Friday, September 9, 2011

Aggressive DRM and Gaming - A tragic love affair soon to end

Source Picture by Reboppe
Some DRM may be necessary to continue innovation in gaming and protect company profits. But the days of aggressive DRM and abused consumers is over. The consumer is slowly no longer being thought of by game companies as a thief.

DRM or Digital rights management, is what software companies, and specifically in our discussion, what gaming companies use to protect their games from piracy. It has many forms and each form comes with a subset of problems. The biggest secret no one in the industry is willing to tell you is that DRM actually doesn't do what it was designed to do; stop piracy.

Great Walls of China

So in concrete terms, what exactly do companies do to restrict use of their software? Some of the methods they employ are harmless and can be understandable to your average consumer. Other methods make it so the average gamer struggles simply to PLAY the game they BOUGHT.

A few methods are listed below:
  • 1. Serial Codes - Needed to install the game
  • 2. CD only Play - CD must be inserted in order to play the game.
  • 3. In game Robot protection - Continuously scans game online for fraudulent copies.
  • 4. "SecuROM" install limitations - Limits amount of machines that can install product.
  • 5. Starcraft 2/ Steam Style LOGIN ONLY - Online registration only of games, login necessary to play.
  • 6. "Safedisc" copy prevention - tries to prevent copying of games.
  • 7. Malware Style uninstallable piracy prevention DRM.

Legitimate DRM

Now I'm not completely against all DRM or any process by which a company can protect their products. On the contrary, there are a number of ways to do so successfully without completely bothering the consumer. Listed below are examples of that:

Copy Protection

This refers to adding a piece of software, built into the game itself, and not separately running in the background, that makes it harder for people to copy game discs.

It's not a program running in the background and it's simply some code built into the game, that is unobtrusive to the consumer. Overall this is a positive DRM that companies and consumers may be able to live with.

Downsides of method
1. Futile:  A piece of software already exists that is able to get around any current copy protection software in the world. This works on all PC games and all Xbox/PS3 games.

2. Possible Loss of Property: A person's CD will eventually stop working, or may get scratched and then would have no way to reinstall the game, especially if he can't keep a backup copy of his game because of the software.

3. CDs/DVDs are fragile: Compact discs and DVD's, as mentioned above, are bad quality products that rarely last more than a couple years. Even kept in cases, CD's can lose data stop working for a number of reasons.

So while on the one hand this may deter some people from pirating a game, in the long run it doesn't stop it from happening and certain buyers of games will be left with no way to install the game they purchased once their CD dies.

Serial Codes

This is another form of protection that uses long algorithmic codes to verify to an installer. Overall, as long as a user doesn't lose their code, this is a very positive form of DRM that is for the most part unobtrusive to consumers and helpful in stemming Piracy.

1. Futile: Nearly every piece of software in the world now has a Keygen, also known as a Key Generator that knows the algorithm used by the company to make the serials and can generate a free serial for whatever game or program you want.

2. Loss of Product: Again if you lose your code, you would lose your product. No hotline in the world would believe you if you called in and that $50 or $60 dollars you spent would be gone instantly.

Although this is definitely an annoyance to Consumers, I think they are willing to use this form of DRM for the benefit of the game manufacturers. But to be honest, as mentioned above, this cannot stop piracy and at best prevents it for a week or two until a pirate makes a Key generator.

In game Robot Protection Scanning

What keeps most games from being pirated on the consoles is simply this. If you get on a PS3 or an Xbox, all games get scanned constantly for any signs of piracy. Although there are ways around this, according to a lot of data this has made Console games much more profitable than PC games in the last couple years.

Do you remember entering serial codes into your Xbox or ps3? Rather than annoy their customers with that, Sony and Microsoft do that hard work by trying to track down pirated games using sophisticated technology.

1. Partially-Futile: There is a difficult yet possible work around for this that makes any pirated game safe to detection. Although having looked it over, it is very strenuous and most people would not understand how to do it.

This doesn't interfere with the gaming experience of the player and it allows the owners of the games to monitor their products.
It's creative answers like this that need to be found. An answer that doesn't bother the consumer and is powerful enough to stop a variety of piracy.

Illigitmate DRM

All of the above techniques are LEGITIMATE ways for companies to protect their investments and are understandable from the perspective of the consumer. But the methods explained below are unacceptable and should be phased out for use by software producers.

CD Only Play

How annoying is it that a CD must be inserted for a game to load? What if you lose a CD, does that mean you lost the 50 dollars you just spent to buy the game? What if your CD reader breaks or you have a laptop with no CD reader?

1. Completely Futile: Every game ever produced has a NO-CD executable available online from a myriad of sites. I've actually downloaded some for games I've BOUGHT simply because I refuse to put my CD into my computer just to play a game that I purchased and installed already.

A lot of friends I know as well have done this because they don't want the annoyance of finding a disc EACH time they want to play a different game. That requires cataloging and organizing dozens of games, if each game needed to be inserted into the computer to play, AFTER being installed. Too much of a hassle for the average consumer.

Install Limitations(Piracy by Companies)

I understand the mentality of this and how it would protect software industries but computers get viruses ALL the time and need to be reinstalled. Also the days where people owned one computer are over. Every friend I know has multiple computers at their home.

If install limitation is put in place, many games will eventually be unable to install their games because the licenses will run out and people would have had their property stolen by DRM. Install limitation is what I call "Piracy by Companies". This is how companies steal money from people that pay for their games, by limiting how many times they can install the game, and eventually stop allowing the game from being installed or working at all.

1. Futile: There is an easy workaround to every install limitation game out there that requires a simple .EXE file input and can be done by any lay consumer. 

This does not stop piracy and instead makes it harder for consumers to use the licenses they own.

2. Multiple-computer world: This inherently stops you from installing your game on multiple computers at your home. When was the last time you saw anyone that had only one computer at their home? In a multiple computer world, this DRM cannot survive.

Malware style preventative protection

EA, Sony for a little while, and a few other companies have developed programs that lurk in the background and can do some serious damage if they make mistakes or simply do their job properly. From destroying disc drives to not uninstalling themselves on purpose, these programs are now known as malware and can seriously affect your computer if you install the game that you BOUGHT legitimately.

1. Futile: Work-arounds and patches to every game that has these types of software exists. Although they may be very aggressive, an equally aggressive community has cracked and dismantled these softwares and made them available for free online. People have actually started to promote piracy of games that use these "draconian" methods of DRM.

2. Powerfully aggressive: A number of reports are out of damage done to computers simply by using these games that include these powerful DRM programs. From sluggish performance to broken disc drives, these programs do their hardest to stop piracy, but when they make mistakes or simply do their job, they are lethal to your computer.

Future of good DRM - 
A possible solution to this mess

Login online one time activation (Steam/Blizzard)

Rather than only focus on the problems of DRM, I wanted to discuss a possible solution to our problem and a glimmer of hope. The games implementing this technique have for the most part been only slightly affected by piracy and have given large profits to the companies that employ them. Consumers as well have benefited from this easy to use DRM model that is not aggressive and bothersome.

It allows people to use their product on multiple computers, multiple times, with multiple uninstall and installs.  All it requires is a registration online (once preferably) and a login required to play.

While this isn't a perfect solution, in a lot of ways, it is very powerful in protecting companies from piracy and very easy for most consumers to use. In a lot of ways, this may be the future of good DRM.

Final Thoughts

I remember in the early 2000 and late 90's era where games had virtually no DRM protection. People were making very good money and piracy was rarely an issue. I would go out and buy my favorite games and we never had these conversations to begin with.

I'd like to point out though that a key factor in all of this was game price.
Games were much cheaper then and you could get them for about 20 dollars; sometimes less.

I think piracy is directly connected to price. If all games were 10 dollars each, no one would pirate. The effort and time it would take to pirate would not be worth the advantage of owning the game INSTANTLY and having a physical copy.

The key to piracy has always been price. The belief that people would pirate even if games were cheaper ($1), is a calmly told lie by corporations who make profits from larger margins.

A great example of this is the music industry. When Apple's iTunes was launched, everyone thought it would fail. 1 dollar for a song, instead of buying the whole CD was a joke, people would say. Now iTunes is insanely popular and raking in millions for Apple.

When you give consumers a lower cost choice, they always pick up on it. If games were cheaper and more affordable, piracy would die as a natural effect of the market. It's the price points of these games that are creating this black market. The size of piracy of a game can be trended perfectly with the higher the price of a game. A 1 dollar game will not be pirated as much as a 1,000 dollar game.

Minecraft, the 20 dollar independent gaming hit, Terraria the 10 dollar smash sensation, and Plants v.s Zombies the $20 wonder, are all examples of amazing selling low price alternative games that have very small piracy issues with NO DRM whatsoever. All above games have sold MILLIONS of copies, making them some of the most popular games every sold in the history of the P.C! Could their low price have possibly affected the lack or small effect of piracy on their sales? Definitely. Price is Piracy's biggest enemy, and it cannot beat it. Low Price = Low piracy = More sales = More profit.

Aggressive DRM is not the future of gaming. 
Don't take my word for it. Take theirs:

Blizzard’s CEO Mike Morhaime
Wired thus asked what his plans were for DRM in Starcraft II and Diablo 3. "Those are things we’re still evaluating," he said, "but we do wanna make it pretty easy for players to play the game, wherever they are. Nowadays people have multiple systems. They shouldn’t necessarily be able to play the game ... they shouldn’t be able to log in multiple times on as many computers as they have without buying multiple copies of the game. Like, you can play WarCraft III, or World of Warcraft even, from multiple locations. I think you should be able to do that.""

Blizzard founder, Frank Pearce
And the pragmatic game designer's final words on the matter is a mantra which many other game houses would do well to adopt: "We need our development teams focused on content and cool features, not anti-piracy technology."

Bill Gates on DRM in general
Gates said that no one is satisfied with the current state of DRM, which “causes too much pain for legitmate buyers” while trying to distinguish between legal and illegal uses. He says no one has done it right, yet. There are “huge problems” with DRM, he says, and “we need more flexible models, such as the ability to “buy an artist out for life” (not sure what he means). He also criticized DRM schemes that try to install intelligence in each copy so that it is device specific.
His short term advice: “People should just buy a cd and rip it. You are legal then.”
He ended by saying “DRM is not where it should be, but you won’t get me to say that there should be usage models and different payment models for usage. At the end of the day, incentive systems do make a difference, but we don’t have it right with incentives or interoperability.”

Tristan Nitot, president of Mozilla Europe
“I don’t think DRM has a future. Treating your customers like thieves is bad business practice. Today the customer is not ‘king’, they are considered thief first.”
He relates a story about his young son being visibly upset by a DRM-enabled music CD which would not play on his older model HiFi.
“It is stupid to think that the key to a DRM system won’t leak. So if it becomes more painful for a legitimate customer to use a product than it is for the pirates then that’s a problem,” he says.


Codemasters CEO Rod Cousins
DRM measures are “almost counterproductive”, according to Cousins. The solution, he says, is to send games to the retail market in an unfinished state and allow customers to purchase their choice of several small pieces to complete the game as they wish.

Good Old Games' PR and marketing manager, Lukasz Kukawski
The effectiveness of DRM as a piracy-deterrent was 'None, or close to none.'

'What I will say isn’t popular in the gaming industry,' says Kukawski, 'but in my opinion DRM drives people to pirate games rather than prevent them from doing that. Would you rather spend $50 on a game that requires installing malware on your system, or to stay online all the time and crashes every time the connection goes down, or would you rather download a cracked version without all that hassle?'

According to Kukawski, the situation with restrictive DRM has reached the point where gamers often feel pushed into buying a game at full price, but then still download a cracked version to avoid the DRM. 'I know people that buy an original copy of the game just so they don't feel guilty,' says Kukawski, 'and then they will play a pirated version which is stripped of all DRM. That’s not how it should be. Let’s treat legitimate customers with respect and they will give that back.'

In addition to driving gamers to cracked versions of games, Kukawski also asks how anyone can believe that DRM acts as a deterrent to piracy. 'If you see the news on gaming portals that a highly anticipated title has leaked before the release date, and you can download it from torrents without any copy protection because it has been already cracked, how can you possible believe that DRM works in any way to reduce piracy?'

Despite heavily criticising DRM, however, Kukawski still has no love for pirates. 'Piracy is evil,' he says. 'By pirating a game, a movie, or a song you’re stealing from people who put a lot of hard work into creating something for your enjoyment. That’s disrespecting the creator who’s providing you with something that adds joy to your day.'

While Kukawski's comments themselves aren't revolutionary in the DRM debate, it's interesting to see them coming from an online game retail business, as well as a game developer. After all, Good Old Games is owned by CD Projekt; developer of The Witcher 2, which will also be DRM-free. You can check out the trailer for The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings below.

'We are making a bold step by putting up this highly-anticipated title without any sort of DRM,' says Kukawski. 'We believe it’s going to be a huge success, which should really open doubters’ eyes.'


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