DRM. No three letters in the English language strike more fear into the heart of PC gamers.  It should not be this way, but with constant fighting between publishers, developers, pirate groups and paying customers, DRM has become a necessary evil.

Old School

Back in the 80s and 90s, DRM consisted, for the most part, of a multi-layered code wheel and a series of questions answered by that code wheel.  If you played Earl Weaver Baseball in 1987, you remember this very well.  The code wheel was a piece of lightweight cardboard with three circular moveable layers each with a tiny window.  The first layer listed years ranging from 1920 to 1939.  The second layer had player names, and the last, was a stat associated with the listed players.  Before you were allowed to begin the game, you were prompted with a baseball related question: “In 1929, Babe Ruth walked a total of how many times?”  To answer this question, you would have taken the code wheel and adjusted the first layer to show 1929.  From there, you would move the second layer to Babe Ruth, and lastly, find walks.  If you lost your code wheel, other than writing the publisher or developer for a replacement, you were pretty much out of luck.  This was an age where you could not simply execute a Google search for the needed answer.  You had to know what the answer was or have a baseball encyclopedia handy.  In some cases, game companies would ask questions that you could only find in the game manual such as: “What is the last word located on page 11?”  This form of DRM lasted quite a while until publishers started using key codes which they printed on the back of game manuals.

DRM Done Right…. Almost

All companies will always look for ways to protect their bottom line.  It is all in how they go about doing it that gets PC gamers up in arms.  DRM does not need to be an ugly mess.  If a customer pays sixty dollars of their hard earned money, they should be able to play how, when and where they want.  Valve does an exceptional job with Steam of providing a platform that not only protects the developers and publishers, Steam offers services to the consumer by adding a storefront, community aspects and Steam Achievements.  If you are a PC gamer that is not interested in any of the Steam offerings outside of the store, you can easily disable these features.  Steam gives you control over how you can play your games.  Even in 2011, having a constant internet connection is not available to everyone so Steam allows you to play your games using their Offline Mode.  It is a win-win situation.

The downside to Steam and other digital distribution outlets is publishers and developers still insist on including their own DRM schemes.  This is painfully obvious with companies such as Rockstar and Ubisoft.  If you bought GTA IV via Steam you were still required to install Social Club (needed when first launched), Games For Windows Live (to save your progress) and SecuRom.  Ubisoft implemented DRM where a consistent internet connection (later removed) was needed at all times to play Assassin’s Creed 2 and Settlers 7 even if you bought on Steam.  While Valve does a good job of informing potential customers of added 3rd party DRM solutions on their product page, PC gaming companies need to understand these actions will lead informed users to pass on games they would otherwise buy.

Don’t Release Without Protection

There have been several indie companies have come out against the use of DRM.  Below are quotes taken from recent interviews.

-Frictional Games- (Amnesia: The Dark Descent)

DRM serves no other purpose than to punish those that buy the game.  It makes the pirated copy a better choice, as the pirated version works without a hitch and has no limitations.

-Cold Beam Games- (Beat Hazard)

I think DRM is a complete waste of time. I’ve never seen it work and it just annoys genuine customers.  Pirates can strip out these systems in a matter of hours. It’s also worrying how much money is paid to the companies that provide DRM solutions.  I really don’t understand why publishers spend money on it.

Piracy is of course really annoying, but I know some people who initially downloaded the game illegally went on to buy the full version because they liked it and wanted access to achievements and leader boards.

-Wolfire- (Humble Indie Bundle)

DRM in general is pretty sad.  If big companies like EA and Ubisoft can’t make unbreakable DRM, indie game developers certainly aren’t going to be able to.  So when you use DRM you end up with a situation where your legitimate users are punished with security checks and key registrations while the pirates have clean cracked copies that they can do whatever they want with.  Those incentives are backwards.  The humble bundle approach is to try to make the customer experience as awesome as possible and the DRM free approach is a large part of that.

-Hemisphere Games- (Osmos)

I strongly believe in software – and all media for that matter – being DRM free. Pirates are very skilled; state of the art DRM in AAA releases is often broken within a day. It’s a losing battle as far as I’m concerned. So we’re really dependent on the goodwill of paying customers. The best we can do is provide them with a game (and service) they feel is worth their time and money, and trust they’ll support us. I feel DRM only gets in the way of that, annoying legitimate customers.

It would appear indie developers have far more to lose financially by not protecting their games, but they choose not to add DRM.  If indie companies have come to the conclusion that invasive DRM is counterproductive, why do giant corporations care so much?

There are those who believe it is not the publishers or developers who want to see DRM in their games.  The problem lies in a select few powerful company shareholders who want will do any and everything to protect their assets even if it means a few customers here and there cannot play what they rightfully paid for.  It is also this mindset the causes companies to appear arrogant when they announce their DRM to be “uncrackable”.  Anyone who understands technology will tell you it would be extremely difficult to create an uncrackable piece of software.

Not all big companies have the same outlook on DRM.  In 2008, Stardock and Ironclad Games released Sins of a Solar Empire with no DRM.  The title went on to be one of the best selling PC games of the year.  Stardock CEO Brad Wardell has been a long time vocal opponent of invasive DRM measures taken on by other corporations.  In an interview with Wardell, he talked about why Ironclad and Stardock released Sins with no DRM.

- Stardock CEO Brad Wardell -

Stardock and Ironclad felt the same on this [DRM]. Our priority was to ensure that our customers got the best possible experience with the game.  It’s not that we’re anti-copy protection or anti-DRM.  There’s been a lot of misconception on that point. It’s that we don’t want our customers to feel punished for buying our games versus “warezing” them.

CD Projekt, developer of the RPG hit, The Witcher, has also made their feelings known by offering The Witcher 2 on GOG.com with no DRM.  This marks the first major release since Sins of a Solar Empire to be released with absolutely no DRM.  When CD Projekt made this announcement, it was universally applauded by users, journalists and even self-proclaimed pirates.  There were various postings on messages boards across the internet stating they did not know who CD Projekt and The Witcher are, but they will buy simply to support this thinking.

Cracks In The DRM Facade

Before the days of Steam and digital distribution, PC gamers had to keep the game CD in their CD-ROM drive in order to a play the game as one of the DRM measures used by gaming companies.  This caused a lot of CDs to get scratched due to heavy use and eventually, the CD would no longer work at all.  A way to fix this was created by user groups who released what they called cracks.  A crack works by altering the executable file (.exe) of a PC game to bypass the CD check needed to start the game.  If you were an informed PC gamer, downloading a crack in order to keep your CD from being damaged or lost was essential.  In some cases, downloading a crack was needed just to play the game due to DRM that would disable legitimate software and hardware it deemed to be used for illegal purposes.  There were many reports of burning software like Nero and CD/DVD burners that would no longer function properly if certain types of DRM were installed in order to play a game.

But Wait!  There’s More!

One of the worst methods used by publishers is when they tout DRM as features never seen before in PC gaming.  Unlimited installs and saving your progress are just some of the things that used to be standard in every PC game.  These are now used by publishers to concoct ridiculous press releases describing their DRM solution a as game feature.  In addition, publishers sometimes force customers to sign up for online accounts on sites they will probably never visit before they can enjoy all aspects of their game.  PC gamers are smart enough to know when they are being taken for a ride and will balk at any attempt by a publisher to disguise DRM.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Using the Humble Indie Bundle and GOG.com has examples, offering games with no DRM works.  PC gamers will go out of their way to support a company who understands the frustration of dealing with idiotic DRM measures.  PC gamers also understand there will never be a time where all games with be free of DRM.  The best thing a PC gamer can do is to not support companies who hold on to the antiquated idea that invasive DRM is a good idea.  These games should not be bought, nor should they be downloaded from pirating groups.  DRM should not be a deal breaker, but for some PC gamers, it always will be.  As a developer or publisher, if your game has an intrusive form of DRM, you can rest assured controversy will follow.  DRM has, and will always be a part of PC gaming, but it does not have to be done in such a way that cripples, or otherwise, hampers the ability for a customer to play.

In recent years, PC gaming has become a vicious cycle of nonsense.  Company releases PC game with awful DRM.  Pirating group cracks DRM and posts on torrent site.  Customer downloads pirated copy to show off company.  Company says no more PC games or invents more intrusive DRM.  So on and so on.  There has to be a compromise somewhere to break this circle of destructive behavior.

We will never see the day when all publishers, developers, pirating groups and customers get together for a picnic in a flower-laden meadow where rainbows fill the sky along with prancing unicorns, and happy narwhals rising out of the sea in the distance, but one can still dream.

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