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DRM: What’s Happened So Far and What Does The Future Hold?

Piracy, illegally copying or downloading copyrighted and published work, has affected every digital medium in the world. We’re all familiar with the anti-piracy ‘you wouldn’t steal a car’ ads that preluded DVDs, The music industry has been fighting piracy since Napster and even books aren’t safe from this new form of swashbuckling; as the use of Kindles and other mediums of Ebooks become ever more prolific, so to does the piracy of those Ebooks. Most of us are also familiar with video game piracy, most of us have probably sampled it, and whilst this article isn’t about to discuss whether piracy is justified or not, it is going to examine the most devastating effect piracy has had on the video gaming industry: DRM, short for digital rights management.

DRM has existed almost as long as video games have however, it wasn’t quite as advanced as it is now. Kings Quest 2 featured sections where the player had to create magic spells but could only do so with the assistance of magic formulas found within the game’s manual. The Secret of Monkey Island and The Secret of Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge had a slightly more charismatic solution; boxed with copies of the game came appropriately decorated ‘code wheels’, using which, you had to line up the wheel as instructed and enter the revealed code in order to play the game.

But DRM has progressed beyond the days of code wheels and manuals and the most common techniques today are ‘limited install activations’, which limit the number of systems a game can be installed on ,and ‘persistent online authentication’ which demands that users playing the game are constantly connected to the internet. However, these two ‘solutions’ have only aggravated the problem of piracy and disenchanted fans.

When players have the number of times they can install a game limited, they are often compelled to obtain the game illegally just so that they can know, should they reinstall windows, change their computer or want to install the game on multiple computers, they can. Will Wrights 2003 evolution simulator Spore proved this; Spore only allowed three installs of the game and, whilst this was the later raised to five and tools were implemented to allow games to be de-authorised, the damage had already been done. Within a few days after its release Spore was overwhelmed with one-star reviews from users on Amazon and became the most pirated game of 2008 with over half a million people downloading the game illegally after just ten days.

Likewise, implementing persistent online authentication (forcing the player to play either with an constant internet connection, or not at all) hasn’t been much more of a success. Its no surprise then that, in an interview with John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun, Ubisoft recently announced they would be scraping the controversial DRM and no longer imposing activation limits on game installations. Stephanie Perotti, Ubisoft’s worldwide director for online games, announced that “since June last year our policy for all of PC games is that we only require a one-time online activation when you first install the game, and from then you are free to play the game offline”.

The problem, that Ubisoft seem to have only just realized, is that, as well as inconveniencing legitimate customers, DRM simply isn’t effective. Games filled to the brim with DRM are often cracked (made available to illegally download without DRM) within days of a games release date or even before, as was the case of Spore which was being pirated two days before its Australian release date. If DRM doesn’t effectively target pirates than the only people its affecting are the ones who have bought the product. In this light, the DRM debate isn’t one of morality between players but rather, one of convenience between consumers and publishers.

Ubisoft are really playing catch-up here; their declaration comes at the tailend of a massive reaction against DRM by the gaming and gaming development community. At the GDC (Game Developers Conference) this year CD Projekt Red (the developer behind The Witcher series) announced that the company will no longer use DRM in future releases. Marcin Iwinski (CEO of CD Projekt Red) stated that DRM is “just over-complicating things. We release the game. It’s cracked in two hours” adding the Blunt declaration that “DRM does not protect your game”. In addition to this, GOG (short for Good Old Games), a digital distribution site, has become much beloved by gamers since its launch in 2008 for its zero DRM policy; in their words ‘Once you download a game, you can install it on any PC and re-download it whenever you want, as many times as you need’. It seems that both consumers and developers are turning their back on DRM, but what does this all mean for the future of PC gaming?

In spite of all this, its unlikely that a zero-DRM policy will ever become a reality for the majority of games though Ubisoft’s rejection of always-on DRM does indicate a step in the right direction. However, what we can expect is for DRM to become much less intrusive, and alternative measures to be emphasised; particularly, we can expect more publishers to begin using the lure of convenience to attract paying customers.

Steam is a textbook example of this approach; Steam features an array of social features such as in-game chat, comparing game statistics and directly inviting friends to multiplayer games. In addition, the brand new ‘Steam workshop’ means that game-changing mods can be installed in the click of a button. Perhaps most importantly, steam games can be accessed from any computer without any hassle; ‘Steam cloud’ improves this further, allowing players to access their all-important save date from any computer. These features are key to tackling piracy because, simply put, if a game is one that you are genuinly interested in then you’ll probably be willing to pay for it. Why? For the convenience.

And here’s the rub. With digital piracy, the number of games illegally downloaded is unlikely to represent the amount of sales actually lost; Many of those users have no intention of buying your product. Maybe they wanted to try it out for a few moments, maybe they were bored and wanted a game that they wouldn’t have bought otherwise, perhaps they’re genuinely broke. What matters is that, using the power of convenience, publishers target reclaiming those actual sales lost rather than digital piracy as a whole. Ubisoft’s now discontinued technique has proved that obtrusive unfriendly DRM serves only to increase the latter and do nothing to affect the former.

Tom Mackay

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