But as it turns out, this new technology had nothing to do with disc protection and was also applied to the Steam versions of the game.

The initial version of the game had a total of two activations allowed. This meant it could be installed at most twice. In theory, if you uninstalled the game you got one of the activations back – but this is counter to how most games work. Most people when they’re blowing their hard drive away just do so and don’t worry about uninstalling anything first – that’s a waste of time.

Problem was, the uninstall-and-get-an-activation-back part wasn’t working, and it bit some reviewers in the butt. To get things squared away, reviewers called 2K Games and were told to call SecuROM. SecuROM told them to call 2K Games. Hilarity ensued. It didn’t help that SecuROM is made by Sony, who themselves got in a ton of hot water a year or so ago over including a rootkit on audio CD’s to both prevent people from ripping the discs to MP3 and also spy on their listening habits (a rootkit permanently modifies your operating system)

To make things worse, people playing the game on the Xbox 360 didn’t have to worry about this. PC users were effectively being “punished” for the sins of piracy (which a lot of PC users are admittedly guilty 0f). Respectable journalists were going so far as to tell PC users that they were perfectly justified in downloading cracked versions of the executable if they had actually purchased the game.

Now, I had two concerns about this technology. First, I was concerned about being accused of pirating a game that I did actually purchase due to an overzealous antipiracy scheme. 2K somewhat alleviated that by expanding the activation limit to 5 across 5 “different” PC’s and stating that no matter what, people who had purchased the game would always be able to play it. We’ll see how this works over time, but overall the theory is good.

The second concern I had was this – what happens when/if either or both of 2K or SecuROM goes out of business? I won’t be able to call up SecuROM 20 years from now if they’re out of business and I can’t activate. Ken Levine went on record to state that, at some point in the future when BioShock‘s sales have leveled off, the copy protection will be lifted. That pretty much addresses my second concern (but like before: we’ll see).

It occurs to me though – all of my Steam games are tied to my Steam account. If Valve goes the way of Triton, then all those games will be impossible to play. I don’t really see that happening of course but it could.

But then again, if Microsoft went away then I couldn’t activate Windows XP and I wouldn’t be able to do anything. I don’t see that happening either, but only because I know Microsoft isn’t going anywhere. Even if they did everything wrong they’d still have decades of life left in them.

It’s just sort of disturbing to realize how much of my normal life is regulated by the continued existence of companies. I love TiVo to death but if they went out of business then I’m the owner of two now-worthless boxes. My ability to get my car to work relies on the gas infrastructure not collapsing. My ability to post this blog relies on Blogger not folding (they’re owned by Google, fat chance).

Of course Xbox 360 owners don’t have the most reliable consoles either and 20 years from now the odds of any particular Xbox 360 still working at all or whatever the super-successor from Microsoft is being able to play it is slim, so maybe the PC users aren’t so screwed after all.