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What is DRM and Should it be Removed?

Just a bit of DRM horror back story for you: I admit it – I was a Spore junkie. Well, not junkie, since the game hadn’t even come out yet. I was a Spore fangirl, and couldn’t get enough of reading about it. At midnight the day of its release I got the Creature Creator and promptly created a penis-monster cause that’s how I roll.
(link above semi-NSFW)

My Creature got deleted from Youtube, but you get the gist. The day of its release I purchased the Galactic Edition for $80 and couldn’t wait to get home and install it.

There was only one problem..I couldn’t play it.

The Digital Rights Management (DRM) that “protected” the game prevented me from rocking out with a game that I had been anticipating for two years. There was also a problem with the graphics once I actually got the game working, and I demanded that I be able to return the game to Wal-mart (of all places). General retail policy of any store states: “No game shall be returned if opened.” Alas, I was fiery enough that they actually took it back. With the store credit they gave me I bought two new games, including Sins of a Solar Empire. I had no idea at the time about the controversy around DRM, and how Spore & Sins were at the center of it.

So what is DRM?

DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is a blanket term meaning any technology that is used to protect companies’ intellectual property. What it means to you and me is that companies install software to prevent illegal use of their products, particularly music and computer games. With Spore the SecuROM DRM system even installs a rootkit to hide itself.

Why do companies use it?

With computer games in particular piracy has become a big problem and companies want to protect their sales. DRM’s primary purpose when used with computer games is to stop people from copying and sharing the game with others.

Why do people complain about it?

There are several problems with the way companies implement DRM today. Players are most upset about the games that require authorization from an online server to install and especially to get updates/play online.. This amounts to renting a game at full price, because at any time the company could go out of business or simply shut down its authorization servers due to high costs and then the game would no longer function as intended, if at all. People are also upset about certain programs (SecuROM in particular) where the presence is hidden, to the point of using a rootkit to hide the program itself and not making mention of the program anywhere in the documentation or terms of agreement. These companies treat players like criminals, spying on them without their knowledge.

Does it work?

This is the real heart of the controversy. On one hand games like Sins of a Solar Empire, published by Stardock, have been highly successful (SoaSE sold more than 500,000 copies!). World of Goo was another highly successful game that had no DRM.

On the other hand a number of mainstream games use pretty draconian DRM. The developers of Spore announced before its release that it would not only include DRM, but that the program would try to authenticate online -at a minimum every 10 days- to see if the key had been compromised. Players would be able to install the program on up to three machines total, without the ability to revoke that authorization and grant it to a new PC. This caused such an uproar online that eventually EA announced new DRM procedures, including removing the 10-day requirement and replacing it with a check each time the game is updated or played using the online features, upping the number of authorized installations to 5, and giving the owner the ability to revoke authorizations from PCs and grant the authorization to new PCs. Even with the controversy and the still-strict DRM, the game sold over two million copies in the first three weeks. A few months later, the game was being sold on Steam using Steam’s less intrusive DRM rather than SecuROM.

So what was the most pirated game of 2008? The game with the tightest DRM, Spore…having been pirated over 1.7 million times. Several class action lawsuits were also filed against EA for its inclusion of SecuROM with both Spore and the Creature Creator. Does this mean that DRM doesn’t work?

The key to whether or not DRM “works” has always been whether or not it protects the game against lost sales.. not necessarily against piracy. As far as I know there has never been a game that was released with copy protection or DRM that has never been cracked. So in the end the pirates are going to be able to get the game for free, if they choose to do so. The question is not if this will happen, but if by imposing DRM on their customers the sales of the game are helped rather than harmed. Some would argue that piracy can help a game by exposing it to a greater number of people, creating viral marketing and increasing sales overall.

World of Goo publisher Bright Minds filed for bankruptcy on the heels of a report that estimated that ten times as many people pirated the DRM-free game as those who purchased it legally. While this was more likely due to the bad economy than to piracy (the game sold well on platforms such as the Wii, where there is little to no piracy compared to the PC), and the developer 2D Boy stated it probably didn’t make much difference, the situation really underlines why companies feel the need to protect themselves.

Does piracy really hurt game companies?

Recently we’ve seen another problem that piracy can cause for PC game developers – while Stardock has been a huge anti-DRM proponent, in April they announced changes to their policies after the number of Demigod players online exceeded 100,000, well above their server capacity, causing servers to crash and players to be unable to play. The problem is that the number of legitimate players was less than 20,000. Stardock had to quickly make changes to restrict game updates (and with the updates the ability to play the game online) to legitimate owners. Stardock CEO Brad Wardell had previously stated “Don’t let people who aren’t your audience control the titles you make, and ignore piracy,” but it looks like even Stardock had to make changes to combat the problem of piracy.

One advantage to having online authentication as opposed to disk-protection schemes is that players don’t need disks in the drive to play their games. In general it seems that the less obtrusive/more convenient DRM systems are, players are more likely to accept it. With digital distribution and piracy being a real problem for DRM-free games and game publishers it seems pretty clear that companies do need some way to protect sales, but it is also clear that turning games we “purchase” into rentals and installing rootkits and other hidden programs is not the right way to handle the problem. Rumors are that Blizzard may be implementing a DRM system that is even worse than Spore’s, so this is an issue that won’t be going away any time soon.

Here are three ways that I think that companies can protect themselves without screwing over legitimate customers:

1) Make DRM convenient

Only authenticate an installation and game updates, or when playing online. Games with single-player modes should be able to be played offline without being shut off on some random date.

2) Don’t hide DRM

If companies want to protect their products they should do so by stating it upfront, and not omitting mention of this from documentation/license agreements or using tools to hide the program’s presence on computers.

3) Don’t make us “rent” games

Companies need to provide assurance that the game will be playable indefinitely, so if the game is activated at some point years in the future, no matter what the state of the company or its DRM policy is at the time that our games will still be fully playable. We paid full price, we should be able to play the game in ten years if we wish.

We have seen that gamers will tolerate DRM as long as companies are smart about it, not making it too intrusive or trying to hide its presence. As the saying goes: “what we resist, persists.”

Demigod’s issue with DRM
Spore (General Info)
Maxis’ Response to Spore controversy