Sunday, 14 March 2010

A cancer for the cure

Cancer for the cure.

Good old Digital Rights Management software. Depending on where you stand DRM is The Beast or the last, best chance for PC gaming to survive.

Admittedly if you play the games as opposed to get paid to make them you probably hate it with a passion. It is one of those things that never fails to inspire a vitriolic response from even the mildest mannered of us. It just isn’t popular.

Ubisoft are the most recent in a line of waxen-moustachioed villains to appear, insanely cackling as they tie their maiden games down on the railway line of DRM to be run over by the brutal train of gamer outrage and technical ineptitude. We are fond of saying, as gamers, that we are the ones that are inconvenienced the most by DRM. Our enjoyment has been smeared in the thick engine-oil of disappointment and frustration. Victims? That’s us. Aggrieved victims with a righteous case to make. Let us sit upon the ground and make doom laden predictions that get us really angry.

Of course the true losers in all of this are the people that invested their time and effort into the game in the first place. The developers. Sandwiched between the need to make money and the desire to make a game that people want to play they bear the full brunt of the consequences of shoddy DRM, outraged community “boycotts” and piracy.

Last stop: this town.

On the other side of the coin, to companies like Ubisoft DRM is an attempt for them to protect their revenue, first and foremost. Yes you can argue whether it is effective at that goal till the cows come home, get changed and go out clubbing but the fact remains that there is no other logical reason for the existence of DRM than piracy. It isn’t an excuse. It isn’t some sinister land grab by the company to install evil rootkits to your PC or a Machiavellian plot to kill PC gaming so they can dance atop the tombstone on a moonlit midnight frantically waving Xbox controllers branded with pentagrams.

They want to make money by selling you games and they don’t like people giving away their product for free. That isn’t so unreasonable.

Electro-shock Blues.

What is unreasonable is the way in which it is done. DRM copy protection software has inched forward from the Dial-a-Pirate wheel in the 90s to Big Brother applications scanning your PC. The change has been one of tone as well as technology. Wheels and cellophane windows and cunning cardboard with little holes cut into it have been replaced by a digital interrogation of your electric playspace: Are you connected? What do you have installed? What is this peripheral? I don’t like that. This application looks dodgy. Are you still connected? I’d close that if I were you! What is in your registry? NERO!? I’m off for a lie down. No you can’t play. Go read the forums. I don’t like you.

It used to be common in the days of cardboard widgets for the copy protection to be connected in some way with the game, an approach that had a certain charm, and one that is harder to resent. It seems in an age of activations, licences and server validations things have become more adversarial, the consumer more affronted, the publisher more defensive.

And it drives us potty. Even more so because it doesn’t have to be this way. But don’t take my word for it. Take Valve.

Baby Genius.

Steam has it’s detractors- boy did people get upset when Half-life 2, the most anticipated sequel of the decade, also came patched with and ONLINE DRM that ACTIVATED and wanted you to LOG IN and CHECKED UP ON YOU and probably TOOK PICTURES OF YOU IN THE BATH. It was all rather upsetting. But that isn’t the interesting bit. Nonono.

Steam wasn’t much more that DRM at the start. The store was limited, the community nascent. It was also a bit ahead of the curve (at least in the UK) as narrowband internet access was still on life support so being online to play a single player game, even if just at the start, was a big deal. Lots of people got angry. Ubisoft angry. They said bad things in public places. They wrote letters. What did Valve do? They stuck to their insane plan. They made the store better, they developed the communities.

They made Steam worth having in its own right.

Yeah some people still hold a grudge. Valve games aren’t free of piracy. Steam isn’t perfect. But it is a success and one that Ubisoft would have done better to examine in more detail. It is amazing what you can get people to swallow when you sweeten it a bit.

And now, more than ever, there is an obvious and pressing need for effective DRM.

The medication is wearing off.

Currently used DRM, such as secuROM is, bluntly, a waste of time and money. Piracy in the PC market is rife. The most popular illegally downloaded games in 2008 (Spore) and 2009 (CoD:MW2) both used the secuROM DRM but were available for illegal download almost from the day they were released.

Look at the figures: it is estimated that Spore was downloaded 1.7 million times versus 2 million in sales while CoD: MW2 was downloaded an estimated 4.1 Million times against sales of approximately 500,000 units. That is eight downloads for every one sale and almost three times more than Spore, which sold four times better a year previously. Even given that every download does not equal a lost sale or even a played game these are scary numbers*.

Climbing to the moon.

In that climate where every game is only a torrent away a publisher really cannot afford to lose the support of their gamer communities with clumsy attempts to lock down their games. Such attempts are just an open invitation to the hacker community to tear them down- and it only takes one person to hack the game and put it up for download to negate the whole effort. Putting the DRM in the game is only half the solution as Ubisoft are finding. Putting it in as part of the game experience surely makes more sense.

Hark back to those cardboard wheels of the past and tie the DRM to the game, and I think that people might be more prepared to forgive the intrusion. Is there a good reason that DRM cannot be presented as a minigame? As part of the plot? Tied into some part of the gaming mechanic itself?

Would it be wrong for the publisher to reward people for buying a proper copy of the game instead of stomp around self-righteously shouting NO all the time?

Given the current situation, What is the worst that could happen?


*Piracy statistics taken from a report on popular torrents on the Torrentfreak blog. Sales numbers taken from announcements by the companies concerned. They do not include online distribution figures such as Steam.

Further reading (for anyone interested):

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