DRM is an acronym short for Digital Rights Management. As is common knowledge, the distribution, copying or otherwise stealing of digital products is a crime on the same level as physical theft. There are multiple laws set up locally as well as internationally to account for these very thefts and allows the copyright holder to seize and apprehend these offenders to prevent them from carrying on with their conduct. However, many a time, these same people are not dumb dumbs. They were, after all, smart enough to copy or steal the product to begin with. It can be very hard to track down these people, as the internet is a vast and scary place that has layers upon layers of anonymity.
So if you can’t catch the people before they steal your stuff, why not prevent them from ever stealing it in the first place? If you have a bunch of important documents that people want to steal, you lock them up in a safe and install security systems to prevent their theft. Similarly, DRM is a form of protection for the copyright material that prevents the product from getting stolen. By embedding codes, having key codes and using platforms that are required for the games to function, companies can prevent theft of their material to a certain degree. These measures don’t always work out, and sometimes this is to the detriment to the normal consumers. Here at Honey’s, we want to explore how DRM can help or harm the regular consumers.
The Good: Steam
Steam is the biggest marketplace online to distribute games and other associated digital products. Almost all game companies or studios will distribute their games through Steam, from the guy making his games in the basement to the biggest players in the industry like SEGA, Bethesda or Activision. Even users who purchase a physical copy of the computer game must install the game through their Steam client and enter a key code in order to play their game. By having a centralised platform that all games are encoded to run on, it prevents your regular Joe from easily swiping the content that millions of dollars have been spent on for free.
Well, it sounds like a bit of a hassle, right? If you were on a console, all you’d have to do would be to insert the game and you’re ready to go. (Maybe that’s not 100% accurate these days with day one patches, but you get the point.) Nowadays, if you get a PC game on a disc, it doesn’t really matter because you’d still have to take out your case, enter the code, and then wait for the game to install on your computer through the client. Steam gets around this issue by making it attractive to use the Steam client by doing away with the physical copies altogether.
Why buy a disc, when you can get the same game through the client for half the price. Steam regularly has sales at ludicrous prices, allowing users to pick up a $60 game at maybe $20 instead. You don’t even have to leave your house or enter a code! It is not only more economical to just buy digital copies through Steam, it is more convenient as well. In fact, by doing so, the companies or studio that made the game will make a bigger profit because the physical case costs money and the game stores take a larger percent of the cut. You can support your favourite studios much more efficiently this way! Why bother pirating a game that takes 30 hours to torrent when you can just get it at $5?
The Bad: Games for Windows Live
Earlier, we spoke about a centralised digital platform that not only makes it harder for people to steal content, but makes it attractive for users to utilize the platform. Now, we present to you one of the biggest examples of a gaming platform gone wrong. Actually, calling it a platform is highly inaccurate as it fails to make your gaming experience easier and deters it completely. In fact, the only winner here is exactly no one because who wants to buy a Games for Windows Live game? You lose out because it’s so damn difficult to play the game you just bought and companies lose out because now they have less sales.
The biggest difference between Steam and Games for Windows Live is not just the utter lack of benefit or practicality for its users, but the various flaws that permeate its system as well. In order to start playing a game you bought at the store, you’d have to get a Games for Windows Live account; an account that you didn’t know you needed till you put in the disc. How hard can it be to sign up for one? Steam was easy after all. Answer: you might tear all your hair out. The site itself is a mess of presentation and buttons that doesn’t make it clear at all which account you need for the game to run. After figuring out and finally signing up for an account, you try to login on your game screen and for some godforsaken reason the platform won’t let you sign in.
Really we could go on, but then you’d spend as much time reading this article as you would trying to figure out the Games for Windows Live system. Thank God no one uses it anymore.
The Ugly: Always-on DRM
If Games for Windows Live is an example of DRM done poorly, Always-on DRM is that kid at lunch that nobody wants to sit with because he murdered his whole family with an axe, then proceeded to bring that axe to school with the blood still dripping from its blade, all the whilst glaring murderously at anyone who walks by. Always-on DRM is exactly as it sounds, it requires the user to always be connected online for the game to even run. Being always online for a game isn’t new. However, those were for the games who were exclusively multiplayer like MMOs such as Runescape or World of Warcraft.
Always-on DRM is an issue that lies not with multiplayer games, but for single player games that require that very connection despite the fact that the online features are not vital to the single player experience. Why does a game that is played alone require an online connection? Some companies have tried to justify the need for an online connection by tacking on features that might make the game better. It has, however, been argued that if the player does not have an internet connection those features could simply be shut down, leaving the core game alone to be played. No, it’s fairly obvious why these games require to always be online. By maintaining a connection 100% of the time, the game is constantly verified by the server that it is indeed a legitimate copy and no piracy is going on here.
This presents a whole set of issues. Players don’t always have an online connection. Whether it be just not having internet, having a poor connection or simply the internet being out for the day, Always-on DRM precludes these players from enjoying the game. This cuts-off a good portion of the potential customer base. The other issue that is present is that the servers might not be able to handle the massive amount of player connections to it, especially for extremely popular games. This leads to the DRM being unable to verify the game, hence the player is left being unable to play the game due to a fault of the company. The most prominent example of this issue is SimCity.
SimCity is part of a larger ongoing franchise and its announcement had many people hyped and excited for its release. Many people pre-ordered the game and pre-installed it, eagerly waiting for its release date and time. When it finally got released, a wave of anger crossed the internet. Due to the many people trying to play the game at once, the servers were unable to handle the stress. As a result, no one could play the game at all. Electronic Arts (EA) refused to make the game playable offline despite the multiple protests and did not offer a refund on the game to customers who were unable to play it. This has led to sites like Polygon changing their review scores for SimCity to 4/10 compared to the previous 9.5/10. Furthermore, players started to seek out pirated copies that tricks the game into thinking it is online and verified, damaging any potential sales the game could have had.
Always-on DRM is an example of DRM that not only harms the player but everyone involved in the transaction as well. The reputation damage that EA received after the incident with SimCity must not have been worth the potential loss in sales due to piracy. Things are looking up however. Many companies have looked upon this example of DRM misuse and sworn to never tread the same path, whether out of principles or self-interest. DRM has been improved overall as a result, leading to a less obstructive and sometimes even helpful interface. This includes game platforms such as Steam or GOG that simply makes it a joy to use due to the ease of access and having all your games in one place.
Like all things, DRM has its good and bad points. It can be a force for good and prevent theft all over the world, allowing companies to make the money that they deserve to make in accordance with the investment. It also precludes the need to hunt down these people who pirate the hard work of others. However, when taken too far, it can also lead to harm for the user who was completely uninvolved in piracy of any sort. Why harm the people who are paying you for your product? In any case, like it or hate it, DRM will continue to exist as long as piraters exist, just like the TSA will continue to harass you at the airport as long as terrorists exist.
Hey, at least DRM can improve, right?