Why DRM?

Charlie “Flayra” Cleveland wrote Want to Make a Game? Here’s How. He notes that making a mod of an existing game isn’t as easy as it was years ago. To break into game development, he suggests the PopCap Games Framework or Torque. Both make game development much easier than having to learn how to program the low-level bits yourself for years.

But then he says the following:

One vital feature that both of these engines are missing is some sort of digital rights management (DRM) and/or e-commerce system.

Now, there are two problems I have with this statement. The first is that this post was supposed to be about making games, not selling them. A person trying to learn how to create his/her first game shouldn’t worry about marketing and sales. You’ll find that deciding between Plimus or Regnow is less important than figuring out how the standard game loop works. This issue is a minor one, so I won’t spend too much time on it.

The second problem, the one that I think is more important, is that I don’t think DRM is a “vital” feature. It’s weird how it keeps popping up. DRM & Unlock Codes at Greg Costikyan’s blog asks about DRM solutions. People are debating whether DRM should even be addressed by GPLv3. PC Gamer’s latest issue has an entire article on how to deal with Starforce and other stupid copyprotection schemes. Maybe it is a vital feature if your goal is to make playing your game a nuisance to potential and current customers. Maybe it is important if you intend to say to your customers, “I don’t trust you” while simultaneously claiming, “Our customers are incredibly important to us”. Maybe you can’t live without it if you have enough time to stop making games and to start playing with the trust of your customers.

I believe that so-called digital rights management is more about restricting the rights of customers and end-users than guaranteeing the rights of authors and artists. If new game developers are supposed to learn how to make the customer’s life difficult, then by all means consider DRM to be a “vital” aspect of a game development curriculum. I will continue to question why we’re supposed to assume that the customer is untrustworthy without any real evidence to suggest it.

11 comments to Why DRM?

  • My browser had a hiccup posting this, so I’m not sure if the first one went through for moderation or not. If it has feel free to delete this post 😛

    I don’t have a problem with DRM as a concept, just a problem with the way everyone currently implements it. Its intrusive, annoying and prevents you from using music/games normally without having to bypass the DRM.

    It’s getting silly these days, for example I’m sure everyone has heard about Sonys mess up with the root kit installer, well here’s another copy protection method that Adam Curry mentioned in his podcast (DSC309) (quote taken from his show notes)

    Coldplay’s new music CD is restricted with an EULA (End User License Agreement) which advises the CD is packed full of copy protection. Devices that may not play it include: “Some CD players that have the capability of burning into an MP3, some players that possess CD-R/CD-RW functions, some car stereos with satellite guidance systems, some audio devices with hard disc recording capacity, some cd-r/cd-rw recorders used for music, some portable cd/dvd players, some game systems.” The CD comes with built in player software to enable playback of certain tracks in Windows machines but there is no guarantee it’ll work on all PCs. It does not support Mac/PC software.

    Even though I like Coldplay, theres no way I’d purchase that CD, nor any other of my favorite bands if they use similar protection. What use is it to buy a CD then play the wheel of chance to see if it will play in your car sterero or computer.

    Even iTunes drives me nuts. If they didn’t DRM their music then I’d purchase more of it from them. As it is you either have to use a linux client that skips the “DRM protection” step, or you need to burn the downloaded tracks to CD then capture them again into mp3 just so that you can get the music you’ve legally purchased to work on your iRiver or stream over any other hardware devices you might have in the house.

    DRM doesn’t stop pirates, and in the case of music I doubt it even stops the casual coppier, in its current form its a broken peice of junk that does nothing other than get in the way.

    When I first heard about XP’s copy protection I thought it was going to be a major pain not been able to swap hardware without re-authenticating. But MicroSofts implementation isn’t all that bad in the end. Mainly because there are ways to save re-authenticating if you reinstall on the exact same hardware, and because you’re allowed to install XP onto a new PC every 120 days. So by the time your old PC is dead and burried and you’ve bought all new hardware, XP will install without a wimper.

    Still, I wonder how successful their copy protection is? Since I’m pretty sure anyone that used pirate copies of windows in the past will still be downloading and using them today. Maybe it has stopped casual copying where one user installed the same software on the PC and wifes PC or laptop. Or maybe its now had the reverse and caused some to think “sod it, if I can’t buy it install it on both my PC’s, I’ll download a cracked version instead”. Maybe not, but its food for thought.

    Thats music and windows, what about games? Well my thoughts on game copy protection is the same, I can understand the need for it in order to stop casual copying, but it won’t stop piracy. I played HalfLife 2 for a few weeks after purchasing it, then I needed to reinstall, I’ve never installed HL2 since. I just can’t be bothered going through the long process of decryption and constant steam updates. The annoyance of having the game unavailable because you forgot to go into offline mode. The confusion it causes at lans where different people have partial updates due to steam downloading for them. Maybe all this has been fixed since HL2’s release date, but imo they had one chance and they blew it. Steam is great for distribution, I love the idea, but using the copy protection side of it was annoying enough that I won’t ever consider buying a steam based game. Well not for many years anyway.

    I won’t buy any starforce protected games either, the protection is just too draconic. Games I do buy that have copy protection requiring the cd in the drive is cracked the first day I get them, why should I have to constantly swap cd’s in and out when I change games? Or more importantly why shouldn’t I be allowed to play all the games I’ve got installed just because my DVD player happened to have died this week and I havn’t got around to buying a replacement?

    I think that ends my Thursday morning rant on copy protection 🙂

  • It’s weird how the music, movie, and game industries are trying to make it difficult for people to purchase their products. People shouldn’t have to go through the effort to verify that a game won’t break their system. Listening to a music CD shouldn’t open my system to viruses and worms. I should be able to play DVDs on my Gnu/Linux machine without breaking the law.

    If customers being forced to jump through hoops is what the future of gaming is like, count me out.

  • Man, I hear ya. I was a hardcore Wing Commander fanatic back in the day. But in order to play Wing Commander, you had to do the documentation lookup that was so popular in the day. With the expansion packs installed, you had about eight SEPARATE pieces of documentation you had to keep handy to reference the correct numbers & so forth. After a time, I had memorized some of the answers, but if I hadn’t played in a while I often had to go scrounging to find all the little schematics and booklets for the game in order to play.

    One day I had enough, and hunted down (over BBS’s, back in the day) a “crack” for Wing Commander, and installed it. The ease of jumping into the game and playing it astonished me, as I’d been so used to putting up with the intrusive copy protection scheme. I suddenly realized that the pirates had it EASY, while the honest, paying customers had to jump through the hoops. It made me feel resentful.

    Much later, a friend of mine got a copy of Black & White. Unfortunately, the copy protection on the CD-ROM was not compatible with his CD-ROM drive. He called customer support, but ultimately all they could tell him was that he could return it for a refund. He told them, “I don’t want the money, I want the game! That’s why I bought it.”

    Eventually, he had to seek out a piracy site (which he said made him feel “really greasy”) to find a crack to allow him to play the game he LEGALLY PURCHASED.

    Now, on the flip side, I read about one developer who created a multiplayer online game that was mildly popular. At one point, they decided to do a check to see how many people were playing a “legal” copy of their game online versus how many were playing illegal, pirated copies… because the game seemed a lot more popular than it had sold. To their astonishment, they discovered that not only did the pirates outnumber the customers, but the pirates outnumbered the customers by a factor of SEVEN TO ONE!!!!

    If they’d had stronger protection on their game, would they have had eight times as many customers? Probably not. But would they have had two or three times as many customers? Probably. THAT IS A BIG DEAL.

    So I’m idealistically (as a customer) opposed to the intrusive, nasty DRM solutions that make me a felon just to make backups of my own media. But as a person who makes a living creating said media, I have to reluctantly acknowledge that to some degree, it IS NECESSARY to protect our livelihood. Though I’d rather see more of our time and money going into enforcing of antipiracy laws and education of the public than coming up with ever more convoluted and annoying copy protection schemes that take three days longer to get foiled by the pirates.

    My attitude is to put enough protection on the software to “keep the honest people honest.” But locking software to a single computer (or hardware configuration) really drives me nuts, especially as I am one of those guys who likes playing old games – which may have survived dozens of hardware upgrades and three or four completely new systems.

  • I still install Total Annihilation, for instance. B-) And Starcraft, and Dungeon Keeper 2, and Quake 3 Arena, and RTCW, and any number of older games.

    “Keep the honest people honest” is based on the idea that a locked door isn’t enough to keep out someone who wants to rob you, but it is enough to keep the neighbors from popping in and nabbing something while you’re away. I think that when companies implement copy protection for this purpose, it is generally less intrusive.

    I don’t think there is much of a problem with CD keys, for instance…except when I bought a used game that didn’t have one. The publisher didn’t give out new keys, so if you lost your key, you either couldn’t install the game or you had to get a new key. To get a new key, you could buy another copy of the game or get it from someone else. I was lucky enough to find someone who had a second copy of the game and could provide a key. I suppose the company in question would consider me another notch under “pirate”.

    I agree that using locking the software to my hardware is really annoying. I’ve upgraded each component of my system multiple times. I am not going to pay for multiple licenses to play one copy, and I am still surprised by those companies who think I would be happy to do so.

    I’ve found that copy protection in general is annoying. To date I haven’t found any solid evidence that it helps improve sales or prevents copyright infringement, and that fact bothers me the most. There is an assumption that people are generally dishonest and that companies need to take measures to protect themselves. An assumption! Some companies have shown an increase in sales after implementing copy protection, but it’s also hard to say that it was actually due to the copy protection or the fact that the game has had a chance to gain an audience. Somehow, DRM is considered vital? Says who? The DRM providers? Hollywood? The RIAA?

    I don’t believe that DRM is necessary. I’m not happy with being considered a thief before I’ve even heard of the product I am supposed to be prevented from stealing. I’m sure other people feel the same.

  • It’d be very hard to MEASURE this information, as people who are participating in piracy are loathe to permit scrutiny and observation. How do you perform such a study?

    However, there is some anecdotal evidence. I understand that WordPerfect had an approach to converting pirates to licensed, paying customers. First off, they’d recoup some of the cost in customer service fees to users who “lost” their documentation – they’d end up paying just to have the customer service representative read to them from the manual. The other thing they’d do is get the name and address of these people who were using “questionable” software, and they’d grant them the same kind of offer for a discounted upgrade to the new version.

    I don’t have numbers, but I was told that a “surprising amount” of these users would pay to go legal when the opportunity was presented to them to upgrade.

    What this means to me is that between the spectrum of scrupulously legal people (which I strive to be) and the absolutely hardcore pirates (against whom all you can do is attempt to prosecute and enforce the law), there’s a large middle ground of people who can be won over to becoming legal, paying, HAPPY customers if properly incentivised. A good approach includes both a stick (fear of prosecution, copy protection) AND a carrot (as in the WordPerfect example).

    BTW, nice article on GameProducer.net today about the dangers of overly intrusive copy protection / DRM:

    http://www.gameproducer.net/2006/03/02/one-reason-why-they-wont-buy/

  • I’m not sure how you would do such a study, but I don’t blindly trust the BSA’s numbers, either. My point is that all we have is anecdotal evidence. Maybe it is accurate, but people are making claims as if the need for DRM and copy protection is a fact. I question the logic, and whenever I do so publicly, I seem to get emotional responses.

    It’s ok to get emotional, since we are talking about the idea that people aren’t providing payment for someone’s work. Still, a lot of people get irrational and make statements like, “It’s stealing!” If it actually was theft, it would mean that someone managed to steal the copyright of the game, which means that the creator no longer has the exclusive rights to it. In reality, the problem is copyright infringement, which is a more accurate term but doesn’t appeal to the emotions nearly as well as theft.

    Of course, emotional appeals win out over logic most of the time. DRM is considered vital because you don’t want your source of income being stolen out from under you, forcing your family to go without food and home. You don’t want to be a victim of theft. Whether or not these concerns are valid, they are concerns people have. I simply don’t see compelling evidence that DRM solves the problem.

  • Karmakin

    DRM is designed to beat one problem. It’s designed to prevent people from installing a game, then passing it off to their friend so they can try it out on their computer.

    It’s designed to beat casual copying. Which is such a small amount of copying, and that’s probably the side of it that should be ignored. What are my favorite method of copy protection?

    Sorry. I like UN/PW authentication. All the games I play use it. In fact, all the games I play (Half-Life…1 and Guild Wars) I don’t even need to install from a CD. I keep copies of the installer files on a network drive, and in case of a hard drive wipe, I can reinstall without having to look for a CD, or a product key or anything.

    In any case, I think that unless they have a really interesting idea (I know a lot of people who disagree about Steam, I personally like it, but that’s just me) I think that CD-based DRM measures should NEVER be done. All it does is make a product you buy in stores strictly less usable than a downloaded pirated copy.

    Big mistake.

  • If DRM is designed to beat casual copying, then it isn’t generally designed well. For instance, it is apparently really easy for someone to make an exact copy of a DVD. Anything on the DVD that is related to DRM? It gets copied, too. Whether it is done as part of a massive illegal operation or as a single copy for a friend, the DRM clearly isn’t preventing anything that the copyright holder would likely want to prevent. In the end, it makes it more difficult for someone to transfer the DVD to the computer in another format, which I think is a perfectly legitimate use, but it doesn’t prevent the copying that it is supposedly designed for.

    DRM does nothing useful for the customer. It does, however, make illegal copies more appealing since they are clearly a better value than legally purchasing the content. Why purposefully make copyright infringement more appealing than giving you money?

  • andy

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  • […] what it is supposed to do. Food for thought if you are one of those people who still believe that copy protection is a “vital” part of game development. If DRM isn’t actually doing a good job of preventing copyright infringement, and it […]

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