Chapter 3: Digital Rights Management

No discussion about piracy can be complete without bringing up Digital Rights Management or DRM. DRM is a tool used to prevent the widespread pirating of digital goods such as games.

It has a long and sordid history and has had varying levels of non-success and failure. It has taken such forms as the disk check, dongles, codes from manuals and even online verification. The worst offenses have caused damage to gamers’ computers and have caused all kinds of ill will amongst gamers.

Let’s take a bit of look at various forms of DRM.

Dread Forms of DRM

Like any good Mimic, DRM takes the form of a “benefit” to the gamer, and like all Mimics, ends with the player barely surviving the encounter.

In the early days of gaming, DRM was often found as secret codes that one had to enter into the game at various intervals. For instance, in the original Warcraft the player had to enter a seemingly random word from the game’s manual in order to play the game for the first time. This is fine for the original owners of the game, but as manuals became lost or damaged, it would cause all kinds of problems.

Other games relied on dongles that needed to be plugged into certain ports on the gamer’s PC. Again, these were okay until the dongle became lost or broken. This isn’t widely used any more due to its impracticality.

The next evolution of the dongle is the modern video game console. Proprietary hardware that is required for a game to run. This has allowed game developers many protections as it is often more difficult, though not impossible, to stop piracy when the hardware is locked down.

We also have the disk check. Most older PC games will install everything except a few bits of executable code, or assets and such onto the hard drive. This leaves a few things for the game that need to be pulled off the disk. However, as hard drive space grew it became more practical for everything to be stored on the faster hard drive. So the only thing left on the disk was a signature for the game to check against. If the game couldn’t detect the disk, it wouldn’t run.

With the internet age, developers were able to create a new kind of DRM. This one uses a process to ping a server and validate the game with the mother server. There have been varying levels of this starting with a simple one time registration to an “always on” connection.

Those are just a few kinds of DRM that gamers have encountered over the years. Some of it was okay and others were far more horrible.

The Purpose of DRM

So what is the purpose of DRM? Well, if you ask most any publisher, they will tell you that it is to protect their investment from theft through piracy. If you ask any gamer though you get a different story. They will tell you the purpose of DRM is to annoy us into ever more complicated hoop jumps, or to fight the used games market.

From my observation, DRM is nothing more than a way to avoid blame when a game is a failure. They claim it is to stop piracy, but when a game fails they can point to piracy and declare, “No matter how hard we try we just can’t win.” Then they stop making games for PCs and move to consoles.

So if DRM is not effective, why do they continue to use it? For the most part, it is because of investor pressure. Most DRM advocates are from publicly traded game companies such as EA, Activision or Ubisoft. They are pressured by their shareholders and investors to protect their investments from loss. With this pressure they have to put out measures that make it look like they are trying to stop piracy of their games. In reality, these moves are fruitless and the people being forced to implement them, the developers, know it. They recognize that trying to stop piracy is like trying to stop the tide from rolling in.

What’s in it for the Gamer?

For the most part there is nothing in it for the gamer. Most DRM systems are very limiting in nature. For instance there have been a number of DRM systems that limit the number of times a game can be installed or how many computers it can be installed on. Other DRM schemes have been used to force the player to have an always on internet connection or they are prevented from playing the game they paid money for.

That is not to say that all DRM is bad. Many people really like Steam. Valve originally created Steam as a DRM system for their games. It was also used at the time to provide multiplayer features to their games. It was DRM with a purpose. Over the years it has grown to a digital storefront, a way to connect with friends and other features that gamers love. The majority of gamers have all but forgotten that it is used to verify the purchase of a game.

That is something that many publishers have overlooked. If you are going to use a system like DRM, you need to also provide useful services to counteract the negatives that come with DRM. By providing library management, the ability to install games on any computer, the ability to talk with and share profiles with friends etc, Valve has provided an abundance of value in exchange for us letting them monitor our purchased games.

What To Do About DRM

With all this bad stuff happening around DRM, you would think it would be illegal to use. Sadly, in most countries the use of DRM is protected under law. Even if the DRM ends up blowing up your computer, you are not legally allowed to remove it or bypass it.

The best thing we can do is avoid any game that uses it. Just like I proposed with piracy, we must only support those developers who truly have our best interests in mind. By buying our games from those developers, we are building a climate where those invested in game development will change their views on DRM.

On the other hand, if we buy or pirate the games we are prolonging the use and providing justification for the abuse of the gamer. That is not in our best interest.

We should also not sit quietly by either. We need to voice our frustration with DRM by blogging and commenting on its use. Send emails and letters to developers and publishers who use it and tell them you won’t buy their games if they use DRM.

Along with that, you should blog and comment about those developers who do get it and praise them for their avoidance of DRM. They are doing you a service by avoiding DRM and you should thank them for it.

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