Do Re Me? A Personal Opinion on DRM

July 13, 2011 § 4 Comments


not just a gaming issue

For the past few years, a number of the bigger game publishers/developers have been experimenting with various different ways to protect their investments; day-one-DLC, online activation, limited installs, etc.  And almost all of them have been unpleasant, problematic and, in some cases, brutal.

I am a gamer, like the rest of you. But I’m approaching that age where my money is very carefully spent; wanting something is no longer the only thing that drives my wallet (its called financial responsibility, kids!), and I tend to be very wary about buying stuff that, lets face it, is over-priced and of limited use.

And a game that I can’t play due to my internet being down, or because I’ve upgraded my system too many times, or I can’t trade in towards a new game when I’m done, is of no real use to me. And I won’t buy it.

And piracy? That’s not my problem chaps. Go away and come up with another excuse.

And it is an excuse. I am sorry if this offends some of you, but piracy is (and always has been) a feature on the gaming horizon. It will probably always be there too, with or without DRM, key codes and magic handshakes. I’m not defending it – I don’t use bootleg games or movies, and I think that anyone who does are committing a crime. End of discussion. However, the industries knee-jerk reaction (i.e. someone standing behind you as you play their games isn’t so much an issue in practicality, as one of execution – its a job no-one would do) is so hilariously over-blown it borders on cutting off a leg to save you shoe leather.

Worse still, game developers seem to be under the very strange assumption that if their latest release doesn’t do so well, its because of PIRATES!!! Not that the game in question was a load of old dog-meat. An example here would be Gears of War – a very mediocre third person shooter with a twitchy cover system. The game was hailed on the Xbox 360 as something godly; a testament to one man’s vision to make shooters feel more like paintball (seriously, read the game booklet). And, on the 360, it worked. On the PC, it was up against some serious competition, and it didn’t translate well on to mouse and keyboard controls, and ended up just feeling soggy…

But that isn’t why it bombed, according to the developers. No, it was all those nasty people stealing it! And subsequently, the next two GoW games have been Xbox 360 exclusives. Shame.

This logic is idiotic and slightly pathetic, in particular when you look at games like the Sims 3 – a game that EA decided to try out with the old and true DRM of… a serial code. It was one of the fastest selling games of all time. Or Sins of a Solar Empire – a DRM-free game that was simply released on Stardock’s Impulse service with nary a fanfare. It did pretty well too… better than most of Ubisoft’s last clutch of games, certainly.

The industry was built on games that were relatively easy to steal and copy. Oh, there were the few odd-ball attempts to curtail this, code cards, “third word, second paragraph, 13th page” passwords and the like – but they accepted that it was a fight that couldn’t be won and got on with making games, kick-starting the whole thing completely ignoring the pirates. And made themselves rich in the process.

I’m being serious. It has been said more than once that Pirates (with a capital P) will circumvent any and all attempts at DRM. They will hack the nuts off a game, and barely break stride. Reading a bit into it, you realise that the harder/tougher the DRM, the more effort will go into cracking it. You might as well put a big bulls-eye on your game box and name it “Pirate’s Mothers All Drink Horse Pee And Are Old”. Its not a question of “what can we do to prevent this?”, you simply can’t. And, ironically, with more and more stringent DRM techniques, the dodgy copies of games are preferable to the retail – you don’t have to dance naked in the moonlight with garlic cloves between your toes and teeth to play the latest blockbuster if all the witch-craft has been cracked out of it.

Take Assassin’s Creed 2 (a bit dusty, but a well-worn saddle for my point); a decent enough game, utterly destroyed on the PC by requiring a constant internet connection to play. A single-player game, with no multiplayer mode at all, requiring a constant internet connection to play… what could go wrong?

Hypothetical situation number 1: You are on your homes wi-fi. Another member of your household starts hoovering near your wireless router. Interference disconnects you. AC 2 stops working for the duration. Bugger.

Hypothetical situation number 2: You are playing away on your monstrous internet connection, it has never failed yet. Ubisoft suddenly decide to do some maintenance on their servers. AC 2 stops working for the duration. Double bugger.

Hypoth – (yawn – Blog Ed)… you get the idea? This is a product you have paid a significant amount of cash for, and your ability to play it hinges on a direct line of communication between your PC and their servers, a direct line that has the relative staying power of a spider’s web – it will come down at some point.  The people who stole AC 2? They finished the game ages ago, and played mostly in the garden or on the bus. Sometimes sitting right outside your house. Mocking you. The bastards.

My long and winding point is this: this kind of DRM is pointless; it hurts everyone, except those it aims to stop. The big guys (EA, Acti-Blizz, Ubisoft etc.) seem to be getting the idea, but not quick enough for a large number of great games that will never grace my hard disk. But they are rethinking their strategy, and that’s good. But the overall problem still persists: maintaining unrealistic control over games after sale.

Take Dirt 3. On the Xbox 360 (for a twist). I bought it the other day, and having a blast with it. The problem? It uses the same “online unlock” system the recent Need for Speed games use: a non-reusable serial key that unlocks the online component of the game. Now this throws up a few issues – if I had bought the game second hand, I would have had to spend extra money on another code in order to play online (making the second hand copy significantly more expensive than the new one), and it severely reduces the trade-in value of the game.

Yes, people, DRM has moved into Console-ville. And its already stinking up the place.

Control. Taking a cut of re-sale value (which is a disputed topic, ethically, I’ll admit). Hindering those of us who actually care enough to buy the game legitimately, and pissing us off all the while.

Its like hiring a car. A car that comes with a guy. This guy has the keys, you see? You can’t use the car without the guy being present. Oh, it has perks; he keeps the car clean, makes sure there’s petrol in the tank; he’s not a dead weight or anything. But you know at some point he’s going to eat something that doesn’t agree with him, or have a “family crisis”, or whatever. When that happens, your hire car is suddenly a pretty, two-tonne paper weight. And, if that’s not enough, at some unknown point in the future, he’s going to pack up without warning, get in the car, and drive away. No refund, you were only hiring it, after all.

Would you pay for this? I think we already are.

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§ 4 Responses to Do Re Me? A Personal Opinion on DRM

  • all very true. Very hard to get the DRM genie back in the bottle though, even though they’re never really going to succeed in their aim of making game data uncopyable – it’s a bit like trying to stop fire from being hot. I agree with Gabe Newell’s – and by extension Valve’s – position that the industry should combat piracy by creating more value for customers through continued service value.

  • Stev3 says:

    The only issue I have with that is the white-wash always-online-is-a-bonus thing that EA pulled with C&C 4. Claiming there was no DRM at all in the game, but you STILL had to be online to play. I classify this as the most obstructive form of DRM, whatever they may say.

    Valve’s approach (Team Fortress 2 for example), with regular updates and content, is far more palatable. Steam, however, is another kettle of fish, and some of the issues people have had with their downright anti-consumer Terms of Service (a chap losing his entire Steam account because of a Paypal hiccup being the worst I’ve read so far) is a major problem too.

  • Souranply says:

    I used to just buy games, finish them and sell them on. You could say I bought 15 games with just R300. This stopped though and now I find myself not buying games anymore unless I am totally sure I want them as I won’t risk buying a game that I cannot sell on due to one-time serial keys.

    • Stev3 says:

      Its a murky issue, trade-in revenue completely bypasses the developers, making it lucrative for retail stores, but harmful to the game’s income. I can see why they would want to curtail this, and having a way of recouping some of the loss is fair enough, provided its reasonable and not harmful to the consumer.

      But games should have value, and being able to trade them in against new games is actually better for the industry as a whole. As its slowly being throttled down by this “system locked” method of DRM, people will be forced to buy games full price, and as such, will buy less.

      Maybe this is why online distribution is becoming so powerful. It worries me slightly; I don’t think people realise just how precarious these End User License agreements are online…

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