Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bang That DRM

DRM remains the online topic of choice for PC gamers.

It really started with StarForce, a disc-based copy protection package that quickly became the poster-child for invasive digital-rights management. Its use of Ring-0 drivers open up the possibility of incompatibilities with other software, security vulnerabilities and alleged damage to hardware. StarForce was reasonably successful in stopping "zero-day" piracy (that is, the hacker community was no longer able to release a pirated version of the title on the same day as the game released to stores because it took them several weeks to bypass StarForce) but at a cost to customer relations; the people who actually paid for the software were outraged at Ubisoft for installing StarForce on their machines. It was such a fiasco that Ubisoft had to publicly reverse their decision to use such unpopular  software to protect their titles.

Later, Steam and SecuROM upped the ante by requiring online activation; titles protected by this software -even those without any online component - required users to connect to an Internet server run by the publisher before they could actually play the games for which they had laid down good, hard cash. Concerns over how long the publisher would maintain the activation service and transferability of the license became hotly contested topics. Valve reassured customers with vague promises to remove the activation requirement for titles protected by Steam should the company go out of business. EA Games and other publishers quickly retrofitted "deactivation software" into their SecuROM-protected games after consumer backlash. Spore, one of the first titles to be released with SecuROM, still lingers at a "1-star" rating on solely due to all the negative feedback regarding the activation requirements.

More recently, Ubisoft announced that its newest products would not only require online-activation, but a constant Internet connection. Any disruption of that connection and the game would pause until the activation servers could be contacted again. EA followed suit with similar requirements for the latest sequel in their best-selling Command & Conquer series of games. Once again, PC gamers took to the message boards to vent their frustrations and promises never to buy any game with such onerous copy-protection mechanisms. Others took more direct action, launching an internet attack on Ubisoft's activation servers, preventing anyone -even paying customers- from activating or playing the protected games.

So if gamers are so vehemently opposed to these restrictions, why do PC game publishers keep forcing them down the community's throat? Even publishers that should have learned from past experiences (both Ubisoft and EA Games suffered from backlash over StarForce and SecuROM requirements) continue to up the onerous requirements on paying customers. It is all the more baffling when one considers how ineffective these copy protection methods actually are; Ubisoft's touted new copy-protection was cracked on the day it was released. Even the mainstream media are starting to take note. It is costing the publishers sales, good relations with their paying customers and it doesn't work. Why do they even bother?

The reasons behind this apparent insanity are myriad. The most obvious answer is because they can; despite all the uproar, games protected by these copy-protection mechanisms continue to be best-sellers. Regardless of its rating on, Spore sold over a million copies in the first month. Other similarly protected titles followed suit. Whether this is because those concerned over the issues raised by modern copy-protection are just a vocal minority or because the majority does care but not enough to stop them from buying the game, remains a debated topic. It seems no matter how bad the press, PC Game publishers can still be assured of making a profit. Meanwhile, PC gaming has the highest piracy rate of any platform, ensuring a need for strong copy-protection. Our behavior as the PC gaming community necessitates DRM.

But even were there to be a significant decline in sales or piracy, it is unlikely that publishers would revert to less onerous copy-protection mechanisms. Modern DRM requiring online activation has too numerous other advantages to be abandoned. Below I list the top seven reasons online DRM will never go away.

1) To begin, the use of online-activation is rather useful in slaying the other bogeyman that haunts game publishers beyond game piracy: the sale of used games.  Publishers do not want gamers buying used games; they would rather you spend your money on a new title. But, barring their ability to shut down that avenue entirely, the publishers desperately want a piece of that pie. Online-activation is way for them to achieve either of those goals. Either the activation is limited to only a single user (in which case the value of used games plummets, as anyone who buys your copy will not be able to activate and play the game), or they use the online-activation to force a "transfer fee"; you can sell the game but the publisher still gets their cut.

2) Then again, some gamers never sell their older games but keep playing the same old title year after year. These leeches don't go out and buy new games. Online activation allows  the publisher to enable forced obsolescence. The publishers do not want you to linger over ancient games; they want you to go out and buy the latest and greatest. They don't make money if you replay a game from ten years ago. Originally they could depend on technology moving forward to the point where nobody had the hardware to play those old games, but clever software programmers taught them the error of that thinking. DOSBox and emulators? Publishers hate them! So how else to make sure you can't play games from years ago? Online activation require you to beg permission from the publisher to play the game; in five years, publishers could easily refuse that permission by simply turning off the servers that activate the software. With no way to play your old classics, gamers will be forced to shell out for the newest titles. Particularly nasty publishers might resell "updated" versions of the same game, requiring you to pay twice for the same product.

As an added bonus, this tactic kill things like user maps and mods which might otherwise extend the lifespan of the game. After all, if the player wants more maps they should buy the sequel.

3) Another advantage to online-activated DRM is the ability to soak the user for the right to play a game on multiple computers. EULAs have already generally restricted  gamers to playing the same game on more than one machine, but circumstance has forced publishers to turn a blind eye to the inevitable violations. Online-activation methods typically check the hardware of the computer requesting authorization before they activate the title. If it varies too much, the activation is refused. Thus, if a gamer has multiple machines he now has to buy additional copies of the same game for each computer. If he bought a game but activated on his desktop he can't, thanks to online activation, play it simultaneously on his laptop. But he's free, off course, to buy another copy.

4) Frequently overlooked by opponents of online DRM is how it can be used as a bonus sources of income for the publisher. Collecting marketing and demographics information can equal big money! In days of yore, it was extremely difficult for publishers to figure out who was buying their games; after all, who really took the time to fill out all those registration cards? Nowadays, with ever-increasing online requirements, not only do they know what hardware is on a customer's computer, but they increasingly know more about him: when he plays, how often he plays and even -if the software is invasive enough- personal information like where he lives and what websites he likes. This data can then be used internally for the publisher's own marketing efforts or, as likely, sold to advertising firms for a tidy profit.

As a bonus, an always-on online-activation scheme also mean the customer is always available for "timely and informative" advertisements to be pushed down his way by the publisher's helpful (and well paying) advertising partners!

But are those all the benefits offered by online-activation? Heck no! There's still more!

5) You know what publishers really want? They want you to pay everytime you play the game. Subscription-based service gaming is (they hope) the wave of the future. But how to get gamers to accept the idea that gaming -with a few notable exceptions- needs to change from a "pay once" transaction to an endless term of monthly fees, especially for products that traditionally do not require such? Like the old saw about boiling a frog slowly, the publishers do it step by step; they just keeping taking away rights in slow increments and requiring the publisher's permission to do what used to be an accepted right until the idea of tacking on a fee for this "service" becomes the logical next step.

6) But even if all of the above were to go away, the publishers would still  be forced to install copy protection. As publicly held companies, the board of directors has a duty to ensure that the shareholders' investment is protected. If the board releases an unprotected title onto the market knowing that it will be pirated to the extent that it is impossible to make a profit, the shareholders can sue them for negligence. True, most DRM has been proven again and again to be ineffective, but at least the CEOs can point to the DRM and claim they are trying to stop the efforts of the pirates.

Another bonus: even if the publishers can't convince the market to support subscription-based gaming, the "always online" component does help move the market towards digital-only sales. 40% of a game's price goes to distribution and retail. Digital downloads allow the publishers to cut out these costs and pocket the difference for themselves.

7) And finally, while useless against hard-core pirates copy-protection has been proven to be somewhat effective in stopping casual copiers. No longer can you simply hand your disc to a friend and let him make his own copy; if he wants to pirate, he needs to go to the trouble of finding a working torrent or crack. While the Internet has made these activities phenomenally easier, it still requires additional effort. DRM also is effective against slowing piracy in the crucial first few weeks after a title's release. If a gamer wants to play a hot new title when it is both still hot and new, DRM may result in his actually going to a store and buying it.

So, given all the above, it seems unlikely that DRM or online activation are going anywhere soon. The only hope of stopping it is a clear and obvious boycott of games encumbered by these copy-protection mechanisms with simultaneous support of products that are free of DRM. Unfortunately, the gaming community has proven again and again to lack the strength or unity for such tactics to work. The sad fact is, if we wonder why our beloved games are saddled with online activation, we only have ourselves to blame.

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